Friday, May 13, 2011

Portal and Assassin’s Creed: Training Sequences as Games

I write software help files for a living, and yet I haven’t opened a game manual in a good ten years.

Beyond proving the uselessness of my profession, what does this say about how games teach us how to play?

Games typically feature a training sequence to give you the sense of the controls and game mechanics. Often this is a discreet segment, separate from the main story of the gamer. Other times, you are simply introduced to the game at a rudimentary difficulty level.

Ender's Game (Ender, Book 1)All the hoopla over Portal 2 recently has got me thinking about the trick its predecessor pulled off:  the entire game is the training sequence. Or vice-versa.

Both Portal and Assassin’s Creed (all of the games in that series) drop you into what seems to be a standard game training module only to pull the rug out from you. Your “training” has been the game all along. It’s a very Ender’s Game approach to game design.

If that doesn’t make sense, please take a few hours right now to go read Ender's Game. I’ll be here when you get back.


In Portal, you must complete a series of test chambers. You “solve” each chamber by getting the door to open. Your only tool is the portal gun, which lets you make two “portals” at a time. Drop into one, you pop out the other.

You are guided on your way by the voice of GLaDOS, the “Enrichment Center’s” central computer. She wakes you up from slumber and sets you on the path—the game pointedly doesn’t tell you who your character is, what the Enrichment Center is for, or the point of the tests. GLaDOS guides you through the basics of the portal gun, the goals and obstacles of each chamber, and the manifold virtues of science.

The first half of the game does not differ from a million other “boot camp” training sequences. Disembodied computer voices are common, I’m guessing because it saves the designers the trouble of creating another  character model for the game. GLaDOS was a little more sarcastic and passive-aggressive than most, especially with her continuous promises of cake. I figured that was just a touch of color.

Then I came upon a loose panel in one of the otherwise sterile chambers, and I was able to slip behind it into the rusty innards of the facility. There on a wall was a piece of grafitti: “The cake is a lie.”

Then it hit me. This wasn’t the training; this was the game.

The Orange BoxAs I proceeded through the test chambers, GLaDOS’s “jokes” became more threatening. I came to realize that there were no more human beings in the facility, for reasons that were beginning to become clear. And then GLaDOS tried to shovel me into a pit of fire, but Chell escaped and the real game began.

However the actual development went, Portal feels like a game that was supposed to go in a different direction but the developers realized the training had more potential than the game.

Regardless, the training is better integrated into the game than in any other game I’ve seen. It starts out deliberately easy because that’s how a series of tests would start out. It becomes progressively harder because that’s how the tests would progress. And then you step out of the puzzles and all bets are off. Brilliant.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin's CreedThis game presents another ostensible “boot camp” led by a disembodied computer voice (female again—these instructors always seem to be women). In the case of Assassin’s Creed, the training sequence is more traditional, teaching you the game mechanics and even the meanings of the symbols on your HUD.

The training is part of the framing story, which takes place in the present day (technically, the very near future). The bulk of all of the games, however, is really about people in the past. Namely, Altair in the Crusades-era Holy Land and Ezio Auditore in Renaissance Italy.

In the present, you play Desmond, a descendant of both Altair and Ezio, who is hooked into a gizmo called “the Animus,” which allows him to relive memories experienced by his ancestors.

The Animus provides the previously mentioned training sequence, ostensibly to teach Desmond how to “move” and interact within these memories. In addition, it provides the reasons why the typical video game tropes appear in the game. For example, you know your ancestor can’t die before having children, so any time you die in the game you have to restart the mission because you have misremembered events.

Desmond and the Animus 1.0
Most other games would simply just make you do the mission over without bothering to explain how that could possibly be. Assassin’s Creed explains that your own will has corrupted your ancestor’s memory and you have to try again to get it right and proceed.

It also handily explains why you can’t move into certain areas until the time is right, why you come back when you die, and even why you can see maps of the area or a record of your achievements. It’s all part of the Animus.

Assassin’s Creed integrates all the elements of a video game while pretending that you’re watching a true story unfolding in front of your eyes. Neat trick.

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Coincidentally, both Portal and Assassin's Creed came out around the same time in 2007. In the years since, few games have imitated the jiu-jitsu both games pulled off by faking players out about the nature of their training sequences. I'm not sure why.

This trick drew me into the games' stories more effectively than many other games by stripping away the generic "separateness" of most training modules. And by playing against my expectations about in-game instructions.

Then again, both games were exceptionally well-written and I probably would have enjoyed them anyway. Maybe that's the key.

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Check out Shame Pile's lemon-free Portal 2 review.

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