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Game Study – Portal \ Portal 2: It’s Not the Portals that Make Portal Great

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Don’t get me wrong, the portals in Portal are a cool feature and lead to a fun and interesting puzzle game experience. This alone isn’t enough to make the game great though. It’s the story told in bits and pieces by GLaDOS and the scribbling found on the walls that really make this game. The story doesn’t break immersion in the game. You aren’t forced to follow the story to complete the game. The story leaves your imagination to fill in the blanks. These factors help make the game stand apart.

Ever play a game where every time to talk to someone they give you a rambling backstory. The danger with giving the story to the player through dialog is that if you give too much, or don’t word it right it becomes a slap back into the reality that you’re playing a game. Your brain realizes that people don’t normally talk like this. The only reason they’re giving you this information is to fill in backstory. You end up rejecting the reality of the game on some level. In Portal, the dialog is crafted as such that it all makes sense in the context it’s given. Backstory is given sparingly and the dialog all feels natural within its context. You’re drawn into the game rather than rejecting it.

The story isn’t a blocking factor in Portal. For the most part you can just ignore the voice and the extras in the environment and just play the puzzles. This is an important design consideration. Even though I consider the story to be an important element to Portal’s success, forcing the user to interact with the story would be annoying for players who just want the puzzles. Most of the clues are on signs at the beginnings of the levels. You can read these and ignore the voice, or you can listen to the voice and read the sign afterwards. In most cases the game doesn’t force you to listen to the voice for instructions. You can go from puzzle to puzzle without being forced to listen to dialog or read through a bunch of text.

The story that you’re actually given is very low in detail. Your imagination has to kick in to start filling in the blanks. Making you part of the creative process helps to draw you into the story, even if you’re not intentionally part of the process. I’m sure that somewhere Valve has a very detailed background document describing everything to do with the world of Portal. Instead of telling you this story directly, everything is put into the context of this story. One example of this is Aperture Science being a competitor to Black Mesa. This has all kinds of interesting implications in Portal 1. If I remember correctly though, the only references to this in the game were a whiteboard you could find comparing Black Mesa market share to Aperture Science and the ending credits song. Just that one white board image can make a huge impact on your understanding of the story.

Valve’s light application of an intriguing backstory to an already excellent game makes the Portal games incredible. The story telling techniques used create a memorable, immersive experience. If you haven’t already, I recommend you play Portal 1 and experience the storytelling first hand.

 

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