But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
Laser guided, a gun turret aimeth. — Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
Portal is as much a poem as a game. The creators take the vernacular elements of the first person shooter and make a discliplined selection from them. For instance, the only weapon you equip doesn’t actually hurt anything, because that option is simply not available, and doesn’t make in game sense. Falling damage has been removed. They then add one new one element – the famous portals. In the words of Jeep Barnett, one of the developers,
We try to understand our limitations and work within those and in some ways embrace them.
And embrace them they did. Once the game’s chosen elements and their relationships are established, it recombines them with wit and grace. And it tries to kill you a few times too, but what is art without struggle?
Though analogies from one form of art to another are not perfect, and I doubt the team set out to write a poem, the description as poetry is apt because the formal constraints of Portal make it possible to describe it in a kind of ludic meter. The remainder may spoil. (I also owe a debt to work from the Rocketboom Institute of Internet Studies on image macro haikus).
Like Goethe’s Faust, Portal is divided into two distinct parts, which differ in structure and content. Part 1 has a whimsical tone, but a formal structure reminiscent of a sonnet. Each level can be treated as a stanza. The structure of each stanza is then
G (O B|B O|S)* G
G is dialogue from the AI Glados, half sexy librarian, half HAL from 2001. Each level starts and ends with AI dialogue, in a great performance from Ellen McLain. The repetition is not as strict as a villanelle, but is similar in linking the beginning and end of a stanza. The AI returns to themes throughout the game (eg, cake).
B and O are the blue and orange portals respectively. These form rhyming couplets. It is the chain of portal couplets that progress you through a stanza. When you go in one portal and out another, you move one or both portals and repeat the process. In terms of rhyme scheme, going in the orange portal, and coming out the blue is O B. Then, for example, moving the orange portal and returning into the blue portal is O B B O. A Shakespearean sonnet has the form (A B A B)^3 C C, that is, three sets of A B rhymes followed by a C C rhyming couplet to finish.
The structure of each line is not restricted by time meter as it would be in the iambic pentameter of an English sonnet. However, the deliberately limited vocabulary of Part I, using floor buttons, boxes, doors, lifts, energy balls and switches, and not much else, still gives a sense of formal restraint.
S is a substanza. As Portal proceeds, the levels get more complex, and the AI will bookend sections of a particular level with more dialogue.
What distinguishes this game from a conventional puzzler is the retention of a sense of flow. This seems to have come from Valve’s process of rigourous playtesting (mentioned in the interview above). This in turn fed back to the reduced vocabulary and minimalist setting, which reinforced the formal structure. It means you don’t get stuck on an impossible or frankly tedious puzzle. This also shows the limitations of playing a game in poetic mode. It’s as if you couldn’t go past page three of Paradise Lost unless you read out the fifth line exactly right.
At the beginning of Part II, the AI famously and hilariously asks you to assume the party acceptance position. When you, as the protagonist, reject this and scoot off into the factory innards of the laboratory, the game itself leaves its formal structure for something more anarchic. It’s actually a more conventional FPS setting, with more jumping onto lifts and such according to timing, though you still don’t shoot anything except walls. The climax, though, despite Eric Wolpaw’s hatred of plays, really does have a wonderful setpiece, a coup de theatre.
Valve, this is a triumph. I’m making a note here: Huge Success.