This was a triumph!

January 23, 2008

We at Yesterday’s Salad pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge of yesterday’s news, particularly where gaming is concerned.  Although we snagged a prerelease copy of Supreme Commander, and somehow managed to review the excellent Blackwell Legacy within hours of its release (try the demo for the next game in the series!), since we do our best to act more grizzled than we really are (by several decades), most of our game coverage requires some dusting to stay relevant.  So it’s with some trepidation that I mention Portal, one of the best games to come out in this or any other universe.

In Portal, you play a silent protagonist who finds herself stuck in a series of experiments, run by the aptly-named Aperture Science corporation.  As the game progresses, and the experiments/tests become increasingly complex, you gain access to a “portal device,” a tool that can link two places in space.  Thanks to a robust physics engine, this leads to some remarkably non-linear movement and puzzle-solving, as well as countless “how-could-that-happen” kinds of moments.

For instance, to cross a particularly long chasm, you can simply create an opening to the portal on both sides of the chasm, and can simply bypass it.  However, when you consider that momentum is conserved going into and out of a portal (although it’s really speed being conserved), the possibilities multiply and get much, much weirder. If you fall into a portal on the ground, and the linked opening is on a wall, oriented horizontally, you will fly out of the opening.  Carefully placed openings can allow you to loop objects (or more cautiously, yourself) through a pair of portals with increasing speed, until they eventually slingshot out.

The story is excellent, and while there’s plenty of spoiler material out there, let me simply say that there is a tremendous amount of deadpan humor, particularly poking fun at the “scientific” trappings surrounding the tests.  So too, the A.I. who guides you through the tests is a thoroughly hilarious character, as she becomes progressively less helpful as you advance, and begins to make light of the considerable danger your character is in.  However, in true YS fashion, she continually hints that there will be cake at the end.

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I hate to steal the lead post from Dash – particularly when it involves perpetual Yesterday’s Salad crush, Catherine Keener – but I felt I had the lede to justify it:

Videogames may be close to reaching a point of singularity – wherein exponentially increasing gravitational forces cause matter to fuse together in a single point – signaling of the coming collapse of the universe.  For proof, witness this:

The remaining fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles foretold of a universe oscillating between singularity and chaos:

A twofold tale I shall tell: at one time it grew to be one alone out of many, at another again it grew apart to be many out of one. Double is the birth of mortal things and double their failing; for one is brought to birth and destroyed by the coming together of all things, the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again. And these things never cease their continual exchange, now through Love all coming together into one, now again each carried apart by the hatred of Strife. So insofar as it has learned to grow one from many, and again as the one grows apart [there] grow many, thus far do they come into being and have no stable life; but insofar as they never cease their continual interchange, thus far they exist always changeless in the cycle.*

This “hybrid” game seems to be the embodiment of the “coming together into one” that Empedocles foretold, as separate creatures, Mario and the Master Chief, combine.  So too, while the mixed forces of the Koopa Troop and Covenant conspire against our heroes, they unwittingly play into the progress of the universe’s regression towards a single source.  Yet despite the seamlessness with which two worlds mix, there may indeed be “no stable life” for the Mario-Chief chimera, as the twin forces of copywrite and legality prove more powerful than cosmic strife.

*Translation from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy