Friday, December 16, 2011

6-Star Reviews Part 20: Better Living Through Science and Ponies

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

Pen Stroke and Batty Gloom?  Now where have I heard of those two before... ah, never mind, it'll come to me.  In the meantime, feel free to peruse my review of their VERY long Portal crossover fic, Better Living Through Science and Ponies, tastefully stowed behind the break.

Impressions before reading:  As I mentioned in a previous review, I generally don't read crossover fics unless I'm already intimately familiar with the source material.  So I might as well come out and say it: I have never in my life played Portal or its sequel.  I sometimes think I may be the only person not in a retirement home who hasn't, but there you have it.  What can I say?  I don't play a lot of video games.

In fact, I don't really know much about the game at all.  Thanks to cultural osmosis, I know that "the cake is a lie."  Likewise, I've gathered that there's something called a "space cube" which is, appropriately enough, a talking cube that wants to go into space.  Other than that, all I really know about the game is that you use "portals," one-way wormholes if I understand correctly, to get from point A to point B.  Hopefully that's enough to get me through the fic.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Following the events of the second game, Chell is sucked through a dimensional vortex to Ponyville.  The bad news?  The entire Enrichment Center has come along with her, and now GLaDOS has been loosed upon an unsuspecting Equestria.

Thoughts after reading:  If I weren't planning to review this story, I'd have given up three pages in.  I made it through the first chapter with only the vaguest of ideas what was going on.  Such is the peril of trying to read this fic without already knowing who Chell, Wheatley, Caroline, or GLaDOS are.  After bulling my way through the first chapter, I gave up and read an online plot synopsis of the games, which cleared things up a bit.  But really; look at my summary.  Does that mean anything to anyone who doesn't already know who the characters are?  This is clearly not a story for people who aren't already familiar with the Portal games.

Once I had a firmer grasp on who was or wasn't a robot, what GLaDOS is and what it's doing, and how portals actually work, the going was a lot smoother for me.  A few game references/shoutouts I caught, a few more I knew were present but couldn't pinpoint (Wikipedia is only good for so much, after all: I may be able to recognize that a reference exists, but that doesn't mean I know what the reference is), and a fair number more I'm sure went completely over my head.  The whole reading experience was quite frustrating as a result, but with the information I'd gleaned it was manageable.

The ponies in this story are all excellent.  Being subject to GLaDOS's "psychological experiments" requires the authors to demonstrate a firm grip on those canon personalities, and they succeed brilliantly.  As for the Portal characters?  As far as I can tell, they're equally deftly written.  Very good characterization all around.

There are a few technical errors scattered throughout, mostly homonym mistakes (hold for holed, for example) and missing words, but given the size of the fic, the number of problems is small.  Editing-wise, I'd put this fic in the "enough problems to be mildly annoying, but not so many that it really detracts from reading" catagory.  The writing and word use are perfectly serviceable, if occasionally blase.  All in all, the technical aspects of the story are good, but not great.

The plot is thin, providing just enough impetus to keep the action moving.  Basically, the idea seems to have been, "Let's combine ponies and portals, and see what happens!"  Not that there's anything wrong with that, I hasten to add.  In this case, that sort of open attitude allows the narrative to jump from pony to pony, and to freely alternate between advancing what plot there is, highlighting elements from game play (but with ponies!), or just taking advantage of the chance for humorous asides.

The only real failure among these for me were the actual portal levels.  Once more let me state that I think people who've played the games would enjoy them a lot more than I did, but reading a description of a video game level is about as exciting as it sounds.  Okay, it's a little more exciting than that when Pinkie Pie's involved, but I'm still not any more interested in hearing about Portal gameplay than I am in hearing my friend's son tell me about the "epic" Pokemon he just caught.

A final observation: prior to reading this fic, I'd never heard of Chell.  The story assumes its readers have played Portal and its sequel, and thus assumes that they've spent a lot of time being Chell.  Naturally, that's going to create a lot of empathy for her character, empathy which I don't share.  I suspect that certain aspects of the story, especially the ending, are going to resonate much more strongly with these people than with me.

And an extra note (which is different from a final observation, so it's totally okay to have both of them in one review.  Honest): there is an additional "bonus" chapter, edited by Pen Stroke and Batty Gloom but written by Joe England.  It fits in with the main story and is extremely funny.  If you're going to read the story, I (and all of the involved authors) recommend reading it as well, in between chapters four and five.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

To me, a 6-star fanfic should at least moderately accessible.  After all, we're talking about the best of the best here, right?  It should have broad appeal within the fanbase, enough to make folks look past the tags and appreciate the story on its own merits.

