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With Portal 2 will more be less?

April 20th, 2011 by

Portal 2 is coming out this week and it looks to have built on the surprise success story of the Orange Box by creating a more indepth single player campaign (two and a half times longer than the original) and a fully separate co-op story. And early reviews suggest that it’s going to be pretty damn good…

When I was reading about Portal 2 I started to wonder why Portal had been so much fun. It’s a pretty straightforward story and only lasts a few hours but when I was playing it I was engrossed, and I did the whole game in one enjoyable sitting.  The player wakes up, gets a portal gun, goes through some tests for an unspecified reason and this builds towards the boss battle (it’s a bit more complicated and has a twist but, you know, spoilers and all that). It’s so simple but still utterly compelling, but why? Maybe it was the pleasing series of puzzles that used a novel twist on first person shooter mechanics to emphasis thinking as well as quick reflexives? Or perhaps it was the great villain and the compelling world it was set in? Was the reason that Portal was so enjoyable because it took an innovative gameplay mechanic and crafted a simple story around it?

The answer might be found in the games development. Created with only a small development team, decisions were taken for practical reasons, as well as artistic. For instance, by setting Portal in the existing world of Half Life 2, the team could use existing art assets. As one of the writers for the story stated in an interview with Edge, “Without the constraints, Portal would not be as good a game”. Less is, thankfully, sometimes more and with Portal by the time you got over the initial amazement and wonder at using space to solve problems you’re hooked into the storyline. And hooked so completely that you don’t need any other distractions. Simple, straightforward (plot wise anyway!) and addictive. It’s a game without any fat on its bones and unlike me playing it, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

And this is, I think, the point that I’d like to make about other, more visually impressive, immersive and frankly big budget titles. Too often designers come up with something that doesn’t enhance the relationship that the player has to the story and sometime it breaks the world for me almost completely. Take Bioshock. I loved it. Absolutely brilliant. It was an interesting, engaging and atmospheric slice of sci fi. The world of Rapture was amazing and the plasmids… the plasmids. To this day me and my housemate still fantasise about being able to shoot bees out of your very hands (“Sorry, you wanted that presentation done by five? Bees!”). It worked. It made the game play more interesting and supported the storyline. Rapture’s fucked and the plasmids helped do it.

What didn’t work, in my opinion, was the harvesting. Save the little sisters or harvest them? Aaahhhh… If you harvest them they die and you’re a bad person. But if you don’t harvest them you’re not as powerful. So, what to do? What. To. Do. Except… neither choices affected the gameplay or the story enough to matter – you get a slightly different ending? You might not be quite as powerful? Tweaks. And both sides had tangible upsides to the gameplay thereby totally undermining the choice. Where was the gravity of the situation when the player was faced with a choice that had such a minor impact on the story as to not matter?

It was a mechanic that promised important consequences and just didn’t have the courage of its convictions. As a comment on morality and doing the right thing despite the hardships that this could involve, it just didn’t quite work. And if it didn’t quite work, Don’t put it in.

My other problem is when an option is introduced to the character but one that doesn’t make sense in the world that the developers have created. Take Red Dead Redemption as an example. Again, a great game. Bloody loved it. But there was a gameplay mechanic that didn’t work for me – the honour and fame ranking system. Sure, it can affect certain instances within the world but it doesn’t change the story like it should. If anything, it does the opposite. From the beginning we meet John Marston and we know he was a man leaving his… controversial… past behind. And this escape from his past is what motivates and drives the plot. And that’s why I felt absolutely no need to shoot civilians or execute nuns. Because I was John Marston. Or maybe because I’m also a little bit miserable.

But if you do give me the option to be a dick then please Rockstar, take it to the logical conclusion and make it affect the story. First town I come across I kill everyone. I mean everyone. And livestock, I kill them too. And I keep doing this until I go and see my family. And John Marston Junior should tell me to get lost because frankly, he thinks I’m a bit of a lunatic. The next mission should be John drowning his sorrows with a terrified hooker before he’s shot in the back by someone whose brother you killed a dozen missions ago. And if that’s how the game ends for me then fine, because that’s the world I’d have created.

Offer me a choice in a game but only if it makes sense to the story and doesn’t break the character you’ve given me to play as. Assassins Creed is a good example of how you can have your cake and eat it. The main character is a stand up guy on the side of the good people. Like Red Dead it’s a sand box world with side quests and free-roaming. But try and go postal on the citizens and the animus desynchronizes. Good. Because it wouldn’t make sense if it let Ezio be a prick and it would break the story for me.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that game mechanics shouldn’t be thrown in just because they can, they should propel the story and fit with the character you’re playing – Ezio doesn’t need to choose to kill an innocent bystander because he just wouldn’t. It’s not in his character (although killing guards by the dozen is so… he’s maybe not the greatest moral compass to follow). If I can do something in a game, make sure it doesn’t break the logic of the world even if it might cut short a campaign or close off side quests. Because it might pull me further into the game and consequences in a game might make the story more compelling too. Either way I’m looking forward to Portal 2 and I hope that just because they can do all sorts of cool new stuff that they don’t lose sight of how the limitations in Portal helped make it the game it was. 

This Community Content article was created by onionmurders, a member of our community. Community Content is your way of getting long-form writing and opinion out to the Midlife Gamer audience, an open platform to get something off your chest. For full guidelines on our editorial standards and how to create your own post, click here. The views expressed within are those of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the Midlife Gamer Staff.

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3 Responses to “With Portal 2 will more be less?”
  1. avatar Hugo Rune says:

    What an excellent piece of insightful commentary, write another one quick I really enjoyed that.
    My only question is, where is Sinister Giddens getting all of these writers from? I suspect there is evil afoot.

  2. avatar onionmurders says:

    Cheers, when you’re a part time receptionist its incredible what you can do during office hours…

  3. avatar Greg Giddens says:

    @ Hugo Rune: “Sinister Giddens” I like that :) These writers, creating awesome content like this fantastically topical piece, are all community members with great ideas and the drive to write them down.

    It’s been said before and I’ll say it again, the MLG community is awesome!

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