CliqueClack Flicks

Portal: a cinematic experience

There are some critics of the video game industry who group every game into the same label: mindless entertainment with no artistic value. Those critics haven't met GLaDOS.

I spent the large majority of today playing the newly-released Portal 2 (on PC, for those who are curious) from beginning to end. I’m writing this at 11 PM, and my brain is pretty fried from hours of jumping on platforms, taking down turrets, breaking the laws of physics and listening to an emotionally damaged and homicidal computer program make fun of me (among other things). But throughout the whole day, I was reminded of the rather infamous article Roger Ebert wrote a year ago this week that stated video games could never be art. The discussion itself is subjective, so I can’t necessarily fault him for having a differing opinion (and I know he revised his statement in a later post). Still, after playing through this lovely sequel, I feel like the Portal series is a huge leap forward for video games to be seen as legitimate art, and in this particular case, a cinematic experience. (Fair warning: while I’m not going into specifics about the sequel, there might be some slight spoilers regarding Portal 2. Read at your own risk).

I think many would say the original Portal on its own was evidence for the “gaming can be art” argument. Sure, the gameplay itself was a huge reason for the game’s success — who didn’t love the physics bending portals? — but the real treasure of the game was the bloodthirstily deadpan GLaDOS, voiced to perfection by Ellen McLain. The slow reveal of her homicidal nature through her dialogue was a wonderful treat, one that I got to savor more and more as the game went on. Most people go to the cake quotes first, but my favorites are when she is just starting to act askew, i.e. “As part of an optional test protocol, we are pleased to present an amusing fact: the device is now more valuable than the organs and combined incomes of everyone in *subject hometown here*.”

There’s also a sort of serious concept within the game: the dangers of giving technology too much power. I don’t think it’s too far a leap to suggest the parallels between GLaDOS and 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL. I realize there is more to the classic Kubrick film than just that character, but when two characters are so similar and so wonderful in their conceptions, why is one’s media seen as art while the other’s isn’t?

The lack of any other dialogue (even from Chell herself) made for a very authentic alienation. But that goes back to the simplicity of the game — it really is just you alone with the crazy computer program that holds your life in its hands. Thanks to the mandatory first person point of view, you can’t even see what your own character looks like until you can use the dual portals later in the game, and even then it’s often just a flash (sidenote: I think it was a surprise to many when they realized Chell was actually a woman, and it’s a testament to the boldness of Valve as a company that they didn’t shine a light on her gender).

I can’t discuss Portal without mentioning the now iconic ending song Still Alive by Jonathon Coulton, one of my favorite songwriters. Still Alive was really the icing on the cake for GLaDOS … she went from clever antagonist to infamous antagonist. What is it about denial and insanity mixed with a cheery melody sung by a robot voice that makes me so happy? It added another layer of creepy to an already creepy character.

All that said, Portal 2 brings the series to a new level artistically. The sequel does what so many film sequels fail to do: stay true to the original while building something unique in the process. The gameplay is as challenging as fun as it ever was, but since this isn’t a game review, I’m not going to go into great detail about the actual mechanics. Just looking at the puzzles, I had a great time figuring out all the levels. For me, the story is what got me to buy the game, and while it has changed, change doesn’t always mean bad. The isolation is dulled by the introduction of another, more amicable AI named Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant), and his inclusion changes the “relationship” of GLaDOS and Chell. Wheatley even discovers why Chell doesn’t speak … it rhymes with “grain hammage.”

Within certain parts of the gameplay, we get to see into the history of the company, thanks to the decades-old recorded messages from Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson. He’s voiced by the amazing J.K. Simmons, who gives the character a distinctly post-WWII energy; I could easily imagine Cave meeting with Don Draper to spice up Aperture’s image on Mad Men. As I heard more and more of his dialogue, it became crystal clear how things got out of hand at the company. The enthusiasm for progress mixed with the reckless abandon of safety procedures fits right in to the events of the first game. And he’s still so much fun to listen to as you move through the facility. For those of you planning on playing the game, look high and low for details added to the game during these particular levels … they’ve planted a lot of exposition (and jokes) for the player with a good eye.

And of course, we have GLaDOS, very much alive and quite angry that you killed her.  So much of the game is about the crazy bitch of an AI getting revenge (and calling you fat), but where the character goes from there surprised the hell out of me. Valve took risks with her in this new story, but it worked and was sure more interesting than if they had done the exact same arc as the first. Like so many legendary films, the climax was something I never saw coming, but was subtly hinted at earlier in the game. More than that, it was both visually and emotionally beautiful. The epilogue was true to the whole series … unsettling, but ultimately rewarding. The last few minutes were technically just a cutscene, but I felt like was still very much in the game. It sucked me in, and isn’t that what you want in art?

Any discussion of art is going to be subjective … I realize there will never be one answer to the question “Can video games be art?” Still, I look at a series like Portal with it’s dark humor, charismatic characters, underlining ethical questions and expanding world, and …. is it too much to think that a video game like that is art?

Photo Credit: Valve

Categories: Features, General

One Response to “Portal: a cinematic experience”

April 29, 2011 at 1:23 AM

The original was one of the most fun and interesting games I have ever played. I’m really not much of a gamer any more, but I just got my copy of Portal 2 because I couldn’t resist going back to that world. I’ve yet to install it, but your write-up is a seriously strong argument for the game-as-art topic.

I can’t wait to dive back into a nice chunk of homicidal, twisted art!

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