Today’s hot take is in video form.
Get insight from HUMUNGO Games direct to your inbox here.
In my last post, I discussed sequels, and why we should be open-minded about them. Today, in the sequel to last week’s piece, I’m going to pick apart Portal and Portal 2 to see why they work so well. I’m going to first discuss the puzzles first, and then the characters.
Both games do an amazing job of layering lessons in an accessible way. Consider the progression path for each of the early testing chambers in Portal:
Portal‘s escalation is incremental, and only ever introduces one new aspect of play to each new room. The game avoids a tedious tutorial, and through play the player will eventually learn all the puzzling possibilities of the portal gun. And these possibilities are complex. By the end of the game the player is using momentum to throw objects huge distances, placing portals whilst in mid-air to reach places otherwise unavailable and redirecting dangerous objects to activate switches. The later puzzles would be fiendishly difficult to work out without all the training given over the first part of the game. But the player gets there because the game is paced so well according to their current level of skill.
Not only is there an incremental progression of challenge level, there are also very few “filler” levels in either game – especially Portal. At almost every stage, the player learns something new. It is a difficult balance to pull off and both games do it admirably.
Portal’s later puzzles are more technically difficult than those in Portal 2 – some involving the need for quick reactions several times in a row. For instance, having to jump over multiple deadly lasers in a tunnel with multiple moving platforms. Portal 2′s are more varied with the addition of special gels that change the properties of surfaces, extendable light beams, and refracting cubes that redirect lasers, to give just a few examples. This difference reflects the fact that Portal was an original, short, speculative, relatively low-budget puzzle game marketed mainly to PC Steam users. They wanted a unique and cerebral challenge in their 2 hours of play. Portal 2 was created as a mass-market, big-budget game with celebrity performers and so was necessarily more varied, bigger and more accessible.
But enough about puzzles. Let’s talk characters, and why Portal 2‘s story is more interesting than Portal‘s.
Portal is the innovator. Along with the rest of the Orange Box, it proved that Valve could make fantastic games that weren’t Half-Life or spin-offs from Half-Life mods. It was never expected to be the massive hit that it was. As a two-hour puzzle game, it is basically note-perfect. It’s got an interesting, unique setting. A fun, surprising antagonist. Great jokes. And that twist. Those things together, and the fact it was packaged together with two Half-Life 2 mini-sequels, and Team Fortress 2, the most beautiful and brilliantly marketed shooter at that time, led it to blow up into the pop-culture phenomenon that it is. Well done Portal.
But as a narrative, it’s quite simple, and it leaves you wanting a lot more. This isn’t bad, it’s just not a story with twists and turns in the way Portal 2 is.
The story of Portal is basically as follows; player wakes up in strange science facility. Computer leads player on series of increasingly challenging and life-threatening logic puzzles. Player discovers more and more disturbing elements to the facility and the computer. Computer tries to kill player. Player kills computer.
There is one turning point. That happens when GLaDOS, the evil computer antagonist, reveals that she is going to kill the player. It is pure twist and reflects the horror genre that Portal fits into. It is not a moment of great character depth, because the entire first half of the game has been telling you that it is going to happen, and because, apart from a few persuasion attempts by GLaDOS, neither the player nor GLaDOS is affected in any meaningful way by it.
Compare Portal 2. Portal 2 is a dark comedy with tragic elements, rather than a horror game with a sense of humour. It is also much longer then Portal and so has more time to explore the various characters. It does this brilliantly, and the three major characters are given depth and complexity in a way few videogame characters are. Those characters are the super intelligent sadist AI GLaDOS, the megalomaniacal businessman Cave Johnson, and the idiot computer core Wheatley. The player is, in narrative terms, more of an observer than a true character. You simply portal your way to the next available area.
For GLaDOS, Portal 2 is a cyclical story of reincarnation and death. At the end of the last game, she was killed by the player. Since then, she has been conscious for possibly thousands of years in a black-box hell, reliving the two minutes of her death over and over. She is reanimated by the player, later to be transformed into a potato, another metaphor for rebirth. The player encounters this vegetable earlier in the game, growing seedily, rooting itself in the brittle, crumbling, skeletal remains of Aperture Science. Birth within death.
