Medic wrote a very interesting article describing her early experiences with Left 4 Dead and how it shaped her future gaming career. I thought I could talk about my personal background in the same way.
Unlike most of you, I did not grow up playing video games. My parents are awesome, but they were not comfortable with ‘brain-rotting activities’, and for that reason I grew up without a computer, internet, or any gaming consoles. This ‘forbidden fruit’ was likely the reason I’ve dived so heavily into all three cultures. (They let me have a TV, which I quickly grew bored of once I learned that video games were like movies you could participate in).
Around high school I managed to convince them to get me an Apple Tangerine and play educational video games, and this introduced me to the worlds of Humongous Entertainment and Oregon Trail. I played Freddi Fish, Spy Fox, and the other adventure games religiously for the rest of high school, growing ever further out of the intended age group. I was downright beast at Oregon Trail, though I preferred the little-known sequel Yukon Trail. (I still know the best spot to mine for gold at the end, but I’m not telling :P)
On May 14 2010, I saw an announcement that a game called Portal was going free for 2 weeks. I’d heard great things from my friends about this game, so I signed up for a Steam account like it told me to, deciding I’d keep it a secret from my parents. For the rest of that week after bedtime I’d sneak down to the computer room and play Portal until I could barely keep my eyes open. Mom and dad later discovered what I was doing when my high school called them and reported I was regularly sleep-deprived in class, but when I tried to pass Portal off as a “physics educational game” they let it slide so long as I started playing it during the daytime.
In hindsight, I couldn’t have picked a better game to introduce me to first-person shooters. The game begins with you locked in your test chamber while a robotic voice monologues at you for about five minutes, and I needed all of them to get the hang of WASD. I discovered Jump on accident, but other controls like crouch, interact, and zoom took me an embarrassingly long time to do with any regularly, especially the “hold down E to keep holding the radio” concept. The myriad of physics props and interactive objects in the room was a godsend, and the extremely slow tutorial taking it’s sweet time to introduce the concepts was heavily appreciated. Every puzzle took me far too long to figure out.
I remember my first death very clearly because I’ve always cared about how much progress I make in my first life of any game; since you can’t restart in real life that first death feels like the spot that I ‘legally’ ended the game, how far I myself would actually have gotten in this story. In Portal it turns out I would have died in the very first room with a fail state: I figured out the puzzle through analysis but I poorly timed my dropdown onto the Unstationary Scaffold.
Slowly but surely I worked my way through the game…until Test Chamber 15. I took something of a forced hiatus on that one because the very first puzzle just stumped the hell out of me. Never mind that I’d used advanced flinging methods already at least three different times; it just never clicked to fling myself once, shoot an orange portal right before landing and fling myself again past the incandescent field. I got so close to cheating and looking up a walkthrough online, but after leaving the game off for a week I decided that I still hadn’t (and haven’t) forgiven myself for using a walkthrough exactly once in an earlier game on what turned out to be a boneheaded simple puzzle. Sure enough, I solved Chamber 15 on accident the next time I turned the game on.
I absolutely 100% did not see GLaDOS’ betrayal coming. It shocked me to the core. How could the helpful voice be evil? It struck me as one of the greatest twists I’d ever experienced in my 17 years of life. The final puzzle somehow did a good job of tying together everything I’d learned about manipulating portals while still being fairly challenging, and the ending was the original, before it got retconned into a Portal 2 teaser. I still prefer the old ending, self-containment was one of Portal ‘s major themes and some stupid robot dragging you off really cheapens the victory. Not to mention my original interpretation of the ending was that the player closed her eyes because she died, having earned a glimpse of the outside world before succumbing to her injuries.
Portal was the game that drove me towards going into game development as a career because it showed me that video games can tell a story worth experiencing. Gabe Newell once said that Super Mario 64 convinced him that games were art, and Portal did a similar thing for me because it told the first story I’d ever experienced that could not have been any other medium. The player’s control and the interactivity was an integral facet of the story and helped drive the plot without becoming the focus or the theme. Portal is at heart a puzzle game, borrowing mechanics from the shooter genre and adding its own story to a pre-existing universe but never straying from its simple ambitions. It succeeds on every level, and no form of storytelling has more levels than a video game.