But one door remains on our RPS-approved fairtrade advent calendar. Behind it lurks the truth, the wonderful, chocolately truth. Our game of the year. And, thank heavens, the end of about half a dozen increasingly laboured running gags. Oh, lawks. We're going to have to think up new jokes next year, aren't we? Aaargh.
It's okay. Let's not think about tomorrow just yet. Let's think about right now, and the game behind this final, inviting flap of coloured tree-pulp:
Whatever could it be? Last chance to guess. The clues are all there. It's a door, after all. Or, to put it another way...
..it's a Portal! And a game so delightful we could just eat it right up. Om nom nom nom. Sorry, Fairtrade. We don't want your chocolate today. We want cake.
That a sub-three hour game, a re-make of a student project, something that was almost bonus content in a game release of two long-anticipated games, should be the best game of 2007 is… well it’s just great, really.
It has so much to say about our expectations and needs from a game. It’s a piece of gargantuan proof that we’re not a bunch of graphics suckers, slathering after the latest shader effects and realistic sub machine guns. We’re gamers, and our love is playing games. Really, really good games.
Often times a game will get a little bit more attention than it deserves thanks to a particular gimmick, that with the passing of time will fade, the game losing its edge in our memory. But I believe Portal completely transcends this. Portal will be remembered for its song. It will be remembered for its cube with a heart on it. It will be remembered for its voice acting. It will be remembered for its exemplary script. It will be remembered for GLaDOS. It will be remembered for a brand new game dynamic. It will be remembered for exquisite level design. It will be remembered for a near-perfect difficulty curve. It will be remembered for a fabulous twist. It will be remembered for an elegant and minimalist design. It will be remembered.
In under three hours, it has all this. Peculiarly, since it’s developed by a new, fledgling team and is mostly a new license, Portal stands out as the pinnacle of what it is that Valve does right. It’s a game that couldn’t possibly have worked, perhaps even have existed, without having been constantly play-tested during development. It’s surely something that could never have received the budget, and most of all time, for a short-length game anywhere else. And it could never have received the public attention it deserved without being smuggled to us between the most anticipated online shooter in a decade, and the latest instalment in the best first-person shooter series of all time.
My big hope is that by this smuggling, Portal will have torn an opening that will allow other short-length, high-concept games to receive the support they require to reach gamers.
Portal makes me feel proud of gamers. It has been loved exactly as much as it deserves to be. It has had the fuss made of it that something so joyful and superb absolutely should have. That a cube with a heart on it captured the imaginations of my fellow gamers makes me feel safer in their company. It’s a single-player game that’s made me feel much more a part of a community than any multiplayer game ever has. We came together in a group hug of delight, all realising that we were all loving it as much as each other, and then just revelling in silly pleasure in response to this. Hell, I painted my freezer in response to this game, but only because so many others were doing so many silly things too. Big, big love to Portal.
With its fairytale “Making Of” story, fearless delivery, and astoundingly funny script, Portal might just be the greatest game of 2007. If it hadn't been for Stalker's esoteric messiness, Portal would be my game of the year.
The Orange Box was a bit like Valve showing off anyway - another brilliant Half-Life episode, and the best PC multiplayer game this year, all topped off with a first-person puzzle game the likes of which we have never seen before. Come on, Valve. Stop hogging all the toys! Let someone else have a go at being the best PC games developer... Or don't, actually. It's fine: keeping on knocking out the masterpieces, we need something to totally validate gaming as a fresh new medium, don't we?
Between Portal, Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2 and the entire Steam system, Valve have quietly crowned themselves as the most important developer in PC gaming. They're making sure our gaming format has a future, while at the same time consolidating the all-important past. The PC, more than any other retro-digging format, has a continuum of gaming evolution that is being promoted and preserved by Steam's digital library. While everyone has been banging on about Blizzard's gigantic financial and social success with World Of Warcraft, it might just be Valve that makes the PC the most interesting gaming platform in the world. Keep it up, guys. The entire gaming world is watching.
