Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises

22Oct11

I’m writing from FROG 2011, the Vienna conference on videogames. This conference is unlike any other I’ve been to in a range of ways: it’s my first game studies conference, which means the range of presenters and disciplinary backgrounds is broader and more eclectic than at the typical television or media studies conference. It’s sponsored by the Austrian government agency B.U.P.P., which specifically focuses on “positive assessment” of videogames (and the head of the agency opened the conference with an anti-media effects joke) – such an agency is pretty much inconceivable in the American context. And it’s held in the Vienna Town Hall, which is a majestic gothic building, unlike the typical corporate hotel or university building where most conferences are held. (And simultaneous to the conference, the town hall is also hosting Game City, a videogame trade show open to the public, so it turns the building into a giant video playground!)

My presentation, which is posted below, is a pivot from my current research, my book Complex TV, into a project that I’m looking toward down the road about the role of play and ludic engagement with television. The paper will be included in a special issue of Eludamos deriving from the conference [updated – now published!], and I have room to add to the essay – any comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises


As an outsider to the game studies field, I am intrigued by how the topic of narrative exists in an almost quantum duality, both as the catalyzing question that galvanized the emerging field a decade ago, and as a marginal topic within ongoing research. This seminal “debate that never took place” seems to have unified game studies by isolating a major topic that is now deemed off the field’s research agenda.1 While I’m probably overstating the absence of recent work, when it comes to scholarship on games and narrative, it seems to me more likely to come from scholars outside of game studies (like myself) than established game scholars, further entrenching the split (real or perceived) between ludologists and narratologists. And thus we are left with the scenario where a scholar from a related field, in my case television studies, comes to a game studies conference to talk about narrative.

So I apologize in advance for making such a predicable move. However, I think that sometimes games themselves demand that we talk about narrative. Additionally, it becomes increasingly limited to analyze a game solely as a bounded textual object, as transmedia techniques have led to interesting overlaps in cultural norms, textual design, and fan engagement across normally distinct media, highlighting the need to think across ludic and narrative modes. Specifically, television has used transmedia extensions to embrace a playful mode of engagement drawn from (and often directly through) videogames, while games have employed transmedia to extend their storyworlds by expanding character depth, backstory, and world-building. Yet scholars typically treat such media as separate realms, with game studies and television studies isolated in distinct academic silos, despite the increasing blur between the media themselves. In this presentation, I attempt to traverse this scholarly divide, examining how gameplay and storytelling co-mingle in two very different franchises with both cult and mainstream appeal: the television series Lost and the game series Portal. In analyzing these two disparate transmedia franchises, I believe we can see a number of ways where issues of both play and narrative are foregrounded both textually and experientially, and that taken together we can begin to chart out a mode of ludic storytelling that transcends the false dichotomy between game and narrative.

Transmedia storytelling is a broad and debated realm of media practice, and time does not permit me to delve too deeply into those definitional nuances. In short, it is a realm of interrelated paratexts working together to create a narrative universe. In Henry Jenkins’s comprehensive and influential definition of the form:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.2

This definition of transmedia storytelling problematizes the hierarchy between text and paratext for our dual case studies: in a more balanced example, all texts would be equally weighted rather than one being privileged as “text” while others serve as supporting “paratexts.” However in the high stakes industries of commercial television and game design, financial realities demand that a franchise’s core medium be identified and privileged, typically emphasizing more established industries like television studios or game developers over newer modes of online textuality. Thus in understanding transmedia extensions based on a so-called “mothership” franchise from an established medium, we can identify the originating television or videogame series as the core text, with transmedia extensions serving as paratexts.3

We can see the centrality of the mothership in my first case study. Lost, originally airing on ABC from 2004-2010, is one of television’s most groundbreaking serials, pioneering a mode of narrative complexity and innovative storytelling that has rarely been matched in any medium.4 The core premise, focused on a group of airplane passengers stranded on a remote island with hostile inhabitants and a mystical and conspiracy-laden backstory, lent itself to a wide-ranging storyworld with character backstories illuminated through flashbacks. Lost’s approach to transmedia storytelling is expansionist, extending the narrative universe not only across media, but introducing many new characters, settings, plotlines, time periods and mythological elements. While few viewers would accuse the television incarnation of Lost of being too simplistic in its narrative scope, the show used transmedia to extend itself into tales that surpassed the wide scope of the series itself. This expansionism led Lost to add to its six seasons of television with four alternate reality games, four novels, a console videogame, multiple tie-in websites and online videos, DVD extras, live events, and an array of collectable merchandise. Both due to its fantasy genre and its storytelling commitments to a create rich mythological universe, Lost is suited to this expansionist approach to transmedia, using paratexts to extend the narrative outward into new locales and arenas.

