Monday, August 1, 2011

Important note to students!

PLEASE check your USAO email for instructions in how to submit a course evaluation for Independent Study. It will only take a few minutes and your input is taken seriously. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mislead (You too)

Torrey Boyle and I, Kevin Conley have decided to investigate Valve's Portal 2 from a narrative perspective. During one of the levels a turret proclaims "I'm different"; this line seemed to strike a chord within our hearts so we gave it extra attention. Through this line we can relate it to the idea of determinism. Basically what determinism, or more specifically Hard-determinism explains is that humans are no different than robots. Why that sounds like a bunch of malarkey. Not really. Let me ask first, did you make the decision to be born, do you understand the machine that is the universe. No because no one does, it's unfathomable, although the pondering is justified. Ever since our births, certain events have been spiraling in motion in grand and very unnoticeable ways. From our parents influences on our pre-conscious state to the patch of grass that catches your eye for a fleeting moment. All things influence us more than we would like to believe, and there is an order to the lives of humans just as there is for robots through their programming.The illusion of free-will is simply an idea in the most idealistic fashion. Now how this seemingly close-minded, pessimistic and misunderstood view applies to Portal 2.
As you progress through Portal 2, we meet the character Cave Johnson through pre-recorded voice-overs in chapters 6 and 7, The Itch and The Fall. He initially comes off as a zany, extremely dedicated scientist, but as we progress through the levels, we slowly realize (as he does as well) that this man's scientific pursuits are turning him mad. Most of us have a passion, something we love doing and will go to great lengths to be the best at, even breaking rules and moral values instilled to us by society. The overall goal is perfection in our passion. Cave is a man no different, science is his passion and nothing will stop him in his path of perfecting it: Cave turns his employees into mantis-men, constantly risks human lives by testing them in his puzzles and even applies his favorite employee, Caroline's cognitive make-up to his master creation, Glados. In the narrative, Glados symbolizes the strand of perfection Cave dedicated so much time to achieve: genius wits that can outsmart any meager human. Why he was attempting this kind of perfection is unexplained, but nonetheless, we can assume he was a product of his surroundings, as we all are. Cave was influenced by the Universe, the ideas he extrapolated from his experiences predicted his outcome as scientist and his explorations into science and the creation of Glados. This is the point where readers think I applied a philosophical idea to dress up a pretty, cute and pretentious ( I agree) argument. Give me another paragraph.
Back to the aforementioned turret proclamation: "I'm different." My first conclusion when hearing the cutesy robot mutter this was that Valve was relating our existences to robots. I mean, why would they, out of all the things to write, pick this choice of dialogue? Maybe so us gamers could extrapolate their intentions with the narrative; what was aforementioned: humans and robots are essentially the same. Another example from the story that gives further proof to this assumption is the wall paneling at the beginning of Chapter 3 slamming itself violently against the wall, as if it had just discovered masochism. Since part of Glados is Caroline's cognitive make-up and she controls Aperture Sciences , both instances of robots acting out of their usual nature probably came from this part of her programming. However, deeper thought could present a flaw in my theory. If only part of her is Caroline, then the rest would function in complete control, without this part. But in order for a robot to function in accordance to humans their interface has to be incorporated with human qualities; the reason why Aperture tests humans. Humans aren't in control, the programming they write for robots (eventually androids) they are in control of and the world goes on. We still cannot imagine the future, so existence can still lead us on, with the whim that a cake will be achieved (allusion points gained) in the unforeseeable. Overall an allegorical offering to the android slave dominance earth will take part in circa 2220. That movie Blade Runner, too. Also, I can see the future, circa 2011.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Jed Copley, Chance Wilson, and Veronica Fennell have collaborated to investigate motivation in the gaming world. Specifically, we wanted to focus on the motivations that GLAdOS provides to the player/character to complete tasks. To help give us ideas and theory behind our ideas, we have incorporated the theories of Shoshannah Tekofsky’s “Theory of Gaming Motivation”.

Tekofsky theorized that there are 3 basic rewards that gaming offers and motivate the player into continuing and enjoying the game: achievement, recognition, and satisfaction. Within these three rewards are 11 basic psychological needs that Tekofsky grouped and charted by which type of reward they offer.

Although Portal incorporates all 11 psychological needs in one way or another, we are focusing on the main needs that GLAdOS and Wheatley use for motivating the player/character: Emotional Regulation, Competition, Danger management.

The Theory of Gaming Motivation defines Emotional Regulation as the psychological response to outside stimuli in an attempt to keep a person “feeling okay.” When a person is not “okay,” there should be an emotional response encouraging that person to get back into an “okay” situation. An example given is that fear will encourage someone to get out of danger. Anger can motivate people to protect their rights. When people return to emotional equilibrium, or a state of being even more “okay” than they were before, they get satisfaction. This is why emotional regulation falls under the “satisfaction group of rewards.

In the beginning of Portal, GLAdOS uses emotional regulation to congratulate you for completing tasks. However, as you progress through the game she begins to use what we decided to call emotional deregulation. She constantly taunts and is catty towards the player/character. In turn, this causes the character/player to want further recognition, another need, for completing the tests.

Competition satisfies both the achievement and recognition sections in the theory of gaming motivation. Basically, people like to win.

Competition is seen in the negative reinforcement and insults. This aspect can be seen throughout both games; both GLAdOS and Wheatley use emotional deregulation to demotivate the character from completing the challenges thus causing the character to become more motivated and want to finish the challenges. The satisfaction that you have beat Glados and Wheatley fulfills the psychological need of achievement. For example, when playing an early level in Portal 1, GLAdOS tells you that she isn’t sure why she put you in a particular testing chamber because it is impossible and that if she were you, she
would just give up.

