In discussions about Point of Descent, I’ve naturally had people ask me about some examples of other games in the genre, since not too many people are familiar with bullet hell games. There are, naturally, several classic touchstones to hit upon. For those new to the genre, Ikaruga and Deathsmiles are the two that people recognize the most, in large part because they are the two that got stand-alone releases on disc in the United States. Those familiar with combo packs and download titles also hear me talk about Triggerheat Exelica, Karous, and Radio Allergy. I also mention the Touhou series and Mushihime-sama, though mostly for people to look up on Youtube – that said, if you already recognize those names, you don’t need examples of bullet hell games named to you.
And of course, I will freely admit that, in this process, those games have all offered some amount of inspiration. That said, there is a game that surpasses all of them in regards to inspiration on pretty much every level. And oddly enough, it’s not even remotely in the same genre – for me, the most inspiring game is Portal.
I’m not going to rave about how the gameplay made me think in different directions in terms of how to look at things (it did, but not nearly as much as it did for some). It’s not it’s meme-generating powers (I’m running on the assumption that Point of Descent will not generate any memes and will be surprised if proven wrong). It’s not even that it managed to tell a compelling story where there are really only three characters – one of which is mute and another never actually appears in-game (though that is impressive).
By far, to me, the most impressive part of Portal is, once you beat it, that you get to replay it with developer’s commentary. I love commentary tracks in DVDs, as they often give further insight on certain scenes and frequently make them more thought-provoking. Or you get the alternate track to movies like UHF, where they make fun of their own work and it gets even more amusing. So having a video game with a commentary track was like Valve nodding to me and saying, “You want to play this again. Seriously, you do.”
Let me tell you right now – the commentary provided in that game is by far the absolute best manual on how to develop a game that has ever been made. Everything – from level design to hints of backstory to talent direction – is discussed in that track. Well, okay, not the necessity of documentation, but the kind of elements required in said documentation, that’s all in there.
The best example I can give comes from commentary from Ellen McLain, GLaDOS’ voice actress. One of the things she gushed about in the game was how her directors would give her very rich descriptions on how she should sound in each scene, and that made it much easier for her to voice the character in many fewer takes. I actually played that commentary track multiple times even before Point of Descent was a figment of my imagination – artists of any sort want concrete feedback on what direction to take something. Let them know where they have freedom to improvise so that they feel comfortable doing that, but give them details on what elements need to be in there. When you do that, it makes for a happy artist and getting the work turned around much more quickly.
I could probably gush about that commentary track for longer than it would take any reasonable human being to play through Portal twice and listen to the whole thing. But let me put it this way – there are some works in any medium which have a huge impact not only in their own right but also in inspiring future works. It was once said that the band Big Star only sold about 10,000 copies of their record #1 Record (yes, that’s its name), but every single person who bought it started their own band (except the one guy who made sure that Alex Childress, the song written about the lead singer of Big Star, got into Rock Band 2). And M.U.L.E. was one of the earliest examples of that in the video game industry – multiple genres exist because of how inspiring that game was. Well, while Portal was more initially successful than both of those, its true legacy, I’m convinced, is that it’ll prove to be as inspiring and enduring as both of those.
If nothing else, it played a huge part in how the development of Point of Descent has progressed.