Addicted to novelty since 2001

The Cake is a Lie: Why Portal is a Perfect Short Story of a Game

I first watched the trailer for Portal about a year and a half ago. It kind of blew my mind.

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.

12 Responses to “The Cake is a Lie: Why Portal is a Perfect Short Story of a Game”

  1. Ryan Cousineau

    If you like this sort of thoughtful game criticism (and like all game snobs, I’d point out that themes at least as thoughtful as those in Portal have been interestingly presented since the early days of Infocom text adventures), the two best sites out there are probably Greg Costikayan’s Play This Thing (specializing in indie games), and the profoundly serious and artful Escapist, which also features the astoundingly profane (and delightful) Zero Punctuation Reviews.

  2. darren

    Ryan: You’re right about the Infocom games. I assume that it’s because they were really just writing hyper-fiction. Their creative palette was incredibly small compared to today, so they had more time and space to consider and include themes.

    And, of course, the gaming industry wasn’t worth billions of dollars, so they surely had more creative freedom.

    And yes, Zero Punctuation is superb.

  3. Ryan Cousineau

    I think that while the Infocoms were the prototypes of good game storytelling, they weren’t the only early example.

    However, in games, it is so much easier (and in many game genres, much more important to the fun) to sweat the details of the game mechanics, while the story is barely in existence.

    Nobody plays Super Mario Whatever for the plot, but the ludic depth is consistently very high.

    Portal is remarkable for being so good in both areas, possibly uniquely among games.

  4. Hamish M

    The Orange Box was the best money I ever spent on video games. There’s just so much awesome in it. And Portal is so witty and fun. I heard that it will tie somewhat into future Half Life games as well. (Gordon Freeman + Portal Gun = Sweet)

    Thanks for the writeup.

  5. ct

    I realize that you have a spoiler alert for portal… but did you really have to give away the ending for half-life as well?

    I really didn’t want to see that.

  6. darren

    Guys, did you not read the big headline in the piece that says ‘Spoilers Ahead’? I’ll amend it to read ‘Half-Life Spoilers Ahead’, but you were totally warned.

  7. goonsqaud

    what a fukn douche you are exporting the end of HL *for no good reason*. Who cares if you give warnings about spoilers. Its so fukn abrupt, the reader has no expectation, no way to read around it, except not to read you post at all. Better warning: “I abruptly tell you the ending of HL for no good reason. Enjoy the videogame wisdom at your own risk.”

  8. Travis

    And now, two years later, it’s finally available on Steam for Mac.

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