Danger management deals with both satisfaction and achievement. Avoiding danger in reality, such as narrowly not getting hit by a car, provides a sense of relief as one realizes they get to continue being alive. It also can provide satisfaction, as one might feel rather proud after doing a sweet dodge/rolling maneuver to get out of the way of oncoming traffic.

Danger management is shown in every aspect possible in the Portal games: turrets, acid, great falls, lasers, crushing spikes, etc. These force the player into a survivalist mode. While this game stimulates multiple dangerous situations, once these dangerous situations are survived, it gives the player/character a sense of achievement and relief for surviving a “life threatening” situation.

Portal and Portal 2 offer many psychological rewards throughout both games, and these rewards have helped make the games popular. What video games offer that most other literary media lack is a repeated sense of accomplishment for the consumers as they go through the game and use their own skills to advance story lines. Portal utilizes this particularly well to draw in the player in order to be a highly intriguing game.

Finale Mongoose: Narrative of the series.

A few thoughts on the narrative of Portal 2 and a look in depth of what I consider the 5 characters of the series.

The first game's story was simple. GLaDos uses Chell to perform experiements with the Aperture Science Portal Device. Eventually GLaDos decides her experiments are finished, and attempts to kill Chell. Chell, now having what I would consider advance Portal training, easily escapes and "destroys" GLaDos.

There is very little story here to analyze and tear apart. You can see the ratman den's. You can assume he is around and even helping Chell. Basically this was meant to be pure gameplay, icing on the Orange Box cake. But it gained popularity, so they had to deepen the story. This brings us to the comic.

The story that bridges the two games is Valve's comic, Labrat. The story follows Ratmen, a schizophrenic scientist during GLaDo's installation of the conciousness core, Chell's escape, and her eventual recapture. In it you see that Chell is dragged back into the lab by some kind of emotion core. Ratmen follows her back into the Facility to find they put her into the relaxation chambers, which have been deactivated. He risks his life to save her, but guarentees she is next up for experiments. The comic ends with him entering a sleep chamber similar to the one Chell emerges from at the beginning of Portal.

This is a really good way to get people interested in teh story. The only real signs of humanity in the first game were the ratman nests. The webcomic shows us a man going off his meds, muttering to his companion cube just to survive. He is always against GLaDos, even when the lab was in human operation. A fun allusion throughout the comic is Schrodinger's cat. Even the ending points out that Chell in her relaxation chamber is neither alive nor dead.

The second game's plot is the grandest so far in story. Chell awakes to Wheatley, a core tied to a railing, wanting her to obtain the portal gun. She fetches it and Wheatley removes himself from teh tracks and requests that Chell carries him to "Her" room. Of course GLaDos's chamber is still in ruin from the end of game 1. Chell digs through the rubble, trying to find the Escape Hatch fuse to activite it and get launched to freedom. Wheatley is set into a core control system, trying to find the fuse when the platform rises up flipping switches and controls which awaken GLaDos. She quickly dispatches Wheatley and sends Chell back to testing while she rebuilds the facility. Just as GLaDos is finished with construction, Wheatley saes Chell and they go about deactivating her many deadly turrets and neurotoxin. After they finish their sabotage session, they head to GLaDos. After they leave GlaDos weakened, Chell is given the opportunity to replace GLaDos with Wheatley. she does so without question, giving Wheatley full control of the Facility. Wheatley almost instantly goes mad with power, putting GLaDos in a potato and sending her and Chell into the deep bowels of ancient Aperture. Chell and GLaDos fight their way back to Wheatley and send him to the moon. With GLaDos back in power, she finally decides what to do with Chell. GLaDos releases her.

There is a lot to say about this story, and most of it has been said. Plenty of people have touched the Greek references and the possibility of Carolyn being Chell's mother. I haven't seen others touch what I saw was the main story. The first time I played through the game, I saw it as Wheatley's tale. He is a nervous peon who rises to power, goes mad with it, and fall from grace. This story is common in media, be it Tony Montana's empire in Scarface or King John in the legend of Robin Hood. Chell (the player) is simply a tool Wheatley uses to obtain his goal. I can easily imagine the story without Chell. GLaDos could be changed to an extent and the plot remains untouched. Cave Johnson and the ratman are both there for one or two plot points, but are mostly there for comic relief. But I feel wheatley is the focal character, someone the story focuses around.

The characters are a bit harder to approach. Chell, as most have pointed out, is a Tabula Rasa, a blank slate. She is meant to be mute and characterless so the player may project themselves upon her.

Ratmen is a complex character we don't get to see much of. We know he is Schizophrenic and off his meds. We know he is brilliant. We also know he tries to avoid direct conflict. I personally hope through either more comics or DLC they expand his character.

Cave Johnson is nothing more than a series of recordings, but I feel as though he is vital to the plot and build of the game. He is shown to be a man's man and having possibly no knowledge as to the definition of science is. Cave simply has the money to "Throw science at the wall and see what sticks." He is willing to sacrifice human life to make a simple profit. He is shown to use his own workers as lab rats just to see what would happen if you combine human DNA with that of a Mantis's. Out of all these almost psychotic qualities, a few noble aspects shine through. He is kind and even somewhat loving to Carolyn, his assistant and assumed lover.

GLaDos has gone through a lot in these games. She awakens Chell simply for some experiements. In portal 1, she is almost emotionless until the finale. She simply states backhanded compliments and the occasional threat. The ending has her explode with a homicidal nature and insane rambling that would make a slasher film villain seem normal. The second game shows her with more of an emotional range. I always assumed the destruction from the first game corrupted some of her files, forcing her to use older, less efficient systems. This unlocks Carolyn within her motherboard, which gives GLaDos some semblance of emotion. The only true redeeming moment GLaDos gets is the Finale, where she saves Chell from dying in the vacuum of space.

