It’s easy to forget that the games industry is only just finding its feet. Considering that video games were only first seen as a legitimate form of popular entertainment forty years ago at most, it’s amazing to see how far it’s come. Long gone are the days in which characters had moustaches forced upon them due to technical limitations, replaced by an exciting new era of 3D gaming, open worlds, HD graphics and groundbreaking motion control. However, the only problem with these innovations is that too often we see them take the developers’ time instead of focusing on the only thing they had to worry about back in the day: The quality of the actual game itself. Portal, though, is a game that bucks this trend.
In fact, Portal bucks a lot of trends. It refuses to be pigeon-holed as today’s titles seemingly must be, simultaneously slotting into the puzzle, FPS, platformer and adventure genres. It’s a first-person title without proper weapons. It’s a puzzle title that doesn’t involve falling blocks. It dares to be funny whilst telling a compelling story. It stars a woman who isn’t there to be titillated at, just played as. Portal is born out of the contradictions it creates, the constant paradoxes just providing constant realms of inspiration for Valve to fill the games’ 20 levels.
As Chell, a female product tester working at the Aperture Science Foundation’s Scientific Enrichment Centre, it’s your job to road test the company’s latest invention: The portal gun, a device that allows you to create up to two portals at once, one red and one blue, with each one taking through through it and then through the other. Under the guidance of computer AI GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), you are tasked with finding your way to the exit lift for each of the test chambers found within the game. In order to do so, you need to solve the various puzzles within each chamber, starting off easy (Just create a portal on each end and walk out) but soon become feverishly difficult.
GLaDOS (Voiced by Ellen McLain) is the real star of the show, above the anonymous Chell. Providing a satirical commentary on your every accomplishment, she starts out just congratulating you on your test success in a variety of genuinely funny ways before gradual growing into being something more sinister, although retains the sense of humour throughout the revelations. There’s also lovely attention to detail, with some hilarious safety posters and the mad scrawling of the mysterious ‘Rat Man’, a previous tester constantly providing giggles. The fact that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously to have a laugh just adds to the enjoyment factor of the game.
While the central concept of Portal may be fantastic alone, it’s the design of these chambers separates the title out from the more mundane crowd. Every single one is dripping wet with genius juice and feels totally unique, a trick achieved by varying the way in which you reach the elevator you so desire. This is complimented nicely by the clinical white art style, which suits the game really well. We don’t want to go into much detail over the design of these chambers to risk spoiling them for those of you who are yet to play it, but every single one is special. While the last half an hour or so does feel slightly devoid of ideas, they’ve packed the rest of it so full of them they can take the final stretch off, they’ve deserved it.
However, that’s our main critism of Portal: It feels as though they did take the final couple of months of development off. The game is so short we finished it in about six hours on our first play through, and that’s including one chamber at the end of the game that had us simple wandering around for an hour before we finally cracked it. If you know what you’re doing you could probably clear the game in around four hours, with a little bit of luck. Yet despite it’s briefity, it doesn’t feel right to tell Valve they did wrong by making it that short, because the game is the very definition of the old cliché ‘Small, but perfectly formed’. Everything in the game is well constructed and we wouldn’t have it any other way. The pacing is dead-on and lets you get through a lot in the five hours or so, without ever making you feel rushed. More advanced portal techniques are learnt along the way as the levels get increasingly difficult, getting right up to the point where you’re flying through portals making two others simultaneously. The game’s unique physics help a lot, too, as you are frequently tasked with creating momentum to propel yourself out from other places and onto new platforms.
With video games being the new medium they are, it’s only natural to compare them to the more established forms of entertainment out there, such as cinema. If Donkey Kong is out Cabiria and Ocarina of Time our Citizen Kane, then Portal is our equivalent of The Truman Show, a masterpiece that was groundbreaking in its own right, but won’t be influencing anything any time soon but shall have a place in the hearts of and top 10 lists of thousands of people. Quite frankly, Portal is a masterpiece and deserves to be seen as such, rather than a freebie lumped on to pad out The Orange Box. You have to play this game.