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A Lesson in Literary Devices with Portal
In my relatively short lifespan, I have played a lot of different games on many different platforms, be they the big blockbusters to the more obscure titles I’d rather not re-live.
But I have a confession to make: The original Portal was the one game that changed me as a gamer.
In the beginning, it was mildly fun; I got out, solved some puzzles, got the Portal Device (which I seriously wish was real), and cleared the first few test chambers. I laughed at some of GLaDOS’ dialogue, learned the basics of the game’s physics, and got through puzzles at a decent pace.
But once I entered a test chamber and found hand prints on the wall and the word “Help” written in what appeared to be blood, everything changed for me.
Suddenly, everything about the game changed. Who was I? Why was I here? Who was GLaDOS, and why was she testing me? Was anyone else around? After that point, the game was no longer even about the puzzle solving for me. I got through the puzzles because I wanted to learn more, and the promise of another chamber gave me a glimmer of hope that more would be revealed.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the day I learned what good storytelling could do for a game.
Games are probably one of the most unique forms of entertainment. Think of a movie; you’re introduced to a character, the story gradually ramps up to a peak, and you witness what happens to them and how they respond. It’s the same with a book or television show. We’re a passive audience, just taking an outside-looking-in role. The joy we get out of this is watching what happens and relating it to ourselves.
But a game is a different animal. In a game, we’re in the story. We are the character, and we often make decisions on how to act when something happens to us. Instead of being passive and only witnessing an event, we take an active role in it, and the outcome largely depends on our actions.
While it’s true a game doesn’t necessarily need story to be good, I’d like to argue that the best and most memorable games deliver concrete and well-developed stories. At the end of the day, it’s simple to break down a game according to a very boring description of the gameplay. In Uncharted, all you do is shoot enemies and climb stuff. In Portal, all you do is solve puzzles and get from one end of the chamber to another. It’s simple, mundane video game stuff, really. But the story, the way the mechanics are presented, and the conflict that you have to solve…that’s what makes the game interesting and gets you hooked.
But what makes a good story? What does it have to be built on to work?
A CLOCKWORK ANALOGY
In the olden days, before screens and digital numbers made your life easy, clocks and watches were constructed using a series of cogs that meshed together and worked in unison. They all served an equal part, no matter how small or large, and removing one would pretty much halt the others, resulting in the clock not working (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go see the movie Hugo. That movie pretty much stars cogs, and you’ll be seeing them long after the end credits roll).
A story works in a very similar way. It has certain parts that play different-sized roles, and they all have to work in unison to deliver a strong experience.
With that, I present to you the working cogs of a story:
Where does the game take place? How does the environment affect the story?
Without setting, games are left on a very blank slate. Setting adds reality and an immersive quality to a story, and allows a certain amount of area for a story to cover. Think of Space in Mass Effect. Because the game is set in space, you have a ship. You travel to different worlds. Even the scientific theory of Mass reduction to travel through space would not exist if the setting was completely different.
And while the story isn’t necessarily the staple of the series, Grand Theft Auto is all about setting. It’s set in a world pretty much identical to any major city in America. We like those games because we can do things in that world that we would (hopefully) never dare to do in our own. You can run over an 80-year-old woman and not end up in prison for manslaughter. Because of this, the setting hooks us in and keeps us completely immersed in a sense of realism we can relate to, all while retaining a fantastical quality.
Of all the conventions of gaming, the characters are probably the most recognizable. We remember the Warthog, but we associate it with Master Chief. This is because, as mentioned before, in games, we are the character. And while there are the more immersive games like Skyrim that make us feel more connected to the world in a first-person type feel, it’s the games that deliberately introduce and star predetermined characters that can really make us take an active role in a story. We take control of them and make decisions in their lives, affecting the outcome and leaving a lasting impact on their world.
That being said, there are some characters we connect with, and some who eventually fade in our minds. What makes a character compelling? Why do we care about them, and why do we want to get sucked into their world?
Ever seen the movie Shrek? There’s a part in there where Shrek tells Donkey that he’s like an onion; He has layers. Now, never as a writer have I ever thought I’d say this, but in the realm of character development, Shrek is on to something. I’d like to extend it a bit, though, and say that human beings are like onions. They have layers. We are multi-dimensional creatures, and the best characters we connect with are, too. They experience a real mixture of emotion, be it happy, sad, angry, irate, confused, or jealous. They have flaws, and make mistakes that might result in bad things happening to them. They have likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, opinions, and quirks that make them unique. It’s the way these characters are presented that make them more likeable to us.
In the evolution of gaming, we’ve seen a rapid improvement in technology that has allowed for us to present characters in an amazingly real light. Do yourself a favor and go watch the short film Kara. Made by Heavy Rain developers Quantic Dream to display the power of their new game engine, this seven minute long movie used phenomenal motion capture, voice over, and overall acting delivery to create quite possibly one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever seen in such a short clip. Because of the way she’s presented, you suddenly feel connected to her. You want to help her, want to reach into the video and convince the manufacturer to let her live.
And it’s all because of her development, despite the fact that it’s so short. When we meet her, we like her, because she’s optimistic and naïve, convinced that living will be the greatest thing ever to happen to her. But suddenly, when her life is at risk, she becomes scared, even frantic. We get a sense of how she feels, because we have these emotions too. And, much like ours, they’re rooted to something. She’s scared because she has something to lose. She’s frantic because she wants something so badly, yet quickly sees her options dwindling.
