This review contains some spoilers for Portal (but not the ending). I’ve marked one in particular, but go and play it! All screenshots, including the featured image, were taken by me.
Portal is actually one of the first ‘serious’ games I remember coming into contact with, let alone playing. And no, I’m not implying that the other games I remember from my childhood, like Nintendogs, or Animal Crossing: Wild World, or even Lego Star Wars aren’t ‘real’ games because they’re not ‘serious’. Taking lines of argument like that is a one-way ticket to annoying at least one person: