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Croal vs. Totilo - The Portal Letters

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the on-the-nature-of-games dept.

PC Games (Games) 51

Today Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and MTV's Stephen Totilo conclude another of their fascinating email correspondences, this time surrounding Valve's recently released Portal . In part one, the two journalists explored the power of minimalism in gaming, and why that 'less is more' attitude worked so well. Part two saw the pair wrestling with some fundamental disagreements about the nature of character in the game. In today's finale, the twosome addresses the game's brief length, and how that made the game all the better. "What's great about Portal's approach is that suggestive spareness of the plot and the absence of characterization leaves us plenty of room to fill in the blanks with our imagination, which, when supported by a framework as precisely and elegantly thought out as it is here, delivers a more powerful final product than many other games that give us plenty of characterization and story but precious little genuine mystery ... Portal goes one step further and questions the very nature of the person thing giving us those orders; like you said, Valve's puppeteering of its players."

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Portal is addictive (2, Funny)

LiquidCoooled (634315) | more than 6 years ago | (#21412973)

The shortness of portal is ok, the lack of storyline should be fleshed out in Ep3.
It whet my appetite and now I have been homing my skills on the challenges and custom maps.
It has greater replay-ability than HL itself and now play it like playing patience or minesweeper or tetris, not for the storyline but for a mental workout.

The advert was right - you really do begin to think with portals.

I look around real life for ways to shave off seconds whilst I walk to my car or around the shops. Getting a drink would be simple with a portal in the kitchen.

I have to mentally stop myself from diving headfirst from platforms and it took real effort not to jump into a big pink Barbie mirror at the local wal-mart.

Re:Portal is addictive (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21417817)

It whet my appetite and now I have been honing my skills on the challenges and custom maps.

Fixed that for you.

Re:Portal is addictive (1)

LiquidCoooled (634315) | more than 6 years ago | (#21418669)

Thanks, I realised as soon as I posted but thought people would be able to suss it out for themselves.

Re:Portal is addictive (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21444557)

Had to make sure, there are a lot of people who don't know the difference and I want to nip that kind of crap in the butt before it becomes common usage.

The Real Story (4, Funny)

jayhawk88 (160512) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413099)

Valve Manager: Hey we're going to release this thing called Orange Box with HL2 and TF2 and we'd really like to pack something else in it to help fill out the press releases, any ideas?
Valve Coder: Well the programmers and I have been playing around with this little game called Portal. It's sort of based on the old game called Narbacular Drop, see you have this gun that creates portals and....
Valve Mangager: That sounds great. Polish up what you have and submit it to the testers.
Valve Coder: Well it's not really done you understand, there isn't a story or anything, and several of the designers have had to take leaves of absence after trying to figure out how levels might work.
Valve Manager: Look it doesn't matter, it's just a throw in. Nobody will be buying this for Portal, or HL2 for that matter, we just have to throw the community a bone for making them wait 10 years for TF2. Finish what you have and let's get it in there.

(9 months later...)

Game Pundits: A stunning example of minimalistic game design! A triumph of elegant simplicity and quasi-storytelling!

Re:The Real Story (5, Informative)

Dutch Gun (899105) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413335)

Joking aside, you should listen to the audio commentary inside the game. I think too many people make the assumption that a brilliant little game like Portal just somehow 'happens.' You hear time and time again how many iterations to the levels / puzzles were made based off of serious playtesting, or how artists worked to draw the players' eyes to a specific point of interest through through geometry or lighting techniques, or how the programmers worked to solve various technical challenges involved with getting portals to work inside the game. Just because a game is limited in scope doesn't mean those involved didn't work hard to make the experience as fun and engaging as possible.

Re:The Real Story (1)

Azari (665035) | more than 6 years ago | (#21415389)

I thought that the commentary was one of the hightlights as well. So much so that I had to fraps a few of the levels with commentary running to bring in to show my students studying interactive media (high schoolers - always sceptical about these nebulous ideas of 'design', 'testing' and 'evaluation').

I'm not sure how much actually sunk in, but hey, I'm sure it made a few extra dollars for Valve :P

Re:The Real Story (2, Interesting)

Kingrames (858416) | more than 6 years ago | (#21415441)

My favorite commentary was by the lady who does the voice of GLaDOS, when she says that everybody makes it look like everything is planned, and that everything is structured, and it's all "a big fat lie." She goes on to tell more, but it seemed appropriate to mention.

Your point still stands, though, because "disorganized" is sorta the norm all across the computing world.

