I vowed solemnly to myself that I would offer my written opinion upon Quantum Conundrum without so much as mentioning Portal. “Alec old bean”, I bellowed at myself while brushing my teeth and drinking a large glass of whiskey in the shower, “it’s not terribly proper to forever perceive someone in the light of their previous achievements. You should treat this new game of physics puzzles from former Portal lead Kim Swift and her current studio Airtight Games as its own entity rather than in regard to how it compares to Valve’s non-combat first-person games. I say, would you like a scotch egg with that?”
When I left the shower to start actually playing Quantum Conundrum, it was near-instantly clear this promise to myself could not in good conscience be met.
It is, as we well knew, a game about solving physics and logic puzzles from a first-person perspective, but that isn’t what might put you quite so acutely in mind of Portal. That does not have a monopoly on that style of game, even if it might be perhaps the best known proponent of it. I welcome quite wholeheartedly a chance to explore brave new worlds without having to pull a gun on anyone. In QC’s case, the key interaction comes by using a mad professor’s glove-shaped dimensional hopping device as a conceit to instantly make objects (mostly crates, but a few sofas too) heavier or lighter, to slow down time or invert gravity. Only one can be active at a time, so it’s a matter of working out the right patterns and orders to navigate a series of obstacles and locked doors to reach an exit. It’s clever, inventive stuff in concept, and often in practice too.
I shall more fully discuss the success or lack thereof of this aspect of Quantum Conundrum shortly. What surprised me in terms of the game’s Portalosity is just how closely it apes the structure and tone as well as the concept. The unseen, quipping narrator who’s built an indoor maze of traps and puzzles (this time within an architecturally-implausible mansion), the way each challenge room is bookended by a short monologue from this character, the anthropomorphic machines, the only regular sighting of other people coming in the form of paintings, the narrator and silent protagonist’s somewhat ambivalent relationship, the way the player can conveniently survive huge drops unscathed (no leg braces here, though), the use of a hand-mounted doo-hickey for spatial manipulation… Perhaps some similarities were unavoidable, perhaps some were unconscious and perhaps some are purely because I’m seeing the game through the prism of my familiarity with and fondness for the Portals. It’s just, well… If you’re going to so overtly take after a game that’s been so widely hailed as a modern classic, you’d best do it damned well.
Minute to minute over the last couple of days, my opinion towards Quantum Conundrum has changed dramatically. Moments after thinking “yes, this is smart and charming and just what gaming needs more of” I’d be wishing the most awful suffering upon its creators. After a stretch where I’d become convinced my mental health depended on playing not a second more of this infuriating thing, I’d be joyfully trotting around another of the impossible mansion’s hallways, high on curiosity for what it was going to ask of me next. It alternates excellence with folly, at speed.
Some consistency of opinion did take hold for a few hours when the narrator offered, “Urgh, these hallways all look the same.” That is true. They do all look the same. And that makes for navigational confusion and visual boredom. Your ‘urgh’ is correct, sir. I briefly considered catching a plane to Seattle, taking a taxi to Redmond then waiting in Airtight’s reception until I’d explained to every last employee there that if you have a flaw, limitation or other irritating element in your videogame, you should not a) further draw your player’s attention to it and b) not then make light of it. Address the problem, don’t shrug it off with a naff gag.
It’s this strange, apparent problem with self-awareness that so regularly drags Quantum Conundrum down from being the triumphant party it repeatedly threatens to be. It’s full of small annoyances that I’m genuinely amazed didn’t come up in playtesting (or perhaps just weren’t considered significant enough) and whose net result is to foil the joy of experimentation. Bits of pipe that conveniently turn intangible at just the point where you’d be able to jump from them to reach a ledge, certain types of boxes that forcibly slide you off them and deactivate jumping so you can’t use them as steps even though they’re visibly large enough… Then there’s the steep, spiky difficulty curve, mainly due to the increasing requirement for high-speed precision jumping and rapid power-switching, which seems entirely at odds with the game’s stated mandate of being for families and less traditional gamers. I wanted to play around and experiment more with the dimensions and their rich possibilities, but so often they end up being a backdrop for a rigid platformer.
The greatest sin of all, the thing that makes me scream and curse and shake my fist at the skies, is that John De Lancie’s – for yes, Q himself is mad professor narrator whose voice is your near-constant companion – addled quips/hints often come as precursors to the more challenging puzzles/jumps. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again. If you fail and die, considerate checkpointing means you will at least restart just before the challenge. But you will hear the quip again.