Finally we have Wheatley. He is a core designed to have bad ideas. There is plenty to point this out even before he creates TurretCubes. He reactivates GLaDos when trying to find the Escape Hatch. He talks bad on Humans when he is stuck depending on a human. He frequently gets lost in a facility he has spent his entire life in. But his character is more than an electronic buffoon. Wheatley shows fear of death, but a willing to risk his own life to escape. Wheatley lies frequently, either for his own ends, or simply to try and impress others. By the end, however, he is apologetic and honest.

The story has wrapped itself up rather nicely. The story was entertaining and the conclusion is definitive. But if there is one thing media has shown us, if there is a profit in it, they will make a sequel.

Final Tally

The first thing I would like to add is on a discussion from last meeting, about Shell as a "shell" for the player being the reason that she is mostly inaudible. I would say that the game sets you up to be the emotional ploy and the voice of a character for the reason that Shell's inferior human intelligence would be easily attacked by Glados, while your intellect is untouchable by the video game's AI.

My biggest concern and area of thinking throughout this course has been on whether or not Portal can be truely deemed "art" in the same way that some other games are. The evidence that the game is an artistic piece of overwhelming: a complicated puzzle platformer, with every detail in minutia or on the large scale designed for a specific purpose, riddled with referencing to obscure academic and cultural phenomena. It is a thought provoking game that has been able to unintentionally capture the attention of children, adults, idiots, and geniuses, it is a game that has a hue of appropriateness and further thought.

However, I do not believe that the future generations will view Portal in the same way that our modern mind has perceived it.

To me, Portal is not much more than a well - made video game, set in the same sterile, drab space-age metal walled buildings from every other game, sauntering along fashionably, yet not enduring what will be a scrutinizing and second-guessing future for the Art in Video Games.

Why is Portal, a game that aside from the main gameplay function (shoot portals) has few true "innovations" more of a work of art than a Red Dead Redemption, with it's breakthroughs, beautiful landscapes, and capturing story? How is it more important than work being done with multiplayer on the Live Arcades, or the story flow work being done by Bethesda for the upcoming Elder Scrolls game?

To be honest, I stick by my assumption that through the years, Portal will fall by the wayside as just another very great, but not truly transcendent piece of video game art. I feel that while we may be rash to anoint this game, the true "Shakespeare" of the Video Game world will not show itself to us, but rather our descendants through time.

Narratives killed the Video Game Star.

The message of any medium is only as effective as the vehicle used to deliver said message, and for that reason, any intelligent designs a video game has must be reflected in the designs of the game itself. With such a paramount importance on the design of the game itself, then, the actual gameplay becomes the most important aspect of any video game theory that would come after it, being that any theory must be backed up by something in the game's levels or something in the gameplay. Players that slip beyond the realms of reality into the virtual world take on a new role, a role that may or may not reflect how individual players would truly react, should this world be made into the true reality and not the reality inside. This principle is a principle that is glazed over by the opponents of video games as a whole, as they suspect anyone who appears with a genie flair into the realm of Fallout 3 (for example) and proceeds to murder every inhabitant therein encountered will react in such a manner if a gun is placed and/or otherwise obtained by the player and go on a killing spree. Video games are more than that. Video games are a tool in which a story can be told throughout the player's experience in the game, and the player can feel like a part of the story through the interactive medium that is the controller to avatar a la Avatar Blue Giant style. Doctor Karin Wenz introduces this idea as the "As-If" principle, "creat[ing] a situation in which the players of a game reflect their acting, mean[ing] they act on a meta level which is medial in itself" (Wenz), but this idea runs into the paradox of necessity, in which a player could be interacting in a way that the video game does not recognize, an example being bursting into the women's bathroom to examine the toilets in case any First-Aid kits were left in the cystern instead of sniffing the toilets for some illicit sexual thrill (thanks to Yahtzee, you demented game reviewer) (EscapistMagazine).

I suppose I should get to the actual Portal 2 content while talking about gameplay, but then again Portal 2 takes just as long getting to the actual game play that I can probably recite a lovely Chaucirian Soliloquay and still have enough time to change shorts before the gameplay actually shows up. Mind you, the story of Portal 2 is rather intruiging and filled to the brim with more amusing distractions than Disney world being set on fire, but the issue stemming from this burning wonderland is that the wonderland being burned is the actual Gameplay of the game itself, in that Portal 2 has taken the concept of Portal 1, a puzzle game in which a cheeky cheerleader from Hell's highschool berates you while you play around with technology so advanced that it defies discernable logic, and called up Bioware to place more cutscenes and narrative bollucks on the franchise than the buffet plate of a Sumo-wrestler at his favorite chowhall, and you may notice that I used Bioware in this comparison. Tour a Mass Effect Let's Play for a moment and you'll notice that the game-play is a bunch of words being thrown around between characters before being interrupted by a few gunshows and lovely Jedi powers before returning to the talking and the dialog, and this works for a specific reason: Mass Effect is DESIGNED to be a narrative-based game in which you command *Commander Shepard* on his/her (unclear really) quest to stop the known world from taking the piss. Portal 2, for reasons I cannot fathom except for Valve's penchant for taking a good idea the distance then kicking it off the cliff, begins to do the same thing.

