Portal as an Art-Game

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April 16, 2013 by a great ape

as an Art-Game

The game Portal by Valve Corporation was initially created as a series of puzzles released in a bundle package with the award-winning successor of the Half-Life series, Half-Life 2. In many ways, the game is minimalistic, from the white walls to the level design, or the robotically blunt voice of GLaDOS, the single other character one interacts with during the majority of the game. There is little to no explanation given regarding the avatar player or why she is detained at Aperture Science. Instead, GLaDOS gives the player a list of instructions that he or she must follow in order to advance. The novel use of proceduralism and miminalistic representations within Portal render it a game that is abstract, introspective, subjectively represented, with a strong presence of procedural rhetoric. Four of these five qualities are consistent with Bogost’s definition in his article “Art.” Though Portal lacks the fifth quality Bogost mentions is necessary—strong authorship—it can be argued that Portal is no less an art game.

“The Cake is a Lie”

The first element of Portal that I believe renders it artistic is its evocation of an overarching mood. This mood, encompassing the subjective ways a player experiences and feels while playing the game, is something that is only made possible by minimalism. There is little to no direct description of narrative in the game. Instead, most of what a player comes to understand is happening is based on little cues in dialogue that GLaDOS provides as he or she proceeds through certain puzzles. For instance, when we played this game in class, there didn’t seem to be any context behind the tongue-in-cheek remarks GLaDOS would make at the beginning and end of each level. The lack of music creates a disturbing mood, especially since the only sounds consist of GLaDOS’ voice and the sounds of footsteps or portals opening. Visually, the game lacks the colorful splashes, settings, and environments that we may have seen in other games. A new player may wonder, “to what end am I doing these puzzles?” or “why am I here?” Instead of answers, there are simply hints scattered throughout the game, such as at the crawlspace encountered midway through the game with a radio, an empty water jug, and “the cake is a lie” written on the walls. The player must subjectively decide what to make of them. Like Bissell describes in “Braided,” it seems like there is something deeper being communicated but one can never be sure what exactly it is. In the context of Bogost’s five qualities of an art-game, it seems that the combination of these mood-invoking elements, especially the audio-visual minimalism, provide a level of abstraction. The fact that these settings don’t seem modeled after any real environment and the lack of a defined purpose to completing the puzzles –beyond just completing them – all seem to suggest the game is a puzzle in itself and nothing more. To stop here, however, would be to overlook how the individual puzzles in the game are actually pieces that fit together a story.

After playing through more of the game, one begins to realize that the player-character is a girl named Chell that is trapped in some sort of diabolical experiment. By the end, as GLaDOS threatens to kill Chell, the player-character must destroy her using the tool that GLaDOS taught the player how to use.  Here, Portal seems to have developed procedural rhetoric. Bogost defines games with procedural rhetoric as saying “something about how an experienceo f the world works [or] how it feels to experience or to be subjected to some sort of situation.” This is distinct from authorship in that it is based around characterizing an experience a certain way rather than trying to make a particular point.  In the context of procedural rhetoric, Portal could have been aimed to show the experience one would have when technology advances so far that it begins to test humans, a role-reversal of sorts. This idea, reflected largely in dialogue by GLaDOS, creates the level of introspection that in some cases causes the player to ask him or herself questions about social control, the consequences of technological advancement, manipulation, Stockholm Syndrome, or trust. The types of questions raised, however, can vary from player to player. Along those lines, there is a very subjective representation to how the player-character experiences Portal.  As mentioned before, there are hints offered in levels but there is never a direct explanation of what is going on. By the end, Portal leaves the player with a feeling that is wholly unsettling, even after GLaDOS is defeated (though the fact that the ending song is sung by GLaDOS and entitled “Still Alive” does not help). At the same time, as one approaches the game’s conclusion, GLaDOS appears more and more of a manipulative fiend. Regardless, not every player will play through the game and feel betrayed by GLaDOS, who comes across as a guiding figure at first and later transitions to a more hostile one. Ultimately, however, GLaDOS’s interactions appeal to a range of human emotions that allow Portal to shape how the player experiences the game subjectively rather than a single way. The fact that the game is played from the first-person also emphasizes this because we never see the player-character Chell’s face as a template for how we should react – instead, we must react based solely on our personal contexts.

Lastly, it is difficult to gauge whether Bogost’s fifth quality for an art-game, strong authorship, is present. Bogost characterizes this quality as the “pursuit of a particular truth irrespective of the demands of reception or sales” and the “strong presence of a human author.” However, the fact that a high-budget company released Portal makes it difficult to separate the designer’s “authorial intent” to pursue a certain “truth” from the desire for good reception and sales. As one traverses the abstract environments in the game, it is also hard to say whether or not a strong author is forcing a certain truth, or questions about a truth, down the player’s throat. Moreover, the presence of proceduralism as the guiding methodology for depicting the game’s narrative makes this unclear because it adds a dimension of separation from the authors and their true intentions. This is distinct from a game with narrative cutscenes or direct narration where there is a clear theme being expressed through the combination of gameplay and story, or from something like Bioshock which promoted an objectivist philosophy that Ken Levine (a strong author, in this case) sought to integrate into the game. Overall, though Bogost acknowledges the tendency for art-games to be proceduralist, it seems that the presence of proceduralism obscures authorship to some degree. Ultimately, strong authorship does not seem to be an essential determinant quality of whether a video game is an art-game, especially in the context of Portal.

Was Portal created with the intention of being an art-game? Absent a statement from Valve, we may never know. What can be ascertained is that there are strong elements of an art-game present, ranging from the stylistic choices made by the designers to achieve audio-visual minimalism to the emphasis on proceduralism. I would say that four of Bogost’s five qualities are a good metric of whether a game can be classified as an art-game, but that an art-game need not have an easily identifiable strong author to be considered art. Though Portal lacks a discernible authorial voice pursuing some “particular truth,” the use of proceduralism is inherently expressionist—it both evokes certain emotions but allows for a strong bit of user interpretation—much like a panting. For this reason, it would be wrong to assume strong authorship as the “end all, be all” of whether Portal should be considered an art-game or not given its other imaginative qualities.

— Neil Sethi


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