From The Status Line, Vol.VI No.2 Summer 1987
Portal: Is this Interactive Fiction?
Emerging from the mists of the "Vaporware" list in PC Letter, Portal has at last been published by Activision. Having thus established that Portal is not vapor, its creator, novelist Rob Swigart, has some further observations about what Portal is and is not.
"It's not a game," says Swigart. Nor, apparently, is it interactive fiction as we have come to know it. "There is no parsing language in Portal," he adds, "no puzzles to solve."
Then what is it?
"It's a computer novel."
And that is...?
"A novel that can be told only through the medium of the computer."
If you could expand on that...
Swigart says "The narrative, the story, is organized like a database of real information, by category - historical data, facts about characters, and so on. In this way, a person's experience of Portal imitates the style of traditional kinds of computer use. You uncover the story section by section, layer by layer, learning how parts of the story relate to other parts."
So this is interactive fiction then?
"Neither game nor adventure," writes Bob Lindstrom in A+ Magazine, "Portal represents an entirely new form of entertainment software."
To its author, Portal is the dawn of the new in more ways than one. Says Swigart, "Portal is a simulation of future computers - AI systems that will be able to process, filter, and organize information for the user as an individual with very particular, even quirky, needs.
"A computer that can forecast the future could also tell plausible stories about the future - predictions cast in narrative form. Futurists of today, who realized the importance of intuition some time ago, already engage in this kind of 'narrative' forecasting."
Get the feeling that Swigart has hung around with futurists? He has. In a carrer that has included a stint as a textbook salesman, a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and a wide range of poetry, essays, stories, computer game scripts and nine novels, he has also written futurist scenarios for the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California. His latest novel, Vector (Bluejay Books, 1986), has been described as a "biotechnology thriller."
The plot of Portal is reminiscent of many science fiction stories. The year is 2106. You - the user, or player, or reader, whatever - are a lone space traveler who has returned from a 100-year star voyage to an Earth devoid of human life. Plants thrive, birds sing, animals burrow but no people. You find a single operating system (yours, of course) connected to 12 Worldnet "dataspaces."
As you begin to dip into the data available, you soon make contact with a biological computer named Homer. The sole survivor of a vanished civilization, Homer is your link to the past and your conduit to the future.
Together, you and Homer set out to solve the mystery of an unpeopled world. Your knowledge grows organically. As you uncover bits of data in one category, you're granted access to more and more data in other, related categories. And Homer is enabled to "remember" more and more, as his understanding of the past grows with yours.
You learn, for example, about 21st-century geopolitical affairs; about the fantastic technology of the era, including neurophage weapons, agrobotics, nightvision thermography, and Mozart, the great aesthetic application of neural induction; and about Portal, the phenomenon at the heart of the mystery.
Portal is on two or three disks, depending on what kind of computer you have (Activision has released Portal for Amiga, Apple II and Macintosh, Commodore, and MS-DOS machines). Also in the box is a "Prologue," written in "your" voice; a map of the Intercorp Council World Administrative Regions, dated 14 August 2077; and a copy of Worldnet Emergency Operating Instructions, dated 11 November 2088. These are your tools for exploring the world of Portal, and solving its mystery.
As you say to yourself in the "Prologue," "I will read the instructions, and then I will try to find out what has happened to the world, where the people have gone, and if I must remain alone for the rest of my life... I have been too long without other people."
In developing Portal, Swigart envisioned a future, like any science fiction writer. Here's the twist, though. Placing us at the end of the Earth's future, Portal challenges us to reconstruct that future as the past, so that a new future may begin to unfold.
It also challenges our notions of what "interactivity" in computer fiction can be, and of what "narrative" is, in any kind of medium, and how it works. As futuristic as Portal is, it borrows much from traditional storytelling. Readers will not find themselves stumped by difficult puzzles, rather the story unfolds itself with some gentle coaxing. Can interactive storytelling work without challenging puzzles or conflict resolution? Portal proves it can.
Added by Belboz (6578) on Sep 02, 2001
From the front of the box:
"Homer, a biological computer. The final link to the past and the only conduit to the future. But Homer is dying and access grows weaker moment by moment. Will you discover where everyone has gone or will the doorway to humanity close forever, leaving you totally alone?"
From the back of the box:
"It is the distant future. The 21th century has long since come and gone. Returning from a failed 100 year voyage to 61 Cygni, you re-enter earth's atmosphere to find that the world is not as you once knew it.
Where once there was teeming humanity, now there is quiet. The empty shells of mile-high skyscrapers stand at rest in the awesome silence. The vista, nothing but forests and meadows, rivers and lakes, is beautiful but eerie, for there are no people...
Finally, you discover an on-line computer terminal that you can operate. Through it you contact Homer, the ultimate achievement of man's technology - a living computer. Together you and Homer must unravel the mystery of the vanished civilisation before it's too late. If not, you face an eternity of total solitude."
Added by -Chris (7371) on Aug 13, 2000