Thinking with portals

So, the coming of the Orange Box has finally brought a ray of sunshine into our otherwise dull and pointless lives. I’ve played Portal, and I can confirm it’s not just a slogan: I really am thinking with portals. And the best part is, I’m not even sure how it happened.

Valve’s mastery of the seamlessly integrated playable tutorial will be obvious to anyone who’s played Half-Life 2. Or maybe obvious is the wrong word for such a subtly applied method; anyway, it’s not news. Portal, though, refines the technique into its purest form.

The concept (briefly, because everyone knows it by now): you are a test subject in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, participating in a test of the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, a gun-like machine that can create portals between two surfaces. Point at a wall (or floor, or ceiling) and left-click to place a blue portal; point somewhere else and right-click to place an orange portal. Things (including the player) that go in one portal come out the other. Simple, but like all good puzzle concepts, its implications are deep and complex.

The way the game teaches you the unfamiliar skills necessary to get to grips with its completely new (yes, yes, Narbacular Drop, I know) gameplay style is nothing short of genius. It builds up your repertoire of abilities in a manner that’s so gradual, so intuitive and most importantly so much fun that you scarcely notice how much you’re learning. You’re never left confused or out of your depth, yet there’s a constant progression of new concepts that maintain a reasonable level of challenge. Each puzzle requires you to extend your abilities just slightly, until by the later levels, complex multi-portal manoeuvres feel as natural as rocket-jumping or circle-strafing. But much more exciting.

If that’s all there was to it—a fun, fresh, exceedingly polished puzzle game—Portal would be a fine way to spend a few hours. But, as I’m sure you can tell from my use of the conditional tense in the previous sentence, there’s so much more.

(Warning: spoilers follow! Don’t read any further if you haven’t played the game, just go and buy it now. It’s really, really, really good.)

First, it’s funny. Quite funny indeed. Most of the laughs come from the narration provided by GlaDOS, the sarcastic, borderline-psychotic AI in charge of the portal experiment. She offers encouragement, discouragement, lies, misinformation, advice of varying degrees of usefulness, threats, cajolement and bizarre random interjections. She announces at one point: “Did you know – you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund for Girls? It’s true!” Later, she compliments a successful solution with the remark: “Unbelievable. You Subject Name Here must be the pride of Subject Home Town Here.” She also make frequent mention of the delicious cake that awaits you at the end of the experiment.

The gun-turrets that appear in the latter half of the game are far from the simple, businesslike weapons of Half-Life. They have soft, endearing, slightly sad voices that make them memorable characters in their own right. Pick one up from behind and it’ll writhe helplessly in your grasp, and offer piteous complaints. The first time one of them plaintively begged, “Put me down!” I almost felt sorry for it. Not sorry enough to refrain from chucking it through a portal to knock over one of its equally pathetic siblings, of course. But still.

The other major character in the game is the Weighted Companion Cube which accompanies you through one particularly memorable level. Although it’s just an ordinary crate with a heart on each face, you form a deep attachment to it, partially due to the fact that GlaDOS talks about it a lot. “The Weighted Companion Cube will not threaten to stab you and cannot, in fact, talk,” she mentions. “If the Weighted Companion Cube does talk, the Enrichment Centre urges you to disregard its advice.” Later she forces you to incinerate your faithful companion to complete the level, an act which colours her character extremely darkly. I really loved that little cube. (A minor interjection: rumour has it that plush Companion cubes are forthcoming. Want!)

Next, there’s the story. Perhaps the very fact that there is a story shouldn’t really come as a surprise in a Valve game, but it did to me. Its first intrusion into Portal’s previously smooth and uninterrupted puzzling comes fairly late into the testing process. Behind a hydraulic panel wedged open by a couple of crates, you come across a dirty nook bearing evidence of human occupation. Cans and bottles are strewn over the rusty floor, and days—many months worth of days—are marked off on the wall beside handprints, crude drawings of crates and turrets and a repeated scrawl: “The cake is a lie.”

It’s surprisingly unsettling to step out of the bright, sterile laboratory environment of whites and greys that’s defined the game up to that point, and find yourself in such a dark, squalid little space. Unsettling too is the sudden realisation that you’re not the only test subject in the facility, that others have been here before. Others that have escaped the experiment, and have found months of solitary living in the forgotten spaces of the Enrichment Center preferable to whatever fate waits at the end of the tests. A fate which, it seems, is unlikely to involve cake.

This kind of passive storytelling is another of Valve’s trademarks, as we’ve seen in the Half-Life games. It continues over the next few levels as you find a few more hidden crannies (one containing, hilariously, a pin-up calendar bearing a scantily-clad woman with a picture of the Weighted Companion Cube taped over her face). Soon the experiment ends, not in cake but in fire, which you escape with the aid of the portal gun.

And suddenly you’re running amok in the backstage areas of the Enrichment Centre, GlaDOS begging and threatening you with increasing mania as you work your way closer to her lair, putting your new-found portaling abilities to use in a more naturalistic, unstructured environment, among the fans, pistons and rusty walkways that fill the disused areas of the facility. The transition is tremendously exhilarating; there’s a real sense of breaking free from the restrictive shackles of the experimental and getting into areas where you’re really not supposed to be.

The culminating boss fight is fairly straightforward, and might be somewhat anti-climactic if it wasn’t for more entertaining chatter from GlaDOS. And as if to prove that nothing in Portal is boring, the credits are accompanied by a brilliant, hilarious song written by Jonathan Coulton and performed by Ellen McLain (the voice of GlaDOS). It’s the perfect ending.

It’s hard to find fault with Portal. I wish it was longer (it took less than three hours for my first time through the main game), but the advanced chambers and challenge maps will extend its lifespan somewhat, and there’s Valves promised additional content to look forward to. Not to mention the torrent of custom maps that’s sure to ensue once the modding community gets going.

Short though it may be, it’s still one of the most complete and finely-crafted gameplay experiences I can remember, and further confirmation of Valve’s position as one of the greatest developers in the industry.

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