What if?

I think that “what if?” is one of the most fundamental human questions, like “who am I?” or “what is my purpose in life?”

There are a ton of What Ifs in life, like “what would happen if Superman fought the Hulk” or “what if Bill Buckner had caught that ground ball in 1986”, but one question I’ve never heard asked is “what if Portal was actually a terrible game?”

Having never heard this question asked, I was surprised to find it answered – not in random speculation on the Internet, or in idle conversation at a game store, but in the form of an entire game, designed and written solely to show the world how Portal could have gone horribly, horribly wrong.

I don’t know how I came to own Twin Sector. It’s in my Steam Library, though, which suggests that I spent money on it as part of a bundle of games. It’s an excellent excuse for things like this, anyway; it lets me disclaim responsibility for what might have been a very poor life decision.

I do know that it bubbled to the surface of my conciousness recently when it appeared in one of the Indy Game Bundles that isn’t actually the Humble Indie Bundle. I should feel a little bad, I suppose, about splitting the various Indy bundles into “The HIB” and “Things that are not the HIB”, but that’s one of those mental groupings that just make things easier, like “Download Services that are Steam” and “Download Services that are Not Steam” rather than having to remember Direct2Drive and Games On Demand and all the other bit players in the business.

But I digress.

Anyway, the sudden burst of publicity made me realize that I owned this thing and that, despite the bad press surrounding it, I ought to give it a chance and find out whether the bad press was justified or just sour grapes. I love a lot of games that other people don’t like, after all.

I don’t think there should be any shock in revealing at this point that I found myself agreeing with the general opinion of the game at first, before I realized what it was trying to do.

It wasn’t TRYING to entertain. It was trying to be an object lesson.

Let’s review what Portal was. It was a fairly short but well-paced puzzle game with a few simple mechanics set in a series of featureless and largely monochrome environments, where you as the player are constantly subjected to the advice of an artificial intelligence. It featured a single gadget by means of which you manipulated the world around you, and you could describe the operation of the gadget in about a dozen words.

Twin Sector is, well, read the above.

So why did one go so wrong?

Well, let’s start with the environments. The world in Portal makes absolutely no sense. You’re given buttons to press and boxes to put on the buttons to press them with, there are lasers you must avoid or redirect, you often have to solve a puzzle just to get to a next box that you need to push the next button. This is excusable because the plot of the game revolves around the artificialness of the world; you’re told from the beginning that you are in test chambers designed to make you solve puzzles and it all makes sense.

Twin Sector points this out brilliantly by putting you in the same sorts of environments and pretending that they exist for a reason other than to be puzzles. Very early on in the game, I ran across a button on the ceiling that needed to be pressed by having a barrel thrown at it. This opened a grate in the ceiling that released a handful of explosive gas cylinders which all clattered to the floor. If GlaDOS had introduced the explosive gas cylinders falling from the ceiling as part of a test, it would all have made sense, in a bizarre sort of way. As part of an underground cryosleep facility, a sort of Ark in which humanity could sleep while waiting for the aftermath of an unspecified disaster to pass, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Furthermore, your character in Portal can fall for any distance, safely landing due to some sort of springy leg brace things. This allows for the ability to experiment and mess things up and get back to the puzzles without penalizing you too badly. In Twin Sector, magic leg braces aren’t part of your equipment and most falls simply kill you unless you have good timing with your telekinesis gloves. Take a tumble? You’re looking at a loading screen. The last straw for me with Twin Sector was, in fact, a room where I kept falling to my death, after which I would have to listen to a particular bit of dialogue every time I died, unable to move or do anything until the dialogue had finished.

Basically, Portal reminds me a lot of the first time I played Simon the Sorceror back in the mid 90s. Simon was an adventure game designed around the principle that the player should not be able to get himself into any situation that he could not get out of, and Portal mostly follows the same template. You may be able to die in Portal, but you’ll never find yourself in a position where you simply can’t progress and your only option is to die or restart a level. Twin Sector takes that design element away; death comes easily and failure is always an option.

Speaking of throwing barrels at button, this is something that happens a lot in Twin Sector, from what I saw of the game at any rate. Unfortunately, the process of actually aiming a barrel at a button involves picking up the barrel, pointing it at the button, realizing that you can not SEE the button while you’re holding the barrel, and throwing it, hoping that you’ll land on the button.

Should I mention that, while buttons in Portal are huge things, buttons in Twin Sector are these tiny little targets?

Like Portal, Twin Sector is based around the skillful manipulation of a Gadget. In Portal, it’s a gun that shoots holes in space, while the gloves in Twin Sector can pick things up or push them away from you. I’d like to find something snarky to say here but the gadget in Twin Sector is actually kind of neat. It is also thoughtfully color coded red and blue which, so that might actually serve as a selling point if you don’t like the ORANGE and blue color scheme in Portal.

The two games also share the concept of a helping / tormenting character who exists as a dismbodied voice. Unfortunately, while GlaDOS was full of personality, OSCAR is, well, the awkward guy in the sweater vest who somehow found out where your birthday party was and showed up with a gift set of bath salts. I understand that, like GlaDOS, he eventually tries to kill you. I didn’t get far enough to find this out for myself, but I must assume that it is an awkward and stilted assassination attempt.

It is inaccurate to describe Twin Sector as a game and unfair to judge it as such. It is best considered a Near-Game Experience, the sort of thing you wake up from and you find that it’s made you really appreciate things you’d simply taken for granted in the past. Like, say, Portal.

Play Twin Sector. It will make you glad for all the good things you have in your life.

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