Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How Portal 2 became a domestic World War 3

I follow #AltDevBlogADay on Twitter.  It's true, I don't understand most of the heavily technical posts or discussions (a coder, I am not), but I do find it fascinating to see what industry and development trends designers are talking about.

And every now and then, there's a true gem that I do understand.

Mike Jungbluth, today, shared a post called, "What does your game believe in?"  It's a fairly lengthy piece (albeit shorter than most of the ones I write here, heh) but has a couple of crucial excerpts:
From the characters that we control, the world they live in, and how the player interacts with each, if the core beliefs are consistent and persistent, that will be felt on an incredibly deep level. In fact, you could even call it the heart and soul of a game. That sort of special x-factor that helps to make a game feel more alive than even a bigger budget game sitting next to it on the shelf.

But like having beliefs in real life, it is a double edge sword. As soon as those beliefs are called into question, your entire reality can become questionable. The deeper or more core to the person or world the belief, the further everything can come crashing down the moment they are betrayed.
Beyond just model sheets and reference for movements, really think about what drives the character forward. What has lead them to the point they are at when the game starts, and where do they draw the line in their world, as to what they believe in. Do their beliefs change or grow as the game progresses?

Do they mind getting their hands dirty or are they reluctant to do so? Both can allow for the same overall gameplay and creation of assets, but being aware of what they believe can make what happens before, during and after all the more meaningful when the animations or dialog matches those beliefs. This goes for not only the character, but the player. In fact, going a step further, this is how we can even begin to color the player’s beliefs, and make them question their own values versus those of the characters in the game.

One thing I love about this article is that, without using the exact words, it basically translates into: "HEY PEOPLE.  WRITE REAL, FULLY FLESHED-OUT, PLAUSIBLE CHARACTERS IN YOUR GAMES."  That's a piece of advice I can most certainly get behind.

It's worth observing, here, that both times I have attended a panel on female characters in gaming (in 2009 and again in 2010, both at PAX East), the conversation around character writing quickly lapses into a festival of complaints.  Our female characters are badly written and one-dimensional, the cry goes -- but someone quickly adds, "And so are the men."  And it's often true.

As the article cited above itself points out: Nathan Drake has all of the depth and consistency of a washcloth.  I love the Uncharted franchise but that's kind of in spite of itself.  Drake is a fun character but Jungbluth is completely correct to observe that cut-scene Drake and player-driven Drake basically have two completely different sets of beliefs and priorities, and I find that sort of writing jarring.

On the other hand, Bioware is renowned for putting breadth and depth into their character writing, and for making plausibly character-driven games.  The Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises have now become bywords among gamers looking for thoughtful character and narrative design.  And their titles are selling, and selling well, so there's definitely hope for more of this kind of design in the future.

"But wait," you ask.  "What does any of this have to do with Portal 2?"

One of the longest, deepest arguments Your Critic and her spouse have ever had (and we've known each other since 1997) took place during the first week of Portal 2's release.  It happened in slow motion over three days and was, frankly, exhausting.  And what caused this argument?

In its purest form, the fight was over Chell's moral compass and character consistency.  Yes, really.

With some story spoilers for Portal 2: A series of events (chapter 1 - 5) in the game create a situation where your arch-nemesis, the computer GLaDOS, is being stored in and powered by a potato battery.  The beginning of chapter 6 separates Chell and GLaDOS, but at the end of chapter 6 you and your 1.1 volts of spudly evil are reunited, and in order to progress from chapter 6 to chapter 7, the player is required to pick up and then carry the potato.

And what about this angered Your Critic's spouse so?  In his own words

The overarching plot of Portal 1 is really Chell vs. GlaDOS. In Portal 2, GlaDOS is pretty bitter about it, and continues to try to kill Chell in myriad ways.

But then GlaDOS is rendered helpless and stashed in a potato. When you find the potato in 70s Aperture Science, she asks you to take her with you to replace Wheatley before he destroys Aperture Science.

My problem with it: Why in God's name would anyone want to do that?

It makes no sense. Here's the malevolent AI who wants you dead, and she's asking you to help her. The only evidence that you have at that point that Wheatley might destroy Aperture are some distant rumbling sounds. GlaDOS has been a proven schemer and liar so there's not a whole lot of reason given to trust her. She's exceedingly likely to betray you given first opportunity. So why save her? Why bring her back to power? Why would Chell choose to trust her mortal enemy on her word alone?

And even if she's right, what's the worst that happens? Aperture is destroyed, preventing anyone else from falling prey to its malevolent experiments. That doesn't sound so bad to me.

All I wanted to do when I found the potato was destroy it. Hurl it into the abyss. Mash it into a side item and put gravy on it. But the game wouldn't let me. The game forced me as a player to act completely contrary to what I felt anyone would normally act. And I hated it for that.

I did not take this plot development so badly amiss, and many players did not.  But the other gamer in my household exactly encountered the phenomenon about which Jungbluth was writing: a belief dissonance so stark that his preference was to walk away from the PC rather than to complete one of the most acclaimed games of 2011 (and the second installment in the most acclaimed franchise maybe ever).

All of this serves to remind us that good writing in games, needs to be front and center, not secondary.  As this industry, entertainment medium, and art form matures, the real crux of it all is what stories we're telling, and how carefully we're telling them.  Narrative gaming* is just the means, not the end.

*NB: Narrative gaming and non-narrative gaming are still fairly different; the latter is more in line with Tetris or chess or whatnot, and that's a different beast.


  1. If Chell's own life isn't in more danger if she doesn't help GladOS, then yes, that's a freight train sized plot hole and totally unbelievable. It's a common trope, and it can be played to comedic effect pretty well, but it only works if the hero would die without the villain's help. Hero is then spared out of the shred of honor buried somewhere in villain's heart, or the desire to defeat the hero in unfair combat, or whatever.

    It doesn't work at all if the hero can just walk away and everyone would be better off. It's not like Chell is a pacifist per se, she just doesn't have guns.

  2. We are told (and have circumstantial evidence pointing toward the same conclusion) that the entire facility in which Our Hero is currently standing will tumble down and / or be victim of a nuke if Our Hero doesn't help Our Nemesis get back.  So yes, that's the trope they're using.

  3. OK, then that would pass the smell test, at least for a comedy, which Portal is. Black at times, but it's comedy still. 

    I can see how someone, taking the situation more seriously, would decide that they would rather take their chances on their own than be helped by GladOS. The relative ease with which Chell dealt with her original incarnation, after learning to think with portals, and now learning to think with...other stuff (I dunno, I haven't played it)...might factor into the decision though. GladOS isn't nice, but you've dealt with her twice so far and come out on top. Devil you know, etc. Some people don't agree with the devil you know logic though.

  4. I didn't have as much problem with Chell sticking with GLaDOS because I think that's a hallmark of abusive relationships. GLaDOS's passive-aggressiveness is leveraged really well to the point where a person like me, who has been in a similar relationship, really started to feel guilty the more often she said the whole "We were doing so well! And then you tried to kill me. You monster." I can see her as tormenter and villain, but the victims in abusive relationships *want* to believe that this time really is different. And I think Chell had plenty of reason to believe that, within the emotional context that'd been fostered over the course of the game.

  5. That's an excellent example of how having a blank avatar such as Chell, surrounded by amazingly strong characters & beliefs, without giving the player choice, can bring about honest discussions over the players own beliefs. I love that!