a review of Portal
a videogame developed by valve
and published by valve
for Microsoft Windows, the macintosh operating system x, the microsoft xbox 360 and the playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
After playing Portal, it becomes abundantly clear that every videogame produced should probably be required by law to contain at least one fantastical item that the player wishes he could have in real life. The closest any game has ever gotten to Portal‘s Portal Gun would have to be the Castrol Tom’s Supra in Gran Turismo, which is kind of sad because that’s just a car.
Simply put, the Portal Gun lets you shoot a Blue Portal and a Red Portal; go in the Blue Portal, come out the Red Portal. Go in the Red Portal, come out the Blue Portal.
The beginning of the game streamlines the dynamic by providing you with Red Portals and letting you place Blue Portals. Even then, it’s enough to confuse most peoples’ girlfriends (if they exist). The very first puzzle after the player receives the ability to shoot both Red and Blue Portals involves a door across a very, very wide chasm. In order to get there, you just shoot a Portal of any color at the wall near the door and then shoot a Portal at the wall near where you stand. Enter the Portal nearest to you and, with a pan-flash worthy of Super Mario Bros., power flickers to life in virgin regions of your brain. It used to be, chasms were the point of games; in Portal, they’re just a casualty of the game’s brutally inventive, genre-breaking concept. The only way to play this game is to break what you already know about other games, which I suppose is especially true if you know nothing at all about games. This game is vandalism for the gamer’s mind; it breaks into the game design profession’s ladies department at midnight and straps diamond dildos on all the mannequins.
Any human being worth conversing with will, upon encountering that first genius chasm in Portal, begin to literally quiver whilst contemplating the possibilities of owning a real-life Portal gun. An elaborate example would involve putting one portal in, say, an apartment in Rome, and another one in your apartment in Philadelphia. Not everyone has an apartment in Rome, however. A simpler example — I wouldn’t mind having a portal in my bedroom and another one in my office five kilometers away. Would be nice to not have to commute! Have one portal on the sofa cushion and another on the ceiling above your toilet, for example, to turn defecating into something of a game. Sex with your girlfriend could become severely interesting, as you do her from in her apartment via a portal in your apartment, then pull out and close the portal, leaving her bewildered and alone. Or — and this was actually the first one I thought of — with very simple portal placement, you could finally experience auto-fellatio without straining your abdominal muscles (or having ribs removed). Just remember to close the portals when you’re done, or the next person stepping into your apartment is going to immediately know exactly what you were doing.
As Portal starts building in cleverness — with the introduction of surfaces that cannot be portaled — your mind may or may not calm down, and start to ponder potential puzzles. The first time the game threw a momentum-based puzzle my way, I immediately thought it would be awesome if there was a puzzle where you have to cross a long chasm by placing two portals on the floor far beneath your feet. When the game eventually tossed out one such puzzle, it felt really nice. Like the game was listening. Good games are like this — they make you start to expect to see your name in the credits.
The “story” of Portal, in typical Valve fashion, is told entirely as you’re actually playing the game. You wake up in a kind of test-tube bed with hideous music playing on a nearby radio. You are informed that you are a test subject. The droning computer voice refers to you as “[Subject Name Here]”, which at first seems like a funny little joke, and then eventually — if you duck into enough optional side rooms — seems less like a one-off and more like a sinister hint.
Sinister hint or not, it’s entirely up to you how much you read into the story — if at all — just as it’s up to you to play this game in the first place. Having gone into this game cold turkey, I had no idea what kind of “plot” there would be, if any, so I was weirdly shocked (this was at two in the morning) when I got to the first “side room” — dilapidated and littered with garbage, a stark contrast to the sterile white of the testing center. A cold wave came over me: no, the spectacular dialogue (spoken only by the computer voice) in this game isn’t just for optional amusement. There really is a story back there, somewhere.
My first side-room experience happened to come just minutes after I thought, what if we get to break out of this testing center and use the portal gun in real life? In a way, using the portal gun in a simulated videogamefacsimile of “real life” was more appealing, in that moment, than actually using a real portal gun in real real life, probably because the fake real life was a more immediate possibility. In the end, which was great, the game only met me halfway, though what a spectacular halfway it was.
