Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

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One Experiment, Four Theories

You could say that Portal and Portal 2 are games about game design. GLaDOS is, of course, our game designer, piecing together test chambers for her test subject(s) to solve, helplessly addicted to the process. She lives for it. The idea is bolstered when Wheatley takes the reins in Portal 2 (that was a spoiler, I guess) and creates a laughably bad level– complete with the caveat that it will be much cooler very, very soon. And you could say that those constant tests, institutionally performed by Aperture Laboratories, mirror the gameplay testing that Valve, in the real world, is famous for practicing as an integral part of its development process.

You could go further: consider that our relationship with GLaDOS as players captures, in some way, a player’s relationship to the game designer. GLaDOS possesses an uncontrollable urge to set out a series of exquisitely crafted challenges; we are driven by the urge to conquer them. She taunts us, tells us it can’t be done, but every test chamber is actually very carefully tuned (through those playtests) to be solvable, to click magically after a certain amount of time, to preserve the player’s state of flow. Valve needs them to be able to be solved.

A most enterprising theorist might even go so far as to suggest that GLaDOS’ arch commentary and barbed insults, cushioned for our ears by their diverting cleverness, is Valve talking back to its fans– saying, in a coded way, the kinds of things they have always wanted to say after the trauma of the dark period around 2003-2004, when Steam wasn’t the powerhouse it is now but a nascent, buggy thing that regularly sparked some of the bitterest online tirades imaginable, when Half-Life 2 was stolen by a hacker and then delayed. Game developers tend to claim confidently that they never feel pressure from “the fans,” and that the vicious snake dens of their own forums do not periodically wound them. But those rants do get read. It would be naïve to claim they really had no effect.

Finally, there is Cave Johnson’s character. He, clearly, represents the designer of a game (or a game industry) in its embryonic stages: the period where the developers are just winging it, trying random things to see what they do and to assess if they might be worth anything (“Science isn’t about ‘why,’ it’s about ‘why not?’” he says). Here’s something that makes you bounce. You can throw it on the floor. Can we do something with this? Can we make a game from it?

Let’s run a test.

Reader Comments (4)

This was really the most refreshing essay on Portal 2 that I've read in a while. Neither rank-and-file praise (ubiquitous) nor fussy grousing (annoyingly increasing). Just a short, sweet, but smart essay that made me think about a game in a new way.

How come I haven't seen anyone else make this point? It fits so well, in retrospect, someone should have said it on day one. :)

I thought there were some interesting touches in Portal 2 which go along the same lines. A few people criticised the original Portal for being too short. I defended the game by saying there was nothing in it that didn't need to be; no real repetition. This is unlike other games: even, I have to say, other Valve games like Half-Life 2, where I quickly got bored of going into a room and shooting a bunch of guys for the nth time. The Portal 2 test chamber that Wheatley makes you "solve" twice is - absent any real puzzle - a clear jab at game developers who pad their game with that kind of repetition.

The other touch was when people complained about having finished Portal 2 in four hours. There was a lot of discussion about whether that was even possible or whether they were lying, but I wasn't so interested in that discussion. Really, when people started making those complaints, I was reminded of the moment right at the beginning of the game where you were told to look at some art but weren't given time to properly appreciate it. That raises an interesting question about gaming as an interactive (and therefore democratic) art form: Of course it's incredibly patronising to say, "You're playing it wrong," but at the same time, the opinion of someone who has taken the time to absorb a piece of art is probably worth more than that of someone who has merely glanced at it. I can't help but feel that somehow Valve even anticipated this particular backlash, and pre-emptively poked fun at it in the opening moments of the game.

What you say is interesting, though. I noticed these things, but I didn't until now realise that they were part of a larger theme.

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAllan

I'm sorry about my English, I'm Spanish. Well, one month ago Spanish film director Nacho Vigalondo wrote an article about Portal 2 also hinting that GLaDOS is, in a way, a game designer. But I particularly liked what a commenter said, expanding that vision:

Here's my rough translation of this comment:

"What Portal 2 makes is just that, toying with our expectations. It's not hard to figure out that Weathley is a villain (which is hinted when he says the hilarious line about "stinking humans"), but his clumsiness makes him a dangerious villain for more amusing reasons: puzzles created by GLaDOS smash against each other, they fall apart and become seemingly unsolvable, leaving behind them just a glimpse of what they could originally be. In other words, not only GLaDOS is presented as the game designer... Wheatley is clearly a modder. A particularly clumsy modder which takes everything apart to rebuild it again, and which finds that there are unused parts left. Game mods are always perverting (in a broad sense) the original goal of the programmer. Where GLaDOS sees science (that is, work), Wheatley sees pleasure (literally, with no double readings: Wheatley does it because he gets off on it). For GLaDOS it's a way of life but for Wheatley everything is a way of showing off... just like a modder that needs to prove that he's as clever as the original programmer. Almost at the end when Wheatley announces a surprise (paralelling GLaDOS's fake surprise... God, this game is so well written!) and he brings forward the surprise breaking his own countdown, he does it by offering us a closed puzzle that he subverts by casting us against other wall. When we finally face Wheatley, the first thing he does is laying down the rules of combat precisely in opposition to GLaDOS's original death. Finally, the last and wonderful portal opened in the game is so unpredictable because it turns a minimalistic game, a closed system, into an epic act which takes galactic dimensions. For me, that continual challenge to expectations is the best way to disarm even the most grizzled gamer."

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanda

Another possible subtle dig at game design tropes is Wheatley’s rail—because that’s the only way he has to get around, his whole life has been an “on-rails” experience. And he’s scared to death of doing anything else: “they told me, if I ever left my rail, I would die.” Of course Portal 2 was largely on-rails itself.

June 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Durdin

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