I was so determined. Like, Shawshank-Redemption-escape sort of determined. I told myself I wasn’t going to compare Quantum Conundrum to Portal, that no matter what, I wasn’t going to point out the similarities and say which game did what better, but here we are.
I guess it’s not that much of a surprise, though, finding overlap in the two games; Kim Swift, former Valve game designer, worked on both teams. In fact, she led both teams at Valve and at Airtight Games, and it really kind of shows.
And there’s nothing wrong with a designer having his or her fingerprints all over a game; Miyamota, Kojima, and Schafer have all made entire careers out of cultivating the very unique aspects of their design philosophies. It does, however, become an issue when instead of carrying over themes or Easter egg characters, the designer brings over mechanics and elements of an older game into a newer one thinly veiled behind a new title or studio.
Take, for instance, Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, the game’s primary, um, antagonist? He’s really not, except for the fact that all the puzzles you solve are of his creation, and they are decidedly deadly. You’ll never actually interact with him, though, as he’s in a different dimension, an alternate slice of space and time to which he ended was thrown after an experiment went awry. You, being his nephew, have just arrived for a visit and must now help your uncle back to your dimension.
But Quadwrangle, despite being locked away in an entirely different dimension, is still able to see you and communicate with you throughout the entire game. He’s biting, acerbic, and apathetically funny. In a word, he is GLaDOS, except most of his jokes fall flat. Like, painfully flat.
And to help you uncle, you must restart three generators, and along the way solve physics-based puzzles that require you to switch between five different dimensions that alter the physical or temporal properties of the objects around you. Quadwrangle’s mansion, though, is so comically proportioned that each room is the size of a McDonald’s PlayPlace, and each room is connected to another so that if laid out flat, the blueprint of the house would probably wrap around the Earth two to four times.
Each room is so isolated and barely passes as a livable space save for some token easy chairs or stacks of books that it’s hard to escape the feeling that each one is artificially created and placed there for the sake of creating a puzzle, almost as if they were…test chambers. It’s almost an unfair comparison, but when you enter a room with a single entrance and a single exit with lasers, conveyor belts, and crate-spitting machines, it’s hard to ignore.
It’s good, then, that the puzzling elements of Quantum Conundrum are at least quite interesting. In addition to your boring ol’ regular dimension, you’ll have access to the Fluffy dimension where everything is super light and pink; the Heavy dimension where everything looks like it’s made of metal and weighs a ton; the Slow dimension where time flows incredibly slow while you move at regular speed (seemingly, though, momentum is also different as you can ride slowed objects flying through the air); and the Reverse Gravity dimension where, well, gravity is reversed, though you remain downward-facing.
The potential combinations of these dimensions creates some interesting puzzles and, unlike Portal, require a certain visual acuity and sharpened reflexes. You’ll often find yourself needing to make midair dimension swaps so that you can launch a crate or chair or whatever through a wall, avoiding lasers, and jumping between falling debris.
And you know what? First-person platforming is still not a lot of fun. It’s never easy to see where you’re going or enough of your surroundings to feel confident, often resulting in repeated deaths. And it’s not that the game handles poorly (as it actually moves rather fluidly and feels like it should be more of an action game and less of a puzzle game) but rather that you’re jumping in first-person. Which sucks. A lot.
Which wouldn’t really be a problem if, like I said, this wasn’t a puzzle game. You die so much and screw up so much that you end up doing sections that you’ve already solved countless times. In fact, you’ll often find yourself in a situation where you have figured out the entire puzzle and now just have to execute the first 10 or so steps before testing your theory at the 11th step. But then you die by laser and well fuck it.
It also doesn’t help that Quadwrangle is constantly talking to you, interminably barking orders to go up the stairs or check the other side of the room or something. It feels like you’re trying to disarm a bomb, the red wire casing giving way to your pliers, when suddenly your annoying childhood friend from across the street shows up and says “HEY WHAT ARE YOU DOING OH COOL A BOMB HUH I WATCHED THE HURT LOCKER YOU SHOULD CUT BOTH WIRES.”
The puzzles are there and can be entirely exhilarating but the platforming takes it down a notch. The mechanics are fun but the trial-and-error ways quickly destroys your will. The story conceit is interesting but its execution brings it wholly into question. Quantum Conundrum is, by all counts, a game entirely made of almosts. The humor is at times dark and twisted (every time you die, you are presented with a message: #123 you will never experience) but is subverted by the game’s overtly childish gags that give in too quickly to the easy jokes. You rarely see a game so close to crossing the line with a remarkable finish that rapidly declines to mere mediocrity.
Most of the frustration I felt (and, to an extent, still feel) with Quantum Conundrum is on a meta level, having nothing to do with the actual game. While yes, the jumping around and punishing demands that would lead to redoing a puzzle I feel that I’ve already solved and would just like to never see again could have been left on the cutting room floor, but truly, I’m frustrated because Quantum Conundrum is so close. Swift shows that she excels at making puzzles, but perhaps it was the rest of the team that made it fun to solve them.