UWG Top 10: #2 – Portal

When Portal fell into my lap as the game I was going to be writing about for the UWG top ten list, I was really excited. Anyone who follows my blog will know, Portal is one of those games that holds a special place in my heart. This single player shooter puzzle game by Valve is not only ridiculously fun and charming, but when it was released in 2007 it was one of the most original games I’d seen for a very long time. In fact, I still think it’s one of the most innovative games of the last generation. What started as a smaller add-on to The Orange box bundle received almost universal acclaim and quickly became one of Valve’s most popular franchises. Even more impressive is the fact that Portal is a spiritual successor to Narbacular Drop, an indie game developed by a group of students from DigiPen, who after showing their game to Valve were all immediately hired to develop Portal. As a testament to its popularity it spawned a full length sequel and ridiculous amounts of merchandise. So what is it about this game that captured so many gamers’ hearts, mine included?

 

In large part, it’s the story and characters that make the game special. Portal’s concept is highly original and the writing is dark, hilarious and bursting with personality. At the start of the game you’re given very little information. You play as a character called Chell and all you know is that you have to progress through a series of ‘testing chambers’ – a series of rooms full of often deadly obstacles, guided by the voice of the more sarcastic than helpful AI GLaDOS and some simple instructional images on the wall at the start of levels. You’re armed with nothing but a portal gun (not an actual gun) and your wits to get you through the puzzles. The way it works is that you can create one orange and one blue portal at time, which are physically connected in the three dimensional space. This means you can step through a portal all the way on the one side of the room and appear through the portal on the other (more about the mechanics below). You learn most of the story through audio recordings and the literal writings on the walls. It’s a simple story, yet one that you discover is deeply rich and complex the further you go and the more you chip away the surface. It also perfectly weaves levity into its dark subject matter perfectly.

 

GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), voiced by the wonderful Ellen McLain is one of my favourite villains of all time. No one does acerbic sarcastic humour quite like she does and she has some of the best one liners I’ve heard in any game ever. Other than the actual environment, it’s GLaDOS’s announcements that truly set the tone of the whole game. It wouldn’t have been the same without her constant ‘encouragement’ and her digs at Chell’s weight and lack of parents is honestly laugh out loud funny. The end credits song written by Jonathan Coulton and sung by GLaDOS literally almost made me piss myself laughing. I’ve now listened to it 100s of times and burst into song at its very mention. BEST. CREDITS. SONG. EVER. The fact that the whole game only involves two real main characters, other than the turrets and Companion Cube and one of them can’t even talk (Chell is a silent protagonist in true Valve fashion) and yet still feels rich and bursting with life and detail is testament to the team’s skill in storytelling and design.

 

However, equally compelling and original is the gameplay. The physics in this game is one of the reasons this game became so popular. On the basis of the simple rule that an object going into one portal will come out of the other in the direction that portal is facing and at the same speed, the number of new gameplay mechanics that arise from that alone is incredible. This game is predicated on some very basic rules (which I won’t go into as I don’t want to give anything away) that build into very complex scenarios. Best of all, the puzzles are really really FUN and at times very difficult. There’s no pixel hunting or blind luck (at least very minimal). You get a real sense of reward and there’s a perfect balance between difficulty and enjoyment. Unlike many other puzzle games, Valve gets it right by making the actual act of solving a puzzle really fun.

 

Although Portal 2 offers a significant upgrade in terms of graphics, Portal is still a good looking game. The fact that that aesthetically many of the rooms are quite similar – white walls and high ceilings makes sense given their purpose and their sameness works to add a real sense of creepiness. And that’s one of the real draws of Portal. It’s incredibly atmospheric and immersive. In between all the snorting and chuckling, there were also many moments that made my hair stand on end.

 

I think Portal’s #2 spot on this list could not be more deserved. Much as I love many of the games on this list, I think this is one of the few recent games that I would say is truly innovative and that, given its origins, is an impressive feat. And it’s just really damn good. It might a short game, but it packs a huge punch.

