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"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

December 11, 2007

I Surrender, Video Games

I used to grow truculent when recent graduates from the Stutts humor magazine would say they wanted to write for video games. Why, I thought, couldn't they apply their education and talent to a genuine art form? Like sitcoms?

I'm already behind the times because I don't play video games. That's because I can't play them, in the same way I can't watch Law & Order or investigate the JFK assassination. If I started, I would end up doing nothing else for the next forty years.

But watching the below videos from the new game Portal has really expanded my appreciation of what's possible now. I don't know anything about the game itself beyond what wikipedia tells me, but the writing is truly funny and the acting is brilliant. And the song in the second video is so perfect it almost makes me weep with joy.

So I surrender, video games. You win. And when there are no more novels or movies or TV because no one wants to write such archaic art forms, I will accept it with grace.

FIRST VIDEO: This is the end of the game, when you come face to face with the Artificial Intelligence being you've been battling in a mysterious underground lab. You have a portal gun, which allows you to create portals in any two surfaces and then move through one into the other.

SECOND VIDEO: This plays over the credits at the end. After you hear this, you'll want to read this interview with the woman who voices GLaDOS, and this post by Jonathan Coulton about how the song came to be.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at December 11, 2007 05:20 PM

The cake is a lie!

Posted by: A different matt at December 11, 2007 06:48 PM

You are right to fear the power of video games; they're like crack without the pipe. I was unfortunate enough to have parents who appreciated them since the time of Pong, though, so I became addicted at a very young age and have had to fight it (mostly unsuccessfully) since then.

If you're not a gamer, what prompted you to spend this much time looking into Portal?

Posted by: John Caruso at December 11, 2007 07:05 PM

I didn't realize the song was written by Jonathan Coulton...but of course it was. What wonderful stuff he does!

Posted by: Mike of Angle at December 11, 2007 07:26 PM

Valve does great work. Portal was a sheer joy. If you actually play it through, it stays with you for a good while, especially the hinted "other subjects" who died like rats in the maze.

Posted by: Kallisti at December 11, 2007 08:10 PM

Where you have been for the past ten to fifteen years? Video games have been this well-written for that long already...

Posted by: En Ming Hee at December 11, 2007 09:11 PM

I've always considered porn the final frontier.

Posted by: Mark at December 11, 2007 09:14 PM

Oh, damn it. I've been a very good boy, running Linux and entertaining myself with things other than video games, or at worst, emulated SNES ROMs. Other games chew too much time--Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne nearly killed one of my last semesters at school, and I've sworn never, ever to play World of Warcraft. But now I have to find a way to play Portal. Curses.

As for well-written games, I remember getting so, so emotionally invested in Final Fantasy VI... but that might have more to do with spending sixty hours playing it than anything else. I still tear up a little when I hear the opening notes of "Forever Rachel".

Posted by: grendelkhan at December 11, 2007 10:35 PM

Who wrote this?

Posted by: StO at December 11, 2007 10:42 PM

Portal is one of the few games I think is just as amusing to watch as it is to play. Besides the gameplay being incredibly novel, the writing and voice acting are truly top notch.

We'll just keep on trying 'til we run out of cake...

Posted by: elizabeth at December 11, 2007 10:44 PM

En Ming:
Correction, Valve has been writing games this good for ten or fifteen years. Most other video games are crap. There are a handful with high quality writing, but many are to be avoided. And then there's the tons of jingoistic, militaristic crap that gets poured around. Check out the upcoming title "Crysis", where you spend half the game beating up North Koreans who scream at you in heavily accented English. Portal is the exception, not the rule: it's an innovative gameplay concept, it's well-written, it's humorous, and it's fun. Most games can't claim even one of those things.

Posted by: saurabh at December 12, 2007 08:31 AM

I like "Law & Order" reruns, the ones with the two Broadway song and dance men as the detective team. They're the best. When Jerry Orbach stands over the body and cracks wise and Jesse L. Martin rolls his eyes I'm hooked for the next hour.

