Hey there. I’m Meaghan. If geekiness was expressed in Dungeons and Dragons rolls, I’d like to think I’d be at least a 14. I’m a hardcore Hufflepuff with a deep-seated love of Severus Snape. In my eyes, nothing can tear apart the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond. I voice English dubs for anime characters. I have a still-very-active 11-year old Neopets account, for crying out loud. If it’s geeky, I’m probably (really) into it. But I’m no Wil Wheaton – at least not yet.
My geek expertise has many holes. I’ve never painted my own Warhammer character, I can name about 5 Pokemon, and I’ve fallen asleep during every single episode of Sherlock that I’ve attempted to watch. All of these things bother the hell out of me, because if I’m going to call myself a geek, I want to be able to prove it. So join me here once a month as I bumble through new and geeky worlds, make a lot of mistakes along the way, and do my best to become a Geek of All Trades.
So where to start? In looking for this month’s topic, I landed on the world of gaming – a realm in which I’m an amateur at best – unless KeyQuest on Neopets counts (in which case, I’m ALL ABOUT gaming). When I do jump into a MMORPG, I spend most of my time waving at strangers, seeing if I can pet the wild animals that I come across, and tossing “small Elven children” into the air. Not exactly the picture of a self-assured gamer girl destroying legions on Call of Duty. But I’d made my pick, and I was going to stick with it! Now…to choose a game.
I knew it couldn’t be a first-person shooter game – chain-sawing aliens in the chest is more likely to haunt my dreams than give me a sense of accomplishment. And it couldn’t be anything that required a new console (ain’t nobody got cash for that). Finally, I wanted it to be something that most of you knew. Something storied. Something iconic. I struggled with the still-overwhelming options. Then I remembered my IGGPPC house – GLaDOS – and I knew I had my answer.
“Portal! I’ll play Portal!” My decision echoed victoriously in my ears. It was perfect! My husband already owned and loved it, I wouldn’t have to kill anything, and I’d heard wonderful things about the sassy barbs GLaDOS spouted. I quickly booted the game and entered my first Portal puzzle – humming along to “Still Alive” with every step. And then I stopped. What had I gotten myself into?
You see, when I had chosen Portal for my monthly adventuring, I’d forgotten to consider one element – the physics of how the game is actually played. And in Portal, there are no kittens to pet or small Elven children to toss. There’s just you, GLaDOS, a portal gun, and puzzling room after puzzling room. Before long, the truth became all too plain: Portal is a spatial reasoning game.
“You’re an idiot,” I thought to myself. “Of course it is!” The entire point of the game is literally to get from the entrance of each room to its exit using only your brain and your portal gun. What had I thought the portals were for? Opening up a shortcut to Narnia? Awesome. Acting as a two-way mirror into Ryan Gosling’s bedroom? Double awesome. Using critical thinking and strategy to create wormholes that ultimately land you in the right place? Definitively not awesome. It isn’t that the idea for the game isn’t brilliant – it is! It’s just that I am the worst person to be playing it. Here’s why.
Maybe you, like me, had the good fortune of attending public elementary school. In the States, an inordinate amount of time is spent preparing children for their annual standardized tests. Don’t know how to count? Not a problem, as long as you pass that COGAT. The COGAT test, which I took in third grade, supposedly assesses children’s strengths in reading comprehension and mathematics. Not only geeky, I was also an especially nerdy little girl who was thrilled to take this test. Until I flipped the first page and encountered this:
…What? My teacher explained that this test asked us to fold a piece of paper into specific shapes, punch a hole in it, and then determine what it would look like when the paper was unfolded. “No problem,” I thought. “I got this.” I reached under my desk, took out a sheet of ruled paper, and began folding it like the picture showed. “No, no,” my teacher scolded. “You can’t actually use real paper for it. You have to solve the puzzle in your mind.”
I looked back at my paper, thoroughly confused. I folded imaginary paper in midair with my hands, then tried to unfold it with my mind. But, try as I might, I just couldn’t envision what I was being asked to see. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising for you to learn that, when the test scores came back, they looked a little something like this:
Reading Comprehension….99th percentile
Spatial reasoning….4th percentile
No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. There’s no “9” or even a “1” before that “4.” When it comes to folding imaginary paper, I’d scored in the 4th percentile – meaning 96% of the other test-takers did better in that category than me.
I wish I could tell you that this learning deficit got better with age, but it just didn’t. I still can’t make a pair of shoes go back into a shoebox the right way after trying them on. I have no idea how to make an aesthetically pleasing picture collage. I can’t even close a pizza box half the time. Ask me to write you the next great American novel or tell you the etymology of the word “staphylococci.” Just don’t ask me to solve an imaginary imaging puzzle, because I’m telling you it can’t be done.
Except Portal is telling me I have to do it. And not just once – dozens of times. Portal is the piece of paper, and its player is the human hole punch. As I waded through each level, progressing more by happy accident than by purposeful play, it wasn’t long before my face did this:
The skin at my temples tightened. My brain physically hurt. As I moved up to more difficult levels, I increasingly began shouting things aloud like “I DON’T KNOWWWWWW” and firing my portals at the floor beneath my feet. I began to resent GLaDOS and her watchful, robotic eye. I hated the chipper little music track blaring from the radio, and I especially hated those “instructional” floor tiles.
So why keep playing? What, exactly, could incite the player least suited for a game to continue to try to best it? Well, a few things actually.
- Playing as Chell. Originally, I was a bit disappointed to find that a character had been pre-selected for me. I like playing as a character that I’ve designed, and Portal’s Chell is the opposite of that. You don’t even get to see her in advance; the only way to know what your character actually looks like is to catch a glimpse of your own reflection. To my surprise, I really loved the anonymity of knowing nothing of Chell’s backstory and merely waking up a “test subject” with a job to do. I also loved that such a major game chose a relatively, but not overtly, feminine woman as its only playable character. Portal isn’t necessarily a traditional “first person shooter” game – but it’s close – and I’m used to women in those types of games either being completely over-sexualized or completely non-existent.
- Outsmarting the “Game Makers.” I approached each of Portal’s puzzles as my own personal Hunger Games. Though they frustrated me, it was fun to see what each new room held and what the opportunity was to beat it. Beating a level didn’t give me any personal satisfaction, but it did make me feel like I was just a little bit better than whoever designed the previous room. Take that, Plutarch Heavensbee.
- GLaDOS. GLaDOS is the best thing about Portal, hands-down. The game is designed to be oddly tranquil in its run-down laboratory setting, giving the player room to think. Or, you know, fire warning shots at the wall. The game play would be unbearably quiet without the all-too-human jabs from the robot in the room. GLaDOS brings entertainment value to what is otherwise an intentionally sterile brain game. In short, GLaDOS is my girl for life.
By now, it should be overwhelmingly evident that Portal and I are fundamentally incompatible. I’m not yet able to say I’ve beaten the game (I was in Test Chamber 14 when I hit “publish,”) but I can say that I challenged myself, had fun, and made a new friend (GLaDOS) along the way. And when you’ve got a brand new sassy robot best friend, you can’t be doing all that bad.