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Why Game Developers Should Take Note of Portal’s Success

April 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I love video games.  I also like critical thinking.  It might sound weird at first, but sometimes I really do just sit and think about stuff.  Why this or that is the way it is, reflecting for far too long on a decision I made that day, etc.  Needless to say I also love subjects like philosophy.  I had a professor (economics, not philosophy) in college that I absolutely hated but he told us one thing I still carry with me that can be summed up like this:  Don’t let your brain get lazy.

He didn’t use those words but he emphasized the importance of challenging yourself mentally on a consistent basis.  It could be reading a book and not only think about what you’re reading but keep a dictionary nearby to look up new words you encountered, doing a crossword puzzle, or even something small like organizing a grocery list.  In other words staying mentally sharp is a valuable commodity that will allow you to “perform” at your best in all types of interactions.  It may even make you smarter.  Lastly, you might even *gasp* start having fun doing it like I do.  That’s why I love Portal and its newly released sequel Portal 2, both by Valve Software.

Valve is a really cool developer and I could spend another entire article making general arguments about why the industry as a whole should begin to mimic them.  They’re not like Electronic Arts or Activision who both publish good games in their own right, but whose objective is mostly to throw as much crap at the wall as possible and hope more of it sticks than not.  They don’t own a bunch of other developers and don’t publish a new game every two weeks with mixed results.  However what they have produced is a nice, tidy list of hit games that are incredibly well thought out, simple but fun, or both.  Everyone loved the Half-Life series when it first broke onto the scene for the PC.  This spawned “expansions” like Team Fortress and the original Portal that were also well received.  All of this, including the Hall of Fame-worthy Half-Life 2, were including in what was named The Orange Box; essentially a collection of all valves accomplishments to that point.  They also developed Left 4 Dead and its sequel.  It was a no brainer “fight tons of zombies with your friends” formula that was a smash hit.  They’ve been using the same graphics engine for over a decade and still manage to churn out quality games that are easy on the eyes.  They created Steam, a system/website that allows games to be downloaded quickly and easily instead of running to the store amongst countless other uses.  Through Steam they also regularly hand out free downloadable content for their games.  In other words, if you’re a video game consumer they’re your kind of company.

All that stuff is great and some of it is arguably more important than what I’m going to focus on here, but I need to make this clear:  Valve’s Portal and Portal 2 represent what should be the future of gaming…….but probably won’t be.

You see Portal really was an expansion, an excuse to play with Half-Life’s engine and create a puzzle game with it.  It took place in a lab from the first person view of a test subject armed with nothing but a portal gun.  Shoot a portal at the wall next to you and another on that ledge 100 feet over your head and jump right through.  There, you’re now 100 feet above your previous location.  Also you can pick up blocks with it.  That’s it.  With such a basic tool Valve managed to create a puzzler that was nifty at first and then slowly but surely gained cult status, the culmination of which only moved slowly because frankly gamers were surprised such a game existed and that they could like it.

And that’s kind of the point I’m making.  Have you ever heard someone proclaim that kids only act the way they do because they’re not treated like adults?  Whether that’s true or not game developers have been treating gamers like kids for the last 5-10 years.  Just because a kid likes throwing food at his brother doesn’t mean he wouldn’t enjoy building a model airplane.  To make it more age appropriate, just because someone likes dumb action flicks or Maxim magazine doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy Schindler’s List or Moby Dick.

These days the best-selling games every year are the latest Madden incarnation or (for now at least) Call of Duty installment.  Not bad games really.  Not at all.  The problem is that when a publisher wants to make money they need look no further than Call of Duty and instantly a clone appears.  Then another, then another.  That’s not to say gaming is completely stale.  There are more games available than ever before and they come in all kinds.  The problem lies in the fact that not too many of them really make you think.  Sure a lot of them make you consider every so often and force you to make decisions, but we need not actively seek out an activity that allows us to do those.  We can simply walk out the front door for that type of thing.  Exercising your brain on the other hand is a very different animal, and that’s where Portal comes in.

Like I said, shoot portals and carry blocks.  That’s all you need to make a brain buster rolled up in a great video game.  The other beautiful thing about Portal is that it takes the ever-present graphics issue out of the equation.  It’s not that they’re good or bad (for the record they’re average or slightly above), they just don’t matter.  Now name me one other quality game that’s come out recently that can say that.  Sound?  Sure it’s there, but who cares about sound?  Your brain should be busy sorting out how to catapult over laser sighted robots to toss a block through a portal and onto a big red button that will allow you to advance to the next stage!

I mentioned crossword puzzles earlier.  Ever done one of those (or a word search) and worried about how pretty the paper was or how the letters looked?  Of course not.  Not everyone likes stuff like that so how about hooking up a surround sound system or building just about anything?  You’re not worried about the aesthetics, you’re busy problem solving.  That’s why Portal and its sequel are amazing.  They are designed around a medium that is still very much about flashy lights, big explosions, and macho trash talk and have managed to give people the same satisfaction by using their minds.

It really is a tribute to Valve and should be a strong message to other developers:  gamers like to think and feel rewarded by their games aside from simply “beating” them.  Using your brain is rapidly becoming an afterthought in our society.  It’s great to see games like Portal 2 become successful.

Did I mention there’s a co-op mode?  Two players, four portals, bigger puzzles?  I don’t know if my brain can handle it, but it’ll be fun as hell to find out.