Trying 'Til You Run Out Of Cake

I don’t have a lot of time for games.

This may seem strange, given how much I write about them, but the fact is that I work a day job, and have a social life, and games basically fit a slim slice of time between the time I’m done with everything else – usually around 10:30 or 11 pm – and the time I go to bed.

That has some interesting consequences. First, it means I tend to dream about whatever game I was last playing (perhaps this is why I was so hard on Persona 3). Second, it means that to a fairly good approximation, I can estimate how good a game is by how late I stay up.

An average game will keep me up until around midnight. A game that is [particularly well executed]( rapture/), such as [Bioshock]( chronic-underachiever/), can stretch that until 12:30 or 12:45. If a game is well executed and it’s a type of game I’m obsessed with, such as Fire Emblem, I might push that until 1 am or so.

On Friday night, I played Portal until 4:30 in the morning, and dreamed of blue and orange holes in space until morning.

[![Portal]( content/uploads/2007/11/portal_screen05-150x150.jpg)


]( “Portal” )

Portal is a game for the PC or Xbox 360, most easily purchased as part of a package deal in the so-called “Orange Box”. To be frank, I haven’t the slightest bit of interest in playing Half-Life 2 at this point, and I only fired up Team Fortress 2, the other game in the Orange Box once. Portal is worth more than all of the other games in the package combined. I played the Xbox 360 version, because it lets me play from the couch.

At first glance Portal looks like a first person shooter, but in reality it is a puzzle game. It’s nothing like Halo or Half Life. Instead, it’s more similar to Sokoban or [Chromatron]( /platforms-in-play/), or perhaps even [Ico]( /my-brain-on-ico/).

I won’t go into painful detail on the mechanics, but a brief summary is appropriate. The objective of Portal is to escape each level, as part of an experiment (think “rat” and “maze”). To accomplish this, you are given a gun that can shoot two types of holes onto walls, ceilings, and floors: orange and blue. When an orange and a blue hole are placed, they are connected. If you shoot an orange hole in the ceiling, and then shoot a blue hole into the wall, and then walk through the blue hole, you will fall out of the orange hole in the ceiling. The game’s trailer does a good job of demonstrating how the mechanic works.

When Portal is at its best, which is always, it keeps you engaged by simultaneously leading you by the hand and silently stroking your ego. It accomplishes this through what can only be described as inspired and thoughtful industrial design. The game always gives you subtle visual cues that help you figure out the puzzles in a natural, organic way. They are so subtle, you may not even notice them consciously if you’re not focusing on them. The result is that after you solve a particularly tough puzzle, you experience not just the thrill of victory, but also the feeling that you are a genius, and probably the first person to ever figure out this brilliant solution.

That’s the magic of thoughtful design. Forget about the mechanic of placing portals; I can think of a thousand ways to design a game using that mechanic that would be unplayably bad. What makes Portal work isn’t the core game mechanic, but the time and effort that went into crafting and balancing the game.

Design is one element of Portal’s success. The other element is pacing. The game draws you in so gradually and steadily that there is hardly ever a moment that you wish something else would happen (compare this to the dreadful post- Ryan slog in Bioshock, where I was mostly wishing that the game would just end already).

There are some who complain that the game is too short, and that if only it had offered, say, 10 hours of “gameplay” instead of 4, it would be “better”. There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, it implicitly assumes that players play games like game reviewers do. I easily spent 6 hours on the main Portal game, because I was lingering and trying different strategies. It also ignores the copious bonus content in the game – fascinating developer commentaries, bonus challenges, and advanced levels.

But let’s factor all of that out. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that Portal only offers 4 hours of gameplay. The analogous culinary argument would be “I didn’t enjoy eating this piece of $10 cake because I could have eaten $10 worth of twinkies instead, which would have had more biomass and been more filling.” Even though the twinkies wouldn’t have been as good. And would have made you feel sick. Portal’s pacing is, in my opinion, just about perfect: had they tried to stretch the main game any further, it would have been at the price of making the midgame either more boring, or less carefully balanced. The developer commentaries make clear exactly how much tuning, based on user feedback, was needed to make the game as polished as it is. I would not trade away any of that polish for even an extra 5 minutes of gameplay. The polish is the game.

If I haven’t talked about the plot of Portal proper, including the absolutely stunning voiceover work, it’s because there is nothing to say other than it is a triumph. But you’ll discover that for yourself within 5 minutes of starting the game. The writers clearly had fun creating the script, and you’ll have fun hearing it.

Portal is interesting, fun for both sophisticated and naive players, and superbly polished. It is, at the moment, the best reason to own an Xbox 360 or gaming PC, or to have a Boot Camp partition on your Mac. I can only presume that the team that created such a well crafted game is going to do great things in the future.

I can’t wait.