Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: Portal

If I do many more reviews, you'll probably notice that I am unlikely to be particularly negative about the title being reviewed. This is mainly because I can't really justify spending much money on entertainment, what with a family and a mortgage, and I don't have a whole lot of time to spend on them, anyway. So I tend to be pretty selective in the entertainment titles I do pick up; I want to be pretty sure that I'll like it.

I received several items this Christmas that I'll review here and there. First up is Portal. Portal was initially only available as part of a pack called The Orange Box, which I was not interested in because it involved paying a bunch more money for titles I had no desire to own, namely the first-person shooters Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. Fortunately, Portal is now available as a very inexpensive standalone title.

An aside about first-person shooters: In general, they don't particularly appeal to me because they are typically full of gore and more interested in tossing in the latest eye candy fad (Let's see, we had specular highlights, then bullet time, light bloom, ragdoll physics, parallax mapping...) instead of focusing effort on, say, the story and gameplay. I also enjoy playing games that involve some actual thinking instead of just twitching one's trigger finger at anything that moves. If a game is going to be played more with the brain stem than the cerebral cortex, I might as well be watching TV.

Granted, Portal sports a fair amount of graphics eye candy (inherited from Valve's Source engine) and can be loosely categorized as a first-person shooter, in that your viewpoint in the game is first-person and you shoot (although you're shooting portals rather than bullets), but the similarity ends there. The fun of Portal is from the clever story and the even cleverer gameplay. Not that the story is particularly original; it's your standard “artificial intelligence becomes sentient and kills everyone” plot. And it's not that the portal concept is particularly new to gaming, either; the previous year saw a game titled Prey that also featured portals (though the player could not create them for themselves). It's the way these things came together into a memorable gameplay experience that is the attraction.

A basic overview of the plot is in order: You wake up in a futuristic cell as a computerized voice informs you that it is time for testing to begin. A portal opens up in the wall, through which you can see yourself from outside the cell through the translucent wall. You quickly discover that the portal is connected to another portal outside the cell, and that passing through it causes you to emerge from the other side, allowing you to escape the cell. The computerized voice guides you through a series of tests in which you must use the portals to navigate various test chambers. Soon, you acquire a portal gun which allows you to place one side of the portal on most flat surfaces; later, it's upgraded to allow you to place both ends at will. As you proceed through the facility, it becomes clear that something isn't right. The test chambers become more dangerous, and you begin to see evidence that the testing is not as controlled as you might have thought.

Perhaps most memorable is the antagonist, GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence who speaks to the player over a P.A. system for almost the entire game. While her voice is coldly electronic and she at first serves as a helpful guide through the facility, there are hints of an actual personality that become more apparent as time goes on, and that personality is decidedly unbalanced. From her casual attitude about the possibility of injury to her test subjects, to her disjointed and sometimes manipulative comments about your progress, to her odd sense of humor and obsession with cake, GLaDOS is a really interesting character. Her complete control over the player's circumstances and her callous disregard for the player's well-being causes your progress to feel less like beating test chambers and more like beating GLaDOS at her own game. Thus, it's very rewarding to hear her dismay when you seize the opportunity near the end of the game to break out of her carefully controlled environment.

The game's effectiveness at “sucking you in” is illustrated well by an event that occurs in the latter part of the game. Throughout the game, the player can pick up futuristic-looking crates (referred to as cubes) and use them to form steps or to hold down large buttons to operate devices. Late in the game, GLaDOS gives you what she calls a “Weighted Companion Cube,” which is identical to the normal cubes except for the cheery pink heart painted on each side. GLaDOS instructs you to “take care of it,” and throughout the test chamber alternates between anthropomorphizing it and emphasizing its inanimate nature. At the end of the chamber, GLaDOS requires you to toss the companion cube into an incinerator in order to proceed, and upon compliance, praises you for “euthanizing” it faster than than any previous test subject on record. Many players, despite the undeniable fact that the companion cube is an inanimate object, felt emotional at being forced to destroy it and even more determined to defeat GLaDOS.