Some said the game was too short; some people have also said that the greatest compliment a pop song can receive is “it’s too short”, though those people probably don’t regularly play three-hour videogames, and thus many of them might find Portal to be too long. (I happen to think there are many better things to say about pop music. “This song made me quit smoking”, for example, can be a better compliment than “It’s too short”. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear the song that made someone quit smoking?) I suppose the crux of this well-waged argument is that Portal is both short and not conducive to replaying. This is perhaps a fair criticism, though that first play-through is so much of a brain marathon that it’s going to stick with you for months, or even years. I’d rather play a three-hour game with a razor-sharp concept, hilariously quotable dialogue, and a vaguely sketched story that just keeps coming back to you than, say, scrounge around big environments looking to collect all 101 fucking Dalmatians. Also, as a short game, and as one that can be played mostly by utilizing actual common sense, it’s exceptionally easy to recommend it to people who don’t own any Devil May Cry T-shirts. In the end, Portal‘s three hours contain more story and more personality than probably any 100-hour game has ever had before it; it draws a new line in the sand between games that are about showing us something cool and games that are giving us something to do in the interim period between the game’s release and the day that the buy-back rate at used game shops falls through the floor. With this writing, I’d like to implore the Worldwide Videogame Industry to “make more games like Portal“, though seeing as when Famitsu implored the Japanese Videogame Industry to “make more games like Brain Training” we ended up with literally whole shop floors devoted to brain-training games, it’s probably not a good idea. I mean, there’s only so much you can do with portals, and even less you can do with a whole shelf full of games about portals.
While we’re at it, let’s say that consulting GameFAQs for this game should probably be illegal.
As with Katamari, there’s really no reason to make a sequel to Portal; again, as with Katamari, the only way to make a sequel would be to expand on the concept only logistically. An actual evolution of Katamari would present the player with a tiny clump in an actual, breathing, realistic metropolis. An evolution of Portal would see the escaped test subject fleeing from the feds in a sprawling real-world environment, with a certain destination clearly in mind (let’s say the penthouse office suite of a specific skyscraper) and numerous puzzles laid out in logical places throughout the city, solvable only with the portal gun; the player navigates from puzzle to puzzle as the indirect result of her being chased by shadowy men in radiation suits. Eventually, the game would come together like one huge puzzle.
Maybe you’d even have two portal guns, and be able to use four portals at a time. Man!
It occurs to me that it would be kind of cool if Valve were to collaborate a bit with Rockstar to make the portal gun a downloadable item in Grand Theft Auto IV. They don’t even have to produce any specific missions for it — if you pay, say, five dollars, then the portal gun is permanently placed in your character’s house. Man, that’s a good idea. Someone should give me a job, or something. I’m genuinely surprised at how I just can’t find the proper words to adequately congratulate myself, here.
The writing in Portal is so good, from moment to moment, that it births within me the unshakable and vaguely self-important impression that its writer, Erik Wolpaw (of Psychonauts and Old Man Murray) hates me personally. (There’s no better compliment I can give any piece of writing.) Still, the amount of rabid internet pseudo-posturing concerning the words “Weighted Companion Cube” or “Still Alive” (Protip: play the game to figure out what these words mean) is a bit bewildering. Half of the people who praise the Weighted Companion Cube as a fresh breath of emotion in a videogame industry that is otherwise desensitized to violence against grandmothers and grandfathers are also the sons of the same invisible bitch who step forward to “lol” whenever Kotaku posts a story about the current state of the “Ninjas vs. Pirates” meme. Scientists are hard at work in cooperation with the police, by the way, in proving the hypothesis that half of the people who claim to still find the words “Ninjas” and “Pirates” funny when used in the same sentence either played high school football or tried out for it. That some people will “LOL” at any mention of the Weighted Companion Cube or embroider little custom-made pillows of it while still commenting on web forums that “it’s kind of a shame that even if you wait like ten minutes to dispose of the cube GLaDOS still tells you you destroyed the cube faster than any past test subject” illustrates that these people are only pretending to have a sense of humor. (Here, if I wanted, I could turn this article into a pseudo-literary analysis of how GLaDOS is simply trying to make essentially every test subject feel like they’re more horrible than most other people, and how this is a subtle commentary on how videogames desensitize people, et cetera, though I’m probably the only person who would find that hilarious.) The best conclusion that can be reached, I suppose, is that people in general aren’t capable of truly appreciating quality for what it is, and the nagging feeling in the center of the brain that forces them to regurgitate the most boring key phrases of an otherwise virtuosic tableau of exciting phrases (I loved the “Didn’t we have some fun, though?” line, for example) is a yearning to understand why they enjoyed what they just enjoyed. Really, you have to just let it flow, man.