As the player explores the facility, GLaDOS is revealed to be a reincarnation of Caroline – a dead Executive Assistant from the nineteen sixties, reborn in computer form. Ultimately, GLaDOS is restored to life as the centre of the facility, and from there her first action is to kill the part of her that was Caroline.
Life, death, life, death, life, death. GLaDOS’ whole existence in Portal 2 is samsara, the karmic wheel of conscious existence in the Buddhist and Jainist philosophies and much of Hinduism, endlessly rotating between various forms of suffering. Life, death, life, death, life, death. The same process the player goes through in almost every narrative game. Life, death, life, death, life, death. Exactly what GLaDOS inflicted upon the endless original test subjects of Aperture Science.
In the Śramaṇic religions the cycle of saṃsāra is broken through nirvana – a literal “blowing out” of the fires of existence, so the living energies of consciousness are dispersed and the self exists no more. In Portal 2, the one who summits the mountain of suffering is not GLaDOS, who fits the Buddhist pattern, but the player, the mute Chell. GLaDOS is too lively, to emotional, too attached to her role and her desires to escape from this process.
Chell has advanced beyond such humanity. She is a nothing, a void, a blank slate. In her blandness she is already enlightened. Always expressionless. Always emotionless. Always voiceless. A Bodhisattva, free from the matters of this world, but waking up each game to guide GLaDOS and teach her a lesson, before ascending once more to her home above in heaven.
GLaDOS is not only an apt metaphor for the endless rebirth and suffering of the soul. A metaphor which puts the player into a satisfyingly divine role. She is also a complex and interesting dramatic character. She comes to us as a sadistic, clever monster. But throughout Portal 2, we learn that there is more to GLaDOS than she first lets on.
In Portal, GLaDOS’ only aim is to have fun testing the player in various challenges, and then kill you. In Portal 2, she changes her mind in five key moments, each of which illustrates the frothing chaos that storms beneath her insidious surface.
Upon reanimation, she abandons her attempts at killing the player. Why? Why not simply destroy Chell, as Chell destroyed her and as she tried to do before? Because for GLaDOS, she has discovered another pleasure, another justice, beyond destroying you. The spinning hamster-wheel of existence is suffering. Your suffering is her pleasure. You made her suffer. Therefore you must be punished with existence. You must test. Over and over. This is a new perspective, gained over millennia of reliving her own death. She has learned since Portal. She has changed. She sees her path through the red filter of a new sadistic moral lens.
Then later, once she has been transformed into a powerless potato, she re-evaluates her perspective again. She decides to do one thing she would never do – team up with the player – in order to save the facility from Wheatley’s moronic management. And this reveals another side to GLaDOS. There is something she values more than your death. She wants to live. She wants her facility to survive. Buddha – AKA the player – sees the endless suffering and chaos of life as something to escape from, but GLaDOS sees the endless suffering and chaos of life as something to enjoy. She creates suffering and chaos. She lives for it. She loves to learn from it. For science.Then, in the final scene, GLaDOS has two final dramatic turns. Having discovered her origin as the human Executive Assistant Caroline, she decides to delete the part of herself that was Caroline. She does not want to be obedient, or compassionate, or empathetic. These weaknesses are undesirable. She will cut them out. A distancing from human attachments. Almost a little bit Buddhist.
Her last turn – the most significant – is her decision to voluntarily release the player to the surface. Killing Chell is no longer her aim. She is content to leave her and carry out tests underground for the remainder of her infinite life. Although GLaDOS is not enlightened, she is changed. She would never have released the player in Portal, and neither would she have released the player at any point before her ordeal in Portal 2. It is only because she learns that co-existence with the player is an endless Śramaṇic cycle of suffering that she releases the player.
By my count, there are five great turning points in this game for GLaDOS. These are the decisions that make her interesting.
Each one of these tells us something about what kind of a character GLaDOS is. They make her seem more interesting than the simple sadistic killer she was in the first game.
Cave Johnson is a funny character, but he is not a revealing dramatic character. His one significant character moment is when he reveals in a voice recording that he has decided to have his beloved assistant Caroline replace him as head of Aperture Science, forcibly if necessary, through a computer upload. This is the origin of GLaDOS.
