Back in June, I wrote about the most anticipated games that were featured at this year’s E3. Looking back, there was a glaring omission from that list – namely, Portal 2. Now, I’m not always as up to date as I probably should be when it comes to video games and television – if you read the site regularly, you know that I just started getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer this past year – and one of the games I had missed out on was Portal. I bought the Orange Box a couple years ago and played Half Life 2. I dabbled a bit in Team Fortress, as well, but for whatever reason, and despite all the hype surrounding it, I never played Portal. That all changed last week when, with nothing much to do, I finally decided to give Portal a whirl. Holy hell, was I missing out on a great game.
Portal is unlike any game I have ever played, notwithstanding the fact that it’s a first person puzzler. The concept of using a device to create portals which in turn are used to help you solve a variety of puzzles is one thing, but it’s the atmosphere, narrative, and design of portal that make it one of the best games I’ve played. Like in Half Life 2, there’s never a moment when you’re not viewing the world in the protagonist’s shoes, but you’re actually able to see yourself via some well-placed portals – and the effect is entirely creepy. It may seem like a cool effect – and it is – but it also helps to put the game and it various dimensions into perspective.
When Portal begins, you find yourself inside the laboratories of Apeture and are given the task of making your way through a series of rooms. An artificial intelligence called GLaDOS serves as your guide, but it’s clear from the beginning that maybe you shouldn’t fully trust the entity. What I found most intriguing about GLaDOS, as well as my surroundings, was the fact that there was a definite detachment from humanity. It seemed as though GLaDOS knew all about human beings, how they behaved, and how they responded to challenges, but had yet to actually meet and interact with one. Yes, there was something very alien about it all, which gave the concept of being a test subject some real gravity. In a way, I suppose it reminded me of the film Cube. It was this detachment that I think most drew me into the game; the idea that I was messing around with devices that were capable of creating interdimensional portals hammered home the point that whatever was going on, it was huge.
This isn’t the only reason that it’s worth it to pay attention to GLaDOS, however. Portal certainly has a sense of humor, albeit a dark one, and almost everything that GLaDOS tells you seems to have some bite to it. I particularly enjoyed her telling me that a certain room was impossible to solve and that I was wasting my time even trying – only to have her commend my effort and resolve in the face of adversity and discouragement upon completing that puzzle. It’s the exact type of reverse psychology an AI unfamiliar with human beings would try to implement. The same dynamic is apparent with the promise of cake as a reward for the completion of all the puzzles. Whether or not GLaDOS can be trusted and whether or not the cake is a lie is something you’ll have to discover for yourself.
The gameplay itself is smooth and despite the involvement of portals and multiple dimensions, it’s pretty easy to get the hang of. The beginning of the game is mostly a tutorial-type walkthrough, but soon enough the puzzles grow in complexity. Portal features what I suspect is a pretty remarkable physics engine, for many of the puzzles must be solved by gaining momentum and passing through one portal only to emerge at a high velocity out of the other.
As an aside, and from a totally subjective point of view, the originality of a game can be measured, sometimes, by the way it affects you once you’re done playing it. When I was playing Assassin’s Creed, for example, I looked at every building as an obstacle to climb, taking note of every ledge, nook, and cranny that I might use to ascend to the top. With Portal, I find myself walking down the street and looking for open areas where a portal might fit should I want to reach that area instantaneously. The game sticks with you, and this is a very good thing.
Of video games, television, and movies that are critically acclaimed and have a tremendous amount of hype surrounding them, I find that video games are most often able to live up to that hype. A shining example of this is with Valve’s Portal, a unique – and dare I say ingenious – puzzle game whose appeal extends much further than its central concept of navigating through rooms via the use of a portal gun. I had missed out on an absolute classic, but of course, better late than never. I’m not going to wait around to try my hand at Portal 2.