As good as Portal‘s writing is (and it is indeed excellent), at the end of the day, it’s really no more earth-shattering than the visual production values of God of War: in other words, it’s the bare minimum that videogame-reviewing reviewers and videogame-playing players should be expecting. Luckily for Portal, it also has a magnificent game concept, perfect pacing, and is actually playable from start to finish by someone who didn’t grow up with an unopened box of Super Mario Bros. & Legend of Zelda cereal (“collector’s item”) under their bed. For all it represents, it’s also Action Button Dot Net‘s Game of the Year, 2007. Sorry if you were expecting a ceremony for that! I might as well use this paragraph to say that Portal is “kind of tied” with Pac-Man: Championship Edition, in that if you play both of these games in one day, you’ve had about as much fun as it’s possible to have with videogames released in 2007. I often think of Portal sometimes while playing Pac-Man: Championship Edition, which I guess makes this sentence less of a tangent. Though the hell with it, tangents are more fun, and Portal is so good that talking about it is quite frankly boring. I’ll use the rest of this paragraph to say that the Action Button Dot Net Runner Up Game of the Year, 2007 is Stuntman Ignition, which, as it were, has much better graphics than Guitar Hero. I also pause here to spoil that Action Button Dot Net‘s Game of the Year, 2008 is most likely going to be Sega / Creative Assembly’s Viking: Battle for Asgard, because I love vikings, I love Creative Assembly, I consider Spartan: Total Warrior the sharpest game ever made, and most importantly because I have seen screenshots and I will not be swayed.
(*tied with pac-man: championship edition)
Getting back on topic, then: some kids have seen fit to both solve the puzzles in Portal and solve them as fast as possible, which is a little redundant, like seeing how fast you can write out all the answers on a calculus test with an answer key right next to you. Portal, unlike some (most) games, is not about the finger exercise — it’s about the experience of getting through it, letting it open your mind a little bit, putting it away, and then ceaselessly, turgidly, relentlessly forcing your friends to borrow it until everyone you know has played it and thanked you. To digress, the only game that’s better under this description would be God Hand, because I recommend that one fiercely and still play it. Then again, why would I want to play a game over and over again? Yearning for “replay value” is a sickness that dwells deep in the heart of every mainstream game reviewer. The best games aren’t ones with swathes of collectible bullshit; they’re ones like Portal, or Cave Story — games that, art or pop-art or whatever the hell they are (Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood has called Cave Story “art”, and I’m pretty sure he’s smarter than me (not being sarcastic), so who knows), are so undeniably, tightly put-together that clearing them makes us never want to see them again, makes us wonder why the people who made them aren’t out, I don’t know, fucking curing cancer, developing the Ultimate Toothbrushing Solution, or something. In this day and age when even a (metaphorically) fat-fingered bastard like me can learn to script events in the Unreal Engine, Portal (no, not BioShock) is precisely the kind of videogame everyone out there needs to play. In short, it’s substance over style, and the style is spectacular.
Did you ever have this experience: a band or a book or a film that someone recommended to you very casually — maybe they said “I guess you might like them”, or something else mealy-mouthed enough to make you wonder what this jerk knows about what you like — and then, when you finally got around to listening to that band / reading that book / seeing that movie you were fucking blown away, and disappointed by all of your friends, because not a single one of them knows you well enough to know that this thing that they got to before you is precisely the sort of thing you’d love? I have that experience all the time, most recently with this game Portal, and the television show “The Sopranos”, which I started watching on a bizarre whim (it’s so good I haven’t touched a videogame in weeks). If you, dear reader, have actually read to the end of this inane, half-autistic nonsense right here (one of three articles written on one lunch break, meaning it took less than twenty minutes and was written hungry) and you still haven’t played Portal, you are hereby ordered to consider this the strongest possible recommendation.