Portal was one of the most influential video games of its time, as well as one of Valve’s biggest successes. What got us to love this bizarre game?
|Console||PC/Mac/Linux, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Android|
|Genre||Puzzle, platformer, First-person shooter|
|Release Year||2007, 2010, 2013 – 2014|
|Purchase (PC/Mac)||Purchase from Steam.|
|Purchase (The Orange Box for Xbox 360)||Purchase from Amazon.|
|Purchase (The Orange Box for PlayStation 3)||Purchase from Amazon.|
So there is a video game that I fondly remember during my teenage years. One game that I got for free during a promotion and got me to use the Steam service. And ever since, I’ve been hopelessly, hopelessly gone…
That’s what years of buying game bundles do to you.
And that game is indeed Portal. Most people who have Steam are likely to have this game and even the sequel. After all, it’s one of Valve’s most important games, as well as one of the most innovative games for its time.
Then I read a comment the other day, with someone describing the Portal series:
It’s just a puzzle game with robots. That game can’t beat long open-world games like Xenoblade Chronicles 2!
Yeah… that’s all it is… a puzzle game with robots… Is there a lynch mob I can join to hunt this fool down?
All kidding aside, it surprises me that some gamers still don’t know what Portal is—and why it’s ignorant to say long open-world games are better than it by default just because of the number of hours you put into the game. It goes without saying (for most people, anyway) that more in-game hours does NOT equate to a better game.
But that’s not the point of this review. I just want to write up something like a retrospective of a beloved game. So…
Hello and, again, welcome to the Aperture Science computer-aided enrichment center. We hope your brief read here will be a pleasant one.
Aperture Science – We Do What We Must Because We Can
Portal takes place in a mysterious science facility known as Aperture Science. You are a test subject, a young woman (and silent protagonist) named Chell. Your job is to solve all kinds of physics-based puzzles through a series of test chambers, with the female AI GLaDOS as the overseer. As you continue solving more puzzles, you will eventually acquire the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (or Portal Gun simply) that allows you to solve more complex puzzles.
The puzzles start off very simple, consisting of mostly weighted block puzzles. After you acquire the Portal Gun, you can shoot at a flat, solid surface to create a portal that you can cross.
The Portal Gun has two types of portals: blue and orange. One functions as an entrance, the other functions as a linked exit. Or vise versa. You will be spending the rest of the game with this neat little device. Its deceptive simplicity is matched by its surprising amount of depth when it comes to solving problems.
Not only can you use the Portal Gun to transport yourself, but you can also use it to transport objects. With this knowledge, you can bring weighted items with you easily. You can also power up generators by transporting an Aperture Science High Energy Pellet (those hot balls of plasma). And all sorts of neat little tricks based on momentum…
Like taking advantage of gravity by falling from a great height into a portal, allowing you to pass through the exit portal and launching you across a large chasm.
In laymen’s terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.
So, let’s review this so far. Portal is a 3D puzzle platformer with a twist: the ability to make your own portals. This one simple gameplay mechanic changed how the game is played. And it performed it wonderfully.
Simply put, there weren’t any games like Portal during its time of release. It was an innovator, among the first of its kind. This game inspired future releases like The Talos Principle, Antichamber, and The Witness. It showed that you can create amazing physics-based puzzles with a simple mechanic. Amazingly, the sequel Portal 2 managed to take this kind of gameplay up to insane heights.
Of course, that’s not the only reason why Portal was considered such a masterpiece of its time. Let’s say that Internet memes in the 2000s were… pretty weird to say the least.
The Cake is a Lie
Ah, yes. The cake is a lie. I remember this bizarre meme well. And unfortunately, overused until it died a peaceful death. And if you’re not aware of it, well… you’re not really missing much.
Okay. To be fair, this meme was kinda funny when you don’t know the context. It just… sounds weird. But if you do know what it means, well… it’s pretty much a spoiler used as a forum response.
Throughout the game, you are promised cake after you complete all of the test chambers. However, GLaDOS lied to you and attempted to murder you after you’re no longer needed. Thus, “the cake is a lie” is used as an idiom to mean that you are chasing an empty, unattainable goal.
But yeah. It got so overused to the point that even the game’s writer Erik Wolpaw got sick of it, which is why Portal 2 barely referenced the meme.
But when you do put the meme in context with the story, it actually does come across as a bit creepy.
If you haven’t played Portal yet (shame on you), then you might be surprised that the game does have a bit of story to it. At first, it doesn’t seem like anything’s happening. You’re just completing test chambers while GLaDOS makes a bunch of snarky, wordy remarks. But as you progress more into the test chambers, you will notice that the tests themselves are notably more hazardous. And frankly, seemingly designed to kill you for failure.
For example, the Portal Gun cannot touch water. Ever. It will literally kill you when it gets submerged even a little bit. Furthermore, there are plenty of opportunities for the tests to vaporize you, pump your body full of bullets or crush your skull.
And this is where Portal’s story is clever. When you start putting these pieces together, you’ll notice that things are not as they seem. Sure, seemingly nothing happens for about half of the game, but noticing these small changes to your environment allow you to figure certain things out. This subtlety is well executed.
And of course, a major part of the story focuses on GLaDOS herself. Voiced by opera singer Ellen McLain, the emotionless (but oddly soothing) delivery of GLaDOS’s lines made her lines all the more memorable. While you don’t see her for most of the game, she’s always watching you. At first glance, she seems to be a professional AI with a dry and sarcastic sense of humor. I mean, she calls a big red button on the floor…
The Fifteen Hundred Megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button
But her later lines become increasingly bizarre with some dark statements that come across as oddly funny.
Remember: The Aperture Science Bring Your Daughter to Work Day is the perfect time to have her tested.
While safety is one of many Enrichment Center goals, the Aperture Science High Energy Pellet, seen to the left of the chamber, can and has caused permanent disabilities such as vaporization.
Well done, android. The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that android hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.
It’s these weird bits of dark humor that made Portal’s story surprisingly entertaining. Just when you think you’re getting a dry, dull science fiction story, the game keeps proving you wrong with some bizarre humor. “The cake is a lie” is just one of these things, and there are plenty of weird twists along the way.
Portal doesn’t really have much of a soundtrack, but more of an ambient score that plays during certain moments of the game. However, it’s especially notable for the one song sung by GLaDOS herself, “Still Alive.”
This one song is definitely worthwhile. Upbeat with a bit of a sad tone behind it, with some pretty dark lyrics in true GLaDOS fashion.
And that’s about all I have to say about Portal. While it still remains a solid game today, I’m not really feeling the “amazing” vibe that I once felt when I first played it. But that’s mostly because I played more and more games in the following years, including the sequel Portal 2—which is superior to this game in just about every aspect.
Regardless, Portal made its mark in video game history, both as an innovative game and an early Internet meme. I still come back to play it every now and then, just to relive the journey once more.
- The ever useful Portal Gun is a simple device that managed to help create a deep puzzle game.
- Innovative gameplay for its time, inspiring future titles such as The Talos Principle and Antichamber.
- For the time of its release, a source of some Internet memes before they got overused...
- Some great dark humor in tandem with Ellen McLain's performance as GLaDOS.
- The story takes a while to get to the good bits since much of the beginning is focused on you learning the game mechanics.
- Short length. You might be able to complete it in less than an hour in subsequent playthroughs.