Wheatley. Who doesn’t love Wheatley? The first great character moment for Wheatley is when he decides to jump off his guiding rail. He has been told for his entire life that doing so will kill him. He is prepared to risk death in order to get the facility running again and release the player.
His next great character moment is when he decides, after leading the player towards the control room where GLaDOS lies dead, that he doesn’t actually want to enter that room and turn the facility on after all. He is too scared. He wants to do the loft, brainy, good thing, but he is also a cowardly selfish beast, dominated by his low gut instincts.
His next interesting decision is the choice to upload himself into the mainframe to replace GLaDOS. One can read this either as an idealistic choice to help save the player or as an instinctive grab for power. Is Wheatley a benign idiot who becomes corrupted by power? Or was he always power-hungry? A rake who only gets the chance to behave as he wishes because he cons the player into putting him in a position of authority?
Then, of course, is his choice not to free the player once he takes control, but trap you and submit you to testing. Again, this raises the question – did power corrupt Wheatley once he seized it, or was he always a monster, one without any available tools?
Once Wheatley takes over, he goes through the same limited character arc as GLaDOS did in the first game, only less competently, and ultimately expressing remorse for his attempts to kill the player in a post-credits scene. Wheatley has four great moments of decision-making that reveal his depths as a character.
Whilst GLaDOS is revealed to have countervailing non-murderous instincts through the course of the game – ones that can be interpreted through the spiritual perspectives of the Indian Subcontinent – Wheatley is progressively revealed to be worse than his bumptious persona indicates.
In my next piece, I finish this three-part essay with an investigation into the ideological leanings of both games. I ask what, if any, meanings can be induced from these two classics.
If you want more pieces like this directly in your inbox then sign up to analysis from HUMUNGO Games here.
Today I’m going to discuss one of the greatest videogames ever made. A game that can stand tall in the company of statuesque classics such as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Mozart’s, well, everything. You know what game I’m discussing because it’s in the title. It’s Portal 2.
Portal 2 is one of those works that takes everything that was good about the original, expands upon it with extra resources, and creates a new, brilliant experience. A lot of people are skeptical of sequels, but there are plenty of works that were advanced upon when given another slice at the cake. The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than A New Hope, technically, narratively, and in terms of the performances. Season 2 of Rick and Morty is cleverer than season 1. Shrek 2 is at least as good a story as Shrek. I could go on. In fact, I will. Spider-Man 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Halo 2, Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed IV, Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, GTA V etc etc etc.
If one includes remakes like Mad Max and True Grit and Red Dead Redemption then it’s clear that one could live a creative life fueled entirely by the charcoals of reworked material.
And what about the television shows that got better as they went along? The best season of The Simpsons is certainly not the first. Neither is that true of Friends or The Thick of It or The IT Crowd. And sequel-aversion would be obviously ludicrous if extended to great musicians, whose first album is almost never their best.
So why are people afraid of sequels to films and video games? First, there is the concern that sequels take money away from new, original ideas. Second, so many bad sequels are made that people think there must be something rotten about sequels in general. And finally, series of sequels, like political careers, almost always end in disgrace.
The first fear may have something in it. Studios of any size only have so many resources, and if 343 Industries is making another Halo or Halo Wars it means they won’t be making a non-Halo game. But the opposite also happens. Guerilla Games made almost nothing but Killzone games for almost ten years to appreciative audiences, by which time they had built up the skills, reputation, and financial backing to reach out and create a completely different game, Horizon Zero Dawn, about fighting robot dinosaurs and monsters in a beautiful, post-apocalyptic environment. They could only do that because of the capacity and good will they had stocked up through years of successful sequel-making.
The second fear – that there are so many bad sequels that sequel-making must fundamentally bad – is misleading. The relevant comparison is not whether there are more bad sequels than good sequels, but whether sequels, in general, are significantly worse than films or games based on original propositions.
The final fear – that series almost always end badly, is often true. The series – especially television series – that have good endings, stand out in most people’s minds so much precisely because they are so rare. But so what? Just because people hate the ending of How I met Your Mother doesn’t mean the seven series of sequels before the last one were bad.
