Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I'm enjoying Portal the most out of all the toys in the Orange Box. It's short -- roughly three hours of gameplay to complete -- it's episodic, so stopping the game to do inconvenient but necessary stuff like potty breaks and meals is relatively painless, and the satisfaction of solving each puzzle is pure instant gratification.

There are 19 puzzle solving levels set in someplace called "Aperture Labs", but it's all training for the last level by which time we discover that all is not as it seems. Apart from the clinically sterile environment in which most of the game takes place, there are occasional glimpses behind the facade that reveal that something sinister is happening in the background.

For one thing, all safety protocols are non-existent. Many puzzles include lethal elements like acid-flooded floors, kawai but trigger-happy little gun turrets, and bouncy energy pellets which need to be manipulated into powering certain devices but are instant death on contact. How suspicious is that?

Every puzzle solved brings us a step closer to the truth. Is the lab computer malfunctioning? Its sing-song voice seems a little off-kilter. It promises cake and a party after the lab testing is complete, but IS the cake a lie?

For supporting NPCs in a game, the lab computer has to be one of the most memorable. We only hear its disembodied voice which accompanies us as we progress. It's functional at first, but there's almost a relationship that builds up between us two. Since there doesn't seem to be any other intelligence to interact with in the game, this relationship is more Stockholm Syndrome, less companionship.

I'm not sure how it's possible, but despite the vocal intonations that sound like they're being rendered through an early-generation SoundBlaster card, there's a discernible personality behind the computer's voice that appears genuinely interested in our progress, though not necessarily in our well-being. The information it provides tends to be a lot of corporate nonsense, pointless advice, disclaimers; but it's also disturbing to be watched and monitored so closely without knowing why.

Puzzle games don't usually have this level of story-telling, much less such personality. The puzzles themselves are readily solvable once we get used to the game physics. Since we have no offensive capability ourselves, most of the game is slow and methodical while we trial-and-error our next move. But the last five minutes of the endgame is quite a change of pace -- our personal survival depends on putting what we've learned to use as quickly as possible or die trying.

And now that I have successfully completed Portal, there are more advanced maps to play with. No story, just pure problem-solving. For what I initially expected of it, Portal has delivered so much more in terms of gaming experience.

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