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Former Edge magazine editor-in-chief and current development director of social game studio Hide&Seek Margaret Robertson is back, exploring what five minutes of play reveals about a the tension between gameplay and narrative in Valve's Portal 2.

Margaret Robertson, Blogger

August 11, 2011

9 Min Read

[Five minutes of... is a series of video game investigations by Margaret Robertson, former Edge magazine editor-in-chief and current development director of social game studio Hide&Seek. Here, she explores what five minutes of play reveals about a particular video game, this time focusing on the tension between gameplay and narrative in Valve's Portal 2.]

Good news, anyone who is busy or has dreadful spatial awareness: this is a column about Portal 2 you can read safe from the fear of spoilers, because it was written by someone who was too busy having dreadful spatial awareness to finish more than the first couple of hours.

Bad news, anyone who steamed through the entire game the in a single sitting: this is written resolutely from the perspective of someone who hasn't yet. There are things I don't realize yet -- haven't had a chance to realize yet -- that might have you tearing your hair out. I have put a huge amount of energy into not finding out how the game develops or ends. I really honestly don't know.

The five minutes of the game I want to talk about come at the end of test chamber 21, which isn't very far into the game at all. If you're someone with slightly more robust spatial awareness than me, test chamber 21 was probably only about 30 seconds of the game. I had a bit more standing around in mute bafflement to do than that, so for me it was five minutes.

It's not a complicated puzzle by any means. In fact, it's an unusually plain room. Airy, orthogonal, just on the tranquil side of silent. As I stand there, I can feel the meat of my brain gradually configure itself into the shape of the puzzle.

Once the shape of my brain matches the shape of the room, I know what to do. In fairly short order: light bridges are spidered up the walls, switches are switched, blocks are delivered, and I start to anticipate the little endorphin buzz I'll get from hearing the door unlock. Instead, with a pffzzt and a crash, my absent companion Wheatley smashes into the room with a new plan for escape.

Everyone loves Wheatley, not least because everyone loves Stephen Merchant. He is introduced in the game as a flawed, friendly figure to undercut GLaDOS' immaculate cruelty. With Wheatley around, there's always someone to feel smarter than, even when GLaDOS is making you feel dumb. He's on your side, full of jokes, happy to help. And in room 21 he rejoins you, ready to lead you to safety.

I had not missed him.

I was not pleased to see him.

He spoiled my test.

For me, in this moment, his arrival robbed me of the moment of completion I ought to have earned by figuring out the puzzle. He wasn't a savior: he was a distraction and a thief. And that colored my feelings about what happened next.

For Wheatley, the next sequence is one of his big moments. Following on from his surprise entrance, he leads you on a dramatically choreographed rollercoaster through the collapsing complex. He's leading you to safety with flair and desperate courage; risking himself to rescue you. The music makes it very clear that this bit is exciting. But, just as the ride starts, GLaDOS interjects: laconic, wry, untroubled. "But you were almost at the last test. It's right here -- wouldn't you like to try?"

And there it is: the shell of a little clean white puzzle, floating in the middle of all the crumbling industrial chaos.

I'm not stupid: I knew it was supposed to feel like a trap, another obvious GLaDOS taunt. But in the moment, even with the music pumping and Wheatley exhorting me hysterically to leg it, I froze. I was mad at Wheatley for kill-stealing my puzzle solution; annoyed by his shouting. GLaDOS is psychotic, but she's funny and smart and I'm a sucker for funny and smart. And she knows something real about me, something that some very good real life friends don't always recognise in me, but is a deeply fundamental part of my personality. It's this: I love to test.

We all do. That's the thing. There's a schizophrenia -- or, since we really ought to get better at not using that word so inappropriately -- a split-mindedness at the heart of being a game player that the plot of Portal 2 lays bare.

My default one-sentence explanation of what game designers do is that they give a player an enticing goal and then make it interestingly difficult for them to reach it. It's that tension that makes a game, and if you get it right, the player will love the impediment as much as the objective.

In Portal 2, this dynamic is nakedly displayed. In any given test chamber, I can see the thing I want -- the exit -- but littered between me and it are all the things that make it interestingly hard -- lasers, chasms, turrets. And each room is only a portion of the real structure: dozens of little boxes that make your journey to the ultimate goal interestingly hard.

Your stated goal in Portal 2 (as it was in the first game, and one would think will be in all the subsequent sequels, until we hit the one where it jumps the shark and they try to reinvent it and the fans rebel and then it'll be back in the reboot and the sequels to the reboot) is that you're hunting for the way out. Which is the point at which we run into the player's split-mindedness.

