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.