Narrative focused video games are an art form in youth. Relative to cinema, literature, or just about any other kind of narrative art, video games have not had a great deal of time to explore or establish conventions that can serve the medium in its attempts to tell stories. As such, it can be argued that the medium has not reached its full potential, or come to realize its greatest restrictions. Some notable examples of this in industry are the tendency of modern games to borrow heavily from other mediums, instead of using what makes their own form so unique; and how they can often fail to reach cohesion between mechanics and narrative, leaving immersion impossible without anything short of acceptance of contradiction. It’s clear that many lessons are still to be learned if these problems are to be overcome. However, there have been a small number of narrative games in recent years that have managed to avoid these pitfalls, from which we can learn an awful lot about ways in which the medium can progress to reach its potential. Valve’s experimental first person puzzler Portal, released in 2007, is an arguably solid example of this.
One way that Portal manages to break new ground in the effort to establish video games as a unique form of narrative art can be seen from its first moments, with its understated opening sequence. There is no glossy cutscene here, no expository piece to fill us in on exactly what is going on at the entry point; none of the cinematic conventions that may be expected from a high budget game of narrative focus. Instead, Portal opts for a narrative technique that is unique to the medium: full and immediate player control. After being placed unceremoniously within the confines of a glass cell of space age decor, it is momentarily left down to the player to piece together exactly what is going on in this situation.
This invites engagement with the basic first person shooter movement mechanics of the game without making it feel forced. It rewards this engagement with a touch of story information complete with quirky diagrams that tell of the player’s situation as a lab rat, as well as a gag involving a toilet and a radio. As a result, we see that mechanical immediacy is used to hint at the broader story at work: it introduces the comic tone and theme of scientific progress lying at the heart of Portal’s narrative, and does so in a way that completely immerses the player. No barrier is constructed between the audience and the narrative experience via the introduction of contrary mechanical systems, as the mechanical systems that are introduced are made a part of learning narrative information, and are unified with it as a result.
A second, stronger example of immediacy garnering immersion can be seen in the revelation of Portal’s central mechanic: the ability to open two portals at different points in space, allowing the player to step through one to come out of the other. Naturally, this is quite a mind-bending concept to interact with, but Portal does not attempt to even explain it to the player through any kind of expository content. Instead, the concept is placed before them in a malleable form; a portal is opened directly ahead of view; inviting you to experiment, to step through and simply see what happens. Once again, we see that mechanics are made immediately accessible as opposed to being explained, making them feel as one with the narrative, and more importantly; organic to use. The unfathomable becomes the acceptable.
In the end this sequence shows that, through complete narrative and mechanical immediacy, it is possible to comfortably immerse the player in a world that is by real-world logic utterly unbelievable. Furthermore, it presents the possibility of incorporating the teaching of new rules into such a world without contradicting what has been established by the narrative, as the two are unified from their inception.
Once immersion has been established, more exposition is employed to reveal this world in broader strokes. Thankfully, when it does come, it does not feel clunky or forced. It begins with an introduction to GLaDOS, a heard but unseen, ‘evil’ artificial intelligence who is clearly running the show and forms the only real ‘character’ in the game. It is explained to the player by her that they are, for no given reason, in an ‘Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center’, where they are about to become a part of a scientific experiment. This test acts as the central narrative thread, and within that lies an idea that can bring us to an understanding of exactly how Portal manages to blend narrative and mechanical design into one united package.
It achieves this by contextualizing a central feature of nearly every ‘typical’ video game: The difficulty curve, defined as the presence of a series of connected challenges that increase in difficulty with every subsequent step or level. This is certainly an element in Portal’s level design and sequencing (at least for the first three quarters of the game), but where Portal differs to many ‘typical’ games is that it can also be said for its narrative core. The player, or at least the mute shell which they inhabit (aptly named Chell), is being put through a test of their adaptive reasoning in response to a set of known rules for ‘scientific purposes’. Logically, such a test in reality, or in a believable narrative, would have to possess increasing complexity as an inherent component, in order to allow study of behavioral response to varying challenge and as such monitor learning.
The difficulty curve actually works to support the narrative’s power to convince us of a believable world. The effect of this is that the player’s application of mechanics to these increasingly difficult challenges becomes this ‘behavioral response’, as their actions form the data that the story has devised a clear reason for being obtained. Overall, this allows Portal to remain true to one base element of what we often call ‘gameplay’ without breaking immersion, as mechanics, narrative and player experience are all successfully unified by the concept. Feelings of frustration from failure, and triumph when you finally have the moment of ‘getting it’, become an internal part of the experience, as opposed to being an external effect of it. Consequently, this world involves you as it challenges you, coming alive in its cohesion between narrative and the uniquely interactive aspect of the medium. You begin to believe in what you’re doing, and because of that, Portal comes close to achieving a common goal of narrative art: complete and utter suspension of disbelief; immersion in something you already know to not be real.
A potential flaw in this argument does materialize in the final act of Portal, in which the player escapes near death at the hands of GLaDOS and with it, the confines of the Aperture Science test chambers. You find your way out and explore the behind the scenes workings of the facility, which are manifested as more puzzles to work your way through. While showing our protagonist transgress the irreverently murderous intentions of the rogue AI makes logical sense as a narrative denouement, a problem lies in that this sequence arguably breaks the trend of the difficulty curve. This is based on the fact that the difficulty of these final puzzles varies in a way that is not in anyway representative of a standard upwards curve.
As a result, that element with which the game’s mechanical and narrative designs are unified by so effectively is, unfortunately, left neglected. The same can also be argued with the final encounter with GLaDOS, which is frankly rather straightforward: a simple repeated process that involves you using portals and a rocket turret to remove an AI core from her ‘body’ before placing it in an incinerator; typical boss battle antics. None of this comes even close to the amount of work you must put in to solve the final ‘proper’ test chamber, which precedes the sequence. This may appear inconsistent, or even contrived; as the forcing of a conclusion to a game that could, in theory, just keep on going until it beats you.
This line of argument, however, does the achievements of this game a disservice, as something much more profound is clearly at work. While contrast is undeniable, breaking of narrative immersion is not. Instead, it is gradually lessened with this climax, in a way that seems deliberated. The player is so comfortably engrossed within this world at this point that a transgression away from mechanical challenge forms a pleasant way to be eased out of the experience.
The final encounter seems to reflect this, in that the player is more interested in what GLaDOS is saying than in what they are doing, more interested in the narrative than in applying knowledge of mechanics. It is then, through the voice of that character, that the major question of exactly what happened in this facility is answered. The facility is unmanned because she killed everyone inside except you. If you don’t stop her, she’ll finish the job. With that revelation, there is nothing left to solve, and as such there is no need or reason to continue to learn about and engage with mechanics. The lonely adventure has come to a comfortable end. This forms a kind of resolution that should be striven for in any narrative; one that fully realizes the perks of its chosen medium.
Overall, through its abandonment of other mediums’ functional conventions and its exploration of the unique interactivity of video games, Portal represents a level of narrative and mechanical coherence rarely seen in the medium. It is practically impossible to talk about the story of this game without making mention of either mechanics or level design, because these cornerstones are so carefully entwined at every moment; forming the makings of a true masterpiece.
By Matthias Brunwin