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The Great Escape

(Image credit: Flickr user Sir Mildred Pierce)

How a video game broke all the rules and made art out of physics

In 2005, seven students at DigiPen Institute of Technology —a for-profit university that teaches video game design— dutifully showed up at their school’s annual career expo to show off their senior project. Their expectations were reasonably low.

Sure, they knew a few big-shot game designers would attend. DigiPen, after all, was located in Redmond, Washington, home to Microsoft and Nintendo, and representatives would likely be there. But the students certainly didn’t expect folks from Valve —the company behind Half-Life— to stop by their booth, play their game, Narbacular Drop, then leave business cards.

When the students called Valve hoping to get feedback from experts, they were shocked by the response. A few weeks later, they found themselves in a corporate meeting room. “We took the game there and we were thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to show it to two or three people,’ ” Kim Swift, one of the DigiPen seven, told Forbes. But people kept piling into the room: 20 to 30 of Valve’s top programmers, artists, and executives— including Gabe Newell, Valve’s legendary co-founder. It was like having Steven Spielberg show up to a screening of your student film.

Less than 15 minutes into the Narbacular Drop demonstration, Newell stopped the proceedings. He had a question for the twenty-somethings. “So, what're you doing after graduation?”

Narbacular Drop was a first-person shooter: The player sees the world through the eyes of a weapon-wielding protagonist. For decades, the object of first-person shooter games hasn’t really changed: to shoot something or kill someone. But Narbacular Drop was different. Instead of firing holes into people, the character could fire holes into the fabric of space-time. So, for instance, you could create a hole in the floor and a second hole in the wall, and a portal —a wormhole connecting the two targets— would open up. Step through, and you would essentially teleport.

That wasn’t the only strange part. The game’s main character, Princess No-Knees, couldn’t jump. She was trapped in a dungeon, and she needed to use portals to escape. The game wasn’t about winning battles or running up body counts. It was about solving puzzles. It was also short, more of a demonstration of the robust potential of portals —what game designers call a “mechanic”— than an actual game. While the concept wasn’t wholly new, Narbacular Drop was the first to make portals the centerpiece of the game play.

Newell loved it, and was determined to keep the students together and working on it. “Unless somebody did something, this team was going to break up, right?” he told the Seattle Times. “It’s sort of like, you go and listen to the Beatles for the first time in Hamburg, Germany, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, now we have to go to our jobs and be plumbers and electricians and stuff like that.’ You go, ‘Oh my God, you guys have to stick together, you can’t all go in separate directions.’”

So Newell offered them jobs on the spot— all seven of them. The students walked outside, dazed. “We just kind of stood in a circle and stared into space,” Swift says. “None of us could actually form words for a while.” Valve tasked the DigiPen seven with turning their college project into a full-fledged video game. They planned to work for six months and release a small, downloadable game— but when the deadline came, Valve told them to keep working. (Image credit: Jean-Frédéric)

It was typical of Valve. The company’s design process, referred to as the Cabal, combines elements widely regarded as contrary to creativity, innovation, and timeliness. Game design is assigned to a collective, rather than an auteur-like designer. (For Portal, four programmers, three artists, and one writer made decisions as a unit.) There are no bosses. Employees can choose their own projects. In fact, all the desks have wheels so workers can push their work space around to whatever group they’d like to join.

The Portal team used that extra time to build a better narrative. In many video games, the game play (what the player is doing) diverges wildly from the storytelling (what the player is being told is happening). The Portal team avoided that. They pitched the game to a group of writers, and Erik Wolpaw, a staff writer experienced with creating unconventional games -Alien vs. Child Predator, for example- signed on. Swift and Wolpaw met each morning between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. to review the previous day’s work, and within two to five days, a new level —and part of the story— would be ready for testing.

At Valve, a work in progress is regularly put into a player’s hands. Portal was played, start to finish, each week during its development by a player who had never touched it before. The design team watched and took notes, but they were prohibited from offering hints. Even the plot and humor were tested.

“When you’re working on some sort of creative project, your natural inclination is to not want to show it to anyone until it’s in a state that you think you can be proud of,” Wolpaw told Gamasutra, a website for game designers. “But at Valve, we’re putting you out there and you’re going to fail, fail, fail. You’ll have little successes and little failures, and until you get used to the process, it’s a little bit scary and painful. But it’s really worth it.”

After six more months, the team was ready to show off their product. Then Valve delivered more unexpected news: They needed to put in another year of work.

