Tag Archives: portal

How Guy Debord can help us understand videogames


When researching my thesis, I looked at quite a few theories and theorists of space, place, and geography. Perhaps the most interesting discovery I made last year, however, was Guy Debord and the Lettrist International’s concept of psychogeography. Debord was a French Marxist who found influence in the ’60s, largely due to a fascinating book called Society of the Spectacle. He was also probably more than a little alcoholic, and ended up shooting himself in 1994.

So what can a dead continental philosopher tell us about videogames?

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From above, from below: a videogames thesis

So, finally, the marks are in, and I’m able to post this thesis I’ve been rambling on about for far too long. I won’t say much by way of introduction, except to note that if you’ve got any feedback, I would absolutely love to hear from you, either in the comments here, or at dangoldingis [at] gmail [dot] com. So, without further ado:


From above, from below: navigating the videogame


Filed under study, videogames

Great Game Spaces: Portal



Few videogames had more words written about them during 2007 than Valve’s Portal. Not only was the game outstanding, but it had just the right amount of wit and oblique humour to make it go viral on the internet. How does the following sentence end? “The cake is a…”

It ends, of course, with me shoving a companion cube down your throat to keep you from ruining a perfectly funny game. So much has been uttered about Portal‘s successes and triumphs that it seems futile, irritating even, for me to try and add any more. There isn’t a lot that remains unsaid about Portal, and when the game’s creators have also said so much, I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation.

That being said, I do want to talk about Portal‘s game space. This is because Portal‘s game space is simply exceptional in the context of my continuing discussion of great game spaces. The portal gun might have been a great eye-catching mechanic, the GLaDOS humour might have been the internet-wildfire fuel, but it was the game space of Portal that was its real triumph. This is pure design through architecture. I used Portal as my primary text for my recent thesis, so a lot of the ideas here are cribbed directly from that document (which is forthcoming, I promise; results are in on the 12th and after that it’s free range).

Every inch of test chamber after test chamber in Portal is designed for a specific behavioural purpose. In an article for Gamasutra, Kim Swift, Jeep Barnett and Eric Wolwap say exactly what I was trying to say in my thesis clearer than I ever did:

Navigating the environment is Portal‘s primary gameplay challenge; In effect, the environment is your enemy.

That the player doesn’t notice this so obviously throughout their first playthrough of the game is telling. I suspect that the linear, puzzle based design of Portal was accepted by players more easily due to the test-chamber fiction of the game and place. In this sense, there is definitely a doubling between Portal‘s designers and GLaDOS. They perform similar functions: GLaDOS’ function is to test her subjects, and Valve’s function was to test their own labrats in order to predict and mould player responses. Playtesting was crucial for them, to the point where Walpaw and Swift claim that a single moment of confusion on the part of the player – any player – was their fault, and that “[they] failed you.”

This is almost entirely because the game space, coupled with a select few other factors, is designed to elicit a predictable response on the part of the player. For example, in one early room in the developer commentary (required listening; if you’ve played Portal and not taken the time to go back and play it again, you are missing one of the most illuminating gaming experiences you’ll ever have), Jason Brashill draws attention to what he calls “gates”. This is simply a strategy of putting a time-locked door between the player and the next area, which forces the player to take stock and process their options before charging ahead. This occurs at a number of points throughout Portal, and all work perfectly.

There are many similar examples of such focussed spatial design. In that memorable first room, the ‘relaxation vault’, Kim Swift notes:

It’s absolutely critical that players quickly wrap their heads around what a portal is. We noticed early playtesters grasped the concept much more quickly when they caught a glimpse of themselves through a portal, so we deliberately positioned this first portal to ensure that players will invariably see themselves.

Did you also know, for example, that the third test chamber is designed to teach you, the player, that the function of a portal is not tied to its colour? Apparently, during testing, there was a common misconception that, maybe, an orange portal could only be entered and not exited. Therefore, chamber three was created, and the space designed so the player may only complete it by entering and exiting the same portal. There are so many examples of this littered throughout Portal, from the design of the space in order to get players to look up, to the elimination of ‘incorrect’ solutions, to even the visual aesthetics cuing function. According to designer Paul Graham, “the [visual] design is essentially a balance between round objects and sharp objects; the sharp objects representing background elements, and the round objects [are points of interest like] doors and moveable props.”

This design even extends to creating emotion in the player. In the eleventh test chamber, players gain the fully powered portal gun. In order to build up anticipation for the moment of receiving this upgrade, two strategies are employed. First, as designer Lars Jensvold notes, the room is designed so that it brings players “in a circle around the device, so that it’s virtually always in sight” until the puzzle is solved and the portal gun is received. Secondly, once the puzzle has been solved, players may only access the upgraded gun via a slow-moving platform. The movement of the player is therefore limited to a slow, anticipation-building speed.