The best recent book on JFK is the self-published "Harvey and Lee," published by someone named Armstrong. You have to search the internet to find someone selling it. It's the most meticulously detailed book written on the case. Quick summary: Elements of the CIA did it, from an operation out of Angleton's Counterintelligence office. David Atlee Phillips was a central part of it, as was E. Howard Hunt. There were two "Oswalds," originally part of a long-term operation to put intelligence agents into the Soviet Union. The original Oswald, a southern boy, the doppelganger born in New York City. He was the one who spoke Russian, probably from birth, was put into the Soviet Union and was eventually made "the patsy." The book explains how come, for ex, there was an Oswald buying trucks for a Cuban operation in New Orleans while there was another Oswald in Minsk. Very interesting, a thousand pages in small print, much detail about how the FBI phonied up the documents. Comes with a CD-ROM with lots of pictures.

If you're not afraid of history, read it.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at December 12, 2007 09:25 AM

BTW, if you appreciated the writing in Portal, check out this interview with its lead writer, Eric Wolpaw. Funny stuff; the guy is obviously talented.

Posted by: saurabh at December 12, 2007 10:18 AM

So the Portal guy was one of the writers of Psychonauts? That would explain why Portal has good writing, then, because Psychonauts was easily one of the funniest games I've ever played.

Posted by: John Caruso at December 12, 2007 10:57 AM

The last game I played on a PC was Strike Commander. You mean to tell me there's games cooler than that?

Portal looks cool, especially if it's got humor in all the destruction but I'm holding my breath until Spore comes out...I'm already beyond blue and on to that purply-blue color just before gangrenous green.

Posted by: Willy at December 12, 2007 12:42 PM

and in the next version of america's army, you can shoot your family after an untreated brain injury makes it impossible for you to rejoin civilian life.

Posted by: hapa at December 12, 2007 06:27 PM

i myself have personally run half life 2 flawlessly through WINE on various flavors of linux with no hassle and according to the appdb Portal gets a Platinum rating which pretty much means "works out of the box"
enjoy :)

Posted by: gonzeau at December 12, 2007 06:27 PM

I have never played a video game but I have (with a little herbal assistance) seen the same thing while listening to firesign theater after midnight.

Posted by: john in california at December 12, 2007 07:44 PM

Well i would agree that "Portal" is not bad. But it's not a work of art either. I mean, there are a lot of games like this one.

If you really want some incredible video-game, i suggest the first Resident Evil. The graphisms are pretty poor for us now but i'd say they're acceptable, and it's hard to control your movements but that's ok. Cause when you have to run away from a zombie and doing a U-turn with your character takes 3 seconds, it only adds to the pleasure.

Seriously, i don't think there's a more intensive game than this one. Just plain scary, the music, the camera angles, the sounds, and also the general situation...

I never had the creeps on any other video game.

Posted by: littlehorn at December 12, 2007 10:05 PM

those clips are sweet

Posted by: dan at December 12, 2007 10:05 PM

Oh, yeah. My XBOX live handle is Kallist 8. Friend me, and we can all make a proper left-wing clan for Call of Duty 4. That'd be sweet.

Posted by: Kallisti at December 12, 2007 10:14 PM

buermann: Thanks--that was an interesting take on the game.

As long as we're talking progressive politics and video games, I'd say one of the most lefty (and also one of the best) games I've played is Beyond Good and Evil. A popular uprising against fascist rulers (complete with demonstrations), a female protagonist who's not just eye candy and whose main weapon is a camera that she uses to expose the lies of those in power--great stuff.

Does anyone know of other (good) progressive-friendly games?

Posted by: John Caruso at December 12, 2007 11:20 PM


Not just Valve, but also Sierra, Blizzard and sometimes LucasArts. ;) Blizzard just pwns the others when it comes to writing in my opinion.

And do I know about jingoistic games or what, WORLD IN CONFLICT is my current favorite. Politics notwithstanding, the gameplay and graphics are astounding.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at December 13, 2007 05:31 AM

"Blizzard just pwns the others when it comes to writing in my opinion."

They do seem to have caught on to the fact that your leaders will fuck you to get more power. Blizzard's leadership figures, with one or two exceptions, have at least one of these three attributes: stupid, evil, or dead.

True, you do spend most of the gameplay fighting evil monsters, but said evil monsters almost always get their foot in the door thanks to one of your authority figures trying to get more power.

Posted by: 01d55 at December 15, 2007 07:15 AM