I usually post my thoughts in Design, but we as game designers tend to be critics if only to sort out what techniques are effective and which aren't in popular games. So this thread is a retroactive discussion of Portal and Portal 2, so if you haven't played them, I'm going to spoil them, and you probably didn't have much to say on the topic anyway.
Without reading too much into it, Portal's story is about escape. You're trapped in a dangerous scientific research facility, run by a computer who tries to kill you after you disobey, forcing you to exist in a dehumanizing controlled environment.
Gameplay-wise however, you are given a portal gun that allows you to move freely between dimensions and are subjected to a series of challenging yet fun and wacky puzzles, while sometimes you run around a bit behind the walls before getting placed into another chamber.
Here's where things stop making sense, and Portal starts looking really bad
. To keep people playing the game, the test chambers have to be fun, which means you as Chell are enjoying being a lab rat, the very thing the plot is trying to get you to escape. There is no time when players actually want to escape the game, otherwise they would just quit. The escape sequences are another puzzle by a designer who wants to keep you in his test chamber, keep you entertained.
In Portal 2 the theme of dehumanization is a major point in giving some character to the antagonist. Caroline loses her free will in pursuit of serving science, and demands all test subjects and the player to do the same. The portal gun, a symbol of pure escape, is only part of the game and the test chambers and does nothing behind the scenes. The behind-the-scenes moments of freedom are pre-programmed into the plot and never a choice of the player.
Because, if given the choice of being subject to test after test after test, following unreasonable directions and being free, the player would choose the tests. This is bad.
The end of Portal 2 proves this, you go to the moon with your gun in a neato moment, but find yourself completely unprepared to deal with the outside world and infinite freedom, so you warp back the the test chamber. You've done what you are told and then you're allowed to leave and find yourself in the outside world, equally unprepared to live as you've spent your whole life playing GLaDOS's game. You're tossed the fanservice cube, which was an attempt to dehumanize and control you by feeling emotional towards a metal box, and judging from gamer culture, the entire fanbase was fooled.
Now what? You've escaped, and what's the first thing you want to do?
And crucially, when I’d finished the game, both single player and co-op, the first thing I wanted to do was start again. So I did.
Be a robot and endure more scientific tests, ignoring all elements of the things that make humans important. Great. QED. At least Give Up Robot is honest and makes you a robot from the beginning.
The imagery of the end of Portal 2 was similar enough to the end of Tarsem Singh's The Cell, an interesting movie about women being captured and tortured and being unable to escape, then feeling the thrill of freedom as virtual/mental technology allowed a detective to uncover the human side of the psychopath. Everything that Portal failed to portray, and The Cell by all accounts wasn't well made at all. But the punishment and dehumanization was horrible, not fun.
Portal is a brilliant example where the desire to win the game and the desire to be a character clash and clash hard. For a game that's supposed to be about escaping a dehumanizing system, Valve does little else but use the same manipulative techniques as Aperture and keep you playing while letting you pretend you have free choice.
4.5/10 ~ Jim Sterling
Joking aside, I think this is all true, the game misses its own point. Thoughts? Agree, disagree?