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PC Games (Games)

Croal vs. Totilo - The Portal Letters 51

Today Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and MTV's Stephen Totilo conclude another of their fascinating email correspondences, this time surrounding Valve's recently released Portal . In part one, the two journalists explored the power of minimalism in gaming, and why that 'less is more' attitude worked so well. Part two saw the pair wrestling with some fundamental disagreements about the nature of character in the game. In today's finale, the twosome addresses the game's brief length, and how that made the game all the better. "What's great about Portal's approach is that suggestive spareness of the plot and the absence of characterization leaves us plenty of room to fill in the blanks with our imagination, which, when supported by a framework as precisely and elegantly thought out as it is here, delivers a more powerful final product than many other games that give us plenty of characterization and story but precious little genuine mystery ... Portal goes one step further and questions the very nature of the person thing giving us those orders; like you said, Valve's puppeteering of its players."
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Croal vs. Totilo - The Portal Letters

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  • The shortness of portal is ok, the lack of storyline should be fleshed out in Ep3.
    It whet my appetite and now I have been homing my skills on the challenges and custom maps.
    It has greater replay-ability than HL itself and now play it like playing patience or minesweeper or tetris, not for the storyline but for a mental workout.

    The advert was right - you really do begin to think with portals.

    I look around real life for ways to shave off seconds whilst I walk to my car or around the shops. Getting a drink wo
  • by jayhawk88 ( 160512 ) <> on Monday November 19, 2007 @05:50PM (#21413099)
    Valve Manager: Hey we're going to release this thing called Orange Box with HL2 and TF2 and we'd really like to pack something else in it to help fill out the press releases, any ideas?
    Valve Coder: Well the programmers and I have been playing around with this little game called Portal. It's sort of based on the old game called Narbacular Drop, see you have this gun that creates portals and....
    Valve Mangager: That sounds great. Polish up what you have and submit it to the testers.
    Valve Coder: Well it's not really done you understand, there isn't a story or anything, and several of the designers have had to take leaves of absence after trying to figure out how levels might work.
    Valve Manager: Look it doesn't matter, it's just a throw in. Nobody will be buying this for Portal, or HL2 for that matter, we just have to throw the community a bone for making them wait 10 years for TF2. Finish what you have and let's get it in there.

    (9 months later...)

    Game Pundits: A stunning example of minimalistic game design! A triumph of elegant simplicity and quasi-storytelling!
    • Re:The Real Story (Score:5, Informative)

      by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Monday November 19, 2007 @06:09PM (#21413335)
      Joking aside, you should listen to the audio commentary inside the game. I think too many people make the assumption that a brilliant little game like Portal just somehow 'happens.' You hear time and time again how many iterations to the levels / puzzles were made based off of serious playtesting, or how artists worked to draw the players' eyes to a specific point of interest through through geometry or lighting techniques, or how the programmers worked to solve various technical challenges involved with getting portals to work inside the game. Just because a game is limited in scope doesn't mean those involved didn't work hard to make the experience as fun and engaging as possible.
      • by Azari ( 665035 )

        I thought that the commentary was one of the hightlights as well. So much so that I had to fraps a few of the levels with commentary running to bring in to show my students studying interactive media (high schoolers - always sceptical about these nebulous ideas of 'design', 'testing' and 'evaluation').

        I'm not sure how much actually sunk in, but hey, I'm sure it made a few extra dollars for Valve :P

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Kingrames ( 858416 )
        My favorite commentary was by the lady who does the voice of GLaDOS, when she says that everybody makes it look like everything is planned, and that everything is structured, and it's all "a big fat lie." She goes on to tell more, but it seemed appropriate to mention.

        Your point still stands, though, because "disorganized" is sorta the norm all across the computing world.
    • Were you disappointed with the plot in Mario 64 too?
    • by Anonymous Coward
      What color is the sky in your world? It's about the total opposite of how Portal was developed, and quite probably anything at all.

      Maybe you were just aiming for a different result ... didn't put your orange portal close enough to "Funny" perhaps?
  • Someone else on /. in an earlier thread about Portal pointed out that 500 levels wouldn't have been enough. But that many would have drowned out the story. I've played through Portal about 8 times now and find something new each time. That kind of craftsmanship isn't an accident.

    Hopefully Valve starts releasing bonus maps or *gasp!* episodic content. [Insert Flame Here] So far the Portal community maps aren't very impressive. But the full SDK should fix that.
    • by gknoy ( 899301 )
      It would be especially interesting (and not exactly surprising) if someone were to create a portal-map-generating-tool, thereby enabling a much larger set of possible maps .... many of which might not suck. :)
      • I'll give Will Wright a call and see what he can do with procedural puzzle generating. It should be read by 2018.
      • Actually there is a tool to make maps for portal and the SDK even includes a copy of one of the levels - the one where GlaDOS says the test is impossible - so you can see what it takes to construct a level. And to put it bluntly, it's a lot of [expletive deleted] work!

