Entry 18: Portal

This was a triumph! I’m making a note here: huge success! It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction!

Portal, little more than a Valve prototype game, quickly became a runaway success, not to mention the origin of numerous internet catchphrases and memes (the cake is a lie!). GlaDOS, the game’s antagonist, has been named the villain of the decade and even best game villain of all time by various publications. With Portal 2’s launch right around the corner, I decided to revisit the original game and play it straight though.

Built using the Source engine that was originally designed for Valve’s Half-Life 2, Portal’s first success is in demonstrating that the first person point of view can be successfully utilized for other gameplay interactions than mercilessly mowing down hordes of enemies; IGN has referred to Portal 2 as “the un-Call of Duty” and I would definitely agree. At first glance, Portal uses the first person perspective to present the player with a series of increasingly complicated spatial puzzles. This is the game’s primary interaction, and in many ways it can feel like a puzzle rather than a game as there is usually only a single correct solution to get through an area. Still, the puzzles become increasingly clever and there is much satisfaction to be had from overcoming obstacles that become more and more complex with a limited number of tools; later on, accuracy and quickness with the Portal gun become more important as well. Though it can be argued that the 3D Realms-developed “Prey” featured similar portals as part of its level design, they were seldom player controlled and never to the degree found in Portal. This gameplay felt fresh and along with Portal’s brevity, it would have been a fine experience all on its own.

What really pushed Portal past “fun experiment” and into “instant classic” was the atmosphere and narrative woven into the game.  Utilizing only the distant voice of GlaDOS and a handful of robot turrets, along with the frantically scrawled graffiti of previous inhabitant of the facility, Portal creates an atmosphere of desolation, madness, and magnificently black humor. The narrative is entirely linear, but few will argue with its effectiveness as a backdrop for the player’s mad escape from the Aperture lab; it’s hard to argue with the lack of interactivity of the writing when the writing is that good.

Part puzzle, part first person shooter, part interactive story, somewhere along the line Portal becomes something greater than the sum of its parts to become an experience that most who have played it instantly come to treasure. I don’t know if the experience will be sustainable through an extended sequel, but I’ll be sure to find out very soon when Portal 2 arrives.

One thing is for sure: it’s nice to occasionally get an “un”Call of Duty, and fantastic to see a company as large and influential as Valve thinking outside the box; it’s even more satisfying to know that the gamble paid off in spades.


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