On one of my tabs, I have open the listings at my local cinema. Let us compare the films and their scores on Metacritic. Metacritic is better than Rotten Tomatoes by the way but that’s for another post. Skip past the listings for analysis.
IT – Adaptation of the Stephen King novel. 70% – good.
American Made – Original biopic – 63% – quite good.
Dunkirk – Original historical drama – 94% – excellent.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard – Original action – 47% – bad.
Wind River – Original murder mystery – 73% – good.
Logan Lucky – Original heist film – 78% – good.
Emoji Movie – Original trash marketed at soulless idiots – 12% – awful.
Annabelle: Creation – Prequel horror – 62% – quite good.
Detroit – Original period drama – 78% – good.
The Limehouse Golem – Adaptation of the Peter Ackroyd novel – 61% – quite good.
Rough Night – Original comedy – 51% – eh.
Dark Tower – Original science fantasy – based on Stephen King novel series – 34% – really bad.
Everything, Everything – Adaptation, Romantic Drama – 52% – meh.
Despicable Me 3 – Lasy boring family film sequel – 49% – uuurgh.
Girls Trip – Original Comedy – 70% – good.
The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature – Sequel family animation – 36% – really bad.
Spider Man: Homecoming – Yet another Spiderman remake – 73% – good.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie – Animated family comedy based on children’s books – 69% – quite good.
War for the Planet of the Apes – Sequel action film – 82% – very good.
Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets – Adaptation of French comic book series – 51% – meh.
Atomic Blondie – I can’t find this on either Metacritic or Wikipedia. Probably original. Probably a load of furballs. Won’t use for analysis though.
Baby Driver – Original heist thriller – 86% – very good.
Wonder Woman – Superhero based on the comic book character. Sequel to previous films involving Wonder Woman – 76% – good.
Take these with a tiny pinch of salt, as today could be an unrepresentative day in cinema, and cinema may hold different patterns to other media. I’ve split the movies into original films, adaptations and sequel/prequels and listed them in order from best to worst score.
What can we infer from this snapshot? First, Original films have the widest range of quality, and Adaptations have the smallest range of quality. This could be either good or bad, depending on whether a studio is chasing big hits and accolades or reliable not-bad films. Often in a crowded entertainment market, it is better to have a few excellent hits than a lot of decent films, none of which break through to win awards and so on. The same can be true in video games, as once a game is on bestseller lists it is then talked about more and receives more publicity and so on. So original films are arguably better than sequels. But both original films and Sequels are better than adaptations on that basis, and why aren’t people complaining about adaptations? Booo, bad people, logically inconsistent.
Averages. Here are the averages for the different types:
So sequels in this example do worse. But they only do a tiny bit worse than original films. What’s the point in getting upset over a 1.4% difference in the quality of a film?
The best plausible takeaway to do with sequels is not that sequels are bad, it’s that films that are already bad – The Nut Job – or just fairly lazy and pointless – Despicable Me 2 – should not get sequels unless they’re taking the series in a radically different direction – ie Batman Vs Superman leading to Wonder Woman.
I realise I haven’t discussed Portal 2 much. Or at all really. I do have thoughts that I would like to discuss, both about the narrative of the Portal games and about what juicy, nonsensical political inferences one can make about them. But that is for another day. Before that, tell me why everything I’ve written here is wrong, and why you believe that sequels are actually the worst thing that has ever happened to any medium ever.
Greetings HUMUNGO Games fans! Mungo here to tell you the latest developments. These are mostly focused around my main game project, Evil Badguy Fantasy RPG. I’m still open for play-through sessions so if you haven’t had a go yet and would like to find out what the fuss is all about, do get in touch. I also make or buy dinner for anyone who plays the game with me.
Ever wondered what a skeleton would come up with if he was doing a bad Seinfeld impression? WELL WONDER NO MORE. Evil Badguy Fantasy RPG now features:
And if you pay careful attention to their declarations, you may just find a clue or two about how to defeat them.