The voice acting is top notch. There are really only two voices in the entire game, that of GLaDOS herself, and that of the automated turrets you encounter late in the game. Yes, talking turrets. Amusingly, the turrets have rather childlike voices that chirp “Hello!” before opening fire, call out “Where are you?” or “Come over here,” if you take cover, and cry “Why?” or “I don't blame you,” if you disable them. Both voices are performed by Ellen McLain, who does a terrific job of balancing GLaDOS's synthetic timbre with hints of emotion and nuance.

The other delightful aspect to the game was the sheer enjoyment of figuring out how to use portals and the devices found in the test chambers to proceed. The levels are very well-designed in order to teach you the concepts you'll need to understand in order to make progress, usually without explicitly being told how it works by GLaDOS. The puzzles are clever, and sufficiently challenging without causing you to tear your hair out. If you prefer hair loss, there are “advanced” versions of some levels which have been made more difficult, and “challenge” levels where you try to minimize the time, number of portals, or number of footsteps used to complete the level. The game also tracks achievements you fulfill in the course of gameplay, to satisfy the completionists.

I only had a couple of minor gripes about the game. One was that you couldn't shoot your portal gun through a portal. This is understandable, as it opens up way too many complications in designing puzzles, but it was a tiny disappointment. The other nitpick was that it was short. This is not a bad thing, really. For one thing, the game is inexpensive. For another, the designers could easily have made it drag on far too long, allowing the novelty and enjoyment to wear off and turning it into a chore rather than fun. (A few games have somehow managed to convince some players that turning a game into a second job is somehow fun. I'm looking at you, RPGs.) So they leave you wanting more, which is a good thing, but on the other hand, well, you're left wanting more.

The big problem I have with the entertainment industry today is that too many in it are afraid to try something different that isn't proven to make money. Portal is an example where they took a chance and it worked. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good single-player puzzler with an intriguing story.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

You Ruined Everything

So I know that I said I probably wouldn't post in the next couple of weeks, but I wanted to share a thought I had. Yesterday, we got a babysitter and went to my company's Christmas party. We don't get out much since having kids, even more so due to my daughter's autism. We found ourselves out to dinner, without the kids, but as is common with parents the world over, we ended up talking a lot with others about the kids.

The thought caused me to reflect back on life with Gorgeous Wife before the kids. We stayed up late on the couch to watch movies together. Or we went out to watch movies together, or dance, or eat out, or whatever. We had more energy and less stress, more time and fewer bills. Yet, like most parents, we'd have the kids all over again if we had the choice.

Ronnie Shakes once said that to know if you loved somebody, you simply had to ask yourself, “Would I mind being destroyed financially by this person?” Nerd musician Jonathan Coulton wrote a song about the subject with regards to kids, with a chorus that just about perfectly describes the sentiment: “You ruined everything/In the nicest way.” His background info on the song is a tongue-in-cheek description of that strange transition from living your own lives to being at the beck and call of a little diapered dictator, yet somehow being okay with it:

I was having a conversation with a friend who had recently become a parent, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten about since my daughter was born. She was describing this what-have-I-done feeling - I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don't feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning. Eventually you just fall in love and forget about everything else, but it's not a very comfortable transition. I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that's how it was for me. At any rate, it's complicated.

Keep ruining everything, kids. For some strange reason, your parents don't seem to mind.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Merry Christmas!

So I probably won't be posting for the next couple of weeks. We've got Gorgeous Wife's mom and grandma coming late tonight, and with the holiday I imagine I'm just not gonna find time for blogging.

I'm sure you're all screaming “Noooo!” at your monitors right now. Fear not; I'll tide you over with a picture with adorable kids in it:

(My son wasn't actually smiling in that picture; I cut his head out of a different picture where he was smiling and pasted it in there. Thank you, GIMP!)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Long Day, Good News

I took Monday off work to take the kids places they'd rather not be. I got up at early o'clock in the morning to take my ten-month-old son to an MRI appointment at 6:30 a.m. All things considered, he behaved remarkably well. He even smiled and cooed at the nurse while she was prodding him during the pre-scan evaluation. He only started crying when it was time to hold him down to get the IV put in, and that didn't last long. The hardest part was the administration of the sedative and his insertion into the machine. I held him as they gave the sedative. It acted surprisingly quickly, and it was only about 30 seconds before I had to support his head to keep it from flopping back like a newborn's. He fought to stay awake, but within a couple of minutes he'd gone limp.

