Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thinking with Portals

Portal is a fun little puzzle game, wherein you can create little wormholes that connect different places and walk through them. But it's also so much more! The puzzles by themselves would qualify Portal as a pretty neat game, but it's the writing and the story and the general atmosphere that make it one of the best (and most-quoted) games of the last decade.

I'm a couple years late to be singing Portal's praises, though; it came out in 2007. So why am I writing about it now?

[Spoilers follow. If you haven't played Portal, GO DO THAT RIGHT NOW OMG. No spoilers for Portal 2, so if you haven't played that one yet you're still good to keep reading.]

Actually, I've been thinking a lot about just what made Portal so awesome ever since I played through it a few weeks ago. (In general, I think it's worthwhile to examine awesome things!) One thing that's really struck me in retrospect is that the whole game is permeated by this incredible level of cognitive dissonance. I don't think it was an accident, or some happy quirk of the way they ended up writing it. It happens on so many levels, and in so many ways, that I think they must have planned it that way, or at least made a conscious decision about it at some point.

Example: turrets. There are automatic gun turrets sprinkled through the later levels, and they are adorable. They have little singsong voices, and they say things like "Are you still there?" and "Could you come over here?", and when you 'kill' them by knocking them over, they sometimes say "I don't hate you..." in a dejected little voice. You can't help but fall in love with them, and feel guilty about taking them down, even though they will basically kill you on sight. Relevant.

Example: GLaDOS. You start the game taking orders from a friendly-if-slightly-glitchy computer, and she gradually develops over the course of the game into the lying, omnicidal GLaDOS that we all know and love. GLaDOS herself is really a fine example of cognitive dissonance, on top of the unease she induces as she becomes more and more unhinged. She guides you through the levels with friendly-if-unsettling comments, and even goes as far as trying to be nice during The Escape, but it becomes extremely clear after a certain point that she wants nothing more than to kill you and be done with it. (The light at the end of that tunnel? It's not a cake, I'll tell you that.)

"Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said 'Goodbye' and you were like 'No way!' And then I was all 'We pretended we were going to murder you?' That was great."

Example: your Weighted Companion Cube. Here, have a cube; this one is special! It has got hearts on it. Got a puzzle that needs solving? Your cube is part of the solution. Yep, it's just you and your cube, alone against the world! What's that, you've finished this level? Time to euthanize your only friend, then! Here, use this conveniently-placed incinerator. D: (Honestly, though? The very fact that they manage to make you form an emotional bond with a box with hearts on the sides is just another example of how masterfully they are messing with your head.)

Example: Still Alive, by Jonathan Coulton. This song plays during the end credits of the game, and is generally awesome. It's later than I planned to stay up writing this, so rather than explain why, I'll just refer you to its lyrics. <_<

So back to the title of this post, Thinking with Portals. Usually it's used in the context of "Now you're thinking with portals!", meaning that you're learning to use some of the cleverer tricks you can do with portals to solve puzzles. But can we interpret it another way? What if you actually could use portals to navigate your headspace; jumping between disparate and occasionally contradictory ideas, connecting things that would never normally be connected, being mentally in two places at once. Sound familiar?

Something to ponder.