In all these games we play that tell stories, interactive gameplay is always bumping up against non-interactive narrative. If you wanted to make a neat story game, then it would be cool if you could get the interactive parts to work with the narrative parts. Since the interactive part is always some sort of system, wouldn’t it be cool if your narrative was about a system? It could be about breaking out of a system. That would be really cool.
Portal — a system to play in
In Portal (2007), you’re a test subject presented with a series of increasingly difficult challenges of mental aptitude and physical coordination, which are housed on different levels of a scientific facility. In other words, your character’s situation is strikingly close to the traditional conditions of a puzzle/action videogame: you must complete the test on each level to progress to the next.
This congruence of traditional videogame system and test-subject metaphor lends an engrossing authenticity to the story. The levels of the facility match the levels of the game, and the requirement to pass a test before progressing is just the traditional locked-room puzzle game structure. The congruence of system and metaphor engrosses the player in the protagonist’s situation.
(Let’s resist the temptation to describe this as ludonarrative consonance with smug smiles on our faces. This is about more than narrative: the harmony of design I’m describing extends to the fundamental premise of the game, before we even get to narrative.)
That’s why it’s so captivating when an unceremoniously discovered hole in the structure of the test facility leads to our first suspicion that the cake is a lie.
Now let’s escape
Throughout the testing, a disembodied voice comments on and evaluates your performance, robotically and insensitively. This dodges the Freeman problem smoothly: no matter if the player/protagonist’s clumsy or silly behaviour is ignored; that just adds to the detachment and aloofness of your supervisor, and — most crucially — to the sense that her surveillance is imperfect. To boot, the fact that your exploratory deviations behind loose wall panels are completely ignored only adds to the sensation that you’re breaking the system, and finding a free, unseen space.
However, as brilliant as the game is, as fun, neat, polished, and infinitely recommendable as it is, it stumbles on the hero problem in a particularly grating way.
Failure during the course of testing results in death. We have to turn a blind eye, give our disbelief an extra push, and pretend — as gamers are so experienced in pretending — that what just happened didn’t happen. We’re not starting again, we’re starting for the first time, deleting the previous attempt from the history in our minds. The cognitive dissonance this encourages is the essence of the hero problem. However, that in itself is no worse than most other games. It’s when we step into the final act that Portal makes this demand of the player in a way that very specifically disrupts the harmony of its system and its metaphor.
(And this time it is about ludonarrative dissonance, so we can be as smug as we like.)
They’ve only gone and cocked up the ending!
It’s not actually the ending, but it is the crux of the escape narrative — when you are lowered slowly into an incinerator.
Your safe and unnoticed escapades behind the scenes before this sequence amount to nothing, because the ramshackle hideouts you discover behind cracks in the system are just dead ends, there for flavour and nothing more. (The fact that you could miss those secrets with no penalty makes them all the more intriguing — “I might not have found this!”)
But the only chance to actually escape the treadmill of your testing is ostentatiously final. Only as you are being lowered irreversibly into an incinerator are you given a chance to make your inquisitive nature count for anything. Discover an escape route, or die immediately — that’s the dramatic turning point.
It sounds thrilling on paper, but in practice, there’s no peril here. Your escape is completely inevitable. Being driven forward by inevitability, by the confines of the system, is the central conceit of the game so far, but here is the moment where we are supposed to escape that. Talk about a backfire! The inevitability of escape is so literally and explicitly presented in the actual turning point of the game, when you see the last moving platform of the testing course lowering into flames, that you feel more strongly fixed to the game’s rails than ever, trundling onto the next section of the game’s track, and explicitly not diverting from your set course — which is the antithesis of the narrative step made during this sequence!
The hero problem is partly to blame: Portal teaches us throughout that death is not final. Death means you can retry your challenge as many times as you like. That’s how we know that progress is inevitable.
But it gets worse. Because there is nothing at stake within the terms of the game’s system when your platform gets dipped, the only thing at risk is your engagement with the narrative: if you fail, you will have to activate the gamer’s traditional cognitive dissonance and imagine that you didn’t really, whilst remembering what you did wrong so you can avoid it next time. I suppose it’s an effective incentive in a way — I mean, we do want the narrative to go on as it’s supposed to, so we do want to avoid that fire hole — but as a storyteller, you’re asking your audience to insert their own drama from outside of the world of the story, which snaps us out of that world in a big way.
(For those of us still not feeling smug enough already — and I realise I’m including myself in that group — this narrative cashing-in on the habitual conceits of gaming “violates aesthetic distance”.)
Oh yeah? Well if you’re so clever…
What alternative for Valve? How else could they have let the player cross the limits of the testing chambers and find the way out? Here’s an idea: what if the second-to-last little imperfectly hidden cake-is-a-lie nook also had a route into the back rooms and service corridors, before reaching the incinerator, and even with another whole level still to play? Then escape is genuinely an option — not pre-determined, not forced — and a thorough explorer with a desire to escape would taste the fruit of their inquisitiveness.
This would have the added benefit of the player not knowing that the testing structure is over and that there is no alternative but escape. The player — exactly like the protagonist — would have a moment of genuine agency. They could see the system churning along ahead of them, and they could just step off the ride of their own free will.
What actually happens is the system and metaphor fall apart exactly at the crux of the escape-the-system narrative. In the metaphor, we found holes in the structure that bound us, but in the system, there are no such holes, just uniform, guided progression — and the game’s single strictest example of it at that.
So you even hate Portal? Jeez, cheer up!
This is certainly a case of being good enough to be worth criticising. This little shortfall only stands out because the rest of the game comes very close to perfection. I won’t hesitate to agree with just about everyone and say that Portal’s storytelling makes it a must-play regardless of its mechanics, and that its mechanics and level design make it a must-play regardless of its storytelling. It even looks great seven years after release, wraps up in a couple of hours, and oozes flair from start to finish. A work of art, a masterpiece, a total classic.
But with just that one little frustration.