How Portal Inspired The Walking Sim
3D first-person video games are often associated with shooting and violence. Your Call of Duty games and your Halo installments have occupied and straight up dominated this space since Wolfenstein. In 2007, Portal was released and subverted the expectations of what a first-person game could be. Portal was not about violence and bullets. Portal was purely about its story and puzzles. Rather than using the first-person perspective to put a gun in your hand, Portal instead used the perspective to play around with the player through both the puzzle mechanics and the framing of the narrative.
Within the last five years, first-person narrative driven adventure games have rapidly risen in popularity. That way of describing this group of games is also a mouthful to say. Is Gone Home really an adventure game? Are not most games narrative driven? As cumbersome as it is, this is the most accurate and non-derogatory way that I can describe these sort of games which is why they have likely garnered the term “Walking Simulator” which although seems dismissive of what they truly are, also clearly and quickly describes them. The primary action that the player performs in these games is walk. There also exists the ability to pick up items, analyze them, and put them away. But for the most part, the through line of these games is the narrative and the way that narrative is given to you is through observation and voice-over; two things that Portal does extraordinarily well.
Portal is a game where the main thrust of the story is delivered to the player via GLaDOS, a voice which is seemingly distant throughout the course of the game. The character which the player controls in the game is a silent protagonist. While not only leaving room for the player to portray his or her own identity onto the character, this also allows for the story to be fed easily and continually to the player. The audience experiences Portal on a different level than other games. Portal is intimate. It is a one on one with GLaDOS where one of you doesn’t have the ability to say a word. Portal is non-violent. It takes away violent weapons and replaces them with a tool used for movement. Portal takes away the noise that was traditional to first-person games and in removing that noise, provides an experience that hinges on narrative. This is very similar to what is seen in games like Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and The Stanley Parable.
In Gone Home, you find yourself isolated. Mechanically, there is not much to do aside from taking in the environment. You have the ability to pick up items, examine them, listen to tapes, and similar actions. Every action involves a different method of taking in the story of the game. It’s a first-person game that is non-violent and absent of noise. It can seem purely non-consequential that these traits are shared with Portal. However, the absence of noise in Portal benefits the narrative of the game similarly to the way Gone Home is benefitted. Portal is a game about puzzle solving and rogue artificial intelligence. Gone Home does not have the heavy puzzle solving that portal does. The puzzles in Gone Home and many walking simulators are “soft” puzzles. Puzzle solving takes a backseat to narrative. Gone Home is not a game about puzzles, it is a game about discovery. What Portal did in a subtle way with its own environmental storytelling, games like Gone Home took and ran with.
Without the inspiration of Portal, many of the walking sims we see today would possibly look very different. Portal changed the way storytelling could be done in video games and changed the first-person genre from being about purely violence and shooting to being about discovery and narrative. Slowing down the first-person genre and giving it more purpose has led to a genre of games that sees creators and storytellers attempt to deliver new, diverse, and interesting stories. This is thanks to how Portal inspired many.