Portal: A Modern Masterpiece

This article contains Portal spoilers.

Portal transcends the typical socially acceptable time limits normally imposed on videogames; the internet memes still played out today might have grown a little tired now but if you were there, when nobody knew, even your Granny politely informing you that the damned cake is a lie can fire off enough synapses to invoke special, personal memories of one of this generation’s most memorable titles.

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And if you weren’t around at the beginning, if you hadn’t seen the embryonic seeds laid down by Narbacular Drop – if you played through Portal knowing what was to come, then you’d managed to spoil one of the biggest and yet most secretive parties this industry has ever had by pre-empting everything that was so powerful about Portal.  The gradual yet spectacular decline of GlaDOS, the escapable fate of the player, that ending – all surprises worth experiencing first hand.

Remarkably, there’s a third group of gamer – one that hasn’t actually played Portal at all, and really, there’s literally no excuse: you can pick up The Orange Box for next to nothing, or you can buy Still Alive on XBLA if you’re scared of going outside.  You might have spoiled the ending, but that doesn’t really matter – Portal’s last act might be where the game shows its true colours but the rest of it is gaming gold anyway.

It’s a powerful concept, Portal’s central premise, but it’s one introduced to the player in a series of baby steps designed to ensure familiarity with the ideas of Portal in the early stages before letting him loose on the remainder.  At first, the Portals (both blue and orange entrances) are pre-determined and fixed, and even when the player gets the wonderfully named Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device in his hands it’s only one colour he can fire at first.

This isn’t restricting for the sake of it – the very notion of Portals was a tough one to explain.  By limiting the Portal Gun’s abilities and smoothly building up the ways in which the player can use gravity, velocity and direction to progress through the game the player never feels like there’s too much going on, and by the time he’s left to his own devices as the game kicks up a gear or two the training wheels are off and, hopefully, the puzzles can take care of themselves.

Portal completely changed the way we think about first person shooters.  For one, there were no bullets fired by the player beyond the thwap of the Portal Gun as it propelled the harmless but utterly crucial orange and blue energy balls towards the nearest suitable wall.  Secondly, walls were no longer a physical boundary – assuming you can see beyond your current obstruction you could fire one portal into the wall ahead and another where you’d want to emerge once you stepped through the first.

But then Portal was never really a first person shooter and although it was bundled alongside Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 Portal was every bit its own game, its own genre.  From the very first screen, with the player making their own baby steps out of the glass case and into their first portal, the game manages to both captivate and divert at every single junction.  You never really know what’s coming next even when you think you do.

Towards the end of the game, once Portal has removed the stabilisers and notched up the difficulty, Valve’s delicious puzzles take over, wrapping GlaDOS’s spiraling paranoia and some utterly wonderful gameplay mechanics into one hell of a freefall.  The pacing’s perfect, the ingenuity a constantly controlled stream and some of the cleverest moments – like the delightful Weighted Companion Cube – providing key stand out moments you’ll think (and talk) about for weeks.

Of course, then there’s the twist.  You might have seen it coming – the ajar sections of the lab, the hastily scrawled comments and the overwhelming sense that something’s not quite right – and then there’s the fire.  I’ll admit, it caught me out a couple of times and really, at one point, I thought this was the end.  Why had I been asked to invest a good six or so hours on something so abruptly concluded without any real closure?

Naturally, curiosity got the better of me, and a far flung portal opened up what is the game’s defining moment, the realisation that now it’s you against the machine and that last chapter, utterly unsignposted on a first run through, proving to be the best in the entire story.  Ramping up to furious levels of adrenaline inducing excitement, the ultimate face off with GlaDOS an anticlimax only on the grounds that this is the true end of the game.

A second admission – the end song hit me right in the chest.  A beautifully poised love letter to Portal’s latest contestant, and one that too managed to find its way into videogaming legend.  Lucious vocals and some great lyrics are married with some geektastic terminal graphics that found their target perfectly.  It’s all over, Portal is done and finished, and there’s only the teasing final shot – outside, finally – that lingers in our minds.

Oh, and the cake, of course.

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52 Comments

  1. Portal is my favourite game of all time.
    EXCEPT the memes, dear God the amount of people I know who say “THE CAKE IS A LIE LOL ROFL” and have never even played Portal.
    Damn you VALVe

  2. I’ve always disliked the complete and utter misnomer that this is a first person shooter. It’s not. It’s not a Portal Gun, that’s a terrible term for it. It’s a handheld portal device. No more a gun than a laser pointer is a gun.

    So FPS it ain’t. First Person Puzzle game? I’d guess that’s a much better description.

    It’s a truly wonderful game, though. The black humour inherent in GLaDoS’ script, the gradual build of the difficulty and complexity over the 2 hour play time. It’s all so very natural and is as close to perfection as you’ll get. It’s almost Miyamoto in it’s genius (to coin Edge’s previous defenition of 10).

    I just hope they don’t ruin it for Portal 2. They won’t retread old ground so much, but they had better not lose the spirit and soul of the game. It’s not a shooter.

    • and yet you shoot portals out of it? why does the word shoot have to have a bad connotation? and regardless of whether or not it does, the fact is that it IS a first-person shooter

      • Good point! Now I’m off to shoot some hoops!

    • Yeah, I agree. You can shoot something other than bullets. You are shooting energy orbs out the front of the gun that hit the wall and turn into portals. I’d say that was shooting. Despite that, I do agree with everything else you said Teflon.

      I really don’t see how they can uphold the same spirit and quality the first game had. It was a perfect little nugget of a game and needed no sequel. It’s going to be massively hard to make Portal 2 as good as the first one, so I really hope they manage to achieve it.

  3. didn’t read the article as i am still without cake also i have never played portal(or any valve game as far as i can remember) but intend to do so also cake must get some cake

    question “cake! what is cake?”

    • just ordered orange box, also how is half life for the ps2 as my pc is as dead as a dodo’s sex life

  4. Bought it…sold it…bought it again…traded it…bought it again…need I say more…indeed a classic!

    • Lucky, Finding a copy of the Orange Box in any game store/rental place is dead impossible X_X

      • No its not! I see them all the time

  5. I originally got this for HL but I think I played Portal much more. Really looking forward to this.

  6. I love the 2nd to last level were you *spoilers* go awol and break out of the puzzle rooms and into the rooms full of the machinery that made the puzzle rooms work, The dialogue from GLaDOS was brilliant, ‘Haha this was all a joke haha, one day we will laugh at this and laugh and laugh and laugh’ lol

  7. i got most of the way through, but some of the later puzzles just beat me, just couldn’t get the timing right and gave up.
    maybe i’ll have better luck with the pc version.

    • It’s was all about lateral thinking. Some of the levels took a bit of trial & error though. Defeating GlaDOS at the end within the time limit was the trickiest part for me.

  8. I’m GLaD the next Portal is coming out on the PS3. Portal is indeed a wonderful game.

  9. Never played it…

    *ducks*

    • Can i hide with you,i fear the portal crowd

      • there is no escaping, watch and you will see an orange hole on the wall beside you

      • Or in the floor below you and the ceiling above, you’ll be stuck in a perpetual fall forever.

      • … unless they grab the edge of the portal

    • WHY NOT? PLAY IT NOW!! >:(

  10. Does anyone know where you can pick the Orange Box for PS3 cheap online? I’ve never played Portal and don’t even know the ending or anything beyond the gameplay mechanic, and the fact cake features at some point…

    When I saw the surprise PS3 announcement of Portal 2 I decided to pick the Orange Box up for cheap just for Portal, but even though lot’s of shops had a place holder for under 10 quid they were all out of stock.

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