In this particular case, it’s entirely fitting that the “Bottom Line” is displayed (at the time of writing) at the top of the review. In a game where up and down are virtually interchangeable, where beginning and end can be practically one and the same, it’s pretty clear that the laws and dimensions of the physical universe as we know it have lost all relevant meaning.
Welcome to Portal.
Since the final results came first, you’ll have noticed its high score right away, so if all you want to know is that Portal is easily one of the best games on the market today, feel free to skip directly to the exit and on to the nearest store to pick it up. But if you’d rather take the long route to explore the matters of significance, follow along and I’ll tell you why Portal is also one of the freshest, most unique gaming experiences ever offered, though one that’s over a little too quickly and may not be for everyone, particularly those whose tastes (and abilities) are restricted to more conventional adventure game fare.
Portal is not a new game, having first been bundled in Valve’s The Orange Box for the PC (the version being reviewed here), Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 late in 2007, along with the previously-more-celebrated Half-Life 2 games. At that time, the action-oriented nature of this collection allowed Portal to slip largely unnoticed through the cracks of the adventure community’s attention. Fortunately, its overwhelmingly positive reception has prompted Valve to release a standalone version of the game, casting a well-deserved spotlight on it once again and making it a much more appealing option for those only interested in the largely cerebral Portal experience.
But what exactly is Portal? That is a question not easily answered, and even less easily after a glance at the game’s screenshots. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in the case of Portal, a thousand could be spent explaining why the game is NOT what it first appears. Yes, it’s played from a free-movement, first-person perspective; yes, a reasonable amount of dexterity is required; and yes, you spend most of the game holding and firing a gun. But no, it’s not a shooter by any stretch of the imagination. You’ll also make your way, often running and jumping between seemingly impossible heights, from one end of nineteen sequential, self-contained levels to another. But it’s not a platformer. At times it resembles a simple physics simulator and at other times a pure puzzle game, and yet often much more than either one alone. The inescapable fact is that it’s really unlike any other game, refusing to be pigeonholed into any particular genre. So can it be called an adventure? Sure, sort of. And sort of not. What is it? It’s Portal.
The game begins, with no cinematic introduction at all, as you awaken in a small glass room inside a clinical laboratory of some kind. Before pondering too deeply about who and where you are, you’re addressed by the only companion you’ll have throughout the game, the computerized female voice of GLaDOS, “Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System” of Aperture Science. GLaDOS reveals that you’re the latest test subject of Aperture’s Computer-Aided Enrichment Center, and that you’re about to begin your trials.
Not surprisingly, the tests you undergo involve mastering the use of portals. Any pair of portals allows you to enter one and exit the other, regardless of distance or even orientation. Floors, walls, platforms, and ceilings are all fair game, though only some (easily recognizable) surfaces can host a portal. It’s an utterly simple concept, but not so easy to apply in practice, as it first involves un-learning the intuitive physical boundaries we’re used to. It just isn’t natural to hop into a portal entrance at your feet and come tumbling out of the ceiling above you through its partnered exit point, but in Portal you’ll be asked to do precisely such maneuvers with regularity.
To help players adjust, the early levels are quite easy, limiting manual portal control until you’ve mastered the basics. Even when you obtain the portal gun, initially it has the ability to set only one portal, with the other already strategically located in the test level itself. Also in these early stages, GLaDOS gradually introduces the various other obstacles you’ll encounter. These include the likes of energy emitters, whose discharges need to be directed into inconveniently-placed receptors, movable cubes and weight-sensitive floor switches, particle barriers that only you can pass through, acid pools, moving platforms, a few timed doorways, and both mounted and portable turrets. To further nudge you along, there are symbols at the start of each level, hinting at the various tasks the stage will require.
Eventually, you acquire the portal gun upgrade, which gives you full control over both portals, and that’s where the challenge begins to ramp up, although still fairly gently to start. With this newfound freedom you’ll learn the more complex techniques, such as shooting new portals while falling in mid-air and projecting yourself through portals using the natural momentum of gravity. This skill of “flinging” – described in layman’s terms by GLaDOS as “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out” – is vital to getting through the later levels, but by then you should be plenty comfortable with both the concepts and mechanics of the game.
Controls in Portal couldn’t be much simpler, utilizing the standard mouse-WASD keyboard combination of most action games. There is no inventory, just the ability to pick up and carry a single item in front of you until you release it. The dual portal gun is fired using the left and right mouse buttons, and the portals are coloured differently so that you can easily remember which you need to place next. There is only one movement speed, a slow run that is more than enough since any significant movement is reliant upon portal placement, not fleetness of foot. Jumping is as easy as a tap of the space bar, and while you’ll do a lot of leaping throughout the game, relatively few require precision timing or skillful physical maneuvering. There are a handful late in the game that should prove a challenge, perhaps a little out of sync with the game’s demands otherwise, but these are certainly the exception rather than the rule.
In fact, the “action” quotient in Portal is fairly minimal overall. Despite its superficial shooter-like comparisons, the whole point of portal use is to defy physical obstacles – to manipulate or bypass them entirely rather than overcome them through speed or force. The exercise, then, is one of tactical planning through a series of environmental puzzles, requiring far more thought than reflex. You can die, but not often and not easily. Even the turrets do minimal damage, generally allowing you loads of time to duck out of harm’s way, instantly restoring you to full health. When you do die, you’re automatically returned to a recent checkpoint. You can save manually at any time, but you’ll rarely feel the need as the game auto-saves frequently anyway.