Now, on the flip side, while I am a huge fan of the God of War series, I’d like to open myself up to scrutiny and say that Kratos is probably one of the most unrealistic characters I’ve ever played as. He’s not only angy, he’s ENRAGED. ALL THE TIME. Of course, we find that there is a source to his rage: because he was deceived, he has lost his family. So, ipso facto, his sense of loss is connected to his outrage, directed at the ones who wronged him as he tries to make things right. The problem? We lose the connection to him because it’s impossible for one to be angry on that level all day, every day. Emotion rises and falls. It doesn’t remain in that intense state constantly, which is why a solid idea for his character development falls short, making him into a one-dimensional character, not a flesh and blood person that we can connect to. I ended up finishing those games because I enjoyed the gameplay and aesthetics, not because I actually cared what happened to Kratos. And that was simply because I couldn’t identify with him.
And while I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, I’d like to argue that Mass Effect 2 has great character development, because it literally goes out of its way to introduce you to every member of your crew through conversation and individual missions. Through this, we learn where they come from, who they are, and what they’re about. We understand the pain and suffering that inspired Jack’s mistrust and anger, and we understand Miranda’s identity struggle as a genetically modified human and her desire to protect her younger sister. It’s because of this that many of us might have felt horrible as we watched our crew members die when we made the wrong decisions in the ending suicide mission.
So, the long and short of it is this; the more human and emotionally realistic a character is, the more we will be able to connect with them and actually want to play the story to see its completion and how it will affect him/her.
If gaming story development had an ending boss, it would be Plot. Plot is more than the main part; it’s the meat of the sandwich, the foundation of the building, and the backbone upon which the body is built and held up.
A story’s plot encompasses many different aspects, especially in games. It covers telling the story, its pacing and mode of delivery, and the rise, climax, and resolution.
In gaming, conflict within the plot is key. Without conflict, there’d be no end goal, nothing to work toward, and no point to playing. Conflict refers to the challenge put before you, the “versus” between good and evil. Chimera vs. humans. Templars vs. Assassins. Dragonborn vs. Alduin.
In gaming, conflict is typically where we find the majority of the gameplay. It gives rise to enemies and the overall challenge placed before us that we have to find ways to overcome, and it’s the main reason we can stay engrossed in a game for hours upon hours.
Of course, it goes a bit deeper than just the “versus” factor, otherwise it’d just be an unscripted fighting match between characters. What started the conflict? Who’s in the right? Who’s in the wrong? How are they trying to stop you? What do you have to do to overcome?
Let’s go back to Portal for a second. The conflict here really started for me when I found the blood smeared on the walls. Blood presented in that manner automatically flipped the “I’m in a bad place and need to get out” switch in my brain. Suddenly, the conflict was strictly between me and GLaDOS. I needed to get out, to defy her, to escape by any means necessary.
Another important part of the plot is the pacing. How quickly do story elements take place? Does it hook you right away and keep you interested by the constant flow of changes, or does it introduce something and let it sit with you for a while? How much do you know in the beginning, and how quickly is everything revealed?
A good example of this? The original BioShock. You find your way into Rapture by unconventional means, not knowing anything about the world or the strange people in it, and by the end, you find that you’ve been unknowingly involved in it all along.
On the flip side, poor pacing can ruin a story for people and even make it almost unplayable. If it takes too long for the story to progress, you run the risk of losing interest and walking away instead of sitting down and pushing through it.
Another interesting part of plot unique to gaming is the role of choice. While typically found in RPGs, choice can often become central to progression. When players are faced with choices that will affect the outcome of a game, suddenly, you feel that more is at stake. They’re coming to you, asking you what you think, and you know that the eventual outcome of the story is reliant on what you decide. Such a convention has a really immersive feel to it, albeit a little daunting, since I’m pretty much accountable for how the story plays out from there. That’s probably why the better half of my gameplay through the Mass Effect series was spent trying to see into the future as I considered whether or not the Rachni queen should live, or if I should send Kaidan or Ashley with the other crew on Virmire.
The last part of good plot development is the resolution. How does the game end? Is it a cliff hanger, or does it leave you satisfied? Are all the loose ends tied up? The success of a story’s ending is central to how satisfactory it is to the one experiencing it. Agree or disagree with them, this is why people got so fired up over the Mass Effect 3 ending. They were deeply rooted and connected to this story, and when it didn’t end the way they would have liked it to, things got ugly.
Portal’s ending was kind of a haunting one for me. I played the updated PC version, and the ending scene was me, lying motionless on the ground around burning rubble outside of Aperture science after destroying GLaDOS. Suddenly, there were robotic chirps behind me, and I slowly started moving backwards as something dragged me back in. The parting scene? A cake on a table with a dim light hanging above it, surrounded by security drones. One candle burned on the cake, and a robotic arm reached down and snuffed it out. Then, everything goes black.
I remember that ending leaving me flabbergasted. What just happened? Where was I? Hadn’t I killed GLaDOS?
Or, think of the ending of Inception, when Leo DiCaprio spins the top on the table. It wobbles a bit, but keeps spinning. Then, black. Did it fall? Is he dreaming?
These endings resonated with me. They made the experience memorable, because I was so connected to them. And, while they were vague and not complete (and Portal was setting up for Portal 2), they left me questioning the story long after its completion.
Now, as I’ve said before, I’ve played a lot of games. I’ve been involved in a lot of stories, connected with a lot of characters, and been satisfied and dissatisfied with many different endings.
The purpose of this post is not to claim that Portal is the greatest game ever made. While it’s one of my personal favorites, I’m more appreciative of what it taught me about storytelling in gameplay. When a story is sound, when the cogs fit perfect, and when everything is constructed and allows you to completely invest yourself in it, something amazing happens. You become an important part in something. You are able to let go and escape into a completely different world with a whole different set of problems to overcome and things to experience. You suddenly are able to interact and take part in a story on a level that no other form of entertainment has ever allowed you before.
Such is the magic of video games.