I've harped on the story long enough, so lets turn to the gam----interrupted by another cutscene. Cutscenes, contrary to popular belief, are not video segments in which the player sees their avatar on screen conducting actions, but are segments in which the player loses control of the character and is forced to sit through whatever the game forces the player to sit through before the player can continue. The main difference between the two can be found in Portal 2 itself, in that the Cheer Captain of Luciferian High School can be cut off mid-insult while the player directs either the robots or Chell into the next test area, but cannot escape the conversation with the foreign exchange and mentally handicapped Wheatly during the nerd's systematic dismantling of the Cheer Captain's make-up, the lovely physics display at the introduction of the game, the conversation falling down the tube after the foreign tizzyfit, and other cuts that serve to further the narrative along but kill the core of the game, the gameplay. Taking the player from the interactive medium of running Gordan Freeman through the Black Mesa research facility into the realm of unskippable cutscenes gives the player a chance to pull back from the virtual realm and back into reality, where the game will be analyzed from the holier than thou perspective of a storyline-snorting analyst or dropped for a soda or a bio break while the cutscene drags on and on. Portal 1 understood that out of necessity, cutting corners and shelving narrative ideas in favor of delivering a bare-bones product that survives on game design alone. Portal 2's single player campaign, while undeniably amusing, takes on so much extraneous material that the gameplay begins to drown under the sea of Chell-Glados-Wheatly angst.

The actual game lives and breathes on dry land in the co-op campaign, where the robot team of Atlas and Peabody skips gleefully along from test chamber to test chamber, mechanically solving portals and learning new emotes with each achievement, adding a sense of tangible reward and love to the game that was the hallmark of Portal 1. To return to Dr. Karen Wenz, she refers to the idea of pacing as such: "We find variations in the speed of the narrative in relation to itself and measure effects of acceleration, deceleration, statis, and ellipses"(Wenz). Pacing is a phenomena that Portal 2 understands well in the co-op campaign, letting the player proceed as fast or slow as they can, but the single player campaign does not, leading into intense periods of deceleration as the player sits through the aforementioned cutscenes while the story is fleshed out via in-media resolution. Amnesia: the Dark Descent is an example of a game in which the gameplay did not suffer while giving out the story because the player would discover the story in the way that a detective would, finding journal pages and other mediums that serve to not only keep the line of immersion unbroken, but also provide a skippable medium. In short, the game design did not suffer. Puzzle games are not a genre in which heavy story communicated through unskippable cutscenes belong.

Game theory, whatever the approach, rests on the nature of the game and the design of the game. Narratives being such a pervasive entity as to infect first-person games kill the core that is the nature of a first-person game itself, to place the player inside the avatar so that the player can truly feel immersed in the action. The most popular examples of this ideal are the Call of Duty and the Halo franchises, which have garnered such an immense, dedicated, and strange fanbase that there have been deaths over arguments on which franchise is better. The primary reason for this is simple, the players can really feel like it is THEM who are accomplishing the tasks, because, even in the cutscenes, the avatars the players are supposed to control never actually *do* anything. Could you imagine how much the Mario games would suffer if a narrative team got behind the next Mario game? The Metroid series' latest addition, Other M, is an example of how narratives can KILL a game. The construction of Portal 2's narrative did not achieve that level of suicide-worthy franchise destruction, but Portal 2's single player campaign should have been a book, not a game. Video game developers need to realize one simple fact, video games are not books, and a narrative should support gameplay, not guide it.

By: Joshua Roosa.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Portal 2's Creation Myth

Portal 2’s narrative is a straight forward, linear story-line about rogue A.I.s with pathological designs and the human protagonist outwitting them to survive. Underneath this are parallels of another story that predates Olympic Games. Throughout Portal 2 Valve makes deliberate relations to the two Titans who represent mankind and portray the main character as the first mortal woman in Greek mythology, Pandora.

Wheatley is the embodiment of Epimetheus. Epimetheus represents humanity’s hindsight, its tendency for material concerns, and its often foolish/rash actions; he is often referred to as the Father of Excuses. From the very beginning of the game the player finds Wheatley blabbering, making excuses and throwing off problems on whoever seems most convenient. In the game he blunders and stumbles through any problem he has never encountered before and often only solves it if Chell is there to help him. However, in cases where he may reflect on past mistakes, he does the opposite of the above observations. This is most prevalent in the finale of the game, where Wheatley negates all of the weaknesses of GLaDOS’ downfall in the past Portal by watching the old tapes of the Chell destroying her. In matter of material, Wheatley is more concerned about his escape than Chell’s wellbeing: “Can you see the portal gun? Also, are you alive?”, he is immediately corrupted by the power he receives, and needs to test for the material high.

GLaDOS is Prometheus’ avatar. Prometheus brought man fire and art from the gods, is considered to be intelligent, and great in foresight. GLaDOS’ intelligence is undeniable in comparison to Wheatley. She shows foresight by preparing a trap for Chell when she escapes her grasp in chapter five. She can actively build new test chambers and juggle facility upkeep and problems Chell might cause. More importantly, she shows a lack of hindsight by giving Chell the Portal Gun, the very item that was her downfall in the first game. She asserts herself as Prometheus further by mentioning shortly after you receive the Portal Gun that she had a blackbox safety feature: in case of catastrophic failure “the last two minutes of my life are preserved for analysis. I was able—well, forced really—to relive you killing me again and again. Forever.” But she does not learn to dispose of Chell immediately after Wheatley’s blunders revive her. GLaDOS punishment for giving Chell the Dual-Portal Device is to be forced into a potato battery by Wheatley where she is cast to the very bottom of the Aperture facility and picked up by a bird and pecked at.

