December 9, 2007

Praise for Portal

About two weeks ago, I decided to buy Valve's Portal.

Now, generally I don't play many games, but I have been reading two blogs that focus on games which have both been giving high praise for Portal. The first, Shamus Young's Twenty Sided has a lot of gaming (both pen-and-paper RPG and computer type) information, and is home to the amazingly funny DM of the Rings.

If that wasn't enough, another blog I read has had good things to say about Portal also. The other blog is Japanmanship, a blog by a game designer from England who lives and works in Tokyo. His blog is a great read for any foreigners in Japan, and also lots of interesting stuff about game design.

So after hearing so much about this game, I decided to give it a try. This is a bit commitment on my part: I have pretty much given up on the entire First Person Shooter genre. I never really played many FPS games. I started with Pathways Into Darkness on my Mac IIci but that didn't work too well. It was scary, and I got lost, and there were mean monsters trying to kill me. I get lost easily enough in real life, and it isn't any better when people are shooting at me. I never got very far in that game.

I then went on an played
Bungie's Marathon
on my PowerMac 6100av, but ran into the same problem: people were shooting at me, it was scary, and I got lost.

Ever since then I just haven't played many FPS games. I don't really like 3D games in general. I like the constrained world of 2D games, and the nice pixel graphics. About the only game that I do play any more is Street Fighter II (in the latest incarnation of it that is any good: Super Street Fighter II' Hyper: Anniversary Edition.)

I finally decided to give FPS games another chance though when I bought Portal. Actually, I bought the entire Orange Box since it was only slightly more expensive and includes a few more games that are supposed to be top-notch.

I really can't say enough good things about Portal. I'm quite late to the party I'm sure, since people were playing and writing about this game back when the Orange Box was actually released, but I'll throw in my two cents as well.

First, the pacing is excellent. The game starts off with simple tasks, and clearly shows what you can do. The progression and learning curve is very well paced. I know it is because I am more or less hopeless at these games, and I found that I was able to figure out what I needed to do without resorting to looking things up on the internet.

I also never felt like I was lost: the levels were well designed and I generally knew what I had to do, or where I needed to go. I really loved the puzzle-game dynamic as well. I wasn't being chased by bad guys, and things felt more like an extended Tetris than a stressful first-person shooter. By the time I got around to the last "level" I was using all the tricks the Portal gameplay mechanics allowed for, and really enjoying it.

The other thing that really hooked me is how they managed to tell a great story that was just absolutely hilarious. I love the disembodied GLaDOS computer voice, and the gun turrets are super cool too. I almost felt bad about knocking them out of commission.

By the end of the game, you are treated to an absolutely amazing song. It was composed by Jonathan Coulton who you really should check out: he's got some geeky and funny stuff. I'll write a post about it at some point, once I sort out my top recommendations. Due entirely to the Portal end-song, I ended up spending $70 on the DRM-free Jonathan Coulton "box set" of MP3s. He also distributes his stuff under a Creative Commons license, so you can get a lot of his stuff for free, but I've been listening to a bunch of his stuff and thought it would be nice to support the non-traditional music distribution model.

Anyway, my recommendation is to play Portal. I've actually started playing Half-Life 2 from Orange Box, and am enjoying it as well, but I really wish I had my portal gun. And that people would stop shooting at me. And that I wouldn't get lost so often. I do have to admit though, I am getting lost and confused much less frequently than usual for the genre, which I attribute to the Valve designers putting a lot of thought into the level design.


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