The narrative tells you that the thing you want is the end; the gamer in you tells you the thing you want is the stuff that stops you getting at the end.

It's that contradiction that makes this moment of the game so loaded. Part of what makes GLaDOS' barbs so prickly is that you opted into this. In theory, GLaDOS is the enemy, your nemesis, the thing that makes it hard to get what you want. Except, you called her back into being.

You craved her resurrection in the three-and-a-half years between Portal and Portal 2. You made snarky jokes about Valve timelines on forums. You watched videos and read previews, wincing in anticipation of spoilers. You paid £30 to be locked back in a room with her. The plot tells you she's psychotic and you hate her. But your heart tells you you love her, even though she only wants to hurt you. Because she wants to hurt you.

Except, of course, she doesn't hurt you. She's not real, and if she was it wouldn't be you she was hurting, it would be another fictional character. The emotional reality is that it's Valve who's doing the hurting and you who's doing the feeling. This isn't a story starring GLaDOS and Chell; it's player and designer who are the protagonist and antagonist.

I don't think it's by accident that I reach for those words. When I'm trying to explain Portal to high-culture non-gamers, I tell them that it's the gaming equivalent of a Beckett play: a two-hander with one character you never see and one who never speaks. Let me say at once that I'm deeply aware of how much bullshit that is.

But thinking of Portal 1 as a play, and thinking of Portal 2 as a story where I'm the protagonist and an army of smart people at Valve are my foil is useful. Playwrights often talk about defining their characters in terms of thinking about what they want and why they're struggling to get it. I wish when game-makers worked with writers, they worked more with playwrights than novelists or screenwriters, and I wish they worked not just on the story of the characters but the story of the player. Not least because "playwright" -- now there's a job title for game designers to covet: a lovely portmanteau of caprice and craftsmanship.

Of course, that moment in room 21 goes further. It's not just about connecting you with the subtext of the story. It's about forcing you to be explicit about another critical choice. By asking you to choose between Wheatley and GLaDOS, between escape and testing, the game is asking you to choose between story and gameplay. It's a little sorting gate for narratologists and ludologists.

Faced in principle with that choice, it's an easy one. I choose the game. I embrace the test. In practice, I didn't. I did freeze in the moment that GLaDOS dangled the option in front of me.

I did feel an actual emotional pull to the test-chamber. I knew what I wanted. But I also knew where I had to go. GLaDOS wanted Chell to test, but Valve wanted me to follow Wheatley. And so I did. Because nothing in that moment was accidental.

Test Chamber 22 was designed to be jewel-like and enticing, but it was also designed to look just remote enough to feel like plan B, not plan A. The thumping music wasn't just to make things exciting; it was delivering instructions. I went with Wheatley not because I trusted him, but because I trusted the people who had left me those clues. Which itself is not an accident: playing a game is volunteering to be hurt -- by failure, by frustration, by confusion, by whatever -- and it's best only to volunteer to be hurt by people you trust.

There are plenty of other games, and indeed plenty of other bits of writing, that expose the symbiosis of designer and player, but this one moment of this one game feels to me to be as good a primer as you can ask for. This, to me -- at least so far -- is the real genius of Portal 2's narrative: not in the lovely ironic details of Cave Johnson's magnificently bossy hubris, or the brilliant barbs of GLaDOS' dialogue, but in the way that it directly addresses the relationship between designer and player.

Until I play the rest, I won't be able to comment (or indeed talk freely to increasingly impatient friends) about what I think is foreshadowed in the rest of the game. I suspect I'll have more to say about a story which has so much potential to talk about what spending a life setting tests for other people does to you. Or maybe, having found out so much about myself as a player in the first 22 rooms, I'll be reluctant to face up to what it might have to teach me as a designer in the rest.

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Margaret Robertson

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Margaret Robertson is development director for Hide&Seek, a game design studio which uses public spaces and digital platforms to make interesting games for interesting people. Her previous role as an independent consultant enabled her to work on a huge range of projects, from AAA console titles, through download and mobile/ handheld games, to indie and art-house projects. She's worked with brands, broadcasters, and film studios to develop their game strategies, and was part of the team that built the BAFTA-award winning game slate which recently earned Channel 4 the Develop Publishing Hero award. Previously editor of Edge magazine, and part of the team behind the GameCity festival, she is currently a contributing editor for Wired in the UK, and speaks worldwide on game design theory.

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