Finally Beat Portal (1)

Finally got around to playing Portal amid the Portal 2 fervor/ad campaign. I can’t look outside my window without seeing a giant-ass Portal 2 ad staring back at me on the other side of the 580, or Portal 2 buses driving down Lake Merritt.

Naturally, I’m four years late on this one, so I don’t think I have much to say about Portal that hasn’t already been said. Especially since the damn game was assigned as a college class “reading” a year or two ago.

As one who plays games, I rarely have the patience for any single-player experience these days. After having gotten used to the mental and physical challenge of a competitive game like StarCraft 2 or any of the Street Fighter games, most single-player games feel either mind-numbingly simple, or pointlessly difficult–your garden-variety grindy RPG as an example of the latter.

An example of the former: I played through Mass Effect 1+2 over Christmas last year, and it didn’t take much more effort than, well, watching a movie, except I had to press a lot more buttons. Which would have been fine, if I was a little bit more invested in the story. As it was, it was a great timesink when I was stuck at home alone and sick, but I’d have never bothered to play it under normal Real Life conditions. That is to say, the gameplay itself isn’t fun enough to make me keep playing without some kind of incentive (the plot), and since the plot wasn’t really that great, it took extenuating circumstances to persuade me to finish the game. Never looked back after beating it, either. Instead I thought, “Well, that’s nice. Should have spent that time playing more StarCraft 2, though.”

In that respect, Portal is excellent. It’s a fun game and I thought the central gameplay mechanic was rather neat. Perhaps what I liked best about it, though, was its brevity. It was mercifully short (my playthrough clocked in at about two hours, I believe), so I was able to start it Friday evening and finish it Sunday morning. I wasted two hours watching the latter half of two ridiculously shitty movies Saturday evening (Salt and The People I’ve Slept With)–time that would have been much better spent doing anything.

If Portal was, say, 20 hours long (which I’m guessing is roughly how long it took me to beat Mass Effect 2), I’d be bored. There would have to be a lot more crap added to the portal mechanic (speed-up portals! three portals! all kinds of other portals!) to spice things up, the level designers would need to be geniuses to keep things fun and challenging without losing my interest, and the story would have to be some kind of epic saga spanning multiple research laboratories to keep me going. Instead, it’s the perfect length–long enough that someone else has probably completed a Portal speedrun in the time it has taken me to write this post. If Mass Effect 2 was as short as Portal, I would have liked it much, much more.

I realize that I’m particularly picky about games because I’m picky about how I spend my time–shitty Saturday movie night notwithstanding (it was an accident, honest). And games are great for people with too much free time, and not so good for people without. But I do think that part of the process of letting video games “grow up” has to be about recognizing that most fully-functioning adults aren’t going to devote 40 hours to your game, or possibly even 4 hours, because we have Grown-Up Shit To Do.

When my typical weekends make it hard for me to set aside the time to write something quick for Palette Swaps, you can damn well bet I’m not going to get around to playing your game. That’s because my free time is 95% spoken for by demands that are more fun and more personally productive than playing video games by myself, which just feels a bit masturbatory.

Maybe this is the inaugural post of the Short Games Club.

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