To think that one of the most influential games of its era started off as part of a bundle; but at a time when retail games came with the expectation of being worth $60 and thus several hours long, there was no other way this game would have seen a traditional release.
The original Portal is about as singular of an experience as video games come, fitting into that elusive non-block-based puzzle genre which requires crafting entirely unique mechanics from scratch and then shaping ever-increasingly complex puzzles around those mechanics. Sometimes these games become so esoteric no one but a genius will be able to progress past the opening stages without consulting a guide. Creating something accessible for the common player while containing enough of a challenge to make each solution memorable requires a fine balance, and few games have ever gotten that balance quite as right as Valve’s Portal.
Though too familiar to truly go back and appreciate, it’s hard to overstate how well this game handled atmosphere, especially while being presented as a side-game in a Half-Life 2 compilation. Many of these games are plotless affairs, throwing you into a series of levels and that being that. Portal pretends to be this in its early stages, a completely innocuous lab setting where you’re experimenting with a new technology which can create two portals which connect to one another.
The pieces slowly start adding up. The puzzles soon start adding clear safety hazards which will never be a threat, but still far from OSHA compliant. Then host robot GLaDOS adds a ‘consequence for failure,’ being poison gas along the floor below which will instantly kill anyone who falls in. This simple puzzle game transforms into an oppressive horror story.
Well, it would, except for one key feature – GLaDOS is one of the funniest video game characters ever written. Her seething hatred for the player character is barely masked by her robotic voice, and she becomes more and more agitated with every success. There’s a reason this became perhaps the most memetic video game of all time – every line of dialogue is golden.
The back half of the game is where things really shine. The chambers become increasingly decrepit, allowing the player to briefly sneak inside hidden corridors and find the mad ramblings of the previous test subjects. GLaDOS’s threats move from passive to direct, employing poorly-designed but cute little turrets. The ‘final’ stage has GLaDOS slowly lower you into a fire, and then the real game begins; Chell breaks free from the chambers and wreaks havoc through the rest of Aperture Science.
This breakthrough transformed Portal from an off-kilter puzzler to something medium defying. In this post-modernist twist, the player is suddenly thrust against the creator herself. The meta-analysis wrote itself. What does it mean to break free of an internal ruler while still being railroaded by the actual designers? Nevertheless, Portal managed to achieve the feeling of breaking all the rules.
The best part is how this section keeps being the same game, but with the added stressors of obscured progression and outright assault. The game itself starts breaking the design philosophy established in its first half, all to showcase the true genius behind the developers’ creation.
The portal gun is one of gaming’s greatest inventions, this device which proves simple to use but with seemingly infinite possibilities. An extra layer is how the puzzles incorporate the physics engine. While the earliest chambers largely involve connecting two portals to reach distant areas, later puzzles involve generating momentum to leap across chasms. Some of the best moments require shooting more portals while being flung across the room. And who could resist shooting one portal on the ceiling and another beneath your feet, just to see how fast you could go? A few trick angles would even allow the player to catch a glimpse of Chell on the other side.
It’s easy to view Portal as bordering on a tech demo considering its length, but if that’s the case, one must wonder why any developers bother creating full-length games; few games have lingered longer in the collective conscious. Portal is simply to the point, no second wasted as it first teaches the rules, then explores what those rules mean, before finally asking you to break them.
For Portal, the name of the game was escalation. Whether it be through the ever more complex puzzles, GLaDOS’s increasingly mean-spirited dialogue, or the total tonal shift, every new area threw another curve ball. If brevity is the soul of wit, such a tightly-focused experience was destined to go down as a social phenomenon. Though made by a preeminent studio, Portal clearly laid a path for people to be more responsive to the indie game craze which would really take hold with the following year’s Braid. It cannot be overstated how much Valve shaped gaming; where the Steam platform helped open the market to independent developers, Portal was a forceful mainstream nudge to give smaller games a chance.