Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mini-Review of Portal +

I tend not to write fan mail, either. But it's hard to overstate my satisfaction with this song, both on its own merits and how it makes Portal a better game.

1. It's in my BRAIN. No, really -- it's playing in my headphones on permaloop right now. Of course, that just means I'm hearing the real thing instead of my audio memory of it, which is what's been cycling non-stop in my brain since I finished Portal.

2. I think I'm safe in saying this song is another case of a "jingle meme" -- a catchy bit of music that you can't get out of your head, and which is easily spread to other people. An observation of this effect is documented by none other than Mark Twain back in 1876 (!) in his short story "A Literary Nightmare."

Interestingly, in his comments on the Mark Twain story as an example of a meme, Richard Dawkins describes the words of the Twain jingle as a "ridiculous fragment of versified instruction." I find that funny, given that the "singer" of "Still Alive" -- GLaDOS -- is responsible for instruction in Portal. If there's a Portal 2, wouldn't it be interesting if GLaDOS 2.0 "teaches" your character by singing pieces of a JC-written song?

3. When I first caught "Code Monkeys" a couple of months ago on G4TV (and I was a code monkey in the ‘80s, so there's another grab), I soon found I couldn't get that theme out of my head. Now that I've visited this site/blog, I know why. So is having a gift for creating musical hooks a blessing, or a curse?

4. Like joemorf, I loved that the first split into harmony in "Still Alive" occurred at the moment when GLaDOS is describing her own experience of being broken into pieces. I'm such a sucker for musical jokes like these; this one reminds me of the best of "P.D.Q. Bach" (AKA Peter Schickele), like the moment you realize that the opening to a Mozart tune has somehow morphed into the first notes of the theme from "Jaws."

5. If you step back from seeing the Portal-specific aspects of the lyrics and focus instead on Ellen McLain's wonderful vocal performance (even in computer-modified form), it's easy to imagine this song going mainstream. Someone who didn't play Portal is going to interpret the references to game events as metaphors (because we humans are good at that sort of thing). The obvious mainstream interpretation is of a woman who's been emotionally hurt by someone leaving her, but who is going to enjoy the best revenge: outliving the source of pain. I haven't heard other JC songs yet (yet!), but from what I've read I can't imagine that the use of lyrics that can be taken as metaphorical by non-Portal players is accidental.

6. What really makes me so inspired by this song that I wind up writing and posting stuff like this message is that while the song works just fine as a mostly self-contained ditty, all the parts of the song work together on many levels to create a much more compelling experience for some listeners:

  • It's a reward for successfully completing Portal's pure gameplay. [gameplay level]

  • It's a reward for reaching the conclusion of Portal's narrative -- as others have noted, this song is the cake. [story level]

  • It speaks directly to the player ("you"), enhancing the personal connection made in the game. [emotional level]

  • There are numerous references to gameplay events in Portal. ("cake," "tore me to pieces," etc.) [play experience level]

  • There are references to other games (the "Black Mesa" reference for Half-Life players). [gamer level]

  • Making a "neat gun for the people who are still alive" reminds me of typical first-person shooter gameplay, including in Half-Life. By racking up a high bodycount of enemies, you-the-player get rewarded for surviving with successively more powerful weapons. Perhaps that's worth a comment in a song about a game. [game criticism level]

  • The references and rhymes and lyric beats ("for the good of all of us... except the ones who are dead," "that was a joke, ha-ha, fat chance") are funny. [humor level]

  • Including a specially-created and self-referential "end credits" song gives Portal the production value of a major motion picture. [entertainment product level]

  • It seems complimentary to science geeks, who get a kick out of believing that their special skill ("I'm doing Science!" "I've experiments to run") is being appreciated by an artist. [geek/scientist level]

  • It's subversively cautionary toward science in the same way that Valve presents Black Mesa and Aperture as researchers so hypnotized by the pure coolness of "doing Science" that they create problems they didn't anticipate and can't control. ("Aperture Science: We do what we must because we can," "a neat gun") [social conscience level]
I could go on, but you get the point. The music and words function in several ways on multiple levels, but all the levels snap together to create a uniquely coherent whole... sort of like the way Portal itself balances action and thinking and feeling to create a unique gameplay experience.

For me, this song elevated a very good game into one of the best gaming experiences I've had in something like thirty years of computer gaming. Many thanks to Jonathan Coulton, Ellen McLain, and the people at Valve for a terrifically satisfying moment.