The word “interactive” tends to get taken for granted in gaming, but we seldom think about what it actually means. Or, more importantly, what it could mean. Stories, for example, have always been a large part of games, but usually the story is purely in service of those interactive parts.
Today, Activision is a games publisher mostly interested in gigantic hits: Call of Duty, Destiny, Skylanders, and World of Warcraft are the pillars of its business, and they fit very neatly into what our notions of what a video game can be in 2016. Three decades ago, back when those notions weren't as rigid, Activision published an interactive novel, and it didn't even seem that strange.
Portal: an Interactive Novel was exactly what the title suggests. Published in 1986, it wasn’t a game as we think of one today, but a story the user helped reveal, and a totally unique approach to melding interactivity and storytelling.
In a regular novel, the reader plays a passive role. They simply take in the information presented, but in Portal the story is a mystery that the reader (or player) uncovers by combing through a series of databases. You take the role of an astronaut who has returned home after a hundred year mission to find Earth abandoned.
Whole cities stand silent, nature has overtaken technology, and humans are nowhere to be found. Your only link to the past is a single terminal, barely functioning, that links you to what’s left of this future world’s version of the World Wide Web. Using a rather Windows-like, icon-based interface (impressive in the mid-80s), you moved a cursor around the screen to select from database categories like Geographical, History, Medical, Military, PsiLink, and SciTech.
At first, there’s almost nothing there, but perusing the system soon reveals something else. Or, more specifically, someone else. Lost in the system, an AI named Homer reaches out to you. He’s not a typical artificial construct though. True to his name, Homer is a story telling AI, with only fragments of his memory intact and a desperate desire to unravel the past. Homer becomes your invaluable ally in the search for the truth. He digs through the system, unlocking new data that you must go through, and with each new file uncovered, Homer begins constructing the story of how the world ended.
Portal was written by Rob Swigart, an aspiring novelist in his early 40s at the time, who was very interested in how technology could evolve and enhance the art of storytelling.
“I'd been thinking about (the idea) since I bought my first computer in 1976,” Swigart told me over chat. “It seemed like an interesting medium for storytelling back then—the screen as a kind of portal into a fictional world. Point and click and text adventure games were very much linear forms of storytelling as well, but Portal was different from anything else really.
“I was thinking about the ways we used computers back then (before graphics, Photoshop, music, etc). Word Processing, spreadsheets, and databases. The first two didn't seem particularly amenable to creating a story, so I thought creating a database that gradually filled in as you went through would work. I think it did.”
Swigart was a new, but not unknown commodity to Activision, which had first hired him to write a manual for a music program. “I gave the producer a copy of my first novel and he asked me if I had ever considered doing a game. In fact, I had,” Swigart said. “We discussed it and he sold it to the company.
“I thought the screen would make a great platform. I just loved the experiment. I was really interested in how it might be possible to do such a story, and tried to create a conceit that made it work (abandoned terminals, deserted world, AI, etc).”
The story is, ultimately, about a young man named Peter Devore—a prodigal, psychic, and, eventual prophet—who acts as the catalyst and means for humanity’s escape from what, on the surface, seems like a utopian society. Like all paradises, however, this new world has a much darker undertone of dissatisfaction and discontent. Terrorist attacks are rampant, a new form of war emerges, and the sleek, uniform exterior shine of a perfect society is rapidly falling apart.
Devore’s mysterious powers and following mark him as an enemy of the State, and he finds himself on the run. The story moves from his hometown in Missouri to the barren landscape of Antarctica, and beyond (way beyond). It’s essentially a chase thriller, deftly written in the prose Homer pieces together and feeds back.
Where Portal really excels, however, is in the meticulous world building Swigart has done. All those seemingly extraneous databases about geography, history, science, and other more mundane topics are seriously thought out and expansive. Uncovering new articles and tidbits felt like prying into the intimate spaces of a world and people we only knew after the fact. It was a strangely lonely, yet enthralling new experience.
It’s also an experience still unmatched, certainly by any mainstream publisher. And that was a big part of the problem. No one had any idea how to take Portal when it first hit home computers.
“[Activision] had absolutely no idea what they had,” Swigart told me. “[They] kept trying to sell it as a ‘game.’ I don't think they kept it listed long enough to gain the kind of traction it should have. For instance, the Mac SE came out right after they released it and they wouldn't upgrade to make it work, so essentially they cut out the Mac version.”
Critics of the time frequently expressed the idea that it should have just been a traditional printed novel, but really, that was missing the point. Portal, as a novel, wouldn’t have anywhere near the atmosphere and intrigue without the slow build up and interactive detective work to uncover the story. Indeed, Swigart released the text as a traditional novel and, sure enough, it didn’t have nearly the same effect.
A huge part of the magic of Portal as an interactive experience was something a printed book could never manage—Homer.
Swigart knew the story needed its storyteller to be a very literal ghost in the machine, and the blind bard was a natural choice. Homer starts out naive and grows more complex and engaged as the story progresses. He talks to the user, contemplates deep thoughts, and analyzes everything to form conclusions that are more human than machine.
“At first I thought of him as just a storytelling AI, but soon realized the narrative was three-layered—the user, Peter, and Homer,” Swigart explained. “All three have their own stories, yet the narrative jumps tracks at the user’s discretion to weave the three together. (Homer) became the glue that binds the user and Peter. I wanted to bring the user in as an active participant, which is the whole idea of interactive fiction (at least as I saw it in the ‘80s).”
The end result was a singular experiment that still manages to haunt the minds of those who played it years ago. There have been two failed Kickstarter attempts to revitalize Portal in the modern era, though not by Swigart. Instead, they were started by devoted fans who felt the experience could be enhanced by modern technology.
Portal: an Interactive Novel will likely always remain a minor footnote in the history of interactive media, but those who were lucky enough to play it will remember those late nights spent with Homer, completely absorbed with this strange and oddly prescient future world and its very human characters.