Re:The Real Story (1)

jamie(really) (678877) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413451)

Were you disappointed with the plot in Mario 64 too?

Re:The Real Story (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21413495)

What color is the sky in your world? It's about the total opposite of how Portal was developed, and quite probably anything at all.

Maybe you were just aiming for a different result ... didn't put your orange portal close enough to "Funny" perhaps?

Android? (0)

ShakaUVM (157947) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413283)

Portal is one of the best games ever.

Only bit of the plot that is confusing is that it twice references you as an android (remember, android hell is a real place), but in an interview the authors said that the character is human, with just reinforced ankle supports. I played it through a second time, and I can see how a person (just from the game) could make a case the main character is a person, but it just feels like a contradiction in the plot to me.

Re:Android? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21413339)

I'm 95% sure that the android hell message was intended for the original audience of the live fire exercise. This is reinforced by the apology message issued at the beginning of the level.

Re:Android? (5, Informative)

enderjsv (1128541) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413377)

How is this hard to understand? No offense, but it's spelled out right at the beginning of that particular level why you're being referred to as an android. The room with all the turrets is a room designed for testing androids, but because of a problem with the human testing counterpart to that room, you're forced to complete the android version instead. Of course, there is the deeper question of whether the room actually was designed for android testing or if GLADOS is simply messing with you, but on the superficial surface, the whole android thing is pretty clear.

Re:Android? (2, Informative)

Osty (16825) | more than 6 years ago | (#21415263)

Also keep in mind that in the earlier levels GLADOS is speaking to your character mostly through pre-recorded audio. It's only later in the game that GLADOS starts speaking to you directly. As such, the "android hell" bit was most likely just the pre-recorded exit audio for that test rather than an attempt by GLADOS to make you question your own humanity.

Re:Android? (1)

Jonathan_S (25407) | more than 6 years ago | (#21499445)

How is this hard to understand? No offense, but it's spelled out right at the beginning of that particular level why you're being referred to as an android. The room with all the turrets is a room designed for testing androids, but because of a problem with the human testing counterpart to that room, you're forced to complete the android version instead
That's what Glados tells you, but interestingly there are hints elsewhere in the game that indicate that the "combat android" level is a normal part of the training process.

The levels have large white glowing level info displays near their beginnings. Those displays show an icon shorthand representation of the skill you will need to master on the current level, and also in a much lighter grey, future skills. One of those future skills is an icon of a firing turret.

Re:Android? (1)

Shade of Pyrrhus (992978) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413427)

It wasn't a contradiction - in the game GLADoS states that instead of the normal test chamber, it's a test chamber for androids. After you finish the chamber, the idea is that the message from GLADoS was something automated after an android would finish it (and generally something amusing).
I guess the leg/ankle supports would explain the character never taking damage or hurting at all from falling from such heights...

Re:Android? (1)

j_kenpo (571930) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413457)

Yeah... but the cake was a lie, so the android references might be lies too.

Besides, didnt they say something about the human room being broken?

Re:Android? (5, Informative)

nuzak (959558) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413629)

The cake was there. Though I'm not sure I'd want to eat it. Ever listen to the recipe?

1 18.25 ounce package chocolate cake mix.
1 can prepared coconut pecan frosting.
3/4 cup vegetable oil.
4 large eggs.
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips.
3/4 cups butter or margarine.
1&2/3 cups granulated sugar.
2 cups all purpose flour.
Don't forget garnishes such as:
Fish shaped crackers.
Fish shaped candies.
Fish shaped solid waste,
Fish shaped dirt.
Fish shaped ethyl benzene.
Pull and peel licorice..
Fish shaped volatile organic compounds
and sediment shaped sediment.
Candy coated peanut butter pieces, Shaped like fish.
1 cup lemon juice.
Alpha resins.
Unsaturated polyester resin.
Fiberglass surface resins.
And volatile malted milk impoundments.
9 large egg yolks.
12 medium geosynthetic membranes.
1 cup granulated sugar.
An entry called 'how to kill someone with your bare hands'.
2 cups rhubarb, sliced.
2/3 cups granulated rhubarb.
1 tablespoon all-purpose rhubarb.
1 teaspoon grated orange rhubarb.
3 tablespoons rhubarb, on fire.
1 large rhubarb.
1 cross borehole electro-magnetic imaging rhubarb.
2 tablespoons rhubarb juice.
Adjustable aluminum head positioner.
Slaughter electric needle injector.
Cordless electric needle injector.
Injector needle driver.
Injector needle gun.
Cranial caps.
And it contains proven preservatives, deep penetration agents, and gas and odor
control chemicals. That will deodorize and preserve putrid tissue.

