Everyone has heard of this incredible game. Its beginnings go back to a final project at the DigiPen Institute of Technology by the name of “Narbacular Drop,” created by only seven students. Immediately after graduating, the entire team was hired by Valve to produce Portal, a game that ended up bundled with bigger titles such as Half-Life and Team Fortress 2. It didn’t need to hitch a ride on these other games for its success, though. Portal became the selling point of the bundle, and it was labeled “Game of the Year.” The incredible success of this fresh-out-of-college game spurred the production of a sequel, and now, download content.
What made the game so vastly popular and such a tremendous success is this: Portal was the first game in a long time to do something that was truly new. The concept of a first-person puzzle game wasn’t even a real genre before this, and the idea of portals completely destroyed the notion of what a puzzle game should be. Normally, to cross a pit, you would need to find some blocks to make a bridge with, or find some obscure button to bridge the gap, or fight through a room of monsters to allow access. With Portal, just shoot a portal here, a portal there, and you’re done.
The portal gun itself is something that, if introduced into any other game, would be completely devastating. If you think about it, this doesn’t really apply to any other items from any game. Any weapon in one game would just be a weapon in another game. Most power-ups don’t even apply outside of its game. But the portal gun is something that would allow for beating Super Mario Bros. in a few shots, warp past boss fights in a standard FPS. The portal gun is something that requires a genius mind to be able to limit, and the crew behind Portal did a brilliant job of that.
It wasn’t simply the addition of portal-proof walls, but the puzzles themselves. Regardless of limitations on portal placement, some rooms are simply unsolvable unless you guide an energy ball to a receptor, launch a box to a button, and propel yourself through a slanted portal. In some cases, all at the same time. Through the use of these components, the game does a very nice job of placing limitations on what is quite possibly the most overpowered item in gaming history.
Now, let’s back up from the reality of a first-person, portal-based puzzle game, and look at the obvious: This is a portal-based portal game. This is something that has never been done before. The idea of using portals to solve puzzles is something we humans are not accustomed to dealing with. The game’s tagline, “Now you’re thinking with portals,” holds a good deal of truth. People don’t know how to cope with the concept of folding through three-dimensional space (portals).
The learning curve of the game is a very shallow one, though, and allows all varieties of players to learn and enjoy it. The first few rooms show how portals are used to easily solve puzzles that would otherwise be very difficult. It starts out by showing the player the limitless potential the portal gun has, and proceeds to challenge (and add to) that knowledge. It’ll show you that you can use it to get boxes to otherwise inaccessible buttons, and then make it increasingly difficult to do so. It’ll show you how to use portals to direct energy balls, and later, hide the target receptor behind a series of doors with timers thrown in. Similar to Tower of Heaven, it creates the illusion of loss of power, yet, with Portal, you have more power over space than you could ever dream of. Once the player breaks through the illusion, it feels like that power increases, and the player is allowed to sit in a state of ecstatic awe for a brief moment, and then the next puzzle awaits.
The selling point of Portal was, very clearly, the portals. They introduce an entirely new way of thinking, a completely new logic. In every other game, there is a very solid “game logic.” There’s a locked door. Go find a key. There’s a forcefield. Go blow up a generator in the next room. This doesn’t apply with Portal, and Portal logic goes against all the things that common logic has taught us. Once you start “thinking with portals,” the game becomes a different kind of challenging. How many different ways can you get though a room? Do it with the least amount of portals. Do what you can to “break the system,” so to speak. Solve the rooms in ways they were not meant to be solved. What’s even better is that the team that made the game knew of these alternative solutions, but decided to leave them in for the clever players to find. It creates a sense of “breaking the rules,” and it feels great.
The logic of this game has stimulated the creativity of many, resulting in hundreds of custom maps, all made by increasingly brilliant originality. Each successive map results in more and more groundbreaking creations, because, like the original game itself, they all encourage people to do something new. Outside of the gaming world, there are always conversations revolving around “what would you do with a portal gun?” The logic extends past the game, and into the real. It provokes conversation everywhere. It stimulates originality.
Portal is hopefully the first of many games that present new logic. The first of a new generation of games.
Twelve million, five hundred fifty thousand, eight hundred twenty-one blocks away, if you want to get technical about it. The name comes from the distance a player must travel in Minecraft to reach ‘The Farlands.’ This is a place where the mathematical rules that control the rendering of the land break down, resulting in spontaneous, foreign, alien features. On top of that, movement becomes aligned to a grid, meaning that the algorithms that smooth out player movement also collapse. Everything feels laggy, although it isn’t. At roughly thirty-two million blocks from the starting point, the variables storing the player’s position overflow. If the game didn’t freeze and crash long before then, the player would likely cease to exist. Such is the ominous nature of the Farlands.
I adopted this name for two reasons. Firstly, the Farlands represent a point at which a game is no longer a game. Defining characteristics are erased, strange and spontaneous problems arise, and things fall apart. In the case of the Farlands, this is caused by events outside of the player’s perception, i.e. the programming and fine-tuning of aesthetics. I adopt this name because, in this blog, I will not simply be reviewing games. I will be picking them apart, defining what about each game makes it a game, and what parts of it fail to meet its own criteria (When it is no longer a game, so to speak.). I will pull apart the inner workings of, not only the aesthetics of the game, but also the psychological effects it has on the player (These would be the ‘events outside of the player’s perception.’). In my reviews, I seek to find the ‘Farlands’ of every game, as well as the reasons behind them.
This is not a video game review blog. This is an insight into the psychological connection and philosophical implication between gaming and the human mind.
For those who are curious, the second reason I chose this name is because Minecraft is pretty fantastic. And I like obscure references to things.