The Cake is Not a Lie

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wcc.pngPortal could be the best game of the year. I'm just going to put that out there right now. I know, I know; there's a lot coming out in the next two months that I'm pretty excited about. But even so. I'm pretty sure it's head and shoulders above anything that's come out so far, which is saying a hell of a lot. Better than Guitar Hero II; better than Phantom Hourglass; better than Halo 3; and speaking confidently without having played it, better than Bioshock. (Anything I'm overlooking?) These are all fantastic games, but I'm absolutely in love with Portal.

The game's best quality, without question, is its spectacular sense of humor. This is a pervasive aspect of the environment, and although it's strictly secondary to the gameplay (primarily taking the form of the unmistakable modulated voice-over you'll recognize from the advertising, as well as signage and graffiti decorating the game's levels) it absolutely makes the game. The game actually has a surprisingly varied emotional score - surprising for a puzzle game, certainly - with a fair bit of pathos thrown in, like the humor, almost off-handedly. The bit about the Weighted Companion Cube is brilliant. All of this contributes to the game's sense of style, which is excellent. Not the same caliber as Bioshock's, perhaps, but still very well done.

As for the gameplay itself, all of the fears I had about the game being more of a platformer than a puzzle game proved completely unfounded. Certainly there is an element of platforming, but that is almost never the focus of the game. There are threatening elements, but they exist primarily in service to the art direction; there's just enough to create a sense of danger, without ever making the player feel like they're fighting against the level designer. The levels are actually put together to be quite forgiving (the thing that really assuaged my worries is that the character doesn't take falling damage), which fits the general puzzles-first philosophy: the hard part is always figuring out what you have to do and how to make it work; once you have a solution, you might have to practice a couple times to get it right, but you don't have to worry too much about the execution. And when you do trip up on something, well, there are two things that come to your rescue: one, the game is generous with its save points, so dying has a relatively low cost; and two, the nature of the portals means that if you fall from the area you want to be in to an area you've already completed, nine times out of ten there's still a portal open up where you want to be, so getting back is trivial.

Let me say a couple things about the portals, while I'm at it. They're great. It's incredible how Valve could take a physics-based puzzle game, add a set of completely nonphysical interactions, and make the whole thing feel so damn intuitive. Partially it's the way they've put together the physics of the portals - the first time you see yourself through a portal across the room, or watch a cube bobbing up and down between two adjacent portals in the floor, you'll be amazed at how natural it seems. Mostly, though, it's a testament to the level design and difficulty progression, of which I have never seen the like. The game is divided into nineteen parts, but really it's seventeen tutorial levels, one practice level, and then the game proper. Each tutorial level teaches you something new - introducing you to an aspect of the environment or a skill - but almost all of it is taught by discovery. That is, unlike every other game I've ever played a tutorial level for, you are never explicitly told how to interact with the environment. The things you're supposed to learn aren't spelled out for you. That might sound intimidating, but it's done so skillfully, you hardly notice it. The pedagogical goal for each tutorial levels is so simple that it's easy to figure it out, but when you start using them all in combination it's breathtaking.

I'm also a big fan of some things that are more indirectly related to the game. The theme song, which plays in full over the credits, it by one of my all-time favorite artists and is one of his best. (If you're looking for the song, "Still Alive," there are several YouTube videos that include it, or you can find just the mp3. But be specifically warned, the song contains some spoilers, and you're really better off playing the game first.) There's an Aperture Science website that was launched a while ago as part of the marketing for the game (type "login", any username, with the password "portal" to apply to be a test subject, which is fun) but there's actually some extra content there for anyone who pays close attention in the game. (Again, watch out for spoilers on the website. If you really want to see it, use the username CJOHNSON and password TIER3 and you can read a history of Aperture Science. Spoilsport.) And, not least by any stretch, the Weighted Companion Cube has turned into a whole thing, which I could not be more pleased about. Rock, Paper, Shotgun, also excited, has been doing a fantastic job keeping track of it. They're reporting that Valve is planning to release a plush WCC sometime before Christmas, which will go great with my new wallpaper.

I probably don't need to gush any more, so I'll wrap up. In summary: if you inhabit space, have emotions, and if you have any interest in puzzle games at all, go play Portal right now. I can't personally vouch for any of the rest of the Orange Box yet, because I physically could not tear myself away from this game, but basically I can't imagine that you'd be disappointed with your purchase.

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Update: There's more on Jonathan Coulton's website about his song, including the lyrics and chords. If you aren't already a Jonathan Coulton fan, check out some of his music while you're over there.

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