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Five Reasons Portal is the Greatest Game and How You Can Steal Those Tricks for Writing and Game Design!

Updated on May 11, 2011

Portal is the Greatest Game

I mean it. Portal may be the greatest game. Never before has video game design achieved such a perfect, sublime melding of content, challenge, subtext, and fun. The simple mechanic of a gun that opens a portal between two different places on a map should not be as enjoyable as it is, but through a careful application of basic ideas and themes, this game manages to transcend the genre. What can you learn from Portal's magnificent design that you can apply to your own creative work? Novelists, screenwriters, and other game designers should take these five bits of advice away from Portals magnificent success, to make new transcendent masterpieces!

1) Pacing, Pacing, Pacing

The game operates as a series of closed-room puzzles. Then... it shifts. Pacing in Portal is pitch-perfect. It begins with a simple, accessible series of basic puzzles, and ramps up until it becomes a heart-racing run past sentry guns and certain death, culminating in a deadly countdown in the final room. The pace of Portal doesn't begin with exploding spaceships and death-defying feats! If it did that, how could it top that in the second act! No, Portal began slow, and that's a good thing. The fact that it focused on a slow beginning allowed the player a chance to ponder the strange circumstances of the game, from the strange prison cell of the beginning to the Muzak and otherworldly charm of GlaDOS' strange requests.

By beginning with a sense of unease, instead of a series of death-defying jumps through flaming hoops, the game's slow and steady build through the end maintains a strong, consistently managed pace that is gripping! Nothing jumps out at you suddenly. Everything is introduced carefully.

Then, the tension is twisted like a screw tightening one even turn at a time!

2) Humor!

Even in the bleakest and darkest and most-serious endeavors, there's room for humor. Being funny is the one tool people have to stave off madness in a world full of unfair, ironic, and disempowering elements. The capacity to laugh is what makes us what we are as a species. By embracing comedy, Portal did the one thing that the deadly-serious Call of Duty series failed to do: It disarmed people's emotions.

Humor has a disarming effect on people's cynical and defensive side. By embracing humor, Portal was able to slip into people's hearts where a cube with a heart painted onto it can suddenly become a symbol of so much more than just a designated companion cube.

I love my companion cube. I'm so sorry, companion cube. I'm so sorry.

#3) Guilt!

One emotion that is often under-utilized by writers of fiction and screenplays is guilt. Making the audience feel complicit is an important reason why video games have a lot of narrative potential. Game designers know it, too. They make Commander Shepherd choose between Ashley or Alenko. They make gamers want to reload to make sure that no members of the PC party bite the bullet.

Unlike games that embrace a reload and metagaming mechanic, Portal's companion cube is doomed from the start. There is no way to beat the game without destroying your beloved companion cube. And, it is a horrible thing to know that you have no choice but to destroy the only friend you'll ever have in the deadly and precarious landscape of Aperture Labs. Do you want to beat the game? You have to kill your friend. There is no other way to move forward.

Don't give people a choice. Stick their nose right in their own mistakes and taunt them for it. Make people feel the way they are supposed to feel for the decisions they make!

4) The Game is Just Long Enough, and Not Longer!

The game Portal did not try to squeeze in 14 hours of gameplay and a multi-player mechanic to meet the bullet-point needs of a game-consuming public. Portal was packaged with other things, of course, but the game itself is exactly as long as it needs to be, exactly as complex as it needs to be, and does not make a single concession to the perceived marketplace of the average video game consumer (who is never as average as the marketing department likes to believe!)

Valve made exactly the right size of game. As writers and designers, it is important to remember that it is better to write a novella if that is the size of the idea. Don't write to market, write to quality. Find the size and shape of the idea that gets you the highest quality product!

5) Subtext!

When all the pieces come together, from art to writing to game design, something magical occurs. The consumer discovers depth and meaning in what is nominally and literally presented to them. There are countless hidden corners where survivors of GlaDOS' mad tests managed to leave notes in their own blood, and offer a messy counterpoint to the clean, science-themes laboratories. The one-way glass that seems to be full of observers peering in on the test subject silently, as she solves deadly puzzle after deadly puzzle, prove to be empty. The fact of their emptiness is never explained. The player is given every assumption of sophistication to take all these disparate pieces and put together a story in their minds that is much larger than the one presented on the screen.

When you are constructing your own games and stories, be sure to leave room for the imaginations of your audience. Don't just spoon-feed content and explanations at them. Trust them to come up with much better ideas than you do in the gap between the things you show them. In the space between what they know, their imaginations, and love for your work, will flourish!


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    • jordwest1 profile image

      jordwest1 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Excellent article! Portal was such a compact, well-conceived game, I was hesitant the sequel could live up to it without falling under the bloated sequel curse (although thankfully, I think Portal 2 was about the best sequel we could have hoped for).

      I'm an aspiring game designer, and Portal is definitely a game I draw inspiration from.