March 5, 2010
Innovating the Medium for Transmedia: The Case Study of Valve's "Portal"

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A sequel to the smash hit PC video game, Portal, is coming in 2010. Portal, produced by Valve, was released in 2007 in The Orange Box, for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. The unique gameplay and interaction with the game's environment brought Portal to immediate popularity among gaming communities.

Over the past week or so, Valve took an interesting transmedial approach to announce Portal 2.

Using transmedia for advertising is probably the most common approach toward integrating a narrative into different story arcs across multiple mediums. However, Valve took an original approach toward the medium on which to advertise.

On 1 March 2010, the PC version of Portal updated with a patch note stating, "Changed radio transmission frequency to comply with federal and state spectrum management regulations." The update included the addition of seventeen minutes of new audio files. Destructiod reports that "Some people on the Valve forums ran the audio files through an SSTV program, and got some REALLY interesting results," some of which translated to Morse code, while others translated to actual images (such as the one above).

The hunt to figure out these mysterious clues prompted a thread in the Valve forums entitled Mysterious Portal Updates - Main Discussion Thread, which generated over 10,000 replies and over 2 million page views to this one thread alone.

In a second update, a new ending was added to the original game, displayed in the video below:

That Valve decided to fashion a short story between Portal 1 and Portal 2 by creating a transmedia experience (via alternate reality gaming) through an insignificant feature like a system update was obviously creative and smart. That a narrative might be enhanced through the essence of a computerized update because it fits into the themes and storyline of Portal is that much more astute. The ultimate benefit of Valve's miniature experiment is the production of fan engagement at low cost and effort (especially when the system update might ultimately have been necessary anyway).

The other interesting facet of this tiny transmedia narrative addition is its length: the hunt barely lasted a week, unlike most of the alternate reality games we've seen for films and television, such as The Dark Knight.

But after a term of engagement that pushed Portal fans to the edge of their seats, Portal 2 is now on its way to release later this year.

If you're aware of any other novel mediums used in transmedia initiatives, link them in the comments or reply to me @alexleavitt.