“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 which 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 recreate the luster and spectacle of the original, so much 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 paperclip 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 only allowing players to place portals on specially designated surfaces and strategically placing electric 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 of 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 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 as many 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 to make a narrative spectacle, it’s 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 and understand the incomprehensibility or imperfection of 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.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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