Check out more of my opinion pieces, reviews , videos and more over at my blog http://www.cheeesetoastieandvideogames.com. Image above by jit.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Hatm0nster says:

    Rarely does a game completely catch you off-guard like Portal did. What I thought was just a little extra in The Orange Box, turned out to be one of the best games to be released in the last 15 years. Dittos to everything you said here Sam! Portal is just one of those games that you can’t help but develop a soft spot for!

    Not to mention that Still Alive probably inspires more feels now than it did back then since has nostalgia working for it. Ah the feels!

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      I’ve actually never played the first “Portal” game, but I absolutely love “Portal 2”. It’s just so different, and even though it doesn’t take too long to get through, it easily competes with my other games because it is unlike anything else that I own. (And “Still Alive” is one of the best video game songs of all time.)

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      1. Sam Leung says:

        Portal 2 is also an excellent game. Like you said, it’s just so unique. There’s really been no other game quite like the Portal games before or since. I’d definitely suggest checking out Portal if you enjoyed Portal 2. Even though it’s much shorter it really does feel like the quintessential Portal experience and I enjoyed every second of it. It would be one I’d definitely recommend to even the most jaded of gamers! And yes, absolutely, ‘Still Alive’ is definitely one of the best video game songs of all time!

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    2. Sam Leung says:

      That’s exactly how I felt. I wasn’t really that eager to give it a shot, but since it was in The Orange Box I was kind of like ‘well, I guess I might as well try it at least.’ SO glad I did. Once I got over the shock of how awesome it was, I knew I’d found a new favourite game of all time. It has that immediate sense of being a classic even when it first came out.

      Yep, I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘Still Alive’ without feeling warm fuzzies and bursting into song. The nostalgia makes it even better!

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  2. cary says:

    If it hadn’t been for the rave reviews from my husband, I probably would have skipped Portal entirely. I was just so averse to first-person perspective games then, I avoided them like the plague. I’ll be honest, the first few levels of the game didn’t immediately hook me and I was more annoyed than amused by GLaDOS. But once I got over my own visual queasiness and really started tuning into the story, I got it. The games, the controls, everything made so much sense, and it was truly a blast! #2 is indeed a well-deserved spot for such an awesome game.

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      I had no intention of playing “Portal 2” originally (I still have never played the first game), either, because I had never even heard of it. But, once I started hearing a lot of good things about it, I decided to check it out, and I’m so glad I did. Definitely one of the best games out there.

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    2. Sam Leung says:

      I’m glad he convinced you to try Portal! I almost skipped over myself as I wasn’t really big on puzzle games at the time, but the story, gameplay, controls, the concept, everything about it just hooked me in. It’s just one of those games that’s just so brilliant it’s hard NOT to get really into it. And it’s just so much fun! I totally agree, Portal definitely deserves the no. 2 spot.

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  3. Sam Leung says:

    Reblogged this on CheeeseToastieandVideoGames and commented:

    Oops, just realised I’d completely forgotten to reblog this post I wrote for UWG on Thursday. I didn’t have the time to write another post for CTVG, so I hope you guys enjoy this! It was part of UWG’s list of top 10 games and I was lucky enough to be assigned Portal to write about. Check it out. 🙂

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  4. Good choice here. It’s a classic. These kind of puzzle games are right in my wheelhouse and GlaDOS made it that much more memorable. Loved it.

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      I played the second game, and I loved it. The puzzles were so unique, and GLaDOS is one of the greatest characters of all time. She’s why I bought the game to begin with, as everyone talked about how awesome she was.

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    2. Sam Leung says:

      Yeah it really is a classic. Portal reinvigorated my love of puzzle games and GlaDOS is still one of my favourite video game characters ever. Ellen McLain was a perfect fit!

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  5. I actually never finished the first Portal. Made it about halfway through it and then stopped for whatever reason. Perhaps it was melting my brain a little more than I expected considering it was a completely unique experience at that time.

    Portal 2 though was a different story. Completely finished that one. Both great games.

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    1. Sam Leung says:

      It definitely does take a little while to really get into the swing of things and some the puzzles are pretty damn hard!
      Portal 2 has more of a fleshed out story and I feel that it was probably an easier experience in some ways, since you kind of ‘got’ how things worked by then. But both are awesome games, as you said. 🙂

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