One of Lost’s chief strategies in crafting its transmedia narrative is positioning its fans as players instead of viewers. Games are a central theme and underlying story structure that runs throughout the show, ranging from the long con games played by Sawyer, Ben, and numerous others (and Others), to the ongoing game revealed in the final season between the island’s mythological entities Jacob and The Man in Back, embodied by a senet board but comprised of centuries of elaborate role-playing and strategizing with other people as pawns. The show created puzzles and games for its viewers to play within its diegesis, asking us to parse out meanings and decode narrative information from images like a hidden map on the back of a blast door in an underground bunker, or identify names written in chalk within a mysterious cave; such puzzling moments were embraced by what I have termed “forensic fans” who collectively worked to parse out answers. Throughout all of these ludic moments within the show, there was an implied narrative payoff: the puzzles would uncover information that would heighten our narrative comprehension and reveal hidden truths about the storyworld. Thus while the show offered ludic engagement, it was framed within the narrative drive for mastery of the story.5

Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have discussed in interviews and podcasts that they had a specific litmus test for what mythology to reveal and explore on the show itself versus in the transmedia extensions: if the main characters care about it, it will appear on the show; if the characters don’t care, it will not. While we can quibble as to how precisely they followed their own edict, it is instructive in establishing the show’s orientation toward character-centered drama rather than mythological fantasy. The map is a telling case: in the aftermath of the episode where it appeared, the character John Locke cared deeply about the map, attempting to recreate the image and discover its secret. But by the end of the second season, Locke had seemingly moved on, we saw the origins of the map in a flashback, and the underground hatch was destroyed; the blast door map would not be directly referenced on the television series again. However, it would reappear in four subsequent paratexts, including the Lost jigsaw puzzles, the videogame Lost: Via Domus, a hidden poster in a DVD set, and in the official Lost magazine, each offering slightly different details and encouraging further forensic fan decoding. But to what ends? The transmedia versions of the map detach it from Locke’s character motivations and the core island narrative events, making it a potentially fun puzzle to play with, but offering little storytelling payoff despite the promise of hidden mysteries and revelations.

The majority of Lost’s transmedia extensions prioritize storyworld expansion and exploration instead of building on the show’s emotional arcs and character relationships, and in doing so, the franchise fails to create effective tie-in media properties designed to stand independently from the core series itself. This approach to transmedia is what I would call “playing for the plot”: creating ludic moments of engagement that are primarily motivated by the promise of narrative information, but lacking the intrinsic pleasures of the tie-in medium. Thus console/PC game Lost: Via Domus works to offer fans an opportunity to explore the island and play in the margins of core plot points from the series, but doesn’t create its own compelling ludic experience – it’s hard to imagine anyone who didn’t actively watch Lost playing more than an hour of the dull gameplay. Likewise the show’s four ARGs all promised some revelations or rewards to hardcore Lost fans, but all fell short of what ARG fans expect from the genre, lacking clever design, effective pacing, or engaging roleplay.6

As to the goal of revealing narrative mythology for the ongoing television series, the show’s first and most extensive ARG, The Lost Experience, proved to be more frustrating than rewarding – the canonical narrative content was not sufficiently integrated into the television series as a whole, making some players feel like they had wasted their time on “trivia,” rather than getting a head-start on what was to come during Lost’s next seasons. No matter how enjoyable such games and extensions were to fans, they often fell short in rewarding the core edict of adding to the franchise’s storytelling without taking away from the main television experience. One of the great contradictions of Lost is that the series built as robust of a mythological universe ever devised for television, but then undermined the importance of its own mythology by relegating many of its mysteries to transmedia extensions that it deemed as “bonus content” rather than core storytelling. The show was unmatched in its ability to posit mysteries and encourage fans to immerse themselves expansively into clunky alternate reality games and poorly paced videogames and novels with the hope of uncovering answers. Yet by the final season, the show offered emotional character resolutions and thrilling adventure storytelling, but left many mythological questions unaddressed within the television series itself or ambiguously vague in its answers. On its own, I think the emotional payoffs and sweeping character arcs suffice in the show’s mission to engage and entertain a mass audience; however its use of transmedia and cultivation of a forensic fanbase encouraged us to expect more, leading many fans to revolt against the show in its final hours for not delivering its answers in a clearly marked package. Lost’s transmedia extensions foregrounded a mode of ludic engagement that celebrates puzzle solving, storyworld exploration, and vicarious participation, while the show’s narrative resolution on television ran counter to these impulses by focusing the finale on its more typical storytelling realms of resolving character and relationship arcs. Such divergent appeals and modes of engagement point to a danger of transmedia franchises in establishing wide-ranging appeals for fans with endings that fall short of meeting all of their expectations.

