Portal as an Art

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February 8, 2013 by gregoryadler

Aritcle- The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

     This discussion will be centered on Michael Burden and Sean Gouglas’ article entitled The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art. In this article, the authors analyze the game Portal and its sequel Portal 2 not just a videogame, but also an art form. For those who have not gotten the chance to play the Portal series, it can be described as a single player game where the player is limited to a predetermined test space in which they advance by completing simple tasks. What makes the game a unique experience is that the player is given a portal gun. This device can place portals in two different areas of the test room through which the player can then transverse between by entering either portal. The mechanic is illustrated visually below:

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     One argument put forth in the article is that the gameplay of Portal acts as a metaphor for tensions that exist between the video game player and video game designer. The article states that any game requires a balancing of algorithmic process and player freedom. A game’s algorithmic process, as discussed in class, constitutes the game’s engine, code, and rules that the player must follow as they interact with the game world. Player freedom is the notion that the player is able to decide what actions and in what manner their character advances throughout the game.

     In order to discuss how gameplay tension in Portal acts as a metaphor for the gaming industry at large, I would first like to discuss how these tensions come to play in the game. The algorithmic element of portal is related to the fact that the game imposes so many limitations on the player in terms of game-space and required tasks. The player can only navigate within a set of small test chambers and must use the items given to accomplish tasks. Additionally, the player can only advance linearly through the game and has little impact on the actual narrative. On the other hand, player freedom is introduced in the game through the use of the portal device. This unique mechanic allows the player to travel through said limited and seemingly simple space in an almost infinite number of ways. Here is where the interaction between player freedom and algorithm comes into play. While the player is given so much freedom in terms of how they can navigate the space before them, their experience is still largely confined by the actual game space. The article states that Portal can be considered artistic because while the player must follow a strict algorithmic process for progress, they still experience player freedom in the means by which they perform these tasks.

     As much as I would love to continue a discussion of the mechanics and gameplay of the Portal series, I think that the tensions presented to the player by the game can be relevant to a larger discussion of game theory. As discussed in the class reading of “The Magic Circle” by Zimmerman and Salen, rules are considered a necessary component of any game. Zimmerman and Salen make the argument that arbitrary rules are what allow the player to enter the game world. I think Portal helps give further meaning to what it means for a game to have rules in showing how rules can add to, instead of take away from, gameplay. The game illustrates that additional logistics and algorithm do not have to tradeoff with player freedom and innovation. Portal’s gameplay illustrates this in that while the space available for movement is rather constraining and simple, the manner by which the player is able to move through that space can take varying forms. 

     The article’s explanation as to why Portal can be considered a work of art may also allow us to have a better understanding of what it means for a game to be artistic. Portal is discussed as an art in the article because it maintains player freedom in a game world that is almost entirely built upon logistics. I think applying the metaphor of Portal to games at large can allow us to differentiate what makes an artistic game. I think that a game can be considered artistic if it imposes a meaningful set of arbitrary rules to the game world that add to a unique and innovative gaming experience.

     The Portal metaphor can be interpreted as what gaming is meant to be at its core: the application of arbitrary rules and logistics to create a unique game world. While games must impose a set of rules on the player in order for the game world to have order, sense and meaning, gamers still want to experience the game in a unique and individual manner. I think the article illustrates that an artistic game is one that uses rules and logistics to make sense of the game while still giving players a seemingly un-limited gaming experience.  The staunch contrast between the logistic nature of Portal’s test rooms and the freedom of movement given to the player through the portal gun represent how two seemingly contradictory elements (game rules and player freedom) are necessary and complimentary components of any meaningful game. 

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One thought on “Portal as an Art

  1. a great ape says:

    I strongly agree with your characterization of Portal as a game that both meets the definition of gaming at its core as an “application of arbitrary rules and logistics” that constitute a game world with an emphasis on aesthetically pleasing puzzles that employ those rules. However, I do think the idea of “player freedom” in the context of the game is limited. While some puzzles may have multiple solutions, most of those solutions will have been programmed in as possible solutions deliberately. Other puzzles force a certain approach. It really depends on what you believe constitutes player freedom: is it the ability to shoot at any position on a Portal-compatible wall to create a portal, or the ability to shoot at different positions that ensure you success in surpassing a given obstacle? Either way, it seems like you are still limited by the constraints deliberately imposed by the developers of the game. The idea of player freedom, then, might just be a great illusion.

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