Chell represents Pandora. In the game she is paired with Wheatley, and in Greek mythology it is said the gods gave Epimetheus Pandora. All the gods gave Pandora a gift, this can be related to Chell’s traits in the game: her spring boots, the Portal Gun, a strong wit, and endurance. Pandora is also the first mortal woman, thus she has no parents; interestingly enough GLaDOS and Wheatley both accuse her of being adopted and an orphan throughout the game. Finally, Chell puts Wheatley in charge of the facility, unleashing havoc and destruction throughout the facility. This can be paralleled to the opening of Pandora’s Box.

These are not mere accidents or serendipity, there are other easter eggs hiding in Aperture. When Wheately sends you to the bottom of Aperture, where GLaDOS is pecked at, there is a building with the label of “TARTAROS”. This label fits, as Prometheus was cast into the bowels of Tartaros and had his liver devoured by an eagle every day. In the commentary in chapter eight one of the designers explains developing the reasoning to why GLaDOS can’t tell Chell the solution to the tests. “One solution we came up with was for the bird from act three to keep swooping in and pecking bits of her off your gun… Some of us though will always have a place in our hearts for the bird idea.” Finally, on the “turret redemption” line there is a rogue turret who once you help will tell you the brief story of Prometheus, wherein Valve makes an explicit allusion to the Greek mythos behind GLaDOS’ character traits.

Valve uses these parallels to create an entertaining and enthralling story. By inserting familiar archetypes into a futuristic setting, they have painted portraits of wonderfully deep and developed characters that are easy to love and/or hate despite (or because of) their obvious flaws. They have thrown these age-old characters into a complicated plot that draws players into really getting involved and the linear progression of story becomes shallow in comparison to the deeper narrative compared here:

In Greek mythology Prometheus and Epimetheus’ stories were the vehicles of the “creation myth” for man. Epimetheus, who spent all his gifts on other animals before he reached man and had nothing left. Prometheus, finding mercy on man, stole fire (the Dual-Portal Device) and art (science) from the gods and gave it to man, which allowed them the chance to walk upright. Punishment came in two forms. Prometheus was cast into Tartaros and had his liver pecked apart by an eagle every day, and man’s punishment came in the form of Pandora. Against Prometheus’ warnings Epimetheus gladly accepted Pandora and upon arriving she lifts the lid to Pandora’s Box.

Aside from opening a few doors, Wheatley doesn’t help Chell at all. He offers no solutions to puzzles, and Chell finds the single Portal Device by herself. And it can be assumed that all the humans in stasis under Wheatley’s care have died except for Chell. When they wake GLaDOS however, the A.I. gives Chell the Dual-Portal Device (fire) and forces her to test for the sake of science (art). When Wheatley does aid Chell in escaping, the two are joined (Pandora and Epimetheus) and shortly after Chell puts Wheatley in charge of the facility, unleashing havoc upon the facility. GLaDOS and the player both are both cast into Tartaros as punishment where GLaDOS is immediately found and stolen away by the bird.

Valve presents the player with the Greek’s creation myth for man. By doing so the story transcends its original shallow point and creates something much more meaningful. If the player removes most of the dialogue and takes a look at the character skeletons, their actions and personalities throughout the game, one sees that this idea was an intention during the first stages of writing. The game layers one story over another but doesn’t directly state it to the player. There are only hints, little x-marks on the surface to tell the player where to dig.

This idea actively involves the player in a quest for discovery. By doing so Valve adds an extra component to the game for its players and critics to resolve for themselves. It will take time to see what the designers’ reasons for layering the game as they did were, and any ground covered beyond is complete speculation for now.


Portal 2. Valve Corporation.

Presented by:

Whitney Cardona, Jacquelyn Tideman, and Johnathan McClintick

A Portal To Feminism, by Chris Bennett

In a world where the average game sees players tromping through the gore-spattered, phallic-laden, leatherneck power fantasies of every thirteen-year-old boy, the Portal franchise represents more than a series of delightful puzzles layered in a gooey helping of humor so pitch black it'd make Riddick himself squeal with delight. The games serve as a sublime subversion of the first-person shooter genre, and indeed much of the vast, predominately-masculine landscape of gaming as a whole, offering up a feminist interpretation of the conventions of each with a side of cake and potatoes.

Naturally the most prominent examples are the stars of the games themselves, specifically long-runners Chell and GlaDos. It's tempting to redact points from Chell because she's about as blank a slate as one can get, even by Valve's standards. Where the Half-Life games established Gordon Freeman as a remarkably introverted theoretical physicist, he was nonetheless given a place in the world, a backstory, and the eventual role of a postmodern-day, crowbar-wielding Jesus H. Christ. Chell, on the other hand, is punted awake into the testing chambers of Aperture Science with nothing more than a cold greeting and a portal. Any information that would fill in the gaps of her past is either omitted by GLaDos, or else most likely a hammy fabrication. Even taking into account the possibility of GlaDos' wicked barbs being as factual as they are humorous, that still leaves the player to conclude that Chell is a fat, smelly, horrible orphan who doesn't look at all strapping in an orange jumpsuit.

She merits discussion, however, because she's the incredibly-rare female protagonist whose physique or even personality aren't dialed up to eleven just to make a mad grab for sales. She's not the sort of hypersexualized, triple-Z cup, "oh no everyone can see my bum" woman copy-pasted from Lara Croft's nudie pics, and neither is she a slavering, bloodthirsty, borderline-sociopathic murderer who traipses around breaking off her high heels in the men's hairy bums just to prove she as much a man as the boys, such as Wet's Rubi. Her gender is presented as such a non-issue - or, more accurately, not presented in the first place save for the player catching glances of her through adjacent portals - and that's what makes her a compelling case for the game's feminist argument - she's every bit as stoic and capable as Gordon Freeman, and thus at least in their capacities (if not in their roles - survivor vs. messiah) they come across as true equals.