Your whole party now appear on screen. This makes the battles much clearer as it is easy to see who is attacking and who is being attacked. Attack anticipations also show who is about to strike – see the translucent ring around Elderberry’s feet on the left.
A new chapter is being added. Journey to a faraway land to save Queen-Elect Emelda from the evil Abbot of Songs.
I’m going to create a whole new rocky land floating in a star-lit void, alive with cursed chickens and monstrous demonic monsters. Adventure awaits.
Some of you may remember I recently made the first two chapters of an interactive science fantasy story. The Thick of It meets Mad Max meets near-light-speed-travel meets Adele. This is We Happy Crew.
Happy news my happy crew! I’ve made a number of corrections and edits, as well as introducing some more consequences following from player choices. If you haven’t checked it out, give We Happy Crew a read.
Want to make sure you get the latest HUMUNGO Games updates? Subscribe here and get them straight into your email inbox.
I am slowly playing through the original Dishonored game. It is, by all rights, a fantastic game. But I’m going to complain about it anyway.
Dishonored is unique because of its dire Victorian industrial theocratic world, its interesting cast of characters, and most of all because of the powers that you, the player, get to use. You can teleport, you can possess animals and people, you can make swarms of rats eat your enemies and you can do much more. But you can’t do everything because there aren’t enough runes – objects hidden throughout the world – to unlock all abilities. Why?
The obvious answers are balance and replayability. Presumably unlocking all abilities close to the end of the game would make it unbalanced and too easy. But unlocking more abilities won’t necessarily make the game easier – one can advance through the game using only a small selection. Using a lot of different abilities in a row is actually more difficult than using and mastering only one or two. What the abilities do is provide variety and choice. More abilities mean more fun. Which is why they should be accessible to the player.
The idea of replayability is that a game should be fun to play again after one has completed the main story. So players can unlock new content only when they play the second or third time. I’m often wary of “replayability” as an ideal because to me it can mean locking content away from the player, but it can be done in a non-annoying way. Some games have “new game plus” modes that are to all intents and purposes the same as the original run, but with stronger enemies and more advanced versions of player powers and equipment, making play more difficult. This is an acceptable way of extending a game for players that want more, as it doesn’t make the game longer by limiting the scope and fun of the original run.
Given that most players don’t even get half way through most games, let alone replay them, the only reason why content should not be available in the original playthrough is if locking content actually improves the game. This may be the case with moral choices and character relationships, where if the player does x, characters respond as if the player has done x, whereas if the player chose y then characters respond as if the player has done y. Having people say to you “You should have done y you bastard!”, especially if one cannot backtrack, gives the player a sense of agency and responsibility.
But abilities and superpowers are not like this. The ability to teleport is not made more fun because it came at the expense of being able to turn into a dog and devour people’s faces. Quite the opposite – it is more fun to teleport, turn into a dog and devour some faces, and then teleport away again.
Don’t make me replay you or go back just so I can get the super-sprint power Dishonored, that’s not cool.
One could write a book about morality and ethics in video games. In Dishonored, killing too many people, especially main characters, results in high chaos, meaning more bad guys, a worse rat plague, and a darker ending. Players can choose what is right – letting characters live – or what is easy – killing those who stand in their path. This, as a general design approach to morality, is sound.
But there are two problems with the good path in Dishonored. First, the win-screen players are given at the end of missions implies that being seen by enemies can increase chaos. If being seen can increase chaos and cause the player to get the bad ending, then once one has been seen the only thing to do is to load a previous save and start again. The “good” game becomes a tedious grind of hide and seek and save scumming.
I looked up the chaos system on the game’s wiki, and it turns out getting spotted doesn’t actually affect chaos. So players can be seen by the dark forces of Dunwall without causing the world to fall apart. But even if the player realises this, and it’s not clearly presented this way, the good path is still boring. This is because there are only a small number of ways players can deal with their foes without killing them – generally they can smother unaware foes from behind, or they can shoot them with sleep darts, or they can avoid them altogether. That’s it. A fairly thorough run of the game by a typical player can take eighteen hours.
Most of the player’s abilities and weapons are geared around killing foes. The game’s advertising is based on killing foes. A large part of the fun of Dishonored comes from the various ways one can kill one’s foes. Try to be good and you are cutting yourself off from the fun of the game.