Re:Android? (1)

Aeonite (263338) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414823)

The recipe itself is fine.

1 18.25 ounce package chocolate cake mix.
1 can prepared coconut pecan frosting.
3/4 cup vegetable oil.
4 large eggs.
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips.
3/4 cups butter or margarine.
1&2/3 cups granulated sugar.
2 cups all purpose flour.

Everything else is "garnishes". You can leave those off.

Re:Android? (1)

Digital Vomit (891734) | more than 6 years ago | (#21418853)

Yeah... but the cake was a lie,

From the song at the end of the game, and the short video sequence preceeding it, I got the impression that the cake was not a lie, but rather a reward GLaDOS prepared for herself. Who was the cake presented before? (Arguably) the backup GLaDOS modules. Who snuffed out the candle? GLaDOS.

"This was a triumph! I making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS!"

Re:Android? (1)

jensen404 (717086) | more than 6 years ago | (#21415601)

The first time I played through that level in Portal, I was carrying the turret when the voice said "remember, android hell is a real place"

I had thought that holding the turret while walking through there had triggered the android hell statement. I thought it was hilarious.

I was a bit disappointed when I found that the quote was said to everyone who walked through that area.

Not enough...sure... (2, Interesting)

cthulu_mt (1124113) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413539)

Someone else on /. in an earlier thread about Portal pointed out that 500 levels wouldn't have been enough. But that many would have drowned out the story. I've played through Portal about 8 times now and find something new each time. That kind of craftsmanship isn't an accident.

Hopefully Valve starts releasing bonus maps or *gasp!* episodic content. [Insert Flame Here] So far the Portal community maps aren't very impressive. But the full SDK should fix that.

Re:Not enough...sure... (1)

gknoy (899301) | more than 6 years ago | (#21415201)

It would be especially interesting (and not exactly surprising) if someone were to create a portal-map-generating-tool, thereby enabling a much larger set of possible maps .... many of which might not suck. :)

Re:Not enough...sure... (1)

cthulu_mt (1124113) | more than 6 years ago | (#21418501)

I'll give Will Wright a call and see what he can do with procedural puzzle generating. It should be read by 2018.

Portal Map-Generating Tool (1)

rfc1394 (155777) | more than 6 years ago | (#21432289)

Actually there is a tool to make maps for portal and the SDK even includes a copy of one of the levels - the one where GlaDOS says the test is impossible - so you can see what it takes to construct a level. And to put it bluntly, it's a lot of [expletive deleted] work!

Long before I bought The Orange Box - in fact, about four months before I'd ever even heard of Portal (I only got it about a week ago) - I wrote in my blog, back in June, an article [] about the tools which are available for designing maps for these games. And the Hammer map editor for Half-Life 2 / Portal is either as complicated as the one for Half-Life I / Quake III or even more so. These tools are very difficult to work with and hard to use. Notwithstanding that the maps involved are extremely intricate to do all the things necessary to implement the game. Somehow I wonder why the full "3D immersion" feature so skillfully implemented in the editor for Duke Nukem 3 was never tried for any of the other games. And we've got more capability now; Duke Nukem did a 3-D immersion in a DOS-based application; we now have all of the graphics capability and mouse capacity and all the other features of graphical user interfaces, and yet, sometimes they don't take advantage of all the power that is available.

Shortness (2, Interesting)

bigstrat2003 (1058574) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413763)

The shortness makes the game *better? Hell no. The game is very remarkable, one of my favorites this year. It has very strong focus, but its shortness is a detriment, not an asset. While it may not have been possible to make the game longer without ruining its stellar quality, or adding useless fluff, the game should have been rewritten in that case to make it work. Portal, at $20, is the first game to make me feel ripped-off for its length, compared to cost. My God, even Heavenly Sword is longer than Portal.

Re:Shortness (1)

MWoody (222806) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414149)

I, for one, disagree. I'm tired of games that feel they have to be 10+ hours long. There's nothing wrong with a fun game I can finish in an evening if it's priced correctly, which Portal is (particularly if you get it in the Orange Box, which is really where you're meant to pick up the game).

Re:Shortness (2, Interesting)

bigstrat2003 (1058574) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414347)

In the Orange Box, Portal is fine. Separately, though (I bought it separately, as it was the only Orange Box component I want), $20 is just too much for what it gives you. I'd be ok with its length if the game was $10, or even $5 less. $20 is just a bit too much for such a short game, that's all I'm saying. Shortness is not a problem, it's shortness coupled with too high of a price.

