Showing versus Telling through Portal 1

Members of the group:
Kat B.
Ryan Jovanovic
Mathieu Lamontagne-Cumiford
Christopher Zambito
Julian Zambito

We decided to do a gameplay of Portal 1.
The link of the video: (approximately 25 minutes)
The first segment of this post is the discussion questions.
The second segment of this post is the script of the gameplay.

Thesis statement:
Portal 1 is the embodiment of “showing” a storyline in a video game.

Discussion Questions:

How does portal accomplish storytelling without a direct narrative?

Portal uses recurring colour schemes and objects to build a world with a certain contained narrative. A narrative is left to the player to construct by putting together information from the environment, an unreliable narrator, and the cues left for puzzle solving in the world. Glados, the narrator, aids in building the narrative of portal, but is more of a character than narrator, and is unreliable due to frequent lies, duplicities, and downright lack of cooperation with the player character. Objects and colour palettes re-occur in the game world building a semiotic language through which the player interprets their surroundings. Puzzle solving cues are present in several different forms, such as the reoccurring white squares with simple comic style instructions.

How does the environment and one-way dialogue enable narrative?

Since the game uses very simple gameplay, and a mute protagonist, the narrative is entirely left up to the environment. Portal presents props and voice cues from Glados as its only form of narrative and world building. The test chambers are made to tell the story of a test subject, with observation rooms, cameras and the narrator glados. The emptiness of the place becomes apparent through the complete lack of any interaction, with only the occasional response from glados. Several different narrative artifacts are present, a combination of in game artifacts, cameras which follow the player, hybrid artifacts such as the elevators which acts as an intermediary between levels telling the story and giving the game a chance to load. There are also artifacts which exist purely to aid the player, such as the warning signs, but are justified in game as narrative due to their repetition. The one way dialogue also establishes the aloneness of the protagonist, and forces the player to construct their own narrative as to where they are.

What are some examples of environmental storytelling?

The RatMan is a perfect example, where the story of how the character is trapped in the test chambers and held against their will. The Ratman dens reoccur across the last levels of the game, as the narrative becomes clearer. Another narrative element is the Companion cube, a unique weighted puzzle cube which is attributed value uniquely based on its heart symbol, and glados’s comments.

What is the narrative being presented?

Portal is able to tell the narrative of resistance and entrapment without any dialogue or direct narrative. The narrative is told purely through environmental cues and one way dialogue. The narrative and puzzle solving are intertwined, both being key elements told through the in game environment, and the semiotic toolkit generated by and for the player.

Script during the Gameplay:

Introduction: (Emma Darwin)

Portal is a perfect example of how a game can build both narrative and gameplay instruction through techniques of showing not telling. Showing is described as using the environment at the player’s disposal to interpret what is the story of the game. It is through what you are experiencing as the main character physically and emotionally that the player falls into the game world and understand what is happening in the game. Telling, on the other hand, is explicitly telling the character what is happening during the gameplay. It is through what is said by the narrator and/or interactions with “your” character and the other users that “telling” is being expressed.

Showing and telling are therefore distinct mechanics, with showing being the most immersive tool for a game. The means by which Portal shows instead of tells can be constructed through the conceptual tools of Eddo Stern’s “Artifacts”. Stern conceptualises artifacts as elements within the game which act on the player to tell story, establish narrative, or instruct the player on gameplay. Artifacts are strewn throughout Portal’s game world, whether in the form of pictograms giving hints to player for how to avoid danger, or a handprint on a wall where it shouldn’t be enticing the player to explore further, they are almost exclusive in their game world presence.

Stage 0 to 2: ( KIRBYKID )

  • As you are going through the stages in Portal, you are more likely to be more focused on the puzzle rather than the environment the character is in. As the player proceeds through the game, the game elements create a story without any dialogue or text neither from the NPC (Glados) nor from an implanted script. Examples of these elements are the writings in the Ratman’s den, warning labels from the entrance screen, the companion cube, and much more.

Stage 14:  ( Eddo Stern )

  • “Backstory […] is to provide a contextual framework for the game narrative that is soon to unfold in real-time”
  • No need of story , can generate/determine it from the backstory (images + environment)
  • “NPCs often possess highly detailed histories and share their fabricated emotions towards PCs and other NPCs alike”

Stage 16:  ( Jakub Majewski  )

  •  “diegetic theories, which look upon narration as the telling of a story, verbally or in written form. These theories, then, deal primarily with the role of language in narrative, and how language can be used to manage temporality and subjectivity within the story” (defining what is telling in video games)
  • “the diegetic narrator’s tool is language”
  • (Mention when in RATMAN DEN)

Stage 17: ( Jesper Juul )

  • “An initial state, an overturning of this state, and a restoration of the state” à how to recreate the story in our heads without explicit knowledge of the story
  • “Half-Life does succeed in presenting a fixed sequence of events that the player can then afterwards retell. This means that some games use narratives for some purposes.” à comparison to Portal
  • “A narrative may be used for telling the player what to do or as rewards for playing. Games may spawn narratives that a player can use to tell others of what went on in a game session”
  • “In the classical narratological framework, a narrative has two distinct kinds of time, the story time, denoting the time of the events told, in their chronological order, and the discourse time, denoting the time of the telling of events (in the order in which they are told). To read a novel or watch a movie is to a large extent about reconstructing a story on the basis of the discourse presented.”
  • (Mention when talk about companion cube, get a story automatically)

Work Cited:

Darwin, Emma. “Showing And Telling: The Basics.” Web log post. This Itch Of Writing: The Blog. N.p., 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. <;.

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling stories?” Web log post. Game Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. <;.

KIRBYKID. “Portal: Narrative.” Web log post. Critical-gaming. N.p., 17 Nov. 2007. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. <;.

Majewski, Jakub . “THEORISING VIDEO GAME NARRATIVE.” (2003): n. pag. Web. 26 Jan. 2017. <;.

Stern, Eddo. “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer RolePlaying Games.” In Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, ed. Frans Mayra. Tampre University Press, 2002.

Showing versus Telling through Portal 1

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