GlaDos is a more obviously feminine figure, characterized through a distinctive woman's voice and an especially catty, cloying personality. Even her design, confirmed by the developer's to have been inspired by Botticelli's Venus, is physically evocative of a woman ( The same blogger brings up a fascinating theory, the idea that GlaDos physically resembles a woman hung from the ceiling in bondage, and goes so far as to capture the image through his own rendition of her body as it would appear in human form ( It's a remarkable bit of artistry, and incredibly suggestive of how restrictive GlaDos' existence truly is. For the entirety of Portal and at least half of Portal 2, GlaDos remains trapped in her chambers; she spends the first halves of both games singularly obsessed with performing tests on Chell, occasionally hinting of cakes and dear and the existence of people besides Chell and herself, but never providing anything concrete, and thus further alluding to how incredibly trapped she is.

Given GlaDos' origins as Catherine, the secretary of Cave Johnson and ostensibly the inaudible voice of reason in Aperture Science, it isn't hard to imagine that her bondage is indicative of her past as a member of what must have been an incredibly patriarchal society. Aperture Science was conceived of well before the feminist movements of the 1970s, after all - though she would have possessed the right of suffrage, Catherine still would have been predominately under the thrall of Cave Johnson, both as a woman and his secretary. Catherine's characterization is almost as slim as Chell's - though she is revealed to possess at least some spark of humor and wit, and even hinted not-so-subtly at sharing a relationship with Johnson, it is worth noting that the majority of the focus of the old Aperture levels is on Johnson himself. It's under Johnson's orders that Catherine is uploaded as an AI into what will eventually become GlaDos, and so in effect GlaDos is born out of Johnson's love for science, and possibly Catherine's love and respect for Johnson. The image of her as a woman in bondage becomes a powerful one in light of its symbolic representation of GlaDos' existence and purpose being determined not by herself, but by a powerful man.

The contrast between GlaDos and Wheatley represents another layer of gender commentary, exploring the primal roles typically associated with men and women. GlaDos, notably, spends her time in the spotlight repairing the testing facilities, polishing them to a shine, and devising entirely new challenges where none had existed before. When Wheatley assumes command of the facilities, however, destruction and chaos soon follow. The turrets are warped into defective models or else Frankensteined together into abominations equal parts horrific and adorable, and the chambers he devises are either blatant copies of GlaDos' chambers, spare rooms he found tucked away, or else a dunderheaded mix of the two, literally crushed together into a barely-functional chamber. GlaDos' climax is (by her standards, at least) something of a subtle, clever affair: the player is gradually carted away from the sterile confines of the final test chamber into an incinerator, which incorporates a clever allusion to baking a cake. Wheatley, on the other hand, literally flings Chell right into a death trap he's been unsubtly telegraphing since the moment the idea occurred to him, and there's absolutely nothing clever, poignant or ironic about it at all. He opts instead for overkill, a gleaming phalanx of, in his own words, "mashy spike plates" that rather neatly capture the average first-person's shooter's attitude towards enemy combatants. Even the means of defeating each serve as stark parallels - GlaDos must be disassembled, the pieces of her mind stripped away until she can't exist anymore, where Wheatley must have personality integrated into his mainframe, in order to overwhelm and corrupt him. In an nutshell, the feminine GlaDos represents an emphasis on creation and mental stimulation, and is thus undone by simplification. The masculine Wheatley represents an emphasis on destruction, imitation, and physical overstimulation, and is quite literally overwhelmed by adding new layers to his own personality.

Finally, there is the players' myriad means of interacting with the world through the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, henceforth abbreviated to the portal gun. In and of itself the portal gun represents a remarkable shift in the structure of the game - though physically evocative of the firearms which dominate the landscape of modern gaming, its smooth, even voluptuous shape is indicative of an instrument distinctly feminine in nature. More tellingly, however, is that while referred to as a gun, it remains incapable of a gun's most basic feature - the wounding, destruction, or murder of a target. The portal gun possesses no inherently-violent features, instead used almost exclusively as a means of transportation, whether through the clever application of velocity and momentum, the creation of bridges of light and gravity funnels, or even simply plopping down onto an otherwise inaccessible ledge through a well-placed pair of portals. Though missiles, bombs, and turret fire can be redirected through the portals for combative purposes, this is always only possible in the presence of a force hostile to Chell, and only renders her assailants the architects of their own destruction. Rather than superior muscle or firepower saving her bacon, as is the case in the male-oriented shooters such as Halo or Call of Duty, Chell emerges victorious due to a deft mixture of cunning and tenacity, in a remarkably feminist subversion of the norm.

Sources used:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Aperture's Quest for Your Money

It is amazing that Portal has become such a huge hit. What began as just a little game thrown into the Orange Box quickly transformed into one of the most popular puzzle games that even spawned its own meme, "The cake is a lie." The game itself was and is so awesome that it managed to make a success out of itself without advertising. Thanks to its popularity its sequel was allowed the luxury of advertiment to promote its release. Unlike most commercials the Portal 2 commercials and advertisements are actually worth watching for the humor each possesses. The improvements and new elements within Portal 2 are amazing and the co-op feature is a very welcome addition to the game.

Commercials for Portal 2 show glimses of insight into the story and the type of narrative one will witness. Dark humor, implications of insanity, hints of a corrupt company that does not value human life, and an intense focus on testing are all displayed in the various commercials. While playing the game a person gets to listen to GLaDOS taunt Chell and her surprise for Chell could even be called down right cruel. GLaDOS clearly does not value human life and emotion and when she gains some semblance of respect for it she promptly deletes it to allow herself to continue viewing human beings as disposable items to be used for testing.

