Portal

Late last night, I finished Portal. I started it 5 hours earlier, but you probably already know how short it is.

You’ve also probably heard how the story is great, the closing song by JoCo is wonderful and sticky, the puzzles are challenging, and it’s the best thing in the Orange Box. I agree with all that. So let me share some of my personal feelings about the game.

First, while…there’s no doubt that Portal is a great game, it’s very clear to me that the Orange Box is Valve’s response to the question, "How do we sell two games that are a bit small to sell by themselves, alongside a bigger game we’ve sold before?" This is not Valve’s fault; they are distribution innovators.

The real problem is the retail market. It should be easy to sell full games for $60, half-sized games for $30, and mini-games for $5. But it isn’t, because of the realities and expectations of the retail space. The retail channel has been stifling and crushing developers for decades now, and ubiquitous digital distribution can’t come soon enough for me. And the console makers are aiding and abetting this system.

Nintendo pioneered the system whereby developers are held in thrall to the console maker, they’ve NEVER grokked the internet, and they’re riding high right now, so why should they change?

Sony is a megacorp who needs to sell blu-ray discs. The last thing they need is for digital distribution to make the investment obsolete, so they’re gonna fight the future tooth-and-nail.

Microsoft is just playing their normal embrace and extend game with game consoles right now. Yes, they get the Internet and digital distribution more than anyone, but they aren’t in the market to crush GameStop (not yet, anyway). They are in the market to crush Sony and Nintendo, and the standard way is to undercut their competitors at their own game, not think laterally.

So Valve will have to bow to market demands and bundle small games, and I’ll have to stay on the PC platform, the only real option I have for unfettered development on a device with a wide installed base. Sigh.

My friend Mike said that Portal was an example of a single game nugget polished into a diamond. For years he’s been thinking of my output as "nuggets", and has pushed me to combine multiple such nuggets into a game. I agree with the polish concept, but I want to point out that the game around Portal’s nugget is exactly the core competency of Valve. When you have an emerald grinder, every rock you put inside comes out looking like an emerald.

I myself didn’t find Portal to be a new digital utopia; I had some problems with it. First, the whole FPS system, the empty halls, and the scary environmental background music say one thing to me; Scary Monsters. Nobody told me I didn’t have to worry about something icky and ambulatory waiting in the darkness, so I proceeded as I normally do; cautiously, dashing from dark corner to dark corner, always keeping my back to a wall. This has been programmed into me for over a decade, so I doubt bright colors and a friendly soundtrack would have cured me. But spooky warehouses and realistic art styles are part of Valve’s core competency, so that’s what I got. As a result, it took a while before I was able to take GlaDOS’s comedy at face value.

Second, I still don’t know exactly what happened to the protagonist. I know that Portal is about the antagonist (GlaDOS), not your character (a typical voiceless cipher). But the game gave me only vague notions about what happened to my character at the end, and celebrated the life, death, and continuation of the Antagonist in detail. It was simply confusing (though not artistically invalid).

Finally, I don’t think Valve has created a true crossover hit here. My wife still has no idea how an FPS UI works, nore does she care. She loves the ending song, and enjoyed listening to GlaDOS’s dialog, and was happy to discuss her character in the story, but she has no interest in actually playing the game herself. We game veterans think that Portal has a minimum of controls and UI options, but we forget how revolutionary the whole FPS thing is. there IS a learning curve, especially for adults, and many people still get seasick even watching such a game.

End of ramblings. Portal is a fun game. Play it.

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