A little game called Portal 2 released yesterday, by some company called Valve. I guess it’s big news to people.
And it should be. It is the sequel to Portal, released for the PC in 2007, and a scant 3 years later on the Mac. It was added, as what some might have assumed as an afterthought at the time, to the Orange Box bundle. This box contained Half-Life 2, the HL2 add-on packs EpisodeOne and Two, and the perennial team-based shooter Team Fortress 2. It’s safe to say that the Orange Box will be entered into the pantheon of gaming history as one of the greatest bundles ever sold.
One of the greatest compilation boxes ever sold
Portal came from humble beginnings. It all started with Narbacular Drop, a senior thesis project by a team of students at DigiPen Institute of Technology, the most august of video game design schools. ND stars Princess “No-Knees”, cursed with the inability to jump and kidnapped and held prisoner by a demon in his dungeon. Turns out, however, that the dungeon is a sentient entity called Wally, and will allow the princess to form two holes, of differing colours, on any natural surface, which are then linked, allowing the princess to enter one and exit the other.
The DigiPen team operated under the moniker Nuclear Monkey Software, and at one Career Day at DigiPen some Valve people saw Narbacular Drop and requested a demonstration back at their headquarters. The team eventually was hired by Valve to professionalize the game, and the result was Portal, one of the most beloved video games of all time.
Here is a video of game play from Narbacular Drop:
Kotaku has an interesting blog post today, coming to the defense of video game characters such as Half Life‘s Gordon Freeman or Chell from Portal, who stay silent through their games.
Blogger Inspector-Jones makes some good points about how silence allows the gamer to infuse more of themselves into the character they are playing, but I think silent game protagonists greatly affect overall game design, as well. Half Life 2 hedges its bets a bit by having Alyx Vance often accompany Freeman, allowing her to give some exposition on what is happening. But when gamers are by themselves, such as nearly the entirety of the Portal series, the lack of being able to guide the player through dialog forces game creators to speak via design: the way the environment is laid out must communicate what is expected. The iconic signs from Portal are a great example of doing this right. They give the player an idea of what is coming, without being a giant flashing arrow saying “GO THIS WAY”. And the nature of the icons themselves help shape the overall narrative, that of being a mouse trapped in a maze, given only the most clinical of instructions on how to proceed.
What say you, Q*bert?
I also believe that, on some primitive level, silent game heroes create a connection in the minds of gamers back to the simpler times of the classic gaming era, when every character was practically mute. Unless you had a voice synthesis module like the Intellivoice, that is.