Or, why Portal is amazing, and a brief, spoiler-lite review of Portal 2. Spoilers for Portal, possible spoilers for Portal 2.
I recently replayed the original Portal in preparation for Portal 2, which released on April 19. Portal is one of those games that has achieved a sort of cult popularity in the gaming world. It is also a game that I hold up as an example and inspiration of game design done well. Why is that?
Portal’s central game play concept is simple, yet it encourages creativity.
For those unfamiliar with it, Portal is a puzzle game cleverly disguised as a first-person shooter/platformer. Placing you in the role of a test subject in the laboratories of Aperture Science, you are tasked with a series of puzzles/rooms to solve, under the guise of testing a bit of technology called a portal gun. The portal gun, well, it does what it says on the tin. It can shoot portals onto walls, floors, ceilings, as long as they are made of the right materials. There are two colors of portals, blue and orange. If you enter the blue portal, and you will come out through the orange, and vice versa.
The basic concept is incredibly simple to grasp. You run, you jump, you pick up items and you shoot portals at walls to get across the test chambers. You learn by doing which materials accept portals and which do not. Each testing room is a puzzle; to traverse the room is to solve the puzzle, and there are often multiple ways to do it. It doesn’t really matter if you die; the game auto-saves frequently for you, and you can save whenever you’re about to try something dangerous.
The way the puzzles are presented to the player encourage experimentation and creativity, and there are lots of semi-hidden areas that contain hints at the story behind the game, rewarding exploration. What will happen if you duck under this slightly-pushed-out wall panel? Take a look and see, and you might find some hints that everything is not as it seems at Aperture Science.
By setting you up in the role of the test subject Chell, the game ‘trains’ the player. When you first get the portal gun, you are limited only to placing the blue portal. The orange portal is already placed in the testing rooms for you. This actually complicates matters, and forces you to use your single portal creatively to get through.
Later on, when you get the ability to make both portals, though, you can remember and reuse a number of the techniques the game taught you, as well as learning some new ones. The game has you play with momentum frequently, dropping from a height into a portal on the floor so that you can be flung across a gap by one on the wall.
The story is one you learn through discovery.
There’s no backstory data dump, no prologue, not even very much setup. Every scrap you learn about the story, even your own character’s name, is something you discover over the course of playing the game. This self-discovery of the story is a very important aspect of the game play, and clues are hidden throughout the rooms.
To give you an example of how masterfully I thought this was done, the beginning of the game is simply and subtly brilliant. One of the first things you see in the game is that you are trapped in a small cell with a bed, toilet, table and radio. Your cell has glass walls. After a short introductory speech by the test administrator, GLaDOS (more on her shortly), a portal is created in front of you so that you can exit your cell. As you pass through the portal, you are forced into your first view of your character. There’s no way to avoid at least a glimpse of Chell in this establishing shot. In this brief view, you can see that your character is female with dark hair, wearing an orange jumpsuit (reminiscent of prison garb) and equipped with strange spring boots on her feet.
The character of GLaDOS is quite possibly the best villain to come out of a video game in recent memory.
The player-character, who we only know as a woman named Chell, is essentially a voiceless blank slate for the player to cast his or her own personality onto, typical of the first-person genre.
GLaDOS, the computer who is running the tests in which you are participating, is most definitely not. Voiced brilliantly by actress Ellen McLain (who also voices the turrets), GLaDOS is a character you get to know only through the voice that is your constant companion through the test chambers. Her dry sarcasm is at first delivered in a passive-aggressive, computer-voice deadpan, but as the game progresses, GLaDOS begins to take on a more and more emotional tone. Not to mention the brillance of the writing. GLaDOS has a number of well-written, memorable, and quotable lines as she guides you through the test chambers.
It becomes clear as you progress through the rooms that something has gone wrong with your computer guide. Her messages change from warnings and instructions about each test chamber, to darkly ominous messages about the cake awaiting you at the end of the tests, and about the horrific things that can happen to you over the course of testing.
All those warnings and those secret messages come together as the player finally escapes into the areas behind the test chambers, full of offices and industrial areas. GLaDOS first pleads with the player to return, citing the many dangers in these unsafe areas. When the player continues, she becomes progressively more hostile. Finally when you meet GLaDOS “face-to-face”, as it were, her tone slips into something almost sultry and gleefully evil as she finally shows her true colors, and outright attempts to kill you.
The atmosphere is so well developed that it is almost a character on its own.
At first, you see the test chambers of Aperture Science are sparse, plain, almost clinical rooms made of metal, tile, concrete, and what looks like heavy duty plastics. There is not another living thing to be seen. There are cameras on the walls watching your every move.
The environments become less pristine test chambers as you move forward, and you get more and more of a peek at hidden areas behind the walls which you’re not supposed to see. By contrast, the areas behind the walls are dirty, full of debris and signs of life. There are indications that others have escaped and lived in these back areas. There are radios, remnants of canned food, graffiti and warnings scrawled on the walls. You begin to get a sense that something is wrong. The scrawled messages give you a hint at the true nature of GLaDOS, and that you’re not the first one to catch on to her.
The final section of the game has you making your way not only through the industrial and office areas behind the test chamber facade, but occasionally through test chambers in reverse as you try to escape. It’s a very fun and interesting twist, encouraging you to use all the tricks you learned during the organized tests in new ways.
Is Portal 2 more of the same?
The thing I most feared about Portal 2 was that the return of GLaDOS (revealed in early trailers for the game) would not be enough to save a sequel from feeling stale and rehashed. Portal was fresh and different. If Portal 2 was exact the same formula, I think it would have felt old rather quickly.
The good news is, Valve has escaped that particular trap with Portal 2. They have managed to create a sequel that gives fans of the original Portal some good touchstones, including several sequences with good old-fashioned Portal-style test chambers, while also introducing enough new elements to engage new and old fans alike. Most of this comes in the form of new Apeture Science inventions introduced into the tests, but there are also some fun new characters, and some clever plot twists.
My favorite addition was a new character, Wheatley, voiced by actor Stephen Merchant. Your computer sidekick for the early parts of the game, to me Wheatley feels like an amalgamation of Dragon Age’s Alistair and Harry Potter’s Hagrid: a well-meaning and likable buffoon primarily there for humor and as an entry point for newcomers. Wheatley is a great addition to the Portal/Apeture Science mythos, serving a role as orientation and guidance for new players, and comic relief for veterans, while setting up the story for the rest of the game.
I found one particular section of the game to drag a little: a kind of ‘retro Apeture Science’ area narrated by some pre-recorded messages from Cave Johnson, former CEO of Apeture Science, who is portrayed by actor J.K. Simmons (aka J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-man films). While the voiceovers by Cave Johnson are great and fun, it felt too distanced from the rest of the plot. I personally found the rooms in this section to be enormous and I often found it difficult so see where my objectives were. According to some interviews I’ve read, Valve had originally planned a prequel to Portal, featuring Cave Johnson as a primary antagonist, and these ideas were carried over into this section of Portal 2. I found the game picked up again quickly once I escaped these areas, and of course they do teach you to use some new Apeture Science tools which you will need to solve later rooms, but I definitely felt these sections were the weakest part of the game.
Overall, I would give Portal 2 4/5 stars. In fact, I immediately started over from the beginning after I completed it the first time, this time playing with the developer commentary on (why can’t you save in commentary mode?). Minus 1 star for having a story-driven co-op mode which I can’t experience without bothering another player (I am anti-social gamer, yay!), and for some slight pacing issues/drag during the middle of the game.