Thursday, February 27, 2014

Portal: More Than Just a Twist

Surprise, Surprise...

Why should you make your game surprising? As a whole, humans love surprises. We spot patterns quickly and get bored when things become predictable. And we are experts at predicting. Game developers (and other entertainment creators) have a hard time because if they start to lose customers if they serve the same dish twice.

Maybe it's why rogue-likes are so popular lately - unpredictable elements and possibly emergent gameplay. Sprinkle a bit of addictive player feedback loops and toss in a pinch of challenging gameplay. Stir three times and you've got yourself a game!

In other news, I am getting a bit hungry.

A Case Study on Portal

When people talk about surprises in video games, they often talk about about Portal. Now, if you haven't played it yet, stop reading and go play it.

Midway through Portal, there's a giant twist. And by most accounts, this is a pretty effective twist. Good game designers ask hard question, so this is the question of the day:

Why is the twist in Portal effective and how do we apply it to other games? 

This is a question I've pondered about for quite some time. I used to think that the twist in Portal was only based on narrative, but recently I've noticed that that was only a small part of it. There are plenty of games with twists in their story, but Portal somehow feels more special than that.

Let's take a look at the structure of puzzles in Portal.

Most puzzle games, from Angry Birds to World of Goo to Scribblenauts, have the same general structure.
They are a series of isolated puzzles that have about the same chunk size for each puzzle.

How most puzzle games are structured

However, Portal is structured like this:
How Portal is structured

Portal starts off in a rather traditional puzzle structure. It even has a "level number" for each puzzle. But after the midpoint the concept of isolated "test chambers" melt away. It's just a continuous long environment you travel through with implicit puzzles interlaced along the way. 

There are also a lot of differences to the twist besides puzzle structure. A big part of the surprise in Portal is setting up expectations and breaking them. This comes through in the tone, environment, and narration of the game. Most of these come across pretty clear: the first 20 levels are clean perfect testing chambers, and the rest of the game is played - the dingy and dirty spaces behind panel and testing facilities as well as the empty office spaces. 

Even the narration style is different. In the first 20 levels, the narration feels very hand-holdy. Something is said at the beginning of the puzzle, at the end of the puzzle, and maybe even while you ride an elevator. Later on, it feels that Glados is actively stalking you.

Crossing Genres

And this leads me to one hypothesis: 

In the player's mind, Portal changes from one genre to another

In other words, the game actually crosses genres. In the first half, it's just a puzzle game with a funny narrator. In the second half, it becomes an adventure game. The thoughts in the player's mind change from:

"Huh. How do I solve this puzzle?"

Portal changed from a game being clearly rooted in one genre, and just about when you think it ends, changes into another game. And it doesn't cross genres half-heartedly. Unlike most other games, it doesn't dabble in another genre for a few brief moments before coming back to its original genre. Portal crosses that bridge doesn't look back.

And maybe that's the key to creating a twist or surprise on the scale of the one in Portal:

Make the first half of the game seem like one genre, 
and make the second half seem like another genre.

And when done correctly this could be very powerful. Think about a military shooter game that sudden becomes a stealth game after the first half of the game. Or better yet, a military game shooter that becomes an open world survival game. Ideally, games that cross genres would keep the same gameplay mechanic.

What if a stealth game like Thief suddenly became an assassination game based on revenge? One interesting thing is that to make these changes in gameplay genre will only make sense if you have a powerful change in narrative. This could be an interesting tool.

For example, consider going from "zombie survival horror" to "adventure". The twist might be getting bitten by a zombie and volunteering (or being forced) to leave the human compound try to do the most good possible before your time is up. The gameplay might change from "scavenging and running away from zombies" to "exploring the post-apocolyptic world looking for a cure or another human compound."

And...that's just a random thought I was having. Have a nice day.


  1. To me, Portal was unusual in that it used various elements apart from just the story to increase the impact of the "twist". However, if we consider the singular moment of realizing we were going to be euthanized to be the "twist", it wasn't as surprising. Anyone who reads between the lines would realize things were very odd, and I atleast was somehow aware I would meet the same end as the Companion Cubes. For me, the real twist was finding out the lab experiments were just the beginning, and there was so much more to the game beyond it. I was surprised by the incredible writing (which only really becomes obvious after the twist), and by the change in environment design. But I can argue all these happen "after" the twist, so in effect do not contribute to the "twist". I can't fault Valve for it, of course; making the early levels bland in comparison with the rest of the game was important to amplify the impact of the change in later levels, but it does diminish the power of the "twist".

    IMO, Knights of the Old Republic has the best twist in gaming (and possibly all media, but I guess it's arguable), and the entire impact of the twist is focused in one singular moment. When I first saw it, my mind imploded and time froze as I mentally traversed every second I had played the game searching for a contradicting element that supported the voice in my head that said "NO EFFING WAY!". That feeling has never happened again. Just to be sure, I just googled "biggest twists in gaming", and the first result from gamesradar supported my conviction.

    Link to GamesRadar article:

    Don't read that if you haven't played the game; if you enjoy twists, play it first! Even after all that I've said, you still won't see it coming. It is the pinnacle of storywriting of its time.

  2. I think this is a pretty good analysis of Portal. I never thought of it as switching genres, but it kind of makes sense. I think when switching genres for the purposes of surprise, the genres should be similar. Playing a shooter and then switching to a third person RTS would probably not be as successful. (Though switching from a first person tactical shooter to controlling a squad of 3 might actually be interesting).

    Another good game with a twist was braid. The ending level, was definitely a bit different than the rest, but it was after you beat the level that my mind was blown. A narrative twist can be just as powerful as a mechanical one.

  3. Yup I too was thinking of Portal's magical approach. Good that you actually looked into it. Absolutely true - love your illustrations of puzzles added to it is adventure. This makes sense! I can see your passion for "puzzles" - Perspective Shift - puzzle game! Good Stuff overall.

  4. A very insightful thought. Traditionally we consider twist as a surprise in story. Portal not only has a twist in story, but also has a twist in mechanic.

    But wait, there are actually four element in game design: Mechanic, Narrative, Aesthetic, Technology. What if we expand your idea to a more general form, that every element in a game can have a "twist"? This can be a very powerful tool for game designer.

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