What can game scholars learn from the transmedia experiments of the Lost franchise? While I don’t think any of the show’s ludic extensions can be seen as truly successful from either a gameplay or storytelling perspective, they do highlight the potential for coupling play and plot as a motivating factor to justify the inevitable tie-in games that most successful entertainment franchises are likely to generate, and potentially maximizing viewer engagement across media by creating ludic opportunities for fans. Although Lost is an exceptionally broad and complex example of transmedia storytelling, it is typical in its structure of building ludic extensions off of a narrative core. But my second example reverses that hierarchy, with narrative branches coming from a game franchise.

Portal did not debut like a typical game franchise, as it was first released by Valve as a bundled extra in their Half-Life package The Orange Box. The game itself seems to avoid franchise logic, as it first appears to be an example of one of the least franchise-able genres, the puzzle game, with little narrative material—early gameplay is focused on the unique mechanic of the dual portal guns that allow the first-person avatar to navigate the generic lab space to accomplish clearly demarcated tasks. In the scholarly arguments over narrative and games, the puzzle genre is frequently hailed as the proof that gameplay trumps story via examples like Tetris, as the compelling mechanics of such games need no narrative frame to engage players. Evoking sports, another frequently cited genre of non-narrative games, Markku Eskelinen famously and provocatively staked out the extreme anti-narratological position by writing, “If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories.”7But I would argue that this dismissively pithy phrase captures much of what makes Portal such a compelling experience on both ludological and narrative terms: midway through this puzzle game, the ball starts telling a story.

This unexpected shift in Portal is what elevates the game beyond just an engaging puzzler into a landmark of the medium: you slowly begin to realize that the game has been telling you a story, even while you were primarily focused on the mechanics and puzzles. Even the most hardcore ludologist would (hopefully) admit that Portal’s storyworld, characterization, and plot is more than just set dressing on a set of physics puzzles, but that the surprising integration of ludic and narrative experiences is the game’s true genius and why it grew beyond its first release as a bonus extra into a top-flight transmedia franchise. And yet as Valve looked to extend Portal into the inevitable realm of sequels, it faced the challenge that its best twist was impossible to replicate, especially in the face of heightened player expectations—Portal 2 was not about to take anyone by surprise.

For the sequel, Valve doubled down on the game’s narrative elements, creating parallel narrative media experiences. The game of Portal 2 itself is far more narrative-driven, with three characters monologuing to silent Chell instead of the first game’s singular GLaDOS, a far more expansive exploration of Aperture Science’s facilities and beyond, and many more plot twists and revelations in both past and present tense. Most interestingly for me, the game establishes character relationships where the first game had almost none—there was little explanation why GLaDOS wanted Chell dead aside from some faulty programming, so Chell herself was effectively a blank slate avatar with little motivation beyond escaping. In Portal 2, GLaDOS remembers Chell’s previous crimes against Aperture, and far more is revealed and hinted at to suggest that Chell is not just a random test subject but someone with deep ties to characters from Aperture’s past. However, these relationships and backstories are not the ludic point of the game, as gameplay is still dominated by elaborate physics puzzles humorously undercut by mocking voiceovers.

