Entry updated 3 April 2015. Tagged: Game.
Portal was an attempt to create a "computer novel", a form that was intended to more closely resemble that of hyperfiction (see Hypertext) than that of the text Adventure. The player takes the part of an astronaut sent on a solitary mission of exploration in a slower-than-light Starship. When they return, a century after their departure, Earth is deserted and the only available clues to the mystery are buried in an abandoned worldwide information retrieval system. The terminal they use to communicate with this network is the interface to the game; the player's task is to search through the available databases until they can assemble the story of humanity's disappearance, assisted by a simulated "storytelling AI" which supplies the necessary narrative ligatures. As the player reads their way through the game's simulated data files, more are made available, until they have decoded the entire history of the destruction of an ambiguously Utopian society by a form of Psionic Transcendence. The story is thus entirely embedded (see Interactive Narrative); the act of reading the text is the same as that of playing the game. While Portal succeeds in evoking an atmospheric sense of melancholy and in presenting an intriguing mystery, in the end it is questionable whether the interactive presentation is superior to that of a purely linear novel.
Related works: Portal: A Dataspace Retrieval (1988), again by Rob Swigart, consists of the introduction from the game's manual followed by what is essentially a transcript of the gameplay, with some additional material presented from the protagonist's point of view. The result is a "mosaic novel" in the manner of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968). [NT]
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