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.)