Magnetic: Cage Closed

What we have here is a really obvious Portal imitation. No surprise there; that’s what I wanted. That’s why it was on my wishlist. The novel puzzle-solving gun in this instance is a magnet gun, which isn’t even all that novel: it’s a lot like the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, except that in addition to pushing and pulling objects, it can also propel the player by pulling or pushing against specially-marked walls, ceilings, and floors. With this, you go through series of contrived puzzle rooms while a voice over the PA system taunts you, just as in Portal. At one point, there’s an earthquake or something and you escape beyond the walls of the puzzle rooms for a while, and it reminded me so much of similar sequences in Portal 2.

In fact, it’s so much a Portal wannabe that I think it’s more interesting to note the differences than the similarities. Chiefly, where Portal was set in what was ostensibly a laboratory or “testing facility”, Magnetic drops all pretense that the setting is anything other than a prison. It’s a prison that’s currently being used for testing experimental magnet guns, but you get enough backstory over the course of the game to know that the test chambers are older than this project, that the prison has been sending prisoners into death-traps with a cruel promise of freedom for some time.

Now, the backstory is sparse. You never really learn a lot about the prison, or why you’re there, or the conditions that produced it. There’s a mention of a war, but this is never elaborated on. What you do know is that you’re the captive of a sadistic warden who trash-talks you to the point of monotony, but who is in some ways constrained by Karen, the prison psychologist, who’s a potential ally.

Unlike Portal‘s single through-path, the first chapter of Magnetic, before the earthquake, is spent in a repeated routine. You go from your cell into a transport that takes you to the test chambers, you solve some puzzles, you return your magnet gun and get a little talk and a sort of test choice from Karen, and then you get transported back to your cell (making it easy to decide to take a break from playing). One of the choices is just a quiz to see how well you remember the preceding test chamber. Another is a moral choice: another prisoner is described to you, along with her crimes, and you get to choose whether she should be executed or sent to the test chambers like you. I suppose the implication is that you were picked for testing the same way. What effect do these choices have? I don’t know. The game has nine endings, but the final level gives you a choice of only three paths, so earlier choices must figure in somehow.

Karen describes those three paths somewhat oracularly as the one that gives you a chance of revenge against your captors, the one that gives the most direct path out but which comes at a price, and the one that gives you the greatest chance of happiness. I chose the latter, and got a pretty straightforward escape ending as a result. The save system makes it inconvenient to go back and change your mind, so I don’t think I’ll be doing that soon. But I assume that not all of the endings are good. If you choose death for your fellow prisoner, does your guardian angel decide you’re not worth saving?

I suppose the whole thing is kind of gnostic, with its wise woman offering liberation from the angry demiurge. In which case, what are we to make of the fact that, after escaping the confines of the chambers in chapter 2, you have to go back inside to finish the story and the game? I guess it could be representative of a mystical experience, a temporary look at reality from outside, after which you return to your life with new knowledge — specifically, the knowledge that the test chambers and transports are suspended in a seemingly limitless void. Portal 2 did something similar, but it feels a little different in a prison setting than in a mad-science complex, where phantasmagoria is more expected. Although the very existence of test chambers means we’re already pretty far from the realms of the real in both cases.

Anyway, the puzzles were mostly pretty satisfying, apart from the ones requiring difficult platforming. There was one towards the end where you have to pull yourself up to a magnet on the ceiling in order to be able to aim downwards at another magnet to repel yourself across a gap, and the act of switching between facing-up-and-pulling and facing-down-and-pushing fast enough for it to work was difficult enough that I’d think there had to be another solution, if I hadn’t spent so much time looking for one.