        Long before I bought The Orange Box - in fact, about four months before I'd ever even heard of Portal (I only got it about a week ago) - I wrote in my blog, back in June, an article [] about the tools which are available for designing maps for

  • Shortness (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bigstrat2003 ( 1058574 ) on Monday November 19, 2007 @06:46PM (#21413763)
    The shortness makes the game *better? Hell no. The game is very remarkable, one of my favorites this year. It has very strong focus, but its shortness is a detriment, not an asset. While it may not have been possible to make the game longer without ruining its stellar quality, or adding useless fluff, the game should have been rewritten in that case to make it work. Portal, at $20, is the first game to make me feel ripped-off for its length, compared to cost. My God, even Heavenly Sword is longer than Portal.
    • by MWoody ( 222806 )
      I, for one, disagree. I'm tired of games that feel they have to be 10+ hours long. There's nothing wrong with a fun game I can finish in an evening if it's priced correctly, which Portal is (particularly if you get it in the Orange Box, which is really where you're meant to pick up the game).
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        In the Orange Box, Portal is fine. Separately, though (I bought it separately, as it was the only Orange Box component I want), $20 is just too much for what it gives you. I'd be ok with its length if the game was $10, or even $5 less. $20 is just a bit too much for such a short game, that's all I'm saying. Shortness is not a problem, it's shortness coupled with too high of a price.
      • Arg... don't get me wrong, I enjoy games that are good for a few hours, but I *strongly* prefer games that last a long time, if only because I can then enjoy the immersion for longer. Also, what is wrong with playing a game for a few hours, stopping, saving, and then playing it a few more hours the next evening?

        I see a game sort of like I see a book: if I see a book written by a favored author that is really long, I buy it, because it will last me a long time. If a game that I bought for $60 + tax lasts
    • You can play through every level of Super Mario Bros 3 in roughly three-four hours (not a speed run or anything, just someone who's decent with platformers, who dies periodically, but doesn't get completely stuck). I don't remember people complaining it was too short--in fact I remember people raving about how long it was.

      A similar playthrough of Super Mario 64, getting all the stars, takes about 20 hours. Yet I've heard claim that there's less content in SM64--after all, there's 15 levels (and maybe 5-10
    • My God, even Heavenly Sword is longer than Portal.

      Well Heavenly Sword [] costs $59.99 and reportedly lasts about 7 hours. Portal costs $20 and lasts about 4 hours. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me, and this isn't taking into account time taken to complete the advanced levels or achievements.

    • Play the challenges. I spent an hour trying to shave steps off of one map. I think I can get it down to 5, but it says my next goal is 2...ARGH.
  • The designers behind "Portal" were brilliant. This game actually made me feel closer to an inanimate cube that never moves or makes a sound than any character in a game that I can remember.

    ***** SPOILER ALERT!!! *****

    Part of it was the isolation of Portal. You don't know where you are or why you're there. A computer lies to you and threatens you with "android hell". You have to incinerate a "faithful companion cube" with hearts on it that just helped you get through a level which you couldn't h

    • You weren't threatened with android hell. It was a pre-recorded message meant for the androids that normally go through the room.
    • by C0rinthian ( 770164 ) on Monday November 19, 2007 @08:04PM (#21414607)
      My cube spoke to me a couple times on that level. Perhaps you didn't hear it?
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        The Enrichment Center reminds you that the weighted companion cube cannot speak. In the event that the weighted companion cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.
      • Talk? Mine tried to stab me!
        • remember that time when GlaDOS made the platform go into the fire and I was all "NO WAY" and then the game ended?

          man that sucked.
          • Are you actually claiming you think the game ends at Chell's "victory candescence?" In case you're actually thinking the game ends there - which I doubt is likely - if you get killed there it starts you over again a little earlier in the level, I think just before you enter the fire, and it will keep doing this forever, or until you figure out how to escape being "baked". In case you did believe that was then end, here's a hint.

            When you are about to get to the fire, and you can see the cement wall in fro

            • It was a joke.. sorry.. I tried this joke before and it was taken the same way :-/

              anywho, i just kept trying the different puzzles until I figured them out.. what's the point of someone showing you how to do the puzzles? that's the whole game, puzzle solving?!?

              I have found it interesting wacthing my 12 yr old daughter play. i kept thinking no do it this way but then i realized that her way of solving each puzzle was just as valid and showed her own problem solving techniques.. like on some of the moving pla
  • Some Rules (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DingerX ( 847589 ) on Monday November 19, 2007 @07:15PM (#21414079) Journal
    Some folks want to compare games to movies. Well, don't compare them just to features; compare them to movies in the 1940s, back when there were short features, travelogues, newsreels, and cartoons. Not everything is a long-feature, nor does it have to be.

    If you are going to compare games to features movies, why is it that "leaving them crying for more" is a good thing for movies (and books, and plays, and concerts, and so on), but not for games? Why does it have to be: "leaving them exhausted, emaciated and with Post-Traumatic Repetitive Stress Disorder (aka "The thousand-yard controller thumb")?

    Portal is genius. It's a game where many of the key developers (writers and the ND folks) are new arrivals to some large company that specializes in developing products through an extensive testing cycle, and it's about being a new arrival in a large company that's developing a product, and you're part of the testing cycle.

    There are two cliches that HL and just about every video game in the 90s had, that really didn't work (most of the time): ubiquitous, absurd, crates (uh, nobody uses those any more. Why are they here?), and a sidekick you're supposed to love, but who's two wooden and one-dimensional for it to work. They manage to make a sidekick-crate lovable. I haven't seen a triumph like that since Vladimir Nabokov made a sympathetic character out of a pedarast with delusions of being a king in exile.

    Anyway, look at me still talking...
  • It's VERY refreshing to be able to play a game from beginning to end in one sitting. If a game takes longer than 15-20 hours to finish, I usually take extended breaks away and forget what the heck I was doing a week later when I pick it up again. I don't know who made the "40 hour" game something to strive for - I sure can't believe it was the working adult.
    • Most games are marketed to people between the ages of 12 and 26. In other words, people in school with vast amounts of disposable time.
  • a fairly recent Canadian movies called Cube ( Granted, there is more than one prisoner....but check it out...

"There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain