Portal

I thought my Skyrim review took me a long time to write – this one took me even longer!

Portal (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])

Released Oct 2007 | Developed / Published: Valve

Genre: Puzzle

Wow, where do I even start with Portal?. It is, without a shadow of a doubt or the faintest glimmer of hyperbole, one of the most well-known and beloved games of all time. I can certainly remember the point when it came out and from nowhere utterly exploded into popularity thanks to its excellent combination of memetic silliness, fiercely sharp writing, and a frenetic approach to physics-based puzzle-platforming which gave players space to experiment and find all kinds of exciting ways to break the game. Back in the late aughts and early new tens Portal was ubiquitous, and remained a staple of internet obsession for literally years. That feels almost unthinkable in the current lightning-fast era of the internet in which it’s impressive if a game remains talked about and relevant for more than a few months, and the idea of something carrying as much cultural capital as Portal did seems impossible. In fact, in my head it’s still an internet darling, even though we now live in an age, nearly 15 years on from its release at the time of writing, where it’s feasible that many folk haven’t heard of it, let alone played it. 

Gaming is locked in a never-ending struggle for greater graphical fidelity and finding new ways to monetize every second of our screentime. Each new AAA release seems to exult in the same formulaic ideas that sell well but the development and publishing process have made sure to extract as much personality and charm from many of them before putting their game onto shelves and storefronts. Who even has the time or inclination to care or even give a sideways glance to some ancient game that lurks in a corner of Steam, despite the adoration that remains on its page? It’s a scenario which genuinely boggles my mind. It’s the historic love and weight of Portal that made me put this review back time and time again; every time I sat down with it I kept asking myself, “what’s the point? It’s Portal, everyone knows it’s good.” But it’s that very attitude which made me sit down and remind myself about the purpose of the blog, and for whom I write. The answer is, as always, that I write for me. I consider myself very blessed that some folk do check out these inane scribblings, but if you can’t sit back and self-indulgently read back what you wrote and enjoy it, what’s the point? Even if 100% of the gaming world had played Portal there would still be some value in my writing about it, if only to add a voice to the screaming noise of praise. As it is though, we’ve finally reached a point in Portal’s lifespan where it’s so old it’s retro, and an entire generation of people have reached the age I was when Portal came out and took the internet by storm. So, let’s revisit it, shall we, and sink blissfully into one of the best games ever made.

The opening of Portal remains seared into my mind. You wake in an unknown cell, lit by glaring light and surrounded by clean, crisp white walls, like a hellish Apple store-turned-prison. A tinny, muzak tune jingles happily away to itself, its MIDI trumpets blaring out from a tiny radio. A digital countdown ticks away above what must be the sealed door to your cell. There’s nothing to do but wait. As you gather yourself, a tinny automated voice rings out from speakers, welcoming you to the Aperture Science testing facilities. The mood however is set beautifully as midway through the speech a power fluctuation causes the voice to malfunction briefly before it exclaims “I’m back!” and the game resumes as if nothing had happened. We’re a human guinea pig then, and so we’re funnelled down through blank white and steel grey corridors into the various testing chambers of Aperture Science.

Portal’s greatest strength is its writing. There’s a strong sense of foreboding that follows you through the campaign. Like a pall slowly descending and smothering you, the eerie sense of wrongness is all-encompassing, and it’s only made more and more apparent the further through the test chambers we go. Our only constant companion is the automated voice, GlaDOS, the computerized operator of the facility. At first her demented faux-cheeriness is charming, particularly as she chirps about the threat of imminent death in each chamber, but before too long it gives way to a thinly veiled scorn and a morbid fascination in your progress. It’s all underpinned by a bleak, deadpan sense of humour which works to make Portal one of the most compelling games of its generation as you can’t help but hang around and mess about to see what it might provoke from GlaDOS. 

