Monday, 31 May 2010

The cake is a lie - Thoughts on Portal, and on Art

A recent promotion made the game Portal available free of charge for a short time. Having heard favourably of, but never played, it I jumped at the chance of downloading it. My days as a hardcore gamer are some years behind me, but I still enjoy the occasional dabble. Most games are derivative and witless, but occasionally a nugget, pure, perfect and wonderful to behold, emerges from the often-cynical and commercial computer games industry.

Portal is a puzzle game, built on the first-person perspective engine used in Half Life 2. There is no combat and no (moving) antagonists as is usually the case with shooters, but the well-polished game engine is used instead as the stage for the big idea of the game. This idea is simple, elegant, and original. The player's only tool is a gun which fires two of the eponymous portals at walls, floors, ceilings, or other flat surfaces. The player can then walk/jump/fall into one portal and emerge from the other. On this simple premise are built a series of puzzles where the player must navigate around the level using a combination of walking and portals, manipulating boxes, switches and so on, using the gun in ever more cunning ways. The puzzles are challenging without being overly difficult, and are very rewarding to solve.

The relevance of this to an ostensible writing blog is as a model for manipulating user/audience experience - to my mind the central tenet of good writing. Portal does this superbly; the learning curve is very carefully plotted, and through the majority of the game the player is being trained in the various uses of the portal gun, and on how to react to the stimuli they are carefully fed. The developers' commentary is a study in usability and usability testing, and it is fascinating to see all the subtle touches they added to the game to make the player behave as they were intended to. They have painstakingly identified the ways in which players misunderstood their environment or the correct path through it, and manipulated that environment to avoid this, making sure a player will only ever spend time on the puzzle and not get stuck on irrelevances. I completed it in 3 hours without feeling that they'd lost control of me, but at all times feeling that I was in control of my own destiny - this is a very difficult balance to strike, and they got it bang on.

If forced to define art in its broadest sense I would opt for something approximate to "a work created to lead its audience along a path of thoughts and emotions". However nebulous or individual may that path be, the creator contrives his/her work so as to provide it. Art, to my mind, is inherently centred on the audience and their journeys along its myriad paths. Without an intended audience, the never-to-be-read book or the unseen painting is little more than a complicated form of masturbation on the part of its creator. There is nothing wrong with this - creating things for the sake of creating them can be immensely pleasurable - but a work lacking even a tacit acknowledgement of its audience is completely missing the point of art. It is also likely to be very poor (as I've written before, Bletchley Park falls into this pit).

I try to approach writing by planning the path which the audience will take, and then laying down the words/direction/notes in such a way as to manipulate the audience along that path. Portal is a first-class example of this approach, and anyone with ambitions towards any form of art can learn from their sure-handed hold on their audience.

On top of the puzzles, Portal features a computer voice which manipulates the player on several levels. Firstly, it issues explicit instructions to help train the player. Secondly, it drops apparently throw-away comments which, nevertheless, nudge the player in the correct direction. Thirdly, it makes transparent and naive attempts to manipulate the player's emotions, and lies outrageously to the player. A prime example is the now-famous cake which is often offered to the user as a reward for solving puzzles, but such a way as makes it obvious from the outset that there is no such cake. It still made me want to solve the puzzles! I knew it was manipulating me in this way, but it was so brilliantly and entertainingly done that I wanted it to keep manipulating me - this game made being explicitly manipulated into part of the path that it manipulated us along. I cannot begin to express my admiration for the game's designers for this tour de force of an audience experience. Portal is truly a work of art.

As the closing song (!) put it: This was a triumph. I'm making a note here: huge success.

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