My initial impression of Quantum Conundrum was, it’s not Portal. I mean, it’s really Not Portal: it invites comparison with Portal at falls short. I’m mostly interested in games as a storytelling medium, and I think it’s interesting to compare QC with Portal in that area, because they’re trying to do very similar things but QC is (in my opinion) failing where Portal gloriously succeeded.
(Story and ending spoilers for both Quantum Conundrum and Portal below. If you haven’t finished Quantum Conundrum, now’s your chance. If you haven’t finished Portal, why the hell not? Go play it now!)
Quantum Conundrum shares most of its major story elements with Portal:
- A lone, voiceless, largely blank-slate player character
- A confusing, repetitive, artificial environment which they are trapped in and must navigate
- Early on, the PC acquires a device, native to the environment, that lets them manipulate physics
- Only one other real character, who features only as a voice until the very end of the game
- Some repeated puzzle elements are given anthopomorphic personalities, although they aren’t fully-fledged characters in their own right (turrets in Portal, DOLLIs in Quantum Conundrum)
- A ‘mascot’ character (the companion cube in Portal, Ike in QC)
- SCIENCE! as an excuse for puzzles
- A central mystery (what happened to Professor Quadwrangle in QC, what is going on in Portal)
- Late in the game, when the player appears to have solved the problems, a plot twist reveals a different problem to be solved, and the PC must travel ‘backstage’ into the innards of the environment
- In the final sequence, the player is led to do something which turns out to be the wrong thing to do (destroy a personality core in Portal, fix the big IDS in QC)
There may be some I’ve missed. It would be going to far to say that the stories of QC and Portal are the same, but they have a lot in common, far more than is required by their similar game design.
So, where did QC fall down? Here are some things I think it got wrong, which Portal avoided:
Portal managed to make GLaDOS into both guide and antagonist. In QC, however, the Professor is just a guide, and the obstacles are impersonal. A story about fixing the consequences of an accident is generally less exciting than one about defeating an enemy; that’s why films about natural disasters have to work so hard to make the audience care about the characters.
Initial plot thread left hanging
QC starts with a cutscene telling us that Professor Quadwrangle was sent to live in the mansion by his sister. The sister is mentioned a couple more times in his voiceover, but never becomes important, leaving me wondering what the point of introducing her was. If the only mentions of the sister had been throw-away references in the middle of the game, she would just have been a nice detail, like the other relatives the Professor mentions; but her prominence in the opening cutscene turns her into a plot thread that didn’t get resolved, making the game’s overall structure feel weak. (To be honest, I don’t think the opening cutscene added anything important and the easiest way to improve the game would be to remove it.)
I initially wondered if the sister would be the antagonist, but apparently not. Maybe the idea is for her to appear in a sequel, but a game story has to work on the level of a single game, not just over a series.
The mystery is spelled out…
Early on in QC, the Professor’s voiceover tells you that he’s trapped in some strange dimension, that there’s been an accident, and that he’s lost his memory of what happened. It’s effectively instructing the player, “This is the mystery: wonder about this!” Every so often the Professor drip-feeds me some new information about where he is or how his memory is returning. The result of this is that, rather than trying to work out the answer to the problem, I just filed it away, knowing that the game would drip-feed me the solution in good time. Portal, on the other hand, just put me in an environment and didn’t explain what was going on, leaving me to actively wonder.
…and so is the resolution.
In the final sequence of QC, the Professor’s memory suddenly returns and he tells you the answer to the mystery the game posed at the start. Portal gives me hints, increasing in frequency towards the end of the game, but expects me to put them together by myself, and even then doesn’t answer everything. And the end of Portal I know enough for the story to be satisfying, but there are still many things it leaves me guessing about.
The resolution is based on arbitrary made-up science
OK, if I understand it correctly, the resolution of QC is as follows. Just before you arrived, the Professor’s experiment went wrong because he got too much Science Juice in the master IDS, which caused it to become unstable. Safety features trapped him in a pocket dimension and shut down the power to the mansion, and he also lost his memory for some reason. Not knowing any better (because of the memory loss), he guides the player character to restart the power and then reactivate the master IDS.
All the cause and effect here is based on the way the made-up technology works, and the way the technology works is arbitrary. It’s like a murder mystery which doesn’t even pretend to have enough clues: there’s no satisfying “I knew it!/I should have known it!” – just a dull “Oh, right.”
But the story itself isn’t resolved
The initial mystery of QC is answered at the end, but the plot is left hanging. The problem with the master IDS is re-established; the PC ends up in the pocket dimension and the Professor is free. The story is left incomplete in an unsatisfying way. It looks like it wants a sequel, but it could have set up a sequel while also bringing the story to its own satisfying conclusion.
Quantum Conundrum is not a bad game. It has flaws because it’s a good game, and the puzzles are fun. This post has been about looking at the game’s story rather than passing judgement on other aspects of it.
QC is primarily a puzzle-based game rather than a story-driven one–so aren’t I missing the point by criticising its story? I don’t think so, because if it wanted to be a pure puzzle-based game it didn’t need to have as much story as it had. If story isn’t the point then “Here’s a maze, run in it” is a perfectly good premise for a game. The way to fail at game story is not to have too little, but to have more than your game needs and not do interesting things with it.