Saturday, November 17, 2007

Portal: Narrative

Portal is an excellent example of a game that follows the rules, assumptions, and principles of Classical Game Design. The setting, dialogue, characters, visual style, music, and sound were all set into subsidiary roles to support the gameplay, the unique driving mechanic of the videogame medium. Because the game's elements are so tightly focused on the gameplay, the player's gaming experience becomes the narrative of Portal. It is also significant to note that when people try to describe Portal, they constantly jump back and forth praising its various elements. It's hard to talk about the portal gun without talking about how the level design accentuates gravity and momentum. It's difficult to talk about the level design without noting that the player is in a stylisticaly bland laboratory research facility. It's nearly impossible to talk about the lab facility without mentioning GLaDOS, the whimsical, mysterious, sarcastic, dangerous voice that guides the player throughout the game. Even then, I couldn't simply describe GLaDOS as a voice played over an intercom system. Anyone who's played the game understands that she is more than a passive comedian interspersing clever one-liners in between levels. The apprehension and distrust toward this voice is a key part of the narrative of Portal.

*The rest of this article contains spoilers*

So we've identified that Portals narrative is built into the experience of the player, and that this experience is guided by level progression like most other games. Before we can analyze and critique Portals narrative, we have to identify which parts of the game are analogous to common elements of literary (or even film) narratives. In Portal, the player takes control of the main character, Chell. Chell uses the portal gun to manipulate her environment to overcome challenges set by Aperture Science, a fictional facility. The purposes of these tests and Aperture Science are shrouded in mystery. The second character is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). GLaDOS is not the narrator, but a character with limited omniscience. Though she informs and guides the player through an intercom system, her limited omniscience is expressed through the placement of cameras that monitor the players progress. Whenever a camera is tampered with by removing it from the wall, the player is informed by GLaDOS not to do so. If, the maintenance of the cameras was integral to maintaining gameplay, as the player proceeds to destroy the cameras, a light scolding is their only consequence. The credibility of the narrator also comes into question very early in the game. GLaDOS tells many lies throughout the game and, when caught in a lie, she casually back peddles her way out of it.

" As part of a previously mentioned required test protocol, we can no longer lie to you."
"The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it."
"Fantastic! You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.
"Have I lied to you? I mean in this room. "

The primary plot in Portal consists of the main character completing a set of challenges. The subplot involves discovering the true nature of the Aperture Science facility. As it turns out, after you complete all the missions, GLaDOS tries to dispose of you through fire and flames. At this point in the game, the plot shifts from a "hero's quest" (in this case the quest for cake) to a quest for freedom. Everything that GLaDOS has told you up to this point can't be trusted. Before, the hidden passages in the walls revealing interesting personal notes from other test subjects who've gone before you, were just whimsical asides. Now "the cake is a lie" means more than a failed promise of dessert. The "cake," GLaDOS, and Aperture Science are all a lie. For the player, everything they've been experiencing and all the puzzles were just a clever ruse. The only way to break free from the lies is to seek the source, GLaDOS.

It is only fitting that the Portals narrative structure simultaneously describes it's design (gameplay) purpose. From Valve's website...

"The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment;"

Using the Portal gun the players sense of perspective shifts from overcoming Chell's individual perspective to overcoming a perspective that encompasses GLaDOS and Aperture Science. Change the word perspective with "environment" and it's clear how the narrative parallels and reinforces the gameplay.

Now that the narrative has been defined, it can be critiqued more traditionally. These are the areas I would focus on and some of the questions I start with.

Psychoanalytic Theory: Can a Computer Feel? Examining GLaDOS psychological state, and the systematic destruction of here colored personality components. Does the red component (at the end of the game) function as GLaDOS's Id? How, if at all, does GLaDOS show signs of repression? Does GLaDOS's limited omniscience as exhibited through the monitoring cameras operate as her conscious mind while Chell (the player) and those who've escaped the confines of the testing facilities operate as the unconscious?

New Criticism: The Truth as I See it Now. Does the game's narrative harmonize into the universal truth of "escape and control only exist in a given perspective"?

Structuralism: Lies (perspective) and Truth (cake). Examine the cycle of perspective generates assumptions that generates lies that generates the breaking into a new perspectives. From the opening of the game (overcoming the escape from a room with no doors), to passing "impossible" tests after tests, to overcoming Aperture science, to the website valve created for providing additional information about Aperture Science, each step follows the cycle. Does the Aperture Website frame the final perspective of the player especially considering it's only accessible after obtaining a code at the end of the game?

Feminism: Where's the Free-man? Does the portrayal of females in Portal support patriarchal values? Where are the male characters? GLaDOS and Chell are female, and GLaDOS also mentions 'take your daughter to work' day. Are the only male characters buried on the markings on the walls in the hidden alternative rooms/closets? If so, what ideologies does it promote. Can GLaDOS's command for Chell to "Place The Device on the ground then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides" be read as the super ego's attempt to pacify Chell, a woman?

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Nice artical :)