Portal 2, And The Enduring Legacy Of Missing Story Components

Man, that sounds like the dullest Indiana Jones movie of all time. “Indiana Jones And The Pretentious Story Analysis! He fights a swarm of metaphors! He punches Nazis off the top of the story arc!”

So, the wife and I finished Portal 2.

Single-player, at least.

This post will contain no spoilers, so you can go ahead and read it (I can’t promise that the comments section will be the same, as anybody who wants to discuss the game and its story may need to get all spoiler-flavored). (Speaking of flavored, did you see that there’s cupcake-flavored vodka? It’s true.) (Indiana Jones chops hashashayyin assassins with deadly parentheses!) (Shut up.)

You wanna know one of the things I really love about both the first Portal game and its largely-superior — which is saying a lot – sequel? It’s that they leave a great deal to the imagination. In this day and age, with the epic leaps forward in special effects and graphics, it’s easy to put everything you want in the story and the in the storyworld right there on the screen for all to see. Books do this but by dint of a different principle: they’re so chockablock with all those pesky words and pages it becomes difficult not to throw every ingredient into the pot. It’s the Kitchen Sink method of storytelling.

But Portal 1 & 2, not so much.

Here’s what I mean: Portal is, at its core (pun not intended until now), the story of a girl being put through a series of tests by a deranged wing de-icer slash artificial intelligence. It is a battle of wits and survival using the mighty portal gun, which creates a pair of connected teleportation portals on flat surfaces. Big crazy hilarious sci-fi action-puzzle game. That’s it.

You could stop there and, hey, fuck it, a winning equation.

But Valve goes the extra distance and creates layers to that experience, layers that are not entirely grasped or seen (though one could argue that they are keenly felt), layers comprising the story of the mad AI, of the testing facility and all of Aperture Science, of the “Rat Man” in the walls and the life of little turrets and so on and so forth. The characters they’ve created in this space — GlaDOS, Cave Johnson, Wheatley, the Rat Man through his scrawlings — are again fully-felt but not necessarily fully-formed.

That sounds like a bad thing.

It is the furthest thing from it.

In fact, it’s pretty damn rad.

Because what happens is, you still get the core (there’s that pun again) experience and story, and you also get all this added voodoo. But because the voodoo has gaps — unanswered questions, vague links, hinted suggestions — you end up as the player/audience member stepping into the breach and solving those variables yourself with your own story-bridges. On various forums you’ll find endless speculation who Chell is, who her parents are, who the Rat Man is, how all this stuff connects, how it connects to Half-Life, to Gordon Freeman, how the ending plays out versus how it “really” plays out. People are finding all these great little Easter Eggs and finding ways to incorporate them into this pastiche of story (some such incorporations are brilliant, others entirely boggling).

But what it does is, it creates this legacy — it ensures that the game is (another incoming and originally unintentional pun in 3… 2… 1… ) still alive long after it’s been shelved. Hell, the song “Still Alive”…

…contains its own weird little story clues and gaps, right? You beat the game, you think you know what’s up, then the end comes and this song plays and you’re like, “Maybe there’s more going on than I originally figured.” You think about it. You talk about it. You laugh about it. This legacy of mystery — created by not answering all the questions and not building concrete connections — endures.

Really fucking cool.

But it’s hard to do. Hard to do in a way that leaves people satisfied and wanting more as opposed to unsatisfied and being fed up with your rampant jerkery. So, I ask: who did it right? Who did it poorly? Games, movies, books, comics, whatever. Think about those stories that never fully put it all together and demanded that you, the audience, do some legwork (while still maintaining the essential story and experience). Here’s a fascinating sidebar, though, and it maybe leads to a much bigger question –

Some (a lot?) of this stuff in Portal is by accident. As I understand it, Jonathan Coulton in crafting “Still Alive” had some leeway there and wasn’t forced to adhere to some canon-that-never-really-existed. Further, one of the big story twists in Portal 2 (which I won’t name in the post due to ANTI-SPOILER REDACTION SYSTEMS) was, again, a total accident due to a casting choice.

I’ve seen this happen in roleplaying games at the table — you craft a very brief throwaway character and pop them in for a session and suddenly the players either really like that character and/or they believe that throwaway character has far greater significance than intended. Audience desire and design changes the needs of the game. That’s harder to do in more linear narratives, but therein perhaps lies one of the genuine benefits of transmedia (a benefit all-too-rarely sought).

Noodle it.

And let’s chat this shiznit up.

P.S. We totally own a plush companion cube.

P.P. S. I would stab a dude in the gills for this plush Portal turret.

12 comments

  • Maybe it’s just the first thing to come to mind because I’m rewatching it right now, but the anime Serial Experiments Lain is brilliant in this respect. (Summary: cyberpunk, nightmare fuel, and Lain Iwakura, the most quietly awesome eighth-grader you will ever meet.) The creators don’t even try to explain all the weird things that happen, and while that’s frustrating in some respects, it also does a lot to give the series its power. I suspect that for some people, SEL crosses the line into “frustrating,” so your mileage may vary, but it’s one of my favorite TV shows, and the story gaps are a big part of the reason why.

  • Is this where I grumble about PSN and not having the game yet? No? Ok then.

    Valve is getting to be pretty awesome at telling the story through the gaps. Just look at zombie shoot ‘em ups Left 4 Dead. At the surface there seems to be no narrative. Then you start paying attention to the wall scribbles, the throw away one liners, the settings – it all starts filling in.