Portal’s second narrative thread as a transmedia franchise focuses directly on this backstory, filling out the history of Aperture and the assorted characters who appear in the games. This is most directly explored in the web comic Portal: Lab Rat, which introduces the character of Doug Rattmann, a mentally-unstable Aperture scientist who is revealed to be the author of the first game’s graffiti informing us that the cake is a lie. Lab Rat fills in narrative gaps between the two games by explaining how Chell got pulled back into Aperture and put in deep stasis, and foreshadows some of Portal 2’s later narrative by introducing the morality core and highlighting elements of Aperture’s history that are explored in the game. There is nothing essential about this narrative material, as the games can be fully enjoyed as stand-alone experiences without delving into this backstory, and as such, Lab Rat functions as a typical transmedia paratext that offers interesting but ultimately secondary storyworld depth.8

Even more interesting to me is how fans have taken to Portal’s narrative universe to explore its gaps and mythology, creating a rich site of alternative gameplay. Portal 2 and Lab Rat contain hints toward a backstory where Chell was the daughter of an Aperture employee, imprisoned at the lab after a disastrous Bring Your Daughter To Work Day, but the details are left vague and unspecified. A number of players, embracing the forensic fan approach common to Lost viewers, have analyzed and parsed the game and its transmedia to theorize about the storyworld’s mythology, positing elaborate theories. For instance, reddit.com user Ryuker920 posted a lengthy illustrated theory that aimed to prove the following claim: “I believe that Chell was abandoned by her biological parents, Cave Johnson and Caroline, and adopted by the Ratman (Doug Hopper). Oh, and Doug’s on the moon.”9 This post was followed by dozens of commenters engaging with these ideas and attempting to resolve the mysteries and ambiguities of the game’s storyworld, and reconcile the numerous other theories circulating online.

Tellingly, the first comment after this lengthy post raises a key issue: “Interesting theories… I missed most of the significance of this in my playthrough.” This question of significance to gameplay is crucial. The Portal games do not demand that we master the narrative universe, but rather ask us to master the micro-spaces of each test chamber using our portal gun. Aperture’s mythology is often enjoyable but inessential window dressing on the gameplay, emerging at times to motivate powerful shifts in Chell’s mission but not part of the ludic puzzle logic, as the games provide their own essential narrative drive without requiring forensic fandom to parse out buried mysteries and ambiguities. Portal’s gameplay offers a type of puzzle logic that is bounded and tight, always requiring completion before advancing to the next level with singular, non-ambiguous answers. The mythological puzzles that Valve may have created in the game’s storyworld are fully optional, highly ambiguous, and ultimately not significant to the core ludic experience of the franchise. They are fun playgrounds for fan speculation, but enact a very different ludic experience from the games themselves; such playful excavation of the franchise’s storyworld can feed back into the core game for some players who play (or replay) the game for plot, discovering clues to the narrative puzzle more than solving the level’s physics puzzles and thus adding a layer of participatory engagement to the franchise. But they also potentially create frustrations for fans who want the definitive elegance of the game’s puzzle logic to carry over to its transmedia storytelling, instead of offering ambiguous mysteries with no clear payoff within the core game franchise.

So what do these dual case studies teach us about the intersection between storytelling and gameplay? This charts out an area of future research for me, but I’ve identified a few key points to develop further out of these case studies. They highlight a mode of ludic storytelling where playfulness is an important facet of narrative comprehension. They both demonstrate the lengths that fans will go to in the name of exploring the transmedia storyworlds of a beloved franchise, extending the time spent engaging with texts with forensic detail and ludic imagination. They also show the limits of attempting to play for plot, as the competing logics of gameplay and storytelling can fail to coalesce, especially when one mode is clearly privileged in the franchise’s mothership. Interestingly, either ambiguity or clarity can tied to each mode—for Lost, the television storytelling is more definitive and canonical than the transmedia play, while Portal’s puzzle logic seems more certain than the narrative ambiguities parsed out by transmedia fans. But despite each franchises’s limited success in merging the two modes, both highlight the intersection of storytelling and play as mutually reinforcing and potentially coordinated aspects of a transmedia franchise, often working in tandem to encourage fan engagement in a way that suggests the importance of thinking about narrative and gameplay as intertwined rather than competing impulses in media texts.

1 See Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place” (presented at the Level-Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht, 2003), for an influential take on this non-debate; Jan Simons, “Narrative, Games, and Theory,” Game Studies 7, no. 1 (August 2007), http://gamestudies.org/0701/articles/simons, and Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca, Understanding video games: the essential introduction (Taylor & Francis, 2008) offer a more recent discussion, while the First/Second/Third Person series of books edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin contain many conversations about these issues.

2 Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections,” Confessions of an Aca/Fan, August 1, 2011, http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html.

3 See Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010) for a useful discussion of paratexts.

4 For more on television’s narrative complexity and Lost, see Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40; and Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 119-38.