Then I had to stand on a mat in the control room, just outside the scan room, and watch through the doorway while the nurses took him from me and placed him on the scanning bed. The noise of the machine was enough to make him wake up and cry a bit, so they had to give him an additional short-duration sedative to keep him asleep. They attached monitors that would ensure that he was not having an adverse reaction to the sedatives (pulse, blood pressure and oxygenation), and an oxygen line, since the sedatives cause his breathing to be more shallow. When they returned, I had to leave and wait in the sedation recovery room while they curtained off the control room and performed the scan.

As irrational as it is, a parent can't help but imagine the worst while waiting during a procedure or test, no matter how minor. The scan itself really only took about half an hour tops, but the minutes seemed interminable as I sat in a chair next to an empty hospital cradle. I soon gave in to temptation and began pacing the room. Finally, the nurses pulled back the curtain and brought him out. With them came the radiologist, who told me that he still needed to do a thorough reading of the scans, but from what he had seen they looked normal. The nurse laid him in the cradle and again attached monitors to him, along with a saline drip to keep him hydrated, since he was required to be fasting for the scan and had not had anything to eat or drink since he went to sleep the previous night.

Thus began the 90-minute wait for the sedative to wear off enough to wake him. This was almost as nerve-wracking as the scan, thanks to the list of things we'd have to watch for over the next 24 hours that the nurse gave me. If we can't wake him, call 911. Make sure you don't allow his head to droop during the ride home, since it can impede his airway. Don't let him curl into a ball while sleeping or otherwise position himself in any way that could constrict his chest or airway. Watch him carefully while awake, since he may have trouble holding up his head or maintaining balance while crawling or sitting. Keep him on clear liquids for several hours, since the sedative can make him sick to his stomach. If he throws up, try to prevent him from aspirating any vomit, as that can cause pneumonia.

I kept checking his breathing over the 90 minutes, even though I knew perfectly well that a monitor would start screaming bloody murder if he stopped breathing. It seemed unnatural that he was so still. He somehow looked smaller, sleeping with a pre-warmed blanket over him, almost as if he were a newborn again. Perhaps I was unconsciously recalling the last time he was in a hospital cradle, just ten short months ago.

At last it was time to wake him. Fortunately, he woke up readily and immediately started protesting that his tummy was empty! He greedily chugged down 14 ounces of juice and gave a vigorous burp, to the amusement of the nurses. After that he seemed pretty happy and fairly normal, except for his head being a bit wobbly. He was discharged and I drove us home while he napped.

That afternoon, I took my daughter to the school district headquarters to be evaluated, in order to determine whether she is eligible for special education services. For most of the two-and-a-half hours that we were there, she was inconsolable. Something about the place just set her off and she screamed like someone was killing her. My time there was mostly spent answering long questionnaires about her behavior with my right hand while holding her in my left arm and rapidly going deaf in my left ear.

Eventually it was determined, to nobody's surprise, that yes, she does indeed have autism and yes, she is qualified to receive special education services. A good thing, since I was not really wanting to get into a big battle with the school district should they have taken it into their heads that she didn't need the services. As soon as I took her hand and told her that we were “going bye-bye” she immediately cheered up, smiled and waved at the people she'd been screaming at the whole time, and literally skipped out of the building.

Final note: Yesterday, we received word that the final reading of my son's MRI scans showed no abnormalities. This leads the pediatrician to believe that the most likely cause of his strange manner of crawling is simply preference for the right over the left, and that with time it should straighten out. Good news, but it does mean that we now have to wait and see if that pathetic-looking crawl of his really does work itself out.