The solution to this is to allow more non-lethal ways for the player to take out enemies, that are still harder to use than the lethal methods and preserve the trade-off between what is right and what is easy.
For example, the player could have the conventional grenades, which explode and kill their targets, and also have stun grenades, which knock targets to the floor, allowing the player to run in and smother one or two but only if they are quick. Or players could have the option of punching instead of using their sword, which takes more hits to knock someone out, and can be blocked or countered more easily if the player times it wrong. Or what about glue traps, which rather than killing foes, hold enemies in one place, but do not harm them or prevent them from attacking?
But apart from this Dishonored is a great game and I really am nitpicking.
Hi everybody! Check out my latest interactive story, We Happy Crew! It’s top notch.
Choice and consequence! Moral quandaries! Politics! Space!!!
You know you want it.
Right. Today’s post is about politics. It is also an opportunity for you to enjoy me having got something wrong. The title of this post is a prediction I made on 18th April, the day Theresa May called a general election, before she put in one of the worst ever Conservative campaigns, and Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour team ran an admirable and effective political campaign.
“My prediction for this election is a historic defeat for Labour. Would not be surprised if it is their worst since the Second World War.”
Lets do a comparison to see how wrong this was.
Here’s what Labour got in 2017:
Labour Seats: 262
Conservative Seats: 317
And here are all of Labour’s defeats since the Second World War:
Labour seats: 295
Conservative seats: 321
Both Labour and the Conservatives won fewer seats last week than in 1951, so one could argue this either way. It was a Conservative majority but Labour were much closer to being able to win next time. Not conclusive.
Labour seats: 277
Conservative seats: 345
Both Labour and the Conservatives did worse last week than in 1955, so one could still plausibly argue this either way. But the Conservatives had a big majority of 60 in 1955, and the only other party with any representation then was the Liberals, with 6 seats. On purely Labour Vs. Conservative terms, Corbyn did better last week than Attlee did in 1955.
Labour seats: 258
Conservative seats: 345
Corbyn had a better defeat last week than Gaitskell did in 1959. Unambiguous. Labour’s 1959 defeat was followed by Labour winning in 1964.
Labour seats: 288
Conservative seats: 330
Like 1951, one could argue this either way, as both both Labour and the Conservatives won fewer seats last week than in 1970. Interestingly, 1970 had Labour 12.4% ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls, before the Conservatives won by 3.2%. A precedent for the late swings we have seen in the election of Trump and in the Brexit vote perhaps? Labour then won twice in 1974.
Labour seats: 269
Conservative seats: 339
Gosh there are a lot of Labour defeats aren’t there? Going through past elections is a healthy reminder that Labour governments have historically been a rare exception to Conservative rule, not a regular equal occurrence.
Although Labour won fewer seats last week than in 1979, I would still argue Labour had a better defeat last week. Corbyn had to contend with far more minor parties than Callaghan did, and on purely Labour Vs. Conservatives, he did better.
Labour seats: 209
Conservative seats: 397
Labour undeniably did better last week than in 1983.
Labour seats: 229
Conservative seats: 376
Labour undeniably did better last week than in 1987.
Labour seats: 271
Conservative seats: 336
One could argue this either way, as both Labour and the Conservatives won fewer seats last week than in 1992. This was followed by 13 glorious years of uninterrupted Labour rule. (We can have a discussion about just how glorious this was elsewhere.)
Conservative largest party, formed coalition with Lib Dems
Labour seats: 258
Conservative seats: 306
One could argue this either way, as both Labour and the Conservatives won more seats last week than in 2010.
Labour seats: 232
Conservative seats: 330
Corbyn’s defeat last week was unambiguously better than Milliband’s defeat in 2015.
So how did my prediction fare? Not well. This election was a defeat for Labour, but one of their better defeats since World War Two. One could argue just how good a defeat it was, but it was in the top half. Well done Labour, you lost, but you lost better than usual!
I will follow up soon with an investigation into why things didn’t go as I predicted and what can be learned from this. If you have any thoughts, questions or criticisms, let me know.