The second investment opportunities commercial states that humans can not be trusted and that it why humans are not used for the cooperative tests. Aperture solved this problem by creating special robots designed to participate in the cooperative tests. This apparent solution is not so great. At the end of the commercial Cave Johnson states that "Robots gave us six extra seconds of cooperation." When playing through the cooperative section of the game it is not uncommon for players, who are hopefully human, to start killing each other out of frustration with one another. This behavior unfortunately proves the commercial to be right. Another commercial very similar which I mentioned in a previous blog, "The Romance Safety Compliance Guide" tries to refute the previous commercial, by stating "100% of couples that participate in cooperative portal test are still deeply in love." The couples who participated in the program must have consisted entirely of companion cubes. The cooperative tests are sure to annoy each player to a certain extent. This is in no way meant to be taken that the co-op mode is not fun for it is actually quite enjoyable. GLaDOS's quips about each player can actually lessen the frustration and motivate the players to prove GLaDOS wrong and evenually lead to the completion of the co-op portion of the game. It is definately worth playing through.

Marketing was handled brilliantly by Valve. The commercials were done by Valve instead of outsourced marketing companies and they portrayed exceptionally well the kind of humor one would find within the game. The dialogue never become old and as the GameInformer (issue 218, pg 86) said "The dialogue's pitch perfect delivery is half of Portal 2's genius." There is no dissappointment in opening the game and being greeted by humor and dialogue one may come to expect after seeing the commercials and trailers.

Jana Key,
Lee West

GameInformer issue 218 Portal 2 review,

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Elements in Multi-player

As I played through single and mult-player I noticed a difference in the mechanics of the puzzles. The puzzles forced people playing together forced both players to rely heavily on each other. The new game elements that were introduced in the single player were presented in ways in the co-op that required both players to depend on the other. The hard light bridge was more difficult to use within the co-op. It was really easy for players to kill each other or themselves if they were not careful with their portals. The gels, especially the orange speed gel, were the most effected by the use of four portals instead of two. One level literally had one player running through their own portals with the help of the gel in order to gain momentum while the other player had to replace one of the running player's portals with one of the non-running players portals to literally shoot them across the level, through crushing spikes, and into a button. Combinations appeared in multiplayer that did not appear in the single players, such as dumping blue gel onto a hard light bridge. With gameplay elements such as these and the possibility with almost endless combinations that could be used in the puzzles, there could be an endless stream of DLC content for the game.

Co-op Story Placement Possibilities

The marketing of this game has a lot to do with the popularity of the first game and the hidden meaning that is looked for throughout both Portal and Portal 2. The big question is where the co-op story takes place during the main story. There are three possible places the co-op story line could have taken place. The first and most unlikely is the co-op story takes place before the original Portal game. This is possible because at the end of Portal 2 co-op the player sees all the humans stored within tanks. Could Chell be among them?
The second possible placement for the co-op storyline would be shortly after GLaDOS awakens in the Portal 2 storyline. This is more noticable after someone has played through the single player compaign and then the co-op. Some GLaDOS says in the co-op come up in the single player, like when she discusses seeing a deer on the surface.
The final placement possible is after Portal 2 and it seems to be the most likely, however it is not definate. GLaDOS is in full control of Aperture, she makes vague references to Chell, therefor GLaDOS would need more test subjects since this would put Chell no longer within Aperture.

Another Glance at Co-op

Continuing on my previous statements this may be a good place to discuss the teamwork in the multi-player aspect of Portal 2 and teh effect of the game on teamwork. The multi-player portion of the game is difficult if played with a person for only a short amount of time and if it is played with a person non-stop it is very frustrating for one or both players depending on the personalities of the two. The game itself adds stress with GLaDOS saying that 0ne player is doing better than or more more work than the other. This is also shown in single player in the chapter titled "The Escape" at the when Wheatley is put in control, GLaDOS pushes Wheatly to grow resentful of Chell which is the cause of the second half of the game to take place. All these factors make Portal 2 difficult and frustrating at times but it is for some reason fun.

A Glance at Co-op

After recently playing Portal I have decided to write about the multiplayer and how it may play into marketing. The first feature I noticed while playing multiplayer that I found interesting was the the ability to play multiplayer both online and with another person in the room. I've noticed that this feature is disappearing from many of the big title games that appear on the 360 and PS3 sysetems. Since the original Portal did not contain multi-player the inclusion of multi-player in Portal could prove helpful in its marketing. While the original was fun it grew boting if you were simply being a spectator.

Feminism in Portal and Portal 2

John and I found an article written by Chris Holt who shares the same gender related analysis that we have previously commented on.

Feminism is a reoccuring theme throughout Portal and Portal 2. It is depicted by the difference between the voices given to the characters. For instance, GLaDos is given a robotic voice which makes her sound more intelligent. In Portal 2, it is revealed that she was designed to be the most sophisticated and powerful artificial intelligence within the facility. On the other hand, the characters who are given realistic human voices are male. The human voices represent lower intelligence and a higher level of dependence. For example Wheatley, who is given the most humanistic voice was infact designed to slow down GLaDos and to be the most "moronic" robot. Also, the turrets are given human voices and represent a low intelligence level with the exception of the operatic singing "momma" turret at the end of Portal 2.
The previously linked article discusses and shares our views on Chelle and Wheatley's mutual dependence on one another. Their relationship can be viewed almost as a marital partnership where one cannot accomplish a goal without the support of the other and vice versa. Throughout the beginning of Portal 2, Wheatley creates a bond with Chelle in order to have her help him. He is unable to get the portal gun himself, nor is he able to change tracks without the assistance of Chelle. On the other hand, Chelle would not be able to navigate through the facility without Wheatley's knowledge nor would she be able to pass through certain doors. GLaDos however portrays a strong, independent woman who refuses assistance and support of a partner. In the finale of Portal 2, GLaDos is humbled once she is turned into a potato battery and is made helpless. That humbled characteristic that accompanied the "Caroline" side of GLaDos was deleted by GLaDos herself after regaining her independence.

