Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Playing with space-time

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Two games hit the market in the last year and a half that promise to change the way we look at gaming, and stretch the boundaries of what we can do with what we consider a game. These two games are Portal and Braid.

Portal was the first to hit shelves. It’s a release from Valve, the makers of Half-Life and Half-Life 2, among others, and they’ve proven they know how to do things right. Set in the Half-Life universe, and loosely connected, Portal follows you as the protagonist through a short romp in space. Not space as in outer space, the one with all the stars and planets and nothing, but space as in what you’re occupying right now. It’s a first-person shooter, but not in the traditional sense. It’s also a first-person platformer, which almost never works in games. Portal pulls it off, because it centers around one simple mechanic: portals.

In this case, a gun shoots a hole in space onto a surface. Two colored portals can be fired; blue and orange, each one at the end of a wormhole. Through these two simple holes, the player must navigate a series of increasingly confusing and deadly “test chambers” in search of… what, exactly? You’re a test subject for Aperture Science, discovering where the employees are, who that voice is talking to you, and what the big deal is about cake. (That’s right, cake.) The drive to complete the test chambers slowly morphs into the drive to escape, and to find out what happened along the way.

On the other side of the continuum we have Braid. Where Portal was made by a big-name company, in first-person, in 3D, and has you manipulate space, Braid is made by an independent developer, in third person, in 2D, and has you manipulate time.

Time manipulation is nothing new; ever since Prince of Persia, at least, there’s been some element of it present. Even in games that give you lives and set you free, death is often a rewind button to let you try again. No game has taken it to an extreme as much as Braid does.

Braid’s central mechanic is a rewind button. As you make your moves, jump your jumps, and fall your falls, you can press this button at any time to rewind back through what you’ve done, to change anything and see the different outcome. Each successive level makes things a little more complicated: one level has a ring you can place to slow down time in a small area, while another has a shadow version of yourself that only appears when you rewind, do to what you did while you do something else, effectively giving you two characters at once.

The story for Portal is light-hearted and funny, but Braid is a mystery: Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster. This happened because Tim made a mistake. Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the Princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt[….] Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

This is some of the first story you encounter when you begin to play the game. Note the wording; first story you encounter. Like everything else, the story isn’t necessarily chronological, and there’s much more to it than a simple story of a man chasing a princess — a pretty significant bit of social commentary just flew past, in fact:

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

It sounds almost like a new president's inaugural speech line about extending a hand in friendship — which can't work if the other hand is a closed fist. There has to be a new start, a clean slate. Wow, who knew that a princess's vindictive braid could be a metaphor for rebuilding the public image of a formerly admired nation... or a metaphor for a dozen other possibilities, if you really ponder them for a few minutes?

But beyond the moral-ethical-philosophical angles (and the plot does get much thicker and more complex than those), what else have these games done? They both push the bounds of what we’ve considered possible in a game, i.e. the odd physics of Portal or the creative uses of time in Braid. They lead the way for a whole new type of game. Let’s hope all the other game developers are paying attention.
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