Portal is also a masterclass in hidden and environmental storytelling. Obviously the plain white walls of Aperture recall the imagery of Apple taken to an absolute extreme; it takes a manic sense of corporate amorality, after all, to construct a facility and an operator like this one and GlaDOS respectively, but the further you progress the more you begin to wonder who exactly is in control. It’s easy to believe a company might greenlight the kind of basic human testing that the early rooms showcase, but as the puzzles become more deadly and the clean lab-white aesthetic gives way to pools of toxic waste and the dingy orange and rust of the behind-the-scenes areas becomes more visible, you have to question just who is in charge of the testing design. Your mind tricks you into seeing muddied and hazy shapes in the observation gantries, but the deeper into the facility you go, the more you begin to suspect that perhaps the world consists only of you and your computerized tormentor. Squeezing through torn panels, you can find foxholes covered in raving scribbles which tell the story of a previous occupant, and even the wheedling compliments and complaints from the voice-equipped sentry turrets give us a glimpse into the deranged ideas of the facility designer.  It’s perfectly possible to enjoy Portal on a purely mechanical level, but it’s once you pay attention to the uncanny weirdness of the world you’re in that the game truly comes alive. 

Of course it’s easy to become lost in the mechanics of Portal. It begins with very simple puzzles, such as placing boxes on the right switch to open a door, but before too long we’re introduced to the big selling gimmick of the game: the portal gun. This unassuming little device is the thing which utterly blows this game wide open and, along with the incredible writing, is part of why Portal was such a gaming darling for so long. The knack about it is in the name: it’s a gun which shoots portals. It’s deceptively simple; the gun can shoot two portals at a time, one blue and one orange, each of which is connected to the other. Whatever you take with you through the portal naturally comes with you. At its most basic, that’s solving puzzles which involve grabbing a box from one end of a room and portaling over to a switch on the opposite end, or even using a portal to drop a box onto a switch. However, the real wonder comes once you understand that momentum is also conserved as you move between portals; in short, as the game puts it, “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” Perhaps this doesn’t wow you as much as it does me, but I’m certain I can’t recall ever seeing anything quite like it in games before Portal. Regardless of your opinion on video game physics, once you have access to the portal gun, the game comes alive as the puzzles become more complex but in turn you suddenly have access to the kind of device that would break a lesser game completely. While some folk out there can do incredible, crazy stuff with the portal gun, even to an average person like me the gun opens up some brilliant outside-the-box thinking, and it’s one of the most creatively rewarding puzzle-solving experiences out there as a result. 

You might, not unfairly, question the mileage one can get out of the portal gun though, in terms of game design. Once you get your head around the concept of thinking with portals, and master the conservation of momentum to send yourself hurtling around the testing areas, you definitely would be fair in asking what else has the game got to offer? There are some slight variations as you move through the campaign, such as hazards including turrets, and the introduction of surfaces which cannot sustain portals, requiring more specific solutions, but it’s to the game’s credit that it keeps things relatively simple. Just as importantly though is that Portal is also relatively short. Portal’s campaign takes only about 3 hours to beat, and frankly that’s a perfect length for it. From a gameplay perspective it means that Portal is very well-paced, giving you just enough time to enjoy the mechanics but ending before any of them outstay their welcome, but it’s also time enough to appreciate the dark humour and excellent writing without it becoming grating. 

In case you’ve not worked it out yet (understandable given how incredibly subtle I’ve been), I am completely in agreement with the consensus on Portal. I’ve played it countless times over the years on multiple formats, and it never ceases to be an engaging, funny, brilliant game. I know that the odds are that most people who read this will probably already be aware of and have played Portal, but as I said in my opening spiel, we’re approaching the 15th anniversary of it. If you’ve not played it, you owe it to yourself to do so, and if it’s been a while, maybe blow off the digital dust, fire it up on Steam, and give it another whirl, and let’s pretend we’re back when the Internet was fun. 

7/7 – TOP TIER. 

As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.

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