Escape a scientific madhouse and its psychopathic administrator.
PC Release: October 9, 2007
By Ian Coppock
It’s been a long time since we’ve had some decent puzzlers come out. The modern gaming scene seems to be embracing a model of “incinerate as much alien genitalia with as little interaction as possible” modus operandi, further staying my decision to throw my hat into the “current-gen” ring. Nope, I’ve been staying in my cushy realm of new mainstream and indie PC titles with occasional reaching back into what Wikipedia has called the seventh generation of video gaming. Now that we’re on a once-a-week schedule, I have more time to think about what games like Portal achieved and why they’re so goddamn important. Plus, this game has cake. Never turn down cake. Unless it’s a urinal cake.
Portal rather spontaneously appeared from Valve’s all-mysterious inner workings as a component of the Orange Box anthology. The centerpiece of that five-game collection was Half-Life 2: Episode Two, but this quirky puzzler ended up stealing the spotlight and creating a series that only Half-Life can outmatch in terms of endearment.
Portal is a first-person puzzle game starring Chell, a silent female test subject cooped up in a squeaky clean laboratory called Aperture Science. As explained by GlaDOS, the facility’s robotic administrator, your goal is to navigate a series of puzzle chambers using portals. These inter-dimensional gateways are linked, allowing the player to step through one doorway and out of another, even if it’s through a ceiling or out the window.
The plot of this game is simple but not simplistic. GlaDOS has promised you your freedom if you can solve all 19 test chambers using your handy-dandy portal gun. GlaDOS is one of the most infamous characters in all gaming history, a seemingly benign robot whose loudspeaker announcements become more ominous, confusing and hilarious in equal measure as the game progresses.
The writing in Portal is spectacular, something that one might expect to hear in a Coen brothers film. Though not physically seen until much later in the game, GlaDOS adds some flavor and witticism to this stark laboratory with her insufferable self-importance and her dedication to Aperture Science’s obnoxious rules and regulations. You’ll be told that the gun you’re wielding has been known to melt both teeth enamel and teeth, and that if you fall into an abyss, you’ll receive a failure mark on your testing record… oh and also death. It’s some of the funniest video game dialogue I’ve ever heard and easily the most quoted.
Valve’s high-quality character writing and acidic humor make for quite the pairing with the laboratories of Aperture Science, a cake-and-ice cream medley of competent game design. Which is an apt comparison, because the frequency with which GlaDOS promises you cake and grief counseling is outstripped only by the number of portals you’ll be firing up, down, and throughout the test chambers. Each puzzle is a self-contained environment comprising a stark-white room and numerous puzzle pieces. Some puzzles will take no time at all, and others, all the time in the world.
Even at the height of my concentration, I could never shake the stark, spooky atmosphere that Portal presents. Throughout the game, you can never quite abandon the sense that something has gone terribly wrong in the laboratories. Things start out spick and span at the beginning, but between GlaDOS’s ominous broadcasts and a few clues you start to find later on in the game, you get a sense of the mystery blanketing Portal. It’s an effective mechanic rooted in Valve’s classic show-don’t-tell method of game design, and a soundtrack of eerie layered synths.
Mechanically, Portal checks out in virtually all areas. Chell is capable of basic physical movement, and as the game progresses your portal gun will get more powerful. You can shoot up to two interlinked portals but may occasionally be forced to work with a preset portal already in the puzzle.
You’ll have to use these portals to solve any number of puzzles. Sometimes you’ll have to fly through one and out of the other and use momentum to soar out of the puzzle, or transport blocks onto switches. You’ll be able to shoot portals onto some surfaces and not onto others. You’ll also have to dodge acid pits, robotic turrets and other dangers. Even the turrets speak, and speak funnily.
Graphically, Portal is fine. I’m not sure there’s really an emptier discussion to be had than graphics; there’s a certain level where graphics are just fine to me and I can roll with it. I think the important question here is not whether the visual quality is simply “good”, but whether it accomplishes what the game sets out to do.
The visuals espouse spartan clarity and minimalist design. Wide rooms and blank chambers, twisted into science fun-houses by Valve’s masterful game design. The visuals take a minimalist approach that meshes perfectly with the game’s dark humor, deep atmosphere, and twisted yet fun puzzles. I suppose it’s all a perfect match because it all promotes the same feeling: you’re alone, you’re resourceful, and you’ve got to get out of here.
So now we come to the question of why I believe Portal is so goddamned important. It’s important because it proves that you don’t need super-crisp visuals, an intense plot and constant, unrepentant action to create a competent video game. Valve took a single spoken character, a basic environmental palette, and a simple physics mechanic, and what they created was one of the greatest puzzle games of all time.
Aside from occasional frustrations with the game’s ball-of-light puzzles, I really don’t have anything negative to say about this game. Ridiculous, I know, but then again, all of the elements of this game operate in perfect synch. The black humor writing, GlaDOS’s monotonous voice, the challenging, engaging puzzle play and the bright visuals of Aperture Science. It comes together to produce a work of art that is magnanimous in its simplicity, despite its simplicity.
I pretty much just asked this game to marry me, so please interpret that as a full recommendation. Portal is available via disc form in The Orange Box, or, if you’re feeling particularly awesome, digital download via Valve’s Steam service. Cash in an hour of your time in exchange for a funny, well-designed puzzle game with endless replayability and quotability.
You can buy Portal here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.