Clearly, Portal consciously organises environment through spatial strategies in order to influence player behaviour, emotion, and generally, experience and gameplay. Other games have done this many times over, but few have done it with such incredible focus and economy of design. Of course, as I’ve already admitted, few other games have had the benefit of placing you in such a ‘designed’ space as suspension-of-disbelief inducing test chambers, but there are surely many lessons to be learned from the level design here. Most importantly, Portal proves that it is almost possible to make a game work through sheer brilliance of level design and testing. It may well be the ten per cent of plot and other over-quoted aspects that made Portal the great game that everyone says it is, but it was the ninety per cent of spatial design that got it there to begin with. Portal might not embody many of the spatial qualities that I love (exploration and perspective to name just two), but it might just be my favourite game space ever designed.



Filed under Great game spaces, videogames

The Sphere of Influence: Journey to the Centre of the Earth


 There, upon a granite slab, appeared two mysterious graven letters, half eaten away by time. They were the initials of the bold and daring traveller:
      “A. S.,” shouted my uncle. “Arne Saknussemm! Arne Saknussemm everywhere!”

– From the Malleson translation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth

This is the first in a second series of posts that, along with my Great Game Space series, I want to continue for some time. Ever since I’ve been interested in videogames as a topic of intelligent discussion, I’ve been interested in their relationships with other media. If you’ve ever listened to the PALGN podcast, you’d know that I almost can’t go an episode without bringing up a film reference; my general cinema studies background surely has something to do with this. However, as a Cultural Studies major, I can’t help but see cultural influence as more of a sphere than any hierarchical relationship. Films influence games, games influence films, media creators influence audiences, and media creators are audiences.

To that end, I thought it would be interesting to explore a number of media texts that have influenced videogames. I might in the end turn it around and look at the way videogames have influenced other media, but at the moment I want to look at the culture that has created videogames as we know them. It’s a popular fallacy to imagine that videogames were birthed in some sort of cultural vacuum. In part, then, this series is an attempt to draw some form of vague sketch as to the cultural DNA of gaming as a response to that notion.

Today, I start with Jules Verne’s 1854 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. This might seem like an odd choice: few games have used similar subject material (save for the videogame adaptation of the woeful 2008 film of the same name), and certainly there are more obvious works of Verne’s that are more immediately influential. However, there is a lot more here than might initially seem evident.

Eight years ago, Don Carson used the term ‘following Saknussemm’ to describe a process of storytelling through “cause and effect”. For those who haven’t read Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the protagonists at many points find themselves following clues and notes left by Professor Arne Saknussemm, who preceded their journey.

The parallel uses for this type of technique in videogames are obvious. As Carson points out, “In this way, the game player is pulled through the story by following “bread crumbs” left behind by a fictitious proceeding game character. Whether you create notes scattered throughout your environments, or have the game player follow the destructive path of some dangerous creature, “cause and effect” elements will only heighten the drama of the story you are trying to tell!”

Many games have used this technique since Carson highlighted its usefulness, but there is no clearer example than Portal. After GLaDOS has proven herself unstable, and the player escapes to the bowels of the facility, Saknussemm again emerges. Valve had originally planned to include a Rat-Man character who was responsible for these spots of graffiti, but decided in the end to let the spaces do the talking. In the final copy of the game, the Rat-Man graffiti serves to replace GLaDOS’ previous function as a narrator and guide while still working within the boundaries of the game’s fiction. I think that we as players are aware of the slightly contrived nature of the directions we receive from Rat-Man, yet follow them anyway. They must have been successful in at least one sense: if I ever hear someone make a ‘cake is a lie’ joke again, I may well abandon my pacifist principles that I professed to have in a recent post. Rat-Man’s graffiti somehow clicked with fans.

Interestingly, this type of guidance isn’t unusual to another form of mediated experience: the theme park. Notes, signs and scrawled messages from ‘previous’ passers through in self-guided attractions are common, featuring notably in the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. In fact, it’s unsurprising to learn that Carson himself used to be Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design arm of Disney, and helped to design Splash Mountain in Florida, and Mickey’s Toontown for Disneyland California.

While only a small selection of games would have been directly influenced by Saknussemm, the idea that exploration can be greatly enhanced through this method is a pervasive one. Indeed, many videogames from a broad spectrum of genres seem to use this method. Even that great big dumb cliche of a game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, managed to throw it in on several occasions. It’s a question of following history more than anything else: as players, we are at once uncovering plotlines as well as exploring physical space. When I follow the grooves created by a chest that has been moved in Uncharted, I am being cued into both gameplay actions and narrative function. As I follow the path to the cave opening, I gain a strong sense that I am disturbing history. Someone has been here before me, and I am following in their footsteps. The same goes for Portal, as Rat-Man’s graffiti creates just as much atmosphere as it does gameplay behaviour, which is almost certainly why we are willing to buy its contrived nature so easily.

So, IMAX and Brendan Fraser aside, Journey to the Centre of the Earth might have had a stronger influence on videogames than many might think. It’s entirely possible that someone hit upon the notion as a storytelling device before Verne, and that I, and Carson are giving him too much credit. However, it seems unlikely that the theme park designers of the mid-20th Century were ignorant of Verne’s work. It’s also worth noting that Verne continues to exert influence through other avenues even today, as the style of Steampunk obviously draws on his and H.G. Wells’ work (can you imagine BioShock in a world without Verne?).

So, even if Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not an overt influence, many games still endeavor to encourage players to ‘follow Saknussemm’. It appears that 150 years on, we are still following Verne.

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