Re:Shortness (1)

ashamanq (1077889) | more than 6 years ago | (#21420315)

Arg... don't get me wrong, I enjoy games that are good for a few hours, but I *strongly* prefer games that last a long time, if only because I can then enjoy the immersion for longer. Also, what is wrong with playing a game for a few hours, stopping, saving, and then playing it a few more hours the next evening?

I see a game sort of like I see a book: if I see a book written by a favored author that is really long, I buy it, because it will last me a long time. If a game that I bought for $60 + tax lasts me less than 10 hours, I'm pretty unhappy. Portal worked well considering its length and relative price, but honestly, if it had lasted 5 times longer, with the same level of quality, I would have enjoyed it much more.

Re:Shortness (1)

metroid composite (710698) | more than 6 years ago | (#21415229)

You can play through every level of Super Mario Bros 3 in roughly three-four hours (not a speed run or anything, just someone who's decent with platformers, who dies periodically, but doesn't get completely stuck). I don't remember people complaining it was too short--in fact I remember people raving about how long it was.

A similar playthrough of Super Mario 64, getting all the stars, takes about 20 hours. Yet I've heard claim that there's less content in SM64--after all, there's 15 levels (and maybe 5-10 bonus levels) compared to around 80 levels for SMB3. SMB3 has more powerups. SMB3 has a larger variety of enemies. SMB3 has a two-player mode and more than one playable character.

time =/= quantity of content

That point aside, an article recently compared movie critics to game reviewers, saying that movies are reviewed as art, since they are reviewed as to whether they are worth our time, and games tend to be reviewed as products judged only in terms of whether they are worth our money (with the kind of stuff you'd expect from product comparisons like durability and output). I have a job--needing the money for games isn't my problem; finding the time is my problem.

Re:Shortness (1)

MrAngryForNoReason (711935) | more than 6 years ago | (#21419805)

My God, even Heavenly Sword is longer than Portal.

Well Heavenly Sword [] costs $59.99 and reportedly lasts about 7 hours. Portal costs $20 and lasts about 4 hours. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me, and this isn't taking into account time taken to complete the advanced levels or achievements.

Re:Shortness (1)

PFI_Optix (936301) | more than 6 years ago | (#21420549)

Play the challenges. I spent an hour trying to shave steps off of one map. I think I can get it down to 5, but it says my next goal is 2...ARGH.

Great game (1)

jgoemat (565882) | more than 6 years ago | (#21413921)

The designers behind "Portal" were brilliant. This game actually made me feel closer to an inanimate cube that never moves or makes a sound than any character in a game that I can remember.

***** SPOILER ALERT!!! *****

Part of it was the isolation of Portal. You don't know where you are or why you're there. A computer lies to you and threatens you with "android hell". You have to incinerate a "faithful companion cube" with hearts on it that just helped you get through a level which you couldn't have gotten through without it. The computer then congratulates you on euthenizing your "faithful companion cube" faster than any test subject on record. At the end the computer AI says you incinerated your companion cube, the only friend you've ever had.

Re:Great game (1)

Das Modell (969371) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414075)

You weren't threatened with android hell. It was a pre-recorded message meant for the androids that normally go through the room.

Re:Great game (3, Funny)

C0rinthian (770164) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414607)

My cube spoke to me a couple times on that level. Perhaps you didn't hear it?

Re:Great game (2, Funny)

SlashRSlashN (1036626) | more than 6 years ago | (#21415251)

The Enrichment Center reminds you that the weighted companion cube cannot speak. In the event that the weighted companion cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.

Re:Great game (1)

Lisandro (799651) | more than 6 years ago | (#21418803)

Talk? Mine tried to stab me!

Re:Great game (1)

Some_Llama (763766) | more than 6 years ago | (#21425697)

remember that time when GlaDOS made the platform go into the fire and I was all "NO WAY" and then the game ended?

man that sucked.

Do you actually believe the fire ends the game? (1)

rfc1394 (155777) | more than 6 years ago | (#21433615)

Are you actually claiming you think the game ends at Chell's "victory candescence?" In case you're actually thinking the game ends there - which I doubt is likely - if you get killed there it starts you over again a little earlier in the level, I think just before you enter the fire, and it will keep doing this forever, or until you figure out how to escape being "baked". In case you did believe that was then end, here's a hint.

