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Portal: A Remix to Submission

Gore Verbinski’s recent comments on the MMO genre and zero-narrative received mixed reaction–snide chuckles, enthusiastic yelps–across the videogame blogosphere.

Here’s a quick recap:

Verbinski’s “big idea:”

“The initial response is that gaming needs good writing. I’ve heard that. They need screenwriters. Well, hold on a second. Before you jump to that conclusion, I don’t want to impose cinema’s narrative onto a completely different medium. I think that’s naive. The fact that the player is also the audience means you shouldn’t be imposing a scenario where the audience is passive. Don’t put those rules onto gaming. So out of that came in my mind new forms of narrative. I said, “Well, wait a minute, what if there is zero narrative?”

Kotaku’s Brian Ashcraft responded disparagingly:

“The game would be a fucking mess that’s what. That, or Gears of War. Keen as ever, Verbinski’s in the early stages of planning some sort of gaming secret project. Hope it doesn’t suck.”

While Joystiq was enthusiastic:

“…but overall we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement and trust that Verbinski has the right message. Now how about some game work, Verbinski? Those Spielberg and Lucas guys are all over it.”

Yet, neither blog dug too deep into the implications of zero-narrative games, nor did their comments sections. Immediately, people discussed Portal, a game that would have succeeded without a narrative, though it was the narrative—the cake, the lies, the pit of fire—that made it a smash hit. Yet, I believe these same narrative points could have been accomplished in a non-traditional narrative form, one close to Mr. Verbinski’s.

Like all blockbuster film directors, Mr. Verbinski has a knack for speaking grand. Surely, he does not mean that all new great games should lack a narrative entirely, and though he specifically discusses the need for an MMO where players can develop their own storylines (i.e.: WoW meets Fable 2), a linear game like Portal represents a nice step towards zero-narrative.

Portal accomplishes what Half-Life could not. The player can finish maps in many different ways. Without additional players, your avatar does not play like the face-less, voice-less Gordon Freeman, and with little character history, you are able to project yourself into said avatar. And while Half-Life always resembled a film, Portal feels like a game. The mazes, the tests, and the portal mechanics: all these things are parts of ludology, rather than narratology. And they accumulate in a shocking moment where the game’s fate and narrative teeters on the player’s decision to progress or to submit.

Portal spoilers and Source Engine blasphemy after the jump…

About two-thirds through the game, you complete your portal training maps, and are congratulated for a job well done. Regretfully, you must submit to a pool of fire to complete the training program. The gamer has two options: trust the game, which leads you to certain death; or portal your way out of the situation, and turn on the narrator, Glados, by blazing your own path through the Portal arenas’ mis-en-scene.

After this event narrative frame shattering event, Portal reverts back to its linear rabbit hole, but that single moment felt more inspired than all of Bioshock and its “Would you kindly” reveal. But like Bioshock, the designers seemed to stutter afterwards. Allowing the destruction of its narrative, offering the player choice, how could Portal’s designers expect the same player to return for another two hours of narrated gameplay? What changes are necessary to make Portal Mr. Verbinski’s dream game, where, after destroying narrative, players pave their own path?

The Crytek Engine.

Before I get into the possibilities, let me state I am not a rabid Crytek supporter, nor do I deny the brilliance of Valve’s Source engine. Yet, the Source engine is dated and less evolved. It wouldn’t allow for the massive destruction necessary for this Portal revision.

Say you played through the first two-thirds of Portal, and the narration was a mislead; one only employed by the designers to train you in the mechanics of the game. Then, after choosing to turn on the game, you sneak through a vent, and into the behind-the-scene’s of the Aperture Science lab: hundreds of pipes, elevators, and control rooms. It would resemble final third of Portal’s levels, but instead of continuing to be guided like a mouse through a maze that resembles an open environment you’re given free range. You navigate your way through the grimy Aperture facility employing the techniques Glados taught to hunt her. Or, you ignore the dangerous Glados, and find a way out. Either way, the environment—the science lab, security system, and mainframe—must be destroyed or ignored in the best possible way to accomplish your goal of choice.

Just as Crysis featured collapsible buildings and trees, this updated Portal would feature combustible pipes and gas lines. Plus, it would work as a metaphor for the destruction of narrative. As you destroyed the narrative guided facility that created you, you set your own path, find your own story, build your own move-set.

What do you think? Like children, do we need narrative to help us learn the basics? Once we understand our surroundings in games, as with maturity in life, should we gain free choice, the right to set our road and travel it?

Image: Link

EDIT: Further thinking this through, I realize this argument ignores Portal’s genre: a puzzler. Can there be an open world puzzler? A sandbox puzzler?

-Chris

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this is a blog about video games by chris plante, sam ryan and chris littler.


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