The original Portal has already cemented itself as one of the landmark games of this generation. Though it was originally positioned as an add-on to the Half-Life 2 Orange Box that could be beaten in about 3 hours, Portal has taken on a life of its own thanks to its revolutionary game design that does something truly new. Critics loved it, fans bought into it in droves and elements of the game, such as in-game lines and ‘the song’ have worked their way into popular gaming culture. While it’s sequel may not have the cultural cache as its predecessor, the game is still one of the best of the year and it sold extremely well.
Portal is without a doubt, a must-play game if there ever was one this generation. With that said, I’ve been ducking this game for years. I tried it in passing once, but I made the mistake of trying it out on my brother’s file, when he was over half way through the game. Needless to say, I was immediately overwhelmed and thought I was too stupid for Portal. Only recently did I put my initial impressions aside and try the game from scratch.
What made me change my mind? My girlfriend has been interested in getting into the Portal for quite some time now, and recently I let her play my brother’s copy of the game at my house. I watched her play from the beginning, and she was really digging it. Watching her play from the beginning also helped me wrap my head around the gameplay concepts, which made Portal a lot less intimidating. After crossing that mental hurdle, I decided to try it out for myself.
If you’re not familiar with Portal, it is a first person puzzle platformer from the creators of the Half-Life series. You, as Chell, are a test subject at Arpeture Science. The omnipresent AI that goes by the name of GlaDOS is monitoring your progress as you try and make your way through various test chambers with the help of portals. The act of creating portals almost anywhere you want and traveling through them was revolutionary at the time and still fun now. I never got tired of being at point A, and thinking through how I could use the portal gun and any other helpful objects around me in order to get to point B.
For a game that has some mind-bending mechanics to it, Valve made a number of very smart design choices to help ease gamers in. For one, the game eases you into its gameplay systems rather slowly. Before you can even touch the portal gun, the game teaches you within the context of the story how everything works. In fact, I’d say that the game spends 3/4 of its time teaching you how to play it. It isn’t until a very specific story point where the training wheels come off and its up to you to make the most of your newly-minted Portal skills.
Beyond the game’s way of teaching you how to play, the level designs themselves are brilliant. All of these puzzle require you to leverage something the game has taught you before, which stops the puzzles from ever feeling too hard or obtuse. Even in a jam, odds are you don’t have to over-think the situation in order to get through. There was only one point in the game where I was genuinely stuck and I had to ask my brother for help. I was already 3/4 of the way to solving that particular part, but when he told me what the answer was, I totally facepalmed myself, as the solution involved something that the game had taught me before. Besides that one time, I essentially solved everything myself, which made me feel like a genius. Kudos to the game for making me feel smart after solving each of its puzzles.
Another great part of the puzzle-solving is that each puzzle doesn’t necessarily have only one solution. My brother watched me play through much of the game, only to be mystified at my approach to most of the game’s levels. While most of my solutions were far less elegant than his, I managed to make it work anyway. It’s cool to know that there is some non-linearity to the puzzles, which leaves things open for you to improve on your approach a second time around.
Tying all of the puzzle-solving together is a simple, yet effective story starring you and GlaDOS, who is the antagonistic AI that is putting you through all of these tests. While the story has only a handful of story beats, it’s tied together really well by GlaDOS’ amazingly hilarious dialogue and your actions within the game. It’s actually quite amazing how much story can be pulled from Portal, as the game does very little to get its story across to you, which is a testament to how great the storytelling is in this game.
My years of ducking this game turned out to be a mistake; one that I’m glad to have addressed. Though the experience is only about 3 hours long the first time through, I never felt like it needed to be any longer. It’s an amazing experience from start to finish. Portal has totally won me over in a big way, and if you haven’t found out if the cake is a lie, I’d highly recommend you pick up Portal: Still Alive on XBOX Live or track down a copy of Half-Life 2 Orange Box. My brother has a copy of Portal 2 that I can play at any time, so I will make sure to get to that in the near future.