Saturday, January 10, 2009

Short sparse games mean a lot.

I started Valve Software's "Portal" for PC Saturday a week ago, and finished the main game Tuesday night. I haven't done any of the crazy challenges yet, and I haven't gotten through all of the developer commentary. Even without the extras, it was amazing. Sure, it won all sorts of awards last year and the year before, so that's not much of a surprise. Just in case you haven't played it, I'll try not to spoil anything important.

The only other game that I can compare Portal to is ICO for Playstation 2. Both games are short, sparse, and short on communication. ICO opts for having a few cutscenes of unintelligible dialogue, where Portal has no cutscenes, all story pieces delivered in the game, and a chatty computer with a lot of memorable monologue. In ICO, you have a stick and a helpless princess to drag around after you. In Portal, you have a Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device and a Weighted Storage Cube. As it turns out, you can do more damage with the portal gun, but it's not as satisfying as beating something with a stick (at least not at first). In both cases the game is short by modern standards - ICO took me around eight in-game hours to finish, not counting dozens of deaths and half a dozen sandwiches over two weekends. Portal has but 19 levels - and makes no secret of it. An expert could blow through the entire game in less than an hour without breaking a sweat.

By comparison, Resident Evil 4 is 20-30 hours plus cutscenes under normal conditions. A driving game like Burnout or Gran Turismo's Arcade mode is likely to be a lot longer - to say nothing of GT's Simulation mode with its insanely long endurance races.

Neither game clutters the screen with a health bar or a score. Portal's only got a crosshair on the screen that tells you which portal you fired last. I really applaud both ICO's developers and Portal's developers for conveying so much in such a short game without too many heavy-handed approaches that take you out of the game. They are two games that made me feel something by the time the credits rolled - and not just the feeling that I'd been sitting in my chair too long.

Sure, I get all emotional about Zelda:Twilight Princess during the closing movie, but there's been at least a couple dozen cutscenes to propel the story by then. It would have been more challenging from a design standpoint to have conveyed all of that information in-game.

In other news - I suspect my 1up blog is not long for this world as UGO's acquisition of 1up gutted many of 1up's news people and killed Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine. I'm liable to just bail and stick to this space as my main soapbox. In really other news, I got dragged into the future via Facebook. (Thanks, y'all.)

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