February 24, 2008

PvP: Portal versus Passage

by Nick Montfort · , 2:37 pm

Portal partial screenshot Passage partial screenshot

How is it that a 2D, five-minute, public domain videogame with an effective resolution of 100×12, developed by one guy who uses a 250 MHz PPC computer, can be better than a 3D, five-hour videogame that runs at 1080i, is the product of a well-funded and well-equipped corporate workplace and has been named the best game of 2007 by numerous publications?

I’ll explain.

The two games I’m discussing are Valve Corporation’s Portal and Jason Rohrer’s Passage. They are both named for openings, narrow spaces of transition. You might not guess it, but besides this similarity, and besides being released in 2007, they have some other things in common. Both of them are innovative games, both are worth playing, and both are quite well-designed and stimulating. Yes, the highly-touted assemblage of voice acting, 3D models, levels, puzzles, sound, textures, and processes that is Portal is a fine game – nothing less than excellent. I don’t at all deny it. I’m just going to describe why Passage is even better.

As I do this, I’ll incidentally give away the secrets that are locked within both games. Please, play the games before you read the rest of this post!

SPOILERS for Portal and Passage are below!

Passage is about life, about how your movement through a virtual space using video game conventions maps to our experience of growing up, living together or alone, growing old, and dying. Developer Jason Rohrer says as much in describing the game in his statement about it – addressed to those who have already played the game:

Passage is meant to be a memento mori game. It presents an entire life, from young adulthood through old age and death, in the span of five minutes. Of course, it’s a game, not a painting or a film, so the choices that you make as the player are crucial. There’s no “right” way to play Passage, just as there’s no right way to interpret it. … The early stages of life seem to be all about the future: what you’re going to do when you grow up, who you’re going to marry, and all the things you’re going to do someday. At the beginning of the game, you can see your entire life out in front of you, albeit in rather hazy form, but you can’t see anything that’s behind you, because you have no past to speak of. As you approach middle age, you can still see quite a bit out in front of you, but you can also see what you’ve left behind—a kind of store of memories that builds up. At its midpoint, life is really about both the future (what you’re going to do when you retire) and the past (telling stories about your youth). Toward the end of life, there really is no future left, so life is more about the past, and you can see a lifetime of memories behind you.

Players can choose to join the (non-cube) companion who appears early in the game. This allows them to progress through the game with company. Or, they can steer away, in which case they’ll be alone, but able to get into spaces where two people won’t fit. Players can try to collect treasures, explore the environment, or race to see how far ahead they can get. Some of the seeming-treasures turn out to be empty. The game mechanics and the simulated environment do not make a definite statement about life (“money is meaningless” or “life is better alone”) or about moral choices (“you killed the puppy, you are a bad person”). Instead, they provide another way of thinking about life. Players can ask themselves whether their behavior in this video game reflects their approach to life; perhaps it doesn’t, because they perceive games as something separate. If there is a connection, though, this can also be a space in which players can live different sorts of pretend lives, imagining what the pleasures of being a treasure-seeker might be.

Portal is about how to deploy an innovative game mechanic by honing iterative level designs, using QA and being observant about player behavior. You can reach no other conclusion from listening to the developer commentary. At no point do any of the recorded comments include anything along the lines of “we thought this reflected a basic truth about the world and people’s experience of life, so we put it in the game.” Instead, they relate how, for instance, players were observed to do something that wasn’t expected, and the design of the game was changed in reaction to this. They focus on how the design trains players to do more advanced manipulations of the environment. This statement from Realm Lovejoy is a typical bit of commentary:

Breaking this tube gives players a chance to test out their newly trained rocket-redirecting and glass-breaking skills in a slightly different context, which helps them at their training.

Despite having his tongue planted in his cheek, developer Erik Wolpaw put things pretty clearly in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun in which he described the origin of cake as the purported goal for test subjects:

Well, there are lots of message games coming out now. Like they’ve got something really important to get off their chest about the war in Iraq or the player is forced to make some dicey underwater moral choices. Really, just a whole heck of a lot of stuff to think about. With that in mind, at the beginning of the Portal development process, we sat down as a group to decide what philosopher or school of philosophy our game would be based on. That was followed by about fifteen minutes of silence and then someone mentioned that a lot of people like cake.

There are a few reasons that people might prefer Portal to a “message game” with “stuff to think about.” Sometimes people don’t want to think; they just want a new gun that shoots something radical, and to be trained in shooting something radical with their new gun. Actually, the gun in Portal allows you to do different types of abstract thinking and to encounter physics and combat tactics in a new way. So Portal isn’t a total reprieve from thought. It’s just a compartment for thought, an underground testing complex hermetically cut off from the world, purportedly message-free. Like a game wholly game, fluttering its empty sleeves, as Wallace Stevens might have said. (Note that Steve Meretzky, in his clever presentation praising Portal, didn’t actually say that the game is anything more than this; he just said that the game was a relief from the drudgery of life.) The decisions made to craft such a game are, of course, aimed at enhancing playability and amusement, at increasing sell-through. They cannot be based on any attempt to make the game more meaningful or to make it relate to life in a more interesting way. Even the most emotially charged sequence — the final, beloved one in which “Still Alive” plays as the credits roll — has a very simple primary “story” or “message” function: Leaving open the opportunity for a sequel.

So there are really two big ideas in these two games: The passage of a person through life and the idea that takes control by default in the other, supposedly message-free game, the passage of SKUs through retail stores.

In about ten years, I suspect that few people will engage with Portal unless they are being nostalgic or are specifically looking into the history of commercial video games. The game will probably have the status that the 1997 Mario Kart 64 has today. It will remain remarkable for its design, will be recognized for its technical accomplishments at the time, will still be fun at parties (an admirable quality for a single-player game), and, overall, will be seen as an interesting stepping stone to whatever evolves.

In about twenty-five years, on the other hand, I think Passage will have something of the status that the 1985 A Mind Forever Voyaging (by none other than Portal-praiser and recent GDC Game Design Challenge winner Steve Meretzky) does today. People will not play it at parties, certainly. But they will remember it because it showed them, for the first time, how games can model our world and what we care about in it. They will study it, modify it (recall that Passage is in the public domain) and build new games in response to it. They will play it for the first time and stop stunned, or cry, or imagine the reactions of all the others who have also gone through this miniature life.

Portal is neat, and its design accomplishments and high polish are real. It just isn’t the true heartbreaker of this pair of games. And, of the two, it also isn’t the game I wished I had developed.