Why Portal?

July 27, 2008

An Analysis Of The Success Of A Cake, A Crate And An Automaton

Since its release in 2007, Valve’s Portal has received universal acclaim throughout the gaming world, eliciting rave reviews and winning three major Developer’s Choice Awards (Best Design, Best Innovation and Game of the Year). Yet it is only three hours long, and really only has one game mechanic. So how did such a simple and undeniably short game reach such dizzying heights, and what does this mean for the gaming industry?

Is it the game‐play? The portal mechanic itself may be groundbreaking enough to be considered the best innovation of ‘07, but alone, it cannot account for such success. It certainly doesn’t explain why the internet has been invaded by ‘The cake is a lie’, or the sudden desire by gamers everywhere to buy toy crates with hearts emblazed on them.

You might, therefore, presume that it is the story. Yet this can be summed up in a single sentence: You are being held as a lab rat in an AI run facility and need to destroy it to escape.

For such a trite story, Portal resonates with the player far longer than expected. This might imply that it is the story’s execution which provides the intense immersion experienced by the player. GLaDOS’ surprisingly complex character and the dark humour injected into the dialogue contribute greatly to the game’s appeal.

However, last year saw a plethora of games executing narrative splendidly, such as 2K Games’ Bioshock and GSC Game World’s Stalker. Yet developers consider Portal the Game of the Year. Again we ask, why Portal?

The answer may yet lie in the story. Creators Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw describe two types of story: the “story‐story”, involving characters’ storylines, actions and dialogues; and the “game‐play story”, involving the individual and his or her game‐play actions. According to Swift and Wolpaw, a shorter distance (or “delta”) between the two stories creates satisfaction in a game.

In Portal, the only real game mechanic (or “game‐play story”) is the portal gun: used, in general, to reach places you usually can’t. The “story‐story” mimics this – trying to escape a secure facility and reach the surface – an otherwise unreachable place. In addition, during the first levels when learning how to use the portal gun is the ”game‐play story”, the “story‐story” is that GLaDOS is teaching you how to use the portal gun. It is this symmetry of stories that gives portal its edge over other games.

Recently, many games have improved the alignment of their stories, albeit to a lesser extent. In Bioshock (as well as other countless games), the atmospherics, objects and characters the player experiences and interacts with while exploring Rapture helps lower the delta to the “story‐story”. David Cage’s Fahrenheit makes the player press buttons repeatedly to create physical exhaustion through the “game‐play story” paralleling the character’s exhaustion in the “story‐story”, while also including surprisingly engaging scenes where both stories are simply developing a character.

Other games draw parallels between their stories extremely effectively through a more extreme approach: either the “story‐story” is marginalised to align exactly with individual actions (races/factions fight each other in StarCraft, or the counter‐terrorists must stop the terrorists in CounterStrike), or it is left to the player to create (The Sims and World of Warcraft). Many multiplayer games align their stories very effectively in this way.

As the game industry develops, the “delta” between the two stories of a game seems to be decreasing as developers seek to enrich the player experience through means other than graphical detail. If this is the case, then Portal is just a taste of what is to come.

And that is an encouraging thought.