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Portal Lead Designer Kim Swift’s New Game Quantum Conundrum Is, Yes, Amazing


Gather ‘round, girls and boys, and hearken to the tale of Kim Swift. Once upon a time, when she was but a college student, Swift co-created a little puzzle game called Narbacular Drop. The game was later brought to the attention of Gabe Newell, the head honcho of Valve. Newell hired the game’s entire development team, and Swift became a project lead on a new puzzle game, based heavily on Narbacular Drop’s mechanics. The game was called Portal. You may have heard of it. In 2008, Swift (in conjunction with writer Erik Wolpaw, whom we have to thank for GLaDOS’ now-iconic dialogue) took home two Game Developers Choice Awards for Innovation and Game of the Year. Halfway through development of Portal 2, Swift left Valve for indie developer Airtight Games, simply because she wanted to do something new. That something new is a first-person puzzle adventure called Quantum Conundrum, released last week on Steam, and coming to Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network in July.

I was excited for this game the moment I heard that Swift had designed it, but within an hour of playing, the game had exceeded my expectations. I was grinning through every level (okay, there were a few bouts of loud swearing, too, but come on, it’s a puzzle game). Sometimes I laughed aloud at a puzzle’s solution, just because it was so damn clever. To help you determine if Quantum Conundrum is for you, let me ask a simple question: Do you like having fun?

If you answered yes, play this game.

You assume the role of a nameless young boy, unceremoniously dropped off at your uncle’s manor for an unscheduled visit. Your uncle is the eccentric scientist Fitz Quadwrangle (voiced by the inimitable John de Lancie, better known to us mere mortals as Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation), who is in the middle of an undefined experiment as you arrive. As one might expect, the experiment goes terribly wrong, knocking out the power generators, sending your uncle to an undisclosed dimensional pocket, and wiping his memory of what he was trying to do in the first place. It’s up to you to venture through Quadwrangle’s insane laboratory of a house in order to bring the power back on and get your uncle back. The manor is in a state of severe disarray, and the re-purposed rooms full of conveyor belts, flooding pipes, and object-cloning robots are hardly an ideal place for a child. Luckily, you find your uncle’s Inter-Dimensional Shift glove, which gives you the power to swap between four alternate dimensions, each with slightly tweaked laws of physics. With the glove, you can slow time, reverse the pull of gravity, and make objects heavier or lighter — but you can only use one dimension’s effects at a time. Your success depends on your ability to use the right combination of dimensions for the job, in conjunction with jumping, throwing, running, floating, and launching your way through some devilishly tricky dangers.

Quantum Conundrum achieves a perfect balance of keeping the player consistently challenged without pushing you over the brink into discontented frustration. The puzzles are difficult, no doubt, but they are presented in a manner that encourages you to experiment and explore. There are many circumstances in which the only way through a puzzle is to simply sit back and let yourself think. Unless there are lasers. Then you should probably keep moving.

It’s hard to talk about Quantum Conundrum without bringing up its big sister, but trust me — this game ain’t Portal. If you’re an Aperture Laboratories veteran, you’ll recognize the origins of some of the mechanics. But Swift and her team have created something that can truly stand on its own. Portal’s creativity and uniqueness rocked the status quo, but Quantum Conundrum is a worthy successor. It draws from similar base concepts, but it’s easy to see the evolution in design, the willingness to shape old ideas into something new. The biggest similarity to Portal that I found came not from the mechanics, but from the way I felt while playing. Remember the childlike wonder you experienced the first time you figured out how to use portals to increase momentum? That’s the same feeling I had a few days ago, when I realized that if I lightened the weight of a huge metal safe, I could pick it up and throw it across a gap, then slow its fall just enough to allow me to use it as a stepping stone. Pure magic.

And in case you think that the whole “science gone wrong” motif sounds awfully familiar, believe me when I say that this is a horse of a different color. Where Portal was a decaying, darkly comic world in which everyone had gone a little mad, Quantum Conundrum is a Saturday morning cartoon about kooky relatives, flying furniture, and the spirit of adventure. It’s silly. It’s goofy. It’s punny. Oh god, is it punny. Scattered throughout the manor’s numerous bookshelves are works of classic literature crossed with shameless math and science jokes. The Man in the Fe60 Mask. The (0,0,0) of the Species. Henry^8. This is a game best enjoyed by nerds (and I am one hundred percent on board with that).

The story is a little thin, but that’s okay. The mechanics of the game would be delightful on their own, so even though Quadwrangle and his fuzzy, interdimensional companion Ike aren’t the most memorable characters I’ve encountered, their presence adds charm to an already enticing playground. The environmental artwork can get repetitive at times, but given Quadwrangle’s wry comment on how all the hallways are starting to look the same to him, it’s pretty clear that the devs were rightly focusing their attention elsewhere. After all, this is a game made by a small indie studio in less than a year. Considering how excellent Quantum Conundrum is in all other respects, I think we can forgive them a few copy-paste corridors and a lightweight story. The only problem that I had with the game was the abrupt ending, which happened just as I felt I was hitting my stride. I really wish that there were more puzzles to…oh, what’s that? There are additional DLC packs on the way? Shut up and take my money.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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