Last night I finally found some time to play it, and the game kept me up to 1:00am. It’s a wonderfully-crafted little short story of a game. If Samuel Beckett was a game designer, he might have made Portal.
The setting is a sparse, clinical testing facility evocative of THX 1138. You are only accompanied by the friendly voice of GLaDOS, a psychotic computer with a love of euphemisms. She guides you through 19 tests of increasing complexity. This all sounds pretty ordinary, and though all the details–the level design, the voice acting, the physics–are fantastic.
The first big difference between Portal and other games is that you have no real weapons. Though, of course, the only person to kill is yourself. You do have the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, which is the key to Portal’s extraordinary gameplay. From a review:
At heart, it’s a puzzle game built around the “portal” mechanic, which lets you blast a pair of holes onto any two surfaces and teleport between them–for example, to get across a room, or drop on top of a high platform, or blip around an insurmountable barrier. Portal adds this to the standard repertoire of sliding platforms, tripable switches, and near the end, robotic gun turrets that whisper playfully, “I see you!” (When you knock one down, it adds, “I don’t blame you.”)
To borrow a term from Douglas Adams, the result is mind-buggering. When I first saw the trailer, I thought that the portals would make the game very difficult. In fact, after a while, your brain adjusts to this new dimension of travel. Or dimensional travel, if you like.
Themes and Post-Modernism (and Beware, Half Life 2 Spoilers Ahead)
Video games are obviously evolving very rapidly. Increasingly, they’re reflecting more and more similarities with narrative art. The best new games have sophisticated plots, decent dialogue, more rounded characters and original and sometimes breath-taking aesthetics. Portal features a particularly creepy yet catchy ditty sung by GladOS over the closing credits (hear it sung by its composer).
However, Portal is one of the first games I’ve seen that reflects (for want of a degree in literary criticism) some more sophisticated aspects of art. For example, the game explores themes–the tyranny of mechanization, how corporations dehumanize us, the dubious ethics of scientific testing. They’re not examined in vast detail, but they’re present and feel reasonably fresh.
Additionally, Portal is the most post-modern game I’ve ever played. We see this in trivial ways. The whole game is vaguely reminiscent of Q*Bert. GladOS hilariously refers to “Aperture Science Weighted Storage Cubes” or a “Weighted Companion Cube”, sly nods to the crates and boxes that inexplicably populate many games (I think it’s partially because they had a low polygon count, but that’s just a guess).
But the game is self-aware in more profound ways. As you play, you begin to get peaks behind the curtain of the cold, white testing rooms. You discover debris and graffiti (hence the meme “the cake is a lie”) left by former test subjects. At the games’ mid-point, you avoid incineration after the 19th room and spend the rest of the game escaping the facility. You wend your way through rusty catwalks, grimy corridors and soulless offices. You are figuratively and actually inside the game, looking back into the test chambers. It’s the kind of radical (not to mention fun) shift in perspective that you find in novels.
Criticisms? Well, the kill-the-boss ending is ordinary, though comical. And the end game cinematic didn’t provide me with much explanation or satisfaction. Once again, it was very THX 1138.
Portal is a little masterpiece. It’s remarkable that’s it’s just one of five games that come in the Orange Box set of Valve projects. The two Half Life 2 chapters are more conventional, but still excellent (when was the last time you played a game that ended with a fade to black while a woman cried over her dead father?). I’m not a huge fan of Team Fortress 2′s gameplay, but its design is breathtaking.