You hate me now, I realise this. But you understand, at least. I’m no programmer, but I can’t imagine it’s anything like impossible to add a string that prevents the same voice clip from playing more than, say, twice. I’m also no master of gaming but I can usually hold my own. Even so, some of the timing/jumping puzzles saw me die repeatedly – dozens of times – even once I’d established what the required solution was. Figuring out the way forward is usually quick enough and reliably satisfying when there’s that sudden click of realisation, but putting the string of jumps and button-pushing and dimension-switching into practice can be a little too exacting, while the controls manage to be both twitchy and unforgiving. It is not a game for the easily-stressed. More positively, you might feel it’s got more meat on its bones if you felt Portal 2 was too sign-posted and easy. It’s just that it errs more towards reflex challenge than cerebral challenge, which isn’t entirely what I desired from a game called ‘Quantum Conundrum.’
Now, let’s talk about the quantum element. It’s full of brains and beans in that regard, escalating from humble light-state or heavy-state inducing puzzles to elaborate chains of hopping across sofas tumbling into the abyss in super-slow motion while trying to catch a thingy that’s plummeting upwards in anti-gravity then hurl it into a receptacle on the other side of the room without tumbling to a messy end in a lake of unspecific sciency-fluid. The flow is at times magnificent, all these strange but physics-dictated elements working in balanced tandem to create something only a videogame can do, but one that so few try to. It bites off more than it can chew – or, at least, more than any players not drenched in patience can chew – a little too often, but it’s steeped in ingenuity and artfully-planned butterfly effect challenges. Having a quad-set of powers means it could be said to have more variety than The Game Whose Name I Shall Not Mention Again, though the aforementioned visual sameiness sees it shoot itself in the foot in the sustained novelty regard.
It’s most certainly a game that made me feel better about games in the wake of all that gore-porn and Uncharted-cloning at E3. Which makes me all the more disappointed that it’s lacking that extra 5% of polish that would elevate it from “ooh…” to “wow!”
Huge amounts of blame for this, in so much as the right tone could have hid a multitude of other small sins, can be laid at the door of the narration. Having Q from Star Trek nattering away in my ear should have been a delight. I’m no Trekkie, but Q! Q! Alas, something nebulous is distractingly wrong with John De Lancie’s performance. I’m loathe to guess at exactly what went wrong and why, as I don’t know the conditions of the recording sessions, but certainly the audible effect is that he’s reading his lines out loud for the first time.
He has bags of enthusiasm and he’s at least in the suburbs of charisma even if he’s not caught the right bus to slap-bang city centre, but a great many of the emphases seem off, a few lines sound like a canned railway announcer declaring the arrival of the six-FIF-teen… from… MAN!..chester and he carries the same artificially jocular tone whether he’s expressing joy, anger, fear or sagacious wisdom. His is a constant presence, which makes it more than a superficial deflation. Q’s not-quite-right jabbering upsets the overall tone of the game.
It’s tough to get a clear sense through this of what the writing’s really like. A worrying majority of gags fell flat, but while there’s definitely some that are treading water rather than offering laser-targeted wit there’s enough pith and pop-cultural observations that I’m not unconvinced that there would have been a fair few zingers did they emanate from another actor’s mouth. Or, because I’m really not comfortable dissing Q, had there been a different orchestration of the recording sessions. The fact is that some of the humour does collapse into wackiness – pointless occasional mooing sounds in the background, the friendly, ever out of reach intra-dimensional gremlin Ike who has a capering cameo in most levels – and this too dilutes the intended acidity of the narrator. I kept expecting to laugh, as all the ingredients for laughter seemed to be there, but somehow it never quite happened.
Quantum Conundrum is, then, that most maddening, saddening breed of videogame – the Almost Success. A solid kernel of admirable intelligence and noble inventiveness is orbited by misfiring tone, ill-suited twitch challenge and seeming arbitrary design decisions that block organic, euphoric player experimentation in favour of unyielding square hole, square peg solutions. I can see the game it wants to be, the game it’s trying to be, the game it almost is. And that upsets me dearly, as sailing close to greatness but falling at critical hurdles always does. I do not come to bury Quantum Conundrum – far from it – but I do lament that it couldn’t quite leap that small but vital gulf between competence and brilliance. It doesn’t cost much, which certainly makes it worth the look even if you don’t go the full distance, but oy, that first-person platforming aspect sure does get in the way of the smart stuff.
In an alternate dimension where there was different playtesting and different voices, I loved Quantum Conundrum rather than merely admired it intermittently. But that I could press a button to go there.