The mere fact that Portal had some fantastic puzzles in it isn’t what turned it into the classic game that it is regarded as today. The truth is, Portal changed things. It changed the way we looked at the first-person camera. It changed the way we thought about NPCs. It combined cutting humor with the threat of death. It offered a reality that couldn’t really be properly expressed in words. You had to experience Portal to get what it was about, what it felt like to play it. It became an exemplar; this two hour experience became an emblem of what gaming could be.
It’s no wonder that someone would want to be behind the next “Portal”. And who better than Kim Swift, designer and engineer on both Portal games, to be that someone?
In many ways, Quantum Conundrum is the “next Portal”. Unfortunately, most of the ways in which it achieves such a distinction is by so obviously evoking its spiritual predecessor as to be almost uncomfortable for the player.
Most obviously, Quantum Conundrum is a puzzle game played in the first-person view. It involves moving from room to room solving puzzles using technology that could only be found in a video game. It features a snarky narrator who somehow manages to guide you along and insult you at the same time. And its puzzles go from infuriating to obvious in an instant. There are no promises of cake,and there is no sentient machinery, but just about everything that made Portal so memorable is here in some form or another.
In Quantum Conundrum, you’re just a kid visiting his eccentric uncle (unlike Portal, you never get a glimpse of yourself, which is probably for the best given that it would be jarring in a game like this watching a kid get killed all the time). That uncle has trapped himself in another dimension, but fortunately he’s left a fancy glove around the house that allows its wearer to jump into four separate dimensions, all nearly identical to our own familiar dimension, all of which change the characteristics of objects other than the wearer of the glove in some very specific, often useful way. In one dimension, everything gets lighter, which is helpful when you need to pick up a heavy safe. In another dimension, things get heavier, helpful when you want to break a pane of glass with a cardboard box. A third dimension slows down time, and a fourth reverses gravity. You can only be in one of the five available dimensions at any given time, but combining them can allow for near endlessly intriguing possibilities.
While your uncle narrates and insults you (“Congratulations, you have succeeded at being redundant,” he chides as you try to operate a lever a second time), you make your way through his mansion. That mansion is a creaky, windy thing overflowing with some inexplicable liquid he calls “science juice”, the apparent power source for the house’s many contraptions. It is not really beholden to any true sense of architecture; mostly, the areas between rooms serve as de facto “elevators”, in which the next true puzzle gets a chance to load.
This is all well and good, but it doesn’t change anything. It feels like someone said, “I have an idea for a puzzle game”, and then used Portal as the model that it was based on. This makes for a fun, enjoyable game, but also an ephemeral one. It’s fun while it’s happening, but nothing about it makes you want to shout to the heavens and proclaim its existence.
In fact, even taking away the idea that in order to live up to Portal it must revolutionize gaming as we know it, Quantum Conundrum comes off as an inferior cousin. In a way, even coming in at a solid eight hours of gameplay, for a budget-priced game, it feels as though it’s over too quickly, as if the entire game is an extended tutorial. This is because each “wing” of the house is really a two-hour segment that introduces one of the glove’s dimensional shifts and then puts that power through the motions. Right about when you feel as though you have mastered the use of a given dimension, it’s on to the next one. Once you’ve mastered all of them, you’re a very quick series of puzzles away from the end.
Perhaps this points to a game whose best days are ahead of it. More than perhaps any game in recent memory, Quantum Conundrum is the sort of game that is utterly tailor-made for DLC. Part of this is thanks to the odd, abrupt ending that could well point to the potential for puzzles that happen outside of the mansion setting, and part of this is due to the fact that in terms of puzzles it felt as though we were just getting to the good stuff. Open-ended puzzles that use all four dimensional shifts in new ways, staircases made out of whatever we can find around the house, a story based around the little critter named Ike that wanders around providing the power sources for many of the dimensional shifts… the most maddening thing about Quantum Conundrum is the number of possibilities that go unrealized, things that could certainly be addressed with the right sort of DLC.
Maybe that’s what they were going for, honestly. There’s a solid business plan in there.
To be sure, Quantum Conundrum is quite the enjoyable experience while it’s happening. It’s very difficult to put down, and when the solutions to its puzzles aren’t obvious, it’s the sort of thing that you’ll think about even after you’ve shut down your machine. If DLC helps it to realize its potential, it may well be remembered as every bit of the classic that Portal is. For now, however, it’s coasting on that potential, and despite the high level of entertainment that it offers in the moment, it is a frustratingly unsatisfying experience.