Thinking With Portals – a retrospective

By: Craig Lager

Published: April 18, 2011 Posted in: Retrospective

Portal was bundled with the Orange Box as a bonus feature, a “and you get this too” to further push what was already one of the greatest, most anticipated releases ever. It’s only two, maybe three hours long, but since its release those few hours and that tiny game have become a phenomenon. It came out of nowhere, but I’d argue that Portal is the best game that Valve have ever released.

Portal - title

The others are great, amazing, sure. I don’t need to lay down any more praise for Half-Life and the rest, there is plenty around already, but Portal is perfect. The only possible criticism I can throw at it, even now after the dust has settled on the Portal novelty is that “it’s quite short”, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t need to be longer. What Portal achieves and the legacy it has created with that time frame hasn’t been repeated, never mind surpassed. And if you do want to get picky about length, it’s easily extended with bonus maps, challenge maps, user made maps, and achievement hunting. You could easily spend 50 hours in the Aperture Science halls.

Success was instant; within a day of release the Internet was ablaze with “The cake is a lie”, “I <3 the companion cube” and “This was a triumph” – which indeed it was. GLaDOS was filed next to SHODAN and HAL as “insane AI that we love”. It snowballed and still, a full four years later, it hasn’t quite stopped.

What is slipping from memory though is what an achievement of game design Portal actually is. Between the memes and the songs, Portals punch becomes somehow diluted in the collective consciousness. This is a game that should be studied exhaustively: how to do pacing, how to do player learning, how to engage the player in narrative without cut scenes or scripted sequences, how to build atmosphere. It’s all there, in Portal, a two hour game.

Portal - companion cube

And really, while it got pulled apart in a meme happy frenzy, Portal is much more subtle than the constant references might have you mis-remember. The companion cube, for example, is your companion for around ten minutes. And yes, it’s surprising and very clever and funny because it has hearts on it while remaining a cold, grey cube. But you only have it for ten minutes.

What’s more interesting than the artefact of a funny cube with hearts on is how Portal forces that relationship on the player. You don’t like the companion cube because it’s “your friend”, or particularly because it has hearts on it, but rather you like it because you’re told to. As soon as it comes into view GLaDOS encourages a bond: “it will accompany you”, “please take care of it” and the very first thing you do with the cube is use it to scale some stairs – you are as instantly dependant on it as it is of you to get throught the test chamber – you are a team.

The cube then shields you from death and is essential in progression, but loads of cubes have done this before; the relationship is only cemented in the saddest moment: the moment where you’re forced to burn it. Up until now, it’s been “ha ha very funny, a cube with a heart on it, companion cube, haha”. But then you have to incinerate it. Suddenly, it’s not just a companion cube, it’s your companion cube. To be killed, the cube has to hold open a door allowing for its own demise, then you cast it silently into a fiery pit. Then you’re told that you were the fastest person to kill a companion cube – a beration for doing what you’ve been told wrapped in a conscience hit. It is, all of it, a scientific experiment from GLaDOS and the results are all over the internet.

But it is also an experiment from Valve, or, more so, a demonstration that they know exactly what they’re doing. The Companion Cube, as with Cake and the degrees of honesty about Cake, are just narrative devices that have have been worked into the players psyche as they would be with Chell. It’s not an easy thing to make millions of people care about a grey, voiceless weighted cube, but Portal does it and makes it seem effortless, and it makes GLaDOS that much more sinister.

Portal - test chamber

Of course, this is all ignoring the technical achievement present here too: portals. It’s mind blowing, but then Portal is paced and written so very well that it never seems impossible or scary, yet to even revisit Portal now the idea feels fresh because the very concept of portals is just so much fun.

Shoot a portal here, shoot one there, instant link in spacetime between the two. So much time spent with Portal is with an almost childlike perspective of play. Drop something in an infinite loop, drop yourself into an infinite loop. Catapult yourself across a room. “Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” “Wheeeee”. It is a perfect combination of simultaneous discovery and play which is guided but – essentially – never hand-held. What starts with the player tentatively stepping through a generated portal ends with them setting new ones mid flight, driven using perpetual momentum. Again, Portal makes it seem effortless.

What Valve did, then, was to launch a brand new IP that innovated in every way that games need to innovate. Portal told a perfect story without a single disconnect from the player, it guided them through difficult concepts easily while making them laugh along the way, and it created a legacy of game design that got into every gamers consciousness and is refusing to come out. If Portal 2 manages the same feat while being even longer then it would be more than impressive, because to be perfect can in no way be effortless to achieve.

Craig Lager
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