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The Real World Lessons of Portal

The Real World Lessons of Portal

For some reason, video games haven’t reached the same level of cultural acceptance as books, movies or television. They are "childish and unproductive." They take more from the player than they give—or so I’m told.

As with most stereotypes, there is probably some truth to these claims. However, just as Christians have done in the past with movies and music, we are overstating our case and revealing that, maybe, we just don’t "get" games.

As a Christian, a pastor and a gamer, I constantly find myself articulating why games matter. It is my suspicion that many Christians look down on video games simply because they do not understand them. Video games are not movies, nor is fair to call them simulations. They are something altogether different. Unless we understand how video games convey meaning, we will never be in a position to judge their value.

Novels convey meaning through narrative and movies through editing. In contrast, games convey meaning through the player’s response to its rules and mechanics. To put it simply, games are most meaningful when the player adopts a sense of agency or involvement and invests himself in its world. A game’s narrative can add or subtract from that sense of agency, but it is the player’s involvement that gives games their unique impact.

Clint Hocking (creative director of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Far Cry 2), speaking on dynamics and narrative in games at this year’s Game Developers Conference shared an example of how narrative can enhance our experiences with games. He wondered, what if we gave Tetris a story? What if Tetris had a WWII theme, and the blocks represented people that you must stack inside a train car and whoever is left behind is immediately shipped off to a concentration camp? This would radically change the way people play Tetris. The narrative would enhance the game’s meaning tremendously.

Ever since Roger Ebert laid down the gauntlet to gamers and said, “Video games can never be art,” gamers have been searching for the ever-elusive Citizen Kane of
video games. To be fair, it should be said that video games haven’t
been around very long (not quite 40 years), so it’s probably a bit too
early to be looking for such a classic. However, I have to wonder if
there has already been such a game.

Recently, Valve released the sequel to what is considered one of the greatest games ever created, Portal. In Portal, you find yourself inside a test chamber with a “gun” that makes portals in walls. Mechanically speaking, it’s a simple game of getting from point A to point B. Your gun makes two portals: an entrance and an exit portal. You use this simple mechanic and a basic knowledge of physics to get around obstacles to the exit of each stage.

If this were all that were involved in Portal, it would still be a delightful game. However, Valve placed a surprisingly compelling narrative on top that makes the experience of playing the game unforgettable.

The only significant dialogue in the game comes from an AI named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disc Operating System) who talks to you before and after each “test.” Most of GLaDOS’ comments sound prerecorded.The environments of the game are clean, precise and austere. Each test has an observation room with obscured glass from which you expect to see someone watching you and taking notes on your progress—but each of these rooms are empty. Your only interaction is with an artificial voice. GLaDOS praises you, warns you against destroying testing equipment and offers you cake after you complete her tests. Eventually, these tests can seem … well, lonely.

The further you progress, the more sarcastic GLaDOS’ praise becomes and the more it becomes clear that these “tests” are designed to kill you. In one of the very last tests, you find a side room with a strikingly less calm aesthetic where someone has scribbled on the wall, “THE CAKE IS A LIE!” What has been gnawing at you hits with brutal force, and as a player, you are thrown inexorably into a state of existential despair. You are just a number, a pawn in the hands of a seemingly unassailable force. You are in someone else’s world, doing another’s bidding and moving inexorably toward your own death. The rest of the game finds you using the very skills you attained in completing GLaDOS’ tests to shut her down. The realization that GLaDOS is actively trying to kill you gives the game’s simple mechanics added depth. Placing portals suddenly becomes terrifyingly important. It’s enough to make a peaceful game become justifiably violent.

You may be asking yourself, why should Christians care about this? Is there anything to learn from investing ourselves in worlds that don’t count?

At the very least, there is a very important parallel to our own world. The Bible presents us with a story and constantly asks us to care about, invest in and devote ourselves to it. Instead of distracting us from God’s world, immersive video games can encourage us to more faithfully invest in it. Sure, some people spend unhealthy amounts of time playing games. But the problem is not the games; the problem is us.

We are part of a fascinating world with a compelling and interactive story. Let video games remind you that the world matters—as does your place in it.

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