This was huge vote of confidence. Hundreds of millions of dollars are routinely spent making games every year. In 2015, the industry raked in more than $23 billion in the United States alone. The fact that a studio was putting a fraction of those resources into an inexperienced team’s project wasn’t exactly a common occurrence.

But Valve clearly had something special on their hands: a unique game mechanic and a story dripping with dark, intelligent humor.

Imagine waking up in an abandoned, futuristic science lab. You are alone. You are trapped. You’re given a gun that’s like something Wile E. Coyote might have ordered out of the Acme catalog. It shoots portals. The only way out of the lab is to move from room to room, solving puzzles. For example, you’re in a room, and there’s an exit on the other side, but a pit in the floor blocks the exit. To escape, you have to shoot a portal across the chasm and another on a nearby wall. A wormhole develops. You walk through and, like magic, you’re transported to the other side.

You move into a new room. A wisecracking, all-seeing robot named GLaDOS watches your every move and drops hints. Soon, the puzzles become more difficult and dangerous. Spiked panels emerge from walls. Lasers try to sear you. GLaDOS goes from an ambivalent help-desk robot to a mocking, malevolent force. She has you trapped, and you must use the spatial reasoning skills you’ve developed to destroy her.

In October 2007, Portal was released. Critics raved. Usually, the object of a first-person shooter is to defeat something, often violently. That violence may be comic (like jumping on turtle shells), absurd (like throwing fireballs), or realistic (like storming a military compound with shotguns and sniper rifles). But for much of Portal, the object was to simply get from one room to another.

Notably, the game’s only two characters were female (even if one was a robot and the other didn’t speak). And it was short: 20 levels. You could finish it while someone else watched The Godfather Part II. In a medium known for games designed to hook you on an endless loop of play. Portal left its players wanting more. “The better we tuned our game, the shorter the game got,” Swift said.

“It’s generally accepted that Portal is maybe the highwater mark of storytelling in games,” Frank Lantz, director of New York University’s Game Center, said at a lecture. “The story that’s happening is about games and how weird they are. Why are we jumping through hoops? Why are we banging our heads on puzzles? Why are we trapped in this weird testing complex? Which is what a game is.” In effect. Portal was a meta-commentary on the nature of games.

Accolades from industry colleagues followed. In February 2008, the Portal team sat at the Game
Developers Choice Awards in San Francisco, the gaming equivalent of the Academy Awards. “I remember thinking. We’re not going to win anything,’” Swift said. “We’re just this little team that threw together this small, very strange game with a ton of inside jokes and strange memes.”

(Image credit: Michael Myers)

They won Innovation of the Year. And Game of the Year. In fact, more than 30 publications would call Portal the game of the year.

Are video games art? MoMA thinks so. In 2012, the museum added 14 video game titles to its permanent Architecture and Design collection. Among them? Classics like Pac-Man, Tetris, and, yes: Portal. A well-designed video game, the museum explained, is like a chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright: “The programming language takes the place of the wood or plastics, and the quality of the interaction translates in the digital world what the synthesis of form and function represent in the physical one.”

It helps that Portal is now widely regarded as one of the finest works in the half-century history of interactive entertainment. Rather than a violent, special effects-laden blockbuster, it’s a quietly brilliant blend of narrative and spatial reasoning puzzles that invokes physics, geometry, and logic. It proved video games could transcend their reputation as distractions and be cerebral, meaningful, and rewarding.

Portal also reaches beyond gamers. “Perhaps inadvertently, [it] makes for a hell of an educational game— because you’re constantly mentally calculating the vectors of force and direction you’ll generate by falling through and out of strategically placed holes,” wrote Clive Thompson in Wired. “Physics teachers could have an absolute field day with this thing.”

In fact, they have. When Portal was released. Valve began receiving emails from math and science teachers who praised it as an intuitive way to educate students about physics concepts like inertia and momentum. When Valve agreed to make a sequel, they assigned two members of the original team to explore the next game’s education potential. They even started a schools initiative called Teach With Portals, a collection of lesson plans that integrate the game into classrooms. The New York Times said the sequel “wrings more fun out of physics than all of the shoot-’em-ups in the world.”

As for the Beatles of video games, they broke up after their masterpiece. Swift left Valve after five years. She’s now a designer for the secretive Amazon Game Studios, working on an unannounced project. She’s an industry veteran, a celebrity who delivers keynote addresses at fan conventions— yet she’s also only 32.

“I guess I just wanted to try something different,” she says when asked why she left Valve. “I had wanted to be a game developer since I was 10. To know that I had basically accomplished my dreams in such a short period of time was crazy.”

The article above by Chris Suellentrop appeared in the September-October 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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