I just had a little epiphany about *Portal* and why its story worked so well. Warning, spoilers not only of *Portal* but also of *Mirror's Edge* and *Bioshock.*
Compare and contrast with *Mirror's Edge*, the game I've been playing lately, which is great, and I highly recommend it to people who like the Tomb Raiderish genre of "realistic" platforming.
Still, the story is not on the same level as *Portal*. Of course, few stories are, but let's talk about the main element of *Portal* - GladOS, the voice in your ear. The voice in your ear has become a total cliche in videogames and more than half the time I find myself wanting to kill that annoying voice more than I want to kill the enemies he or she is warning me about. *Mirror's Edge* has one of those annoying voices-in-ear, and when that character died I felt absolutely no sympathy whatsoever.
Now, in *Bioshock* and *Portal* - you actually do get to kill the voice-in-your-ear! In fact, it's the climax of both games. It's like the writers recognize that fundamental urge in the gamer, the desire to wipe out that "helpful" unstoppable voice. And, from a writer's point of view, it's so simple - you've merged two characters, the advisor and the enemy, into one. And you get a plot twist. Win, win, win.
And here's the interesting bit - in *Bioshock* and *Portal*, I never hated the voice in my ear the way I hate Merc from Mirror's Edge. Why? Is it because Merc or Merc's writers want us to like him? They're asking us to like him? So we'll feel the right emotion when his character is killed? And so we feel coerced, manipulated, annoyed.
Whereas nobody expects you to like GladOS and yet, for some unexplicable reason, I do. I should hate her - she's like the earnest cloying grandmother who gives you a big hug that you just want to get away from. But there's such depth and breadth to her. She loves you and hates you at the same time. And she's funny. One of the real tragedies, when *Portal* ends, is, in fact, that you don't get to spend any more time with GladOS. And that's because you killed her. I'm not saying it creates *Shadow of the Colossus* levels of melancholy, but it's there, it works, and I wasn't even aware of why until now.
Now, as for how to create a character like that, well, that I have no idea. You have to be some kind of genius.
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