Portal 2: Improvisation and the Puzzle Game

I’m playing through Portal 2 again at the moment, mostly on a whim, and I’m struck by how bored I am at various parts. It’s a good game, but for me, there’s not much replay value. I’d like to talk a little bit about why.

I’m currently also reading through Steven Jones’ The Meaning of Video Games, which is a great little book about how we might best go around interpreting video games. In one of his chapters, “The game behind Facade“, he compares gameplay to being very much like improvisation in theatre. Rather than having a set script, as might be the case in a movie or a book, players move through a series of loosely structured environments that have (more-or-less) consistent rules. You might move through a room full of monsters, but there’s no pre-scripted pathway that you have to move along through the room – there’s just a room full of dudes and you have to kill them all. The way you do that is entirely up to you, as long as it’s within the confines of the game rules. This process is structurally similar to that of improvisation.

While the comparison is useful, it’s not perfect. I don’t think it successfully accounts for the role of competition in video games, for example. Jones does attempt to account for competition, pointing out that improvisation can be done competitively, but it’s a bit of a wet argument. What we can say is that play can be productively understood as having improvisational elements, although that doesn’t account for the competitive environment in which video games take place. The issue is that Jones is talking about Facade, which isn’t really a ‘game’ in the strict sense of the word, because you’re not trying to ‘win’, per se. It’s probably best described as more of a social simulator, although I’ve never played it myself – this is just my impression from Jones’ description.

What I really adore about Jones’ argument is the idea that play is, essentially, improvisational. That’s something I really enjoy about video games – the ability to creatively adapt and change through the course of play. I’m not sure if it fully accounts for more heavily procedural games – I’m thinking management sims etc, where the heart of the game is in managing a set of increasingly complex procedures, but we’ll worry about that later.

Let’s return to Portal 2. If, as Jones suggests, play is about improvisation, then puzzle games like Portal 2 are less about play insofar as they’re more about figuring out the correct solution to a static problem. The process of figuring out that problem in the first place might be quite improvisational, in that you try different things and toss ideas back and forth – but once you’ve figured out the correct procedure, I would argue the improvisation disappears. There is a correct and concrete set of steps that you have to carry through to solve the problem, and when you play the game again, you just have to input that data in a stolid, dull, non-improvisational fashion.

Compare it to something like The Binding of Isaac, where each new room is a new pattern, a new rogue-like procedurally generated environment that you have to negotiate creatively in order not to die. It’s never about a pre-ordained concrete series of steps – there’s skills that you carry across rooms, sure, but you don’t know what you’re going to do before you get into the room. That’s the difference: in Portal 2, if you’re very familiar with the game, you will know how to solve each puzzle. You might even be able to recite the steps to solving any given puzzle – that’s how singular the solution is. You could never do something like that with Binding of Isaac. 

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This lack of ongoing improvisation is one of the issues with Portal 2, and puzzle games in general. It might explain my dislike for puzzle games, which I talked about last week. I think it’s also what Miguel Sicart was getting at with his much more contentious article “Against Procedurality”. In the article, Sicart rails against ‘proceduralism’, which is a term he invented to describe people who make games he doesn’t like. I think his argument is messy, but, if this is his general position, I’m coming to appreciate it more. He certainly attacks a design theory which he describes as being used by designers of puzzle games – they’re games where, according to Sicart, you don’t play so much as carry out a pre-ordained linear set of actions, which is sort of what we’re gesturing at with Portal 2 and improvisation.

I’m not going to go as far as Sicart, in that I don’t subscribe to his idea that this so-called ‘proceduralism’ is bad for video games. I would agree that puzzle games have limited replay value, and I would agree that they’re more linear in terms of solution, as opposed to a more heavily improvisational FPS or something, and I’d even go a step further and say that, on the whole, I don’t think I like puzzle games. However, that’s still entirely different to decreeing that puzzles games are quote-unquote bad. I appreciate that Sicart is attacking a way of theorizing games just as much as he’s attacking a way of designing games, but it still seems a bit shabby.

To return again to Portal 2, we might say that I’m playing through it more for the characters and the environment as anything else. There are certainly moments I enjoy, and I do (sometimes) feel satisfied when I figure out a particular puzzle. There’s probably something to be said for not playing a game, in the sense that it’s been such a long time since I last played Portal 2 that I don’t remember all the challenges – so there is still some improvisation and experimentation going on. Plus I enjoy the world of the Portal games – it’s sentimentality, on my part, but there you go.

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