Project 5: Portal

We’ve looked at the first five minutes of Heavy Rain (not good), Uncharted 3 (very good) and God of War III (yummy), but let’s now take a diversion from the PS3, and have a quick five minute look at our first multi-format title: the wonderfully evergreen first person puzzle-em-up, Portal.  How does the opening section of one of videogaming’s true classics hold up?

It’s not immediately obvious, but every single footstep in Portal is designed to guide you into the game: right up until the closing credits you’re constantly learning, improving, and getting better.  Not once is something introduced that spoils this most perfect of difficulty curves, every signpost there for a reason, every cue carefully placed, every puzzle building on the last.

The first thing you see when you start the game is a timer, counting down from a minute, and a computerised voice greeting you with a cheery message.  “Hello and again welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center. We hope your brief detention in the relaxation vault has been a pleasant one. Your specimen has been processed and we are now ready to begin the test proper.”

[drop]You can’t escape the first room until the timer clicks to zero, but you can interact with the contents a little.  Flushing the toilet and throwing the radio does little in a practical sense, but it does immediately give the player a chance to become familiar with the controls.  And naturally, once the portal opens there’s an excitement that you wouldn’t have gained by immediately giving the player freedom.

Your first sight of a portal is an interesting one.  Looking through it you can see your own character (for the first time) and, because of the way the exit portal is positioned, you can see another side of you if you turn.  It’s a clever way of explaining how the portals work without baffling you with text – it’s the quintessential opening room, and once out of the portal, you crave for more.

The surroundings are sterile yet aged, the observation room above and the camera nearby suggesting you’re not alone.  There’s no immediate claustrophobia – that comes later – but it’s clear you’re a test subject and it’s clear you’re also not the first.  The big red trigger around the corner and the connecting room exhibit an instant Pavlovian response too, despite you having encountered both for the first time.

Level design is supremely important to something like Portal, with much of the game made up of the same sort of environment.  Valve, though, are masters of this, and five minutes gives you enough time to start to appreciate what the game might offer down the line: Test Chamber 1’s rotating portal confuses at first, but it’s meant to, showing you how Portals work by only changing one of them – and once you’re into the second things really start to pick up.

Another smart device – waiting.  You’re looking through a glass window at the Portal Gun doing its thing, but the game wants you to pause, and listen to the voice.  It serves to build anticipation at getting your hands on the thing, but also illustrating that this voice – GlaDOS – is in control of everything in this establishment.

When you finally get the Portal Gun, you’re limited to only firing blue portals, the orange ones placed by the game.  Again, this limits any initial confusion, allowing the developers to illustrate how the player (and cubes) fall through portals without losing the sense of orientation.  When the first five minutes are up you’ll have gotten through 3 or 4 chambers, and be ready to start experimenting with physics.

And that’s when the fun really begins.

Watching someone play Portal for the first time (at least, someone who can wield the – let’s face it – terriblly unfriendly dual analog stick control method employed by all first person shooters) is a deliciously entertaining thing to do.  Of course, once you’ve played it you never get that sense of adventure back, but you can recreate on some level it by at least spectating.

If you’re still yet to play it, mind, then you’re in for a treat.

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24 Comments

  1. Highly addictive. Not many games I play over and over, but I can with this easily. In fact, I might go re-install it on Steam later!

  2. I know i’m in the minority but I thought it was very dull.

    • I’ve got to the ~10th room and my interest waned.

      • Er, you kinda need to carry on a bit…

      • Yeah I know – just not interested enough though, theres only so many times moving a cube from here to there is worth doing :p

        No I can see why its great, but thats just how I felt

      • You could say this about every other puzzle game out there. Portal is pretty short anyways. Just give it another try sometime! Don’t tell me the companion cube died in vain! ;_;

    • you aren’t alone on this. I played it through but I’m glad it was only a couple of hours long

  3. I have just bought Portal: Still Alive for the 360, I had the orange box on PS3 and fell in love with straight away and Still Alive adds 14 levels not found elsewhere. I love everything about this game especially the companion cube. Struggle to get gold on the challenges though lol

  4. I enjoyed the experience but used Google a fair bit in the latter stages… it’ll be interesting to see how they can make Portal 2 different enough to warrant a whole new title…

    • The point is that it does not have to be different, Portal was kind a trial for the real thing so it will be extended and a few additions

  5. Loved Portal, must play it again to warm up for Portal 2 (which I finally got off my derriere and ordered last night)

    • Ironically, I bet you were sat on your derriere as you ordered it :)

    • Ironically, I bet you were sat on your derriere as you ordered it :)

  6. i only finished portal this weekend, and really enjoyed it. Looking forward to portal 2 now.

  7. I still haven’t gotten around to playing this yet, and can I suggest sometime doing this for MGS4? I just started a new game and am loving it (even without trophies). I would like to hear your eloquently-worded thoughts on it :)

  8. I noticed the first line where you put Uncharted 3 instead of 2.

  9. This has just made me put The Orange Box in my PS3 and start a new game of Portal, thank you very much :D

    Absolutely fantastic game with a brilliant sense of humour, let’s hope the sequel builds on the solid foundation of the first and we could have a serious GOTY contender

  10. I also only finished Portal last week. I bought the Orange Box a few months back but never got around to playing it, but I seen a trailer for Portal 2 so decided to have a go at Portal.

    I have to admit though, without youtube showing me the way, I think I’d still be stuck on the 18th or 19th Test Chambers!

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