This story fails on that count.  It appeals only to one subset of the fan community.  And while I am the first to admit that "people who have played Portal" isn't exactly an insignificant segment of the population, this fic still leaves all other readers out in the cold.

Recommendation:  I think I've made it pretty clear, but I'll say it one more time.  If you've played Portal and its sequel, you'll probably find a lot to enjoy in this story.  Just make sure you have a few hours to spare--it's the longest fic I've reviewed to date (What will I do when I finally get to Fallout: Equestria?).  But if you haven't played the games, don't bother.  This is a crossover story that doesn't make any allowances for lack of familiarity with source material.

Next time:  Jack and Ponies, by Moabite


  1. Considering Portal's Chell is a mute blank-slate character ala' Half-Life's Gordon Freeman, I'm not sure how much initial empathy can be mustered.

  2. Regardless of whether or not you're a person who plays games, I really have to recommend giving Portal a go. It's one of the greatest works the medium's ever produced.

    Sadly, I think you missed the brief window of time when the game was free-to-play.

    As for the story... I read it a while ago, and quite enjoyed it. I can see why it wouldn't be particularly interesting to someone unfamiliar with the source material. But I suppose these kinds of crossovers have their place.

    I always felt, however, that story had a certain air of pointlessness to it. As you said, it was a case of "let's stick ponies and Portal stuff together and see what happens". It was a fun little romp, but not one that stayed with me after I'd finished reading it.

    I'm afraid that's the feeling a lot of PS and BG's stories give me. No offense to them, but I sometimes get the feeling they write for the community rather than for themselves. That's a noble goal and all, but their fics feel a little too much like calculated products sometimes.

  3. To add to what anonymous said, if you're not much for playing games, try watching a walkthrough. You can still get the story and character interactions that way, while skipping large chunks of gameplay, if that's not your thing. :) It really is a good game; at the very least, it's an internet cultural phenomenon, which makes it worth knowing.

  4. Regarding trying to watch a walkthrough, skipping the gameplay is tricky, as many of GLADOS's lines are mid-gameplay. Someone who has played could find them, but it would be tough. You'd need to watch almost everything. Watching 15 or so hours of a video game being played by a stranger doesn't seem like a good investment to be able to appreciate jokes about making lemons into grenades.

    Of course, if one does play video games, you owe it to yourself to play both Portal games. They are well respected for a reason.

    Anyway, on to the story:

    If you're not reasonably familiar with Portal (I'll assume everyone here is a fan of MLP:FIM and fan fiction :-), this is a decided maybe. Chris's review seems entirely fair to me on this point.

    If you like Portal, I recommend this story. The portrayal of GLADOS was solid. The portrayal of the ponies was also well done. Everyone behaves within character, given the circumstances. Some (especially Pinkie Pie) are fun all by themselves. I might quibble about some of GLADOS's lines, but nothing big. The justification for mixing the two universes is a little silly, but works fine. Oh, and I recommend the fan-addition; it simultaneously is entertaining on its own and explains a big plot hole: why doesn't Celestia just kick ass?

    The portrayal of Chell is more complicated. It's not canon that Chell is physically or psychologically unable to speak. Indeed, one of the writers has said he thinks (but admits it's not canon) that Chell simply refuses to speak to GLADOS. That what I imagined, so for the author to pick a different route is problematic. But, I see why the author made the decision. Chell is noteworthy for never having spoken, something you'll need to explain if she spends significant time with friendly people. I found the (implied) reason for her muteness plausible in the context. Given that, I liked Chell in context. She felt like the person I had shared two games worth of experience with: tired, determined, and hardened but not inhuman. (Inpony?)

  5. Is it bad form for every comment on this blog to be addressing the one before it moreso than the blog itself?

    I'm not sure that's a fair assessment of Chell. At the beginning of Portal 2, Wheatley explained to her that "you might have a minor case of serious brain damage" and then asked her if she could speak. The game then tells you to press the button normally affiliated with "jump" to speak. Chell jumps. A second attempt fares no better. That she simply refuses to talk to GLaDOS would make sense through the first game (before the brain damage would have occured anyway), but not five minutes into the second. Indeed, it would have averted a lot of risk to her own life if it had been Chell who attempted to shut Wheatley down with a paradox instead of GLaDOS.

    I am, of course, totally going to have to read Better Living Through Science and Ponies myself, now. ^_^

  6. I'll be honest: I only remember this fic because it supposedly referenced one of my own stories...and to be a little more honest, I pretty much swore off trying to read anything by these guys after having to force myself to finish Chapter 1 of Past Sins just for the sake of giving it a fair shot. Seeing as the Portal series rivals Sly Cooper, Halo, and The Elder Scrolls for my own personal award of "Best Video Games Ever Of All Time", though, I might have to go ahead and just give this a look-see.