Saturday, July 21, 2012

On Portal

I contributed's current cover story, Essential 100 

I understand that, due to space limitations, the site was unable to publish my second-opinion submission in full. I've blogged the original text below:

GLaDOS is condescending. She thinks you're stupid, and insists that you play the way she wants you to play. Indeed, she doesn't want you to complete the game. A terrible game designer is a terrifying villain.

Dressing you down for behavior that developer Valve actually condones, GLaDOS is, of course, the perfect conduit through which Portal's terrific, real designers apply reverse psychology to deftly nudge you in productive directions, and compel you to complete the game. Portal's sophisticated soft paternalism masquerades as overbearing maternalism. What this means is that, like GLaDOS, these designers undoubtedly saw Aperture Science's testing facility stymie and aggravate players. However, instead of throwing their hands in the air and sacrificing their vision with intrusive, heavy-handed hints and other fatalist admissions of the failure of their design, they went back -- many, many times I imagine, because all development works this way, and because Portal is as bold as it was novel -- and improved their work without compromising its integrity.

The results are puzzles that can perplex without confounding; and for players, the mastery of a new skill that requires the cultivation of an intoxicating, alien mode of thinking. In the beginning, you’re told not to poke around behind the curtain, (and by that I mean you’re really being prodded to behave subversively). By the end, you’re both defying GLaDOS, and, perhaps, surprising the game’s designers by arriving at genuinely original solutions to problems.

Playing Portal is like learning another language. The instant you complete your first challenge without whispering intentions to yourself, without tentatively testing conjugations, and seem simply to arrive intuitively at a correct response is the instant you add Portal to your list of greatest games.