    It’s a lot like music, I think, where the space between notes can have as much impact as the notes themselves. It takes a really deft hand to pull it off. Not every story (regardless of medium) can.

  • A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was an absolutely incredible example of this kind of storytelling. It’s easy to forget now that every conceivable corner has been filled in and you can read a 12-page article on the fourth alien from the left in the cantina scene, but it was the unanswered questions that made it magical for kids my age. Who was Jabba? What were the Clone Wars? What’s a Sith, and why is the Dark Lord of it in that armor and mask? We didn’t know, and so we argued and pontificated (as well as grade schoolers could) and speculated and were captivated.

  • Yeah, I’d most certainly have to agree on Serial Experiment Lain for being the definitive example for story gaps. I’ve watched it multiple times since it first came out and I’m STILL not sure I understand everything 100%. Then again, from what I’ve read not even the creators are certain of what exactly happened in the story, so there’s that.
    As for other types of media that have story gaps I’d have to say the first Silent Hill game was that to a tee. From the very start where you wake up in a car, follow an outline of what you think is your daughter through the unseasonable snow into a dark alleyway that suddenly morphs into a chain linked hellmouth where little child creatures try to stab you with knives while air raid sirens blare around you…
    Sorry, just had a flashback there. The thing is that the craziness is never really explained, its origin is barely hinted at, and the only explanation that you can get on what the eff is happening is one you have to piece together using the symbolism in the scenery and monsters around you. Good times, good times.
    Oh, and another good example of story gaps has to be recent clanbooks for Vampire: The Requiem, or more specifically the underlying story that connects them all. I know people who have set up whole spreadsheets of characters and events dedicated to finding out what’s really going underneath the surface layer. Also I think a certain Mr. Wendig was involved with those books wasn’t he?

  • I approve of any game that voice casts J.K. Simmons. The man is a genius at spouting total insanity.

    On topic, Jim Butcher is something of a master at telling a story through gaps. In his Dresden Files books, he constantly has the main character throw out little tidbits of information that are suggestive as hell, but aren’t fleshed out immediately. Sometimes, as with Gard, he’ll go back maybe five books later and give you a few more details. Other times, he won’t, and you’ll need to fend for yourself. Either way, it makes for fascinating reading.

  • Why are you in my head? Get out.

    I actually started writing about this for LA Noir and now you’ve given me more to think about.

    I don’t think anyone else, in gaming at least, is taking this to the same level Valve is. They’re masters at less is more. But then I’m not playing consoles, so what do I know?

    I do think, though, that you can learn a lot of story tricks from these guys. In a lot of ways their methods of giving you a slice of information, rather than the whole enchilada reminds me a lot of Twin Peaks. What little I saw of Lost did some similar things, but I don’t think they did it as well.

    TP showed slices, not whole pictures, and the audience ate it the fuck up. Valve games are like that.

    One thing that’s always struck me about their games is how they’ve built narrative directly into the environment.

    It really kicks in with Half-Life 2, the subsequent episodes and the Left 4 Dead franchise. The graffiti in L4D is a perfect example. If you’re paying attention you can get a pretty good idea of what’s really going on, if not the cause of the zombie apocalypse.

    HL2 has bits and pieces scattered throughout, like a group photo of the Black Mesa scientists in Eli’s lab where the administrator’s face has been scratched out, or the newspaper clippings pinned to a corkboard.

    None of this is called out, yet it’s there if you’re paying attention.

    Similarly, they’ll throw in a Chekov’s Gun situation, but hide it in the middle of a bunch of inconsequential noise, like **possible spoiler** the fact that the AIs in Portal 2 can operate on 1.1 volts. It’s mentioned early on, but it feels like one of the other countless bits of comedy they toss in there. The fact that they use it later only adds to the comedy.

    I was replaying Half-Life, the first one, the other day to see if they were doing it back then. They do. Not as well as in their later games. It’s a little clumsy and more crude, but it’s there.

    You can see it in the opening sequence as you ride the tram through Black Mesa. The PA system gives you all these little details that give it a greater sense of place and story. And you have other bits and pieces scattered throughout the game. Again, they’re kind of crude and they smack you over the head with it a few times, but it’s there.

    If you get a chance, check out the developer commentary on the HL2 episodes. Some fascinating story notes there, along with excellent ideas on game structure.

    One that always stuck out to me was their puzzle philosophy. Show an easy example of how it works, then make them progressively more difficult, but maintain the puzzle structure. The fact that they can do this and make it feel seamless and part of the world, rather than a puzzle, is astounding.

    You can see a lot of this in Portal and even more in P2. It’s most obvious in those games because their more clearly puzzle based, but it’s there in their other games as well.

  • To answer your question, I’ve gotta go to Lord of the Rings as an example of the partial reveal done well. Sauron and his Dark Tower are infinitely cooler and scarier than they would be if Frodo had ever set foot inside Barad-dur.

  • I’m scared to read the comments. But I wanted to say that it sounds like what they’ve done is very much like the wonders that Echo Bazaar manages to conjure up with snippets here and hints there.

    http://echobazaar.failbettergames.com, if you don’t already know the place.

    They refer to it as ‘emergent gameplay’, and it reminds me of some of the things that Michael Moorcock used to talk about in his wilder and more wooly moments. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are some serious threads of genius in there…

  • The anime film Ghost in the Shell and its TV series does that…it’s incredibly frustrating, watch it 7 times through and you’re still trying to put the pieces together. Frustrating but awesome.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds