‘Mel,’ built by ‘Por­tal 2’ fans, takes puzzles to whole new level

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - Thom­sen is a free­lance writer. BYMICHAEL THOM­SEN

From the be­gin­ning, video games blurred the line be­tween cre­ativ­ity and copy­ing. “Space­war” spread across univer­sity com­puter labs in the early 1960s as stu­dents at­tempted to re­pro­duce MIT’s work. In the mid-1970s, Will Crowther gave his bless­ing to those want­ing to re­vise and ex­pand on “Ad­ven­ture,” his ground­break­ing text game. “Doom’s” en­er­getic mod com­mu­nity uses the shooter as a tool to re-cre­ate ev­ery­thing from “Ghost­busters” to “Star Wars,” and some of its most pop­u­lar player-made lev­els, such as “Fi­nal Doom,” were ac­quired by iD Soft­ware and-sold as of­fi­cial re­leases.

“Por­tal Sto­ries: Mel” con­tin­ues that legacy. It is a free but full-length game de­vel­oped over four years by a small group of “Por­tal 2” fans un­der the ban­ner of Prism Stu­dios. Valve, the en­ter­tain­ment and soft­ware com­pany that de­vel­oped “Por­tal 2,” has sup­ported fan mods of its game since the be­gin­ning, and it helped cre­ate a ver­sion of the game called “Teach With Por­tals” to be used in schools to teach ba­sic physics. What’s un­usual about “Por­tal Sto­ries: Mel” is how thor­oughly it at­tempts to re-cre­ate the luster and spec­ta­cle of the orig­i­nal, so­much so that Valve helped sup­port the team with light de­vel­op­ment ad­vice.

The game opens in the mid-1960s with play­ers con­trol­ling Mel, a for­mer ath­lete who’s been in­vited to Aper­ture Science’s test com­pound to take part in some new ex­per­i­ments. Af­ter a long and omi­nous jour­ney into the un­der­ground fa­cil­ity, Mel is put into a sleep cham­ber for the night. When she wakes at some point in the in­de­ter­mi­nate fu­ture, an A.I. com­pan­ion is there to help guide her as­cent back to the sur­face, a heroic jour­ney that leads through decades of new tech­nol­ogy and in­stal­la­tions at Aper­ture that grad­u­ally re­veal how much time has passed.

“Por­tal Sto­ries: Mel” is es­sen­tially a puz­zle game about travers­ing space with spe­cific con­straints on move­ment. Us­ing a pro­to­type tool com­plete with a bent pa­per clip at­tached to it, you’ll be able to shoot an or­ange and blue por­tal at dif­fer­ent points in a room, so if you walk through a blue por­tal you would come out through the or­ange one, no mat­ter where that might be in the room (on the other side, on the ceil­ing, on the floor, etc.). The game turns this su­per power into a puz­zle piece by al­low­ing play­ers to place por­tals only on spe­cially des­ig­nated sur­faces and strate­gi­cally plac­ing elec- tric bar­ri­ers that por­tals can’t be shot through.

There are sup­ple­men­tal ma­te­ri­als to help with the ne­go­ti­a­tion of space, in­clud­ing red gel that makes you run more quickly, blue gel to en­able high jumps, light bridges that can be used to open path­ways over pits, and grav­ity beams used to ei­ther push or pull ob­jects through space. Com­bin­ing all these el­e­ments to help reach dis­tant ledges, cir­cum­vent energy bar­ri­ers and move weighted boxes around to ac­ti­vate switches leads to a huge num­ber of pos­si­bil­i­ties. Fig­ur­ing out what to use and how to use it drives most of the game’s puzzles.

Given how many sim­i­lar­i­ties they share, “Mel” can, sur­pris­ingly, feel like it’s been de­signed in a way that’s the con­cep­tual op­po­site of “Por­tal 2.” Af­ter play­ing “Mel,” it’s im­pos­si­ble to miss how sim­ple and un­com­plex most of “Por­tal 2” is. “Por­tal 2” is rig­or­ous in us­ing blind­ingly sim­ple puzzles to teach play­ers new prin­ci­ples be­fore putting them in more com­plex spa­ces. Even the more daunt­ing late-game puzzles unknot them­selves with a lit­tle ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, and they are so thought­fully de­signed that mak­ing a mis­take at any point in the tra­ver­sal se­quence never sets one back more than a cou­ple of steps. The game cre­ates the ef­fect of dis­cov­ery and clev­er­ness by al­low­ing play­ers to re­peat al­ready known pat­terns as if they were their own.

By con­trast, “Mel’s” puz­zle pro­gres­sion in­cludes very lit­tle tu­tor­ing, in­stead depend­ing on play­ers dis­cov­er­ing new and un­prece­dented uses for the game’s var­i­ous tra­ver­sal tools. And though skilled play­ers may find these im­pro­vi­sa­tional mo­ments ob­vi­ous, I found the game un­usu­ally dif­fi­cult, al­most phys­i­cally fa­tigu­ing. Built in spa­ces that re­quire 15 or 20 dif­fer­ent steps to reach the exit don’t feel like sin­gle puzzles but a bat­tery of them. And you’re never sure you’re do­ing them in the right se­quence. Some­times, just find­ing where you should go is dif­fi­cult, and mak­ing a mis­take mid­way through a puz­zle can force you redo it, which can make play­ing feel es­pe­cially la­bo­ri­ous.

Yet, I’m hes­i­tant to say those qual­i­ties are neg­a­tives. Play­ing “Mel” re­minded me of a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ap­proach to play that more closely aligns with the early days when it seemed like there were as­many peo­ple mak­ing games as play­ing them. “Mel” works best as a copy-and-mu­tate model of de­sign, a form of open-ended play in which there are no guar­an­tees of co­her­ence, progress, or even tech­ni­cal sta­bil­ity. One plays not to progress or learn a se­ries of care­fully pre-scripted lessons but to step be­yond the perime­ter of safely de­signed space into the weird.

Though “Mel” is clearly a game made by peo­ple in­tend­ing tomake a nar­ra­tive spec­ta­cle, its dif­fi­culty and er­ratic sense of pro­gres­sion are a welcome re­minder that games are just as beau­ti­ful when they ex­pect the in­con­ceiv­able from us, driv­ing play­ers into the role of de­vel­op­ers as they try to un­der­stand what they’ve been through and imag­ine things be­ing done another way. De­sign­ers are al­ways try­ing to put them­selves in play­ers’ heads, and play­ers are al­ways guess­ing at what de­sign­ers want from them. “Por­tal Sto­ries: Mel” re­minds us just how ar­ti­fi­cial the di­vide is be­tween the two.


“Por­tal Sto­ries: Mel” is es­sen­tially a puz­zle game about travers­ing space that works best as a form of open-ended play in which there are no guar­an­tees of co­her­ence, progress or even tech­ni­cal sta­bil­ity.

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