Chell as a Non-Character

Chell has nearly no characteristics. We know she’s not one for talking. We know she’s female. We know at some point between Portal and Portal 2 she got a bit warm and pulled down the top part of her jumpsuit. We know nothing about her back story, other than speculation based on clues throughout the games (apparently one of the potato battery projects in Portal 2 has “By Chell” on it, and GLaDOS confirms that Chell is adopted in the “I literally do not have enough energy to lie” section), and the only thing we know for sure about her personality is that at some point she tested high for “tenacity.”

With such a non-characterized character, whose actions do nothing to influence the outcome of the storyline (the game can only end one way), can Chell be seen as anything other than the player’s avatar? If this is the case, then we should view all the elements in the game that are meant to psychologically affect Chell as being directed only at the gamer. All of GLaDOS and Wheatley’s taunts and praises are directed not at the person holding the portal gun, but at the person holding the Xbox controller.

At its core, Portal is a puzzle game. Rather than clicking on the bad guys to make them die, as with most first person shooters, the player has to utilize problem solving skills and do quite a bit of complex three-dimensional thinking. Moreso than other games, I feel that the Portal games rely on trial and error and the skills of the player. The plot is there, but the supposed protagonist could be replaced with just about anybody.

This is all just one way to look at the vagueness about Chell's character, but it's necessary to consider this possibility when attempting to interpret all the comments made throughout the games.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Portal Speedrun

In case anyone hasn't seen it already. I found it really fascinating to watch as a lot of the games glitches were exploited. Do you think the developers at Valve were aware of this?

Some of the level just leave you in a state of ".. wait huh?"

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Myth of the Gun

An interesting exploration of the cultural relevance of First-Person Shooters. Not quite related to Portal, but a very fascinating nonetheless.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Theoretical Mongoose: Level Design Ire.

Over the past twenty solar periods, i've been wrestling with a rather rare case of "I really don't like this game" and have been attempting to figure out why so that I could correct that so that I may be able to continue my work. However, the level design work i've been doing is, I found, precisely the reason for the feeling. Portal Un is perhaps the best example of a self-contained level system, not a single space is wasted and there is no hint of filler anywhere. The game is really just that, a puzzle game. As the Obligatory Mongoose noted earlier in the term, "The level design is symbolic of GLaDos herself: functional, highly lethal, and incredibly dark and oppressive", the operative word being *functional*. Portal Deux, however, is not functional. Portal Deux features enormous levels with mind-bendingly distant platforms, with the obvious culmination being firing a portal ONTO THE FRIGGIN MOON. The extent of the large rooms and the nature of the chapter system breaks the game into three or four seperate sections, with some video cutscenes tying the sections together, and here is where the level design + this video cutscene bollucks really puts the jam on the downside of this magnificent piece of toast.

Before I go on, I will establish that, from a theoretical standpoint, Portal Deux is a magnificent work of art that can really push the boundaries for game studies as a whole. That said, Portal Deux against Portal Un is the best example of the argument which Dr. Rees introduced last Tuesday. Portal Un is a puzzle game with some amusing story bits tossed around the edges of the gameplay. Portal 2, however, is a game where the game forgot it was a game until about the time the developers realized that the players expected a *game*. You go from room to room like a distracted child looking for the piece of candy (white wall) to grab (shoot a portal onto) and eat (find the exit). In terms of the argument Dr. Rees presented, Portal 2 is a marvelous example of how popular mainstream media attention turns actual games into story-driven mono-rails that literature people like our lovely English majors can use to infect the genre of video game studies with our glitter-like approach.

Back to the level design. Portal 2's level designs that weren't ripped from the original Portal are immense, huge rooms that turn the player into something like a mouse in a very large cage with a Portal gun. These extremely large rooms, I argue, do not serve to give the game a sense of grandness, because this is not a game in a genre that can use such stylistic approachs to heighten its ratings. Better puzzles and new puzzle elements do that, like the hard-light bridges really forcing the player to utilize a new skillset than previously applied. The hard-light bridge rooms can be quite challenging, at least they were to me, since I was not accustomed to using portals to create ledges to fire more portals. This is the direction Valve should have taken, but instead continued on with the Bigger is Better approach following the escape. Correct me if i'm wrong, but Portal Two seems to be far more focused on telling a story than giving us a game, which is why literature people everywhere can encroach on the genre like herpes or swine flu.

The redeeming parts of the level designs have been in the co-op campaign, where the actual PUZZLES are. The puzzles in the co-op campaign are more expansive due to the extra portals you can have, and the sinking feeling "where is that stupid patch of white wall" is not present, as the entirety of the co-op campaign is not a sight-seeing tour on the way to murder town but a true sequel successor in that the co-op levels are actual well-designed puzzle rooms in lieu of shiny, well-oiled factory produced scenic adventures. I say all this knowing that some of you share absolutely no feelings with me, but I feel compelled to point out that both escape scenarios are essentially running through giant rooms whose scenic value is incredibly diminished since you're looking for a white wall patch to solve the puzzle. This is not Xenosaga!