for Amiga (OCS/ECS)

Mr Creosote:
Alternate Titles: Portal – A Computer Novel, Portal – A Dataspace Retrieval
Company: Activision
Year: 1986
Genre: Puzzle
Theme: Apocalypse / Science Fiction / Unique / Text-based
Language: English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 466
Review by Mr Creosote (2023-09-30)

When the Amiga was first introduced to the world, Commodore pitched it as an artist's machine. As star guests for their big press conference, they booked Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry instead of some representatives from big business. Office work, on that event, was only mentioned quickly when demonstrating the sidecar and joking that a spreadsheet application would be just as slow on the Amiga as it would be on the original IBM machine. Games, which finally became the one main footprint of the machine, weren't mentioned at all.

The following year, Activision released a piece of software which likely came closer than anything to that promise of an artists computer than anything before. Portal wasn't, however, a new application to be creative, a computer painting application or anything along those lines, but a narrative interactively presented. Not a translation of a novel into a computer medium, but a novel-length story explicitly written with interactive narrative in mind. One which wouldn't work if just printed on paper as a series of linear pages. Meaning this was nothing less than the product of re-thinking storytelling in terms of what this emerging computer medium could enable.

Appropriately, it is a science fiction story. The explanation of it all being that the player returns to Earth, finding it completely devoid of life. All infrastructure still intact, however, as if people just left a hurry. The only obvious way to investigate is to access the worldwide net through a nearby access point… the game's interface.


Which, of course, just enhanced the feeling of symbiosis between form and contents. After all, even for those who did have a computer at home in 1986, it would be very likely their first one. Who knew what that magical machine could possibly be capable of? Maybe that talk of being connected in the backend to the whole world could actually be true? It seemed feasible, right within the audience's grasp.

In story terms, it claimed that this network has also fallen into a bit of disrepair, so hardly any information is readily available. In other cases, access restrictions prevent going further. Luckily, a “storytelling artificial intelligence” going by the name of Homer, initially also disoriented, will assist the player in uncovering the fate of humanity. Slowly piecing together the story of a certain Peter Devore who apparently was born with special abilities, possibly representing a new step in human evolution. Hunted by the authorities, we learn of his escape to Antarctica, the last refuge of people outside the worldwide Intercom system. And beyond. The prolonged chase through cities and continents being used to actually show different facets of the crumbling society, the downfall of the seemingly perfect civilization.

It is, finally, soft sci-fi about human nature. About those who believe they can harness its complexities with rules and technology. About those basic instincts like greed, revenge etc. which are so deeply embedded in all of us, and how they keep finding ways to the surface in spite of all progress. About necessary, inevitable evolution versus trying to maintain a status quo. About fate and choices. All timeless subjects.


The story interface is structured into sixteen tiles, each representing a different database or function. One provides access to historical information, one about medial science, one about family relations and so on. Depending on plot progress, new information can be retrieved in these places. There is no special challenge to it in a gameplay sense, no hurdle to overcome to get access. An exhaustive search of all tiles will always move things forward.

Portal is therefore not a game in the classic sense; there is no skill required apart from reading ability. There is no winning or losing state. It does try, however, to break aforementioned new ground with respect to how it tells its story.

Fragmented storytelling, of course, was not invented here. Yet, the way it is presented does make a difference for the overall experience. Discovering snippets in different places in a not fully guaranteed order puts an additional challenge on writing and also enhances the experience of reception. Digging up something in one of the databases, in some moments, certainly feels like an achievement, because… ha, I knew I'd find something here!


In one way, it must have been even convenient for the author. Just imagine how awkward it usually becomes when in linear fiction, background information is woven in. It's usually some exposition dump of one character telling another character who really should be perfectly aware already. Providing the same snippet as lookup in another database, on the other hand, fits in perfectly with the paradigm of the protagonist interacting with this computer system. Even making it optional for those less inclined to deep-dive.

Second, but unfortunately less successful in the overall picture, is indeed the construct of Homer. Representing a classic unreliable narrator, it provides some strong moments throughout. Such as, in fact, when it does explicitly reveal to have made a part of the story up. Though as the plot progresses, it relies more and more on Homer's perspective.

Which is where the notion of the story told through discovering little bits of information from here and there and piecing them together by yourself fizzles out. Homer's bits are written in classic prose, from omniscient narrator perspective. More and more, the feeling creeps in that when push came to shove, the author did not fully trust the idea of designing an independent player discovery journey, but rather felt the need to have a more guided experience after all. Or maybe he couldn't think of ways to communicate many bits effectively without just writing it plainly.


Of course, this was 1986. Long before broader studies on interactive narrative techniques began. Portal, being one of the seminal attempts in this regard, was a stab in the dark in this respect. When nowadays, someone starts such a thing, they can take advantage of the accumulated knowledge. No such luxury back then. With that in mind, we need to cut this one some slack. It was not the perfect shot. Its commercial failure a fact, it is likely that the merging of form and contents was not engaging enough yet. Yet, in retrospect, it did hit its mark to an admirable degree. Making it, as of today, not just an important subject for historical study, but still a good read.

Activision had a hard time marketing this “interactive novel”, obviously. No niche for this sort of thing existing, they pitched it as a regular computer game, with the appropriate price tag (i.e. way above that of a paperback novel). Author Rob Swigart did later release an edited version of the story in linear format. As was to be expected, it did not become a hit in that version, either. These days, it is available for free in electronic format. Directly comparing, the linear structure does detract from the experience quite a bit. Through negative means, it serves as late confirmation that the concept of interactive presentation was, after all, worth something.

In 2012, Swigart attempted to launch a “re-imagination” of the material through Kickstarter, but this did not nearly acquire the necessary momentum. Showing that in spite of its legendary status, Portal does not have an inherently strong fan-base. Or at least not one which would be willing to pay again in order to have the same story re-assembled in more up-to-date technology.

And the promise of the Amiga as an artist's tool? Fell apart when it instead became a kid's games machine. With many excellent releases gracing it over the years, though almost all stayed within the tight boundaries of what everybody associated with the term “games”.

Comments (3) [Post comment]

Mr Creosote:

"novelty of the cyber-future interface"I wish I had thought of that wording when I wrote my piece :DDon't like the eBook version too much to be honest. Too many single-sentence paragraphs (horrible typesetting), and the fragmented style feels much more like the gimmick it is. Though I see that the work associated of pulling the same text out of the game after having done it once could easily be considered a tedious task.

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GrooveMD, Queer Time Machine:

I have an ebook of the transcript of the game. I read it once a decade or so. I think the game was about the novelty of the cyber-future interface. It doesn't stand well against modern expectations of data organization for me, so the game is more tedious than the ideas behind it.

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