Cake, and grief counseling, will be available at the conclusion of the Review
It’s strange to think that a game like Portal was released almost a decade ago for then the recently released Xbox 360 and PC. We have seen one generation of console pass into another. Along the way we’ve seen indie game development soaring into popularity and triple A games dominating the gaming landscape, all of which have had new twists and iterations of pre-existing genres, trying to stamp their mark into the cultural sphere of videogames. Not many of these however have felt as fresh and innovative as Portal did with its stellar storytelling and characters along with some perplexing puzzles that requires a taste of abstract thinking and clever use of a new, novel game mechanic this game introduced.
Portal begins with the player in the sterile, pristine Aperture Laboratories facility. With no one else seemingly inhabiting the facility, our only companion is GLaDOS, the computerised overseer of the testing that the player’s character, Chell, is subjected to. As you make your first steps through the game, you’re gradually immersed into the gameplay mechanics, from using a weighted cube to activating switches or jumping from platform to platform. Along the way you attain the portal gun, a totally unique game mechanic that feels so satisfying and intuitive to use once you get used to the concept of travelling from one created portal and out another.
No concept us under-utilised in the game, from jumping on cubes to using portals to launch yourself over great distances. Good game design will help the player to get to grips in an earlier stage so that when it comes to harder, more difficult puzzles in the latter half of the game, the player feels somewhat adept at completing harder challenges which creates a great sense of satisfaction when you manage to pull it off.
The levels are fiendishly designed so that the only way to get through them is by clever use of the portal gun and a lot of trial and error. It’s a step into the unknown, the player weaves around obstacles and portals unlike anything experienced in a videogame before. The player’s feelings are in tune with the game premise of being awoken in an experimental, test environment and coaxed along a singular path without much context whatsoever. Only through continuing further, testing strategies and paying close attention to the game’s excellent level design do we gather a better understanding of what this game is.
Portal’s short, yet fascinating story is fleshed out even more with exemplary use of providing a grounded context to the game world through the environment. The opening portion give the appearance of a futuristic, sanitary Aperture Laboratories featuring some light comic relief through deadpan lines from GLaDOS. Its impression becomes slowly overturned as we see the scrambling graffiti and messages of a previous test mate with well-known ramblings such as “the cake is a lie” or a homage to the weighted companion cube. The environments themselves feel very non-linear, not going one direction but rather up, down, left or right. It’s winding which sometimes appears disorientating, especially when going through one portal and out another leaves you upside down and twisting about in mid-air. It’s an exploration into weird territory, a slightly dystopian world, that feels off even when it tries to present itself as something clean and objective.
Hardly anything is told explicitly about the world of Portal but it does an impressive job of using the environment telling the story, allowing the player to look beyond the clean facade unveiling something very sinister and decaying. Especially as we go further beyond the pale, austere surroundings and delve deeper into GlaDOS’ amoral, deadpan nature.
GLaDOS is with you on every turn, saying the most interesting things for a sentient computer AI that has malfunctioned, delivering dark comedic lines, in a deadpan manner. She will often try to convey sincerity and niceness through a cold robotic delivery as she watches over your every move. GLaDOS is without a sense of empathy or morality but becomes increasingly more unscrupulous as the game develops and the facade peels away, finding out more about the facility than it would want us to. She starts off as a background entity, providing information and jokes about death with a lifeless voice becoming more sinister yet entertaining as the game develops, culminating with an entertaining final battle that is rewarding both for its comedic value and the gameplay which sees you racing around trying to defeat GLaDOS.
The game is a short one, taking me four hours to beat along with some of the bonus maps that features harder versions of the tests in the main game. Portal still holds up as being one of the most fun, unique experiences you can have in a videogame. Its physics defying portal gun and intricate puzzles require time and critical thinking to beat, followed after by sudden drops into dangerous territories that create panic as the player struggles to cope with being dropped into precarious situations that result in death if you don’t act fast. It showcases its ability to be incredibly interesting outside of gameplay thanks to its emphatic environmental storytelling and humorous dialogue.