When you are about to get to the fire, and you can see the cement wall in front of you above the railing, point your portal gun at the wall above the walkway in front of you, and fire a portal. Turn to your left, and fire a portal low on the wall below you, then jump into that portal. You want it to be low enough that you fall into it; if you miss, you end up in the slag and have to try again. When you do make the jump, it lands you on the (concrete) platform above the fire, where the real challenge in level 19 actually begins.

What I've found really helpful are the video walkthroughs on You Tube showing how to complete the levels. There were times when I had to "go to the videotape" to figure out how to solve some of the problems. Sometimes it can be amazing to watch. One guy figured a way to get the companion cube back before the end scene in the game, by committing suicide in the fire 3 times before incinerating the cube, then firing the blue portal at the entrance door (which causes it to disappear, the door is not a valid target), then firing the yellow portal at the center of the far edge of the ceiling in the workstation area in the room where GlaDOS is located, the companion cube then falls out of the ceiling!

Re:Do you actually believe the fire ends the game? (1)

Some_Llama (763766) | more than 6 years ago | (#21437783)

It was a joke.. sorry.. I tried this joke before and it was taken the same way :-/

anywho, i just kept trying the different puzzles until I figured them out.. what's the point of someone showing you how to do the puzzles? that's the whole game, puzzle solving?!?

I have found it interesting wacthing my 12 yr old daughter play. i kept thinking no do it this way but then i realized that her way of solving each puzzle was just as valid and showed her own problem solving techniques.. like on some of the moving platform maps, i was shooting portals on the corners and timing my jumps to make the next platform coming.. my daughter would make 2 closer portals and then stand on the portals and wait for the platforms.

On level 18 she got the cube BEFORE taking out any of the turrents, which i thought was insane, heh

Re:Do you actually believe the fire ends the game? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21454727)

I thought your joke was funny... but I'm just one...

Some Rules (5, Interesting)

DingerX (847589) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414079)

Some folks want to compare games to movies. Well, don't compare them just to features; compare them to movies in the 1940s, back when there were short features, travelogues, newsreels, and cartoons. Not everything is a long-feature, nor does it have to be.

If you are going to compare games to features movies, why is it that "leaving them crying for more" is a good thing for movies (and books, and plays, and concerts, and so on), but not for games? Why does it have to be: "leaving them exhausted, emaciated and with Post-Traumatic Repetitive Stress Disorder (aka "The thousand-yard controller thumb")?

Portal is genius. It's a game where many of the key developers (writers and the ND folks) are new arrivals to some large company that specializes in developing products through an extensive testing cycle, and it's about being a new arrival in a large company that's developing a product, and you're part of the testing cycle.

There are two cliches that HL and just about every video game in the 90s had, that really didn't work (most of the time): ubiquitous, absurd, crates (uh, nobody uses those any more. Why are they here?), and a sidekick you're supposed to love, but who's two wooden and one-dimensional for it to work. They manage to make a sidekick-crate lovable. I haven't seen a triumph like that since Vladimir Nabokov made a sympathetic character out of a pedarast with delusions of being a king in exile.

Anyway, look at me still talking...

Damn you! (1)

Poromenos1 (830658) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414969)

His name is "companion cube", you insensitive clod :(

Re:Damn you! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21429477)

He is a she.

Re:Some Rules (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21424883)

I would be sadly disappointed if they hadn't made a crate a sidekick. Especially considering who wrote the dialogue [] .

Portal's length was good (1)

Zerimar (1124785) | more than 6 years ago | (#21414203)

It's VERY refreshing to be able to play a game from beginning to end in one sitting. If a game takes longer than 15-20 hours to finish, I usually take extended breaks away and forget what the heck I was doing a week later when I pick it up again. I don't know who made the "40 hour" game something to strive for - I sure can't believe it was the working adult.

Re:Portal's length was good (1)

coolGuyZak (844482) | more than 6 years ago | (#21416221)

Most games are marketed to people between the ages of 12 and 26. In other words, people in school with vast amounts of disposable time.

Portal kinda reminds me of.... (1)

cttforsale (803028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21419649)

a fairly recent Canadian movies called Cube ( Granted, there is more than one prisoner....but check it out...

Re:Portal kinda reminds me of.... (1)

Trent Hawkins (1093109) | more than 6 years ago | (#21420505)

10 years ago is not recent

Re:Portal kinda reminds me of.... (1)

oracleofbargth (16602) | more than 6 years ago | (#21422253)

10 years ago is not recent
That depends on how old you are.

Re:Portal kinda reminds me of.... (1)

Some_Llama (763766) | more than 6 years ago | (#21426189)

did you see hyper cube? (the sequel to cube)
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