Well, there's not much relevant to say except “me too”. Between John and Jim, the key things about Portal have been covered. That it was innovative, except in a way which no-one was quite expecting (Having one of the most novel gaming mechanics of recent years is a great red-herring). That it's indie-kids get snapped up by world's best developer, put in a cage with two of the most anticipated things of the year and come out the winner is a run-away success story worthy of cinematic immortalisation – Cool RUNings or something. That it may have even invented a new paradigm for gaming – it's the first three hour game no-one with a heart cared about being three hours, because it was perfectly formed and sold at an appropriate value (We used to have a lot of novel art games back in the day of the Spectrum, with a limited mechanic, but no-one cared as they were three bob or something). That Valve reaffirming themselves as the current heavyweight game development champs. And GlaDOS and the song and the black comedy and Companion Cube and all the rest, obviously.
But even me sharing opinions with Walker and Jim makes me realise why it had to be our game of the year. It's the only thing we agreed on, pretty much 100%. Jim would have gone for STALKER. Alec for TF2. But we could all crowd around Portal, and nod approvingly. That's a computer game. That something so novel, so unique and unprecedented (in any meaningful way, pedant) managed to bring us all together, is something of a Christmas miracle.
Oh yeah – one final note. In my other life as a music writer, I do an end-of-year track round-up, where I blather on in an increasingly masturbatory fashion about my favourite stuff of the year. Still Alive will be the first time anything touched by videogames will find its way in, and that it was able to leap elegantly across my media-discourse is a sign of its supreme cultural literacy.
Portal's really neat. And Valve can stick that on the box, if they like.
Oh yeah - THIS WAS A TRIUMPH, etc, etc.
Before Portal, the closest gaming really had to cool - in an omnimedia, zeitgeisty, scenesterish kinda way - was Vice City-era Rockstar, and even that always carried the hallmarks of odious self-satisfaction. Before this, much as PC gamers adored Valve, they just weren't cool. They made games about machine guns and space aliens and soldiers versus terrorists - for all their polish, the Half-Lives were made to exactly the formula that keeps so much of the world erroneously convinced that gaming's a nerdy pursuit for passive-aggressive misanthropes.
Three hours of puzzles, wit and non-violence transformed a ten-year-old company formed by multi-millionaires who wanted to make shooting games into something that now's discussed with the same sort of awe and envy as Factory Records or Rolling Stone magazine was in its heydey - or, again, Rockstar. Everything they do, even a 30-second Christmas video, is greeted as a gift from the gods of Cool itself. So many people briefly defined themselves by Portal and its trappings, but in a self-aware, let's-all-laugh-together way the guys who define themselves by Final Fantasy VII or Halo really don't. And for all that, there's something refreshingly human about Valve, these surprise trendsetters. Their intermittent, ominous facelessness aside, there's a sense they're just like us gamers, only infinitely more talented. They're enjoying themselves, and they're enjoying entertaining us.
And never is that more obvious than in Portal. It's a game that could so very easily have felt austere or one-trick or over-serious or heavy with smugness. Instead, we got a trained opera singer voicing a homicidal AI prone to speaking like a mallrat.
I don't have enough faith in the big publishers that govern the gaming industry on its widest level to honestly believe Portal will change anything, but I can break through my cynicism enough to say Portal could change everything. Say what you want about Bioshock increasing the odds of a smarter gaming future (and it does), but it still adheres to to an ancient formula underneath all its fancy clothes and cleverthinks. This is the triumph - one of intelligence, humour and experimentation, and even of the oft-maligned episodic structure. It's proven conclusively, spectacularly that there is an audience for games that go to places we haven't already visited a hundred thousand times over. It's not quite my favourite game of the year, but it's the one I'm most glad exists.
One more time, now:
Thanks, Valve. Thalve.