5 See Steven E. Jones, The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies (New York: Routledge, 2008), and Jason Mittell, “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia,” Transformative Works and Cultures 3 (Fall 2009), http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/118/117 for analyzes of Lost’s participatory strategies.

6 See Jason Mittell, “Lost in an Alternate Reality,” Flow, June 16, 2006, http://flowtv.org/2006/06/lost-in-an-alternate-reality/ for a discussion of playing The Lost Experience.

7 Markku Eskelinen, “The Gaming Situation,” Game Studies 1, no. 1 (July 2001), http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/eskelinen/.

8 The other main transmedia elements, particularly an ARG promoting Portal 2’s release are less story driven, as they create puzzles for players to solve in order to be rewarded with the early release of the game rather than narrative revelations. Thanks to Alex Leavitt for sharing his Portal transmedia expertise.



7 Responses to “Playing for Plot in the Lost and Portal Franchises”

  1. Thanks for sharing this paper, Jason.

    I understand and appreciate why you suggest Lost as a somewhat ludic example, not the least of which is the transmedia apparatus that was built around it, but I can’t help but feel that your other favorite, The Wire, would be a better example. As you know all too well by know, I don’t see Lost as playful nor as complex, but rather as a total disaster of jumbled stuff flying in different directions like shrapnel. Whereas The Wire is about connections that actually, well, make sense… This is also true of Portal: the narrative works (and by works, I also mean that it improves the experience) because the puzzles, the world, the characters, and the story couple to one another.

    But shows like The Wire are far less likely to spawn transmedia projects, even though they share the systemic properties of games. I wonder if the transmedia project, vis-a-vis games, is confused, mistaking playfulness as the coupling to narrative, rather than systems. Playfulness can remain, but it has to relate to the exploration of a coherent (!!!) and meaningful aspect of a system that is larger than the “mothership.” I don’t think any TV property has even tried to do this, let alone succeeded.

    • Ian – thanks for the comment. As (I think) you know, I wrote about The Wire in the context of gaming in the Third Person anthology, drawing upon your work on procedural rhetoric. I agree that the ludic elements in The Wire are more coherent in a way than for Lost, but also less playful – and certainly less transmedia. Arguably Heroes tried to do more of a systemic approach to transmedia, although it was less about a system than a pattern of similar superpowered people – but certainly coherence was not a strength there either!

      • Right, I think we’re saying the same thing from different perspectives.

        I’m suggesting that things are more playful when the systems that define them are self-consistent, and that Lost’s apparently greater playfulness is not really playfulness (the result of a further exploration of a common system), but just the encounter of more branded stuffs.

        I’m less familiar with the Heroes examples, so it’s hard for me to comment. I watched the first season of the show, but that was all, and I didn’t encounter any of the paratextual stuffs.

  2. By the way, I love this:

    …this dismissively pithy phrase captures much of what makes Portal such a compelling experience on both ludological and narrative terms: midway through this puzzle game, the ball starts telling a story.

  3. Hi Jason,

    Great essay – this kind of ludic storytelling is something I’ve really taken an interest in as well, especially from a design point of view. Television in particular I think has potential to leverage unique playfulness around narrative comprehension since fans can seek out transmedia content that helps create, test, and inform their hypotheses all while the primary text is still unfolding. It’s also the most challenging to sustain because of television’s “infinite model” logic that forces the plot to constantly be in flux and adapting.

    I wonder if it might be worth mentioning the fan video “Portal: No Escape” here. The live-action short film is notable because of its high production value and dark, gritty tone. Yet it is also reinforces the same ambiguity as the official narrative material. With nearly 7 million views and hundreds of comments hoping for a Portal film, it clearly demonstrates the fans’ desire for a quality narrative extension, but one that doesn’t explain too much and close down interpretations.

    Lastly, I wonder about the nature of the plot one is playing for. Some fans might be looking for clues to speculate about forthcoming events in the primary text while others are happy with supplemental insights that don’t play a major role in it. I’m thinking of the Lost mobisodes, which essentially filled in minor story gaps that didn’t need filling, compared to Find 815, which allowed players to discover the Christiane 1 before they saw it in the TV show. Both have their associated pitfalls as you discuss, but I think the best transmedia extensions help with those intertwined objectives – playing to extend the plot and playing to better predict it.

  4. Really nice work, Jason.


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