What makes Portal more than a mere puzzle game, however, is the disconcerting omnipresence of GLaDOS, who progressively establishes herself as one of the most memorable game characters of all time. While helpfully providing you with the necessary information to proceed, right from the outset GLaDOS presents a disturbing mix of messages that casts doubt on the true nature of Aperture’s (or possibly her own) motivations and your involvement. From the reference to your “detention” in the “relaxation vault” to the caution about serious injury in a test designed primarily for “fun and learning”, it’s clear that there’s more than meets the… well… ear where GLaDOS and this laboratory are concerned. And indeed, the emerging relationship with GLaDOS and the slow revelation of her complexities are what give the game a remarkable depth of intrigue that belies the absence of plot, the restricted environments, and lack of personal contact.
While GLaDOS begins as your tutor and guide, she soon adopts new roles in her efforts to inspire you through the course. At times she’s almost mothering, with promises of “cake” as your reward waiting at the end, and at others far more villainous, with implied menace if not overt hostility. It’s not clear why GLaDOS feels the need to continually change her tactics of persuasion, as your one and only goal (and option) is to proceed through the levels anyway, but perhaps it’s your character’s total silence that unnerves her. Through portals you occasionally catch a glimpse of yourself (which is every bit as surreal as it sounds) as a rather lithe woman, and while you learn your name is Chell, the character never speaks, never reveals any hint of her thoughts or her identity. But perhaps GLaDOS is all too aware that with the many observation windows overlooking the test courses, at some point it’s inevitable to begin questioning why you never see anyone in them, and she begins to overcompensate in her efforts to distract you from what’s going on beyond the walls of your confined world. The more she tries to prevent it, of course, the more you do.
Listening to GLaDOS, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with another rogue A.I., the superb SHODAN of the System Shock games (or at least 2001‘s HAL), but rather than feeling derivative, GLaDOS manages to stand on her own thanks to the clever, often witty script and the vocal talents of actress and opera singer Ellen McLain. Since GLaDOS is the real star of Portal, it was imperative to create an audibly convincing persona, and she is voiced to near-perfection by McLain, although the artificial, slightly-off-key pitch modulation is equally important in creating a character that sounds fully computerized. The effect is almost melodious at times, a fact brought to the forefront by a brilliant closing song sung by McLain-as-GLaDOS that I defy any player NOT to listen to a second time. Otherwise, music is kept to a minimum in Portal.
The graphics in Portal are equally understated, although quite intentionally. As you’d expect of a laboratory test environment, Aperture Science is all about functionality over aesthetics, favouring muted greys and whites and simple, clean designs. This is entirely understandable in context, but the lack of visual variety is a bit of a disappointment, and would have been a much bigger issue in a longer game.
And here we come to the main complaint against Portal: there just isn’t very much of it to enjoy. Most players will probably cruise through the game between three to five hours, and the game ends just when it’s really hitting its stride. Leaving players wanting more is an accomplishment for a game, of course, but even with Portal‘s budget price, its brevity will surely leave some players simply wanting. To pad out the experience, after completing the main storyline you can try the “Advanced” mode, which reconfigures six of the levels with greater challeges, or “Challenge” mode, which tasks you with completing those same levels while meeting specific conditions. You can also replay the game to pursue various achievements, but these are largely filler that don’t enhance the core game in any way.
The other key addition is the developer’s commentary. This option allows you to play through the game again and get some behind-the-Portal insight. Unlike DVD movie commentaries, these need to be manually triggered, but even with this element of control, I often couldn’t avoid many of them overlapping GLaDOS’ in-game voiceovers. The commentaries themselves are moderately interesting. Some are fairly technical in nature, but I was particularly impressed by the degree of emphasis given to playtesting in refining the levels. This is a hallmark of all Valve games, and while it’s a luxury smaller studios may not easily afford, the benefit is clearly evident in the final results.
I must confess, when I first began playing Portal I was a bit underwhelmed, not through any fault of its own, but because of the level of hype that surrounded the game and the unrealistic anticipation that came along with it. However, the longer I played (including subsequent replays), the more the game won me over, and here I am now feeding into the hype myself, so in doing that, I’ll try to temper further expectations appropriately.
If Portal can’t easily be defined, what exactly does it offer? Well, it won’t dazzle you with stunning visuals, amaze you with its variety of locations, or engage you in an epic plot. There’s very little exploring, even less interaction, and no other characters whatsoever to talk to. Doesn’t sound like that leaves much, does it? But much like portals demand of physical laws, try to forget what you think you know about what makes a game appealing, and start over again. You see, in its simplicity lies Portal‘s excellence. Stripped of most of the usual pretense and trappings, the entire game is built around a single core element – a gimmick, even – but one so different, so all-encompassing, and so well-conceived that even when you’re done, you’ll feel like you’ve barely scratched the surface of its possibilities. And by building puzzles around a concept that’s already inherently puzzling while doling out a backstory piece by piece as still another puzzle, Portal ultimately feels more like a mystery to solve and a quest for answers than an obstacle course to be beaten. That the journey to get there is just so darn enjoyable is like having your cake and eating it, too… Assuming, of course, that the cake is real.
It’s all too rare for a game to come along that makes you realize you’ve never played anything quite like it, but this is just such an occasion. Portal is truly one of a kind, and while its scope is perhaps a little too limited for its own good, what we do get is delivered with nearly flawless execution and an unforgettable personality that more than compensates for its shortcomings. If you’re looking for a standard adventure, you certainly won’t find it here, but its puzzles and subtly unfolding storyline are more than a match for most traditional fare despite its no-frills presentation. It does require online activation through Steam, though the process is so painless it barely merits mention. For anyone with even a modicum of action gaming ability, then, deciding to pick the game up should be a no-brainer. Just don’t get used to the luxury, as you’ll need all your wits about you to get very far.
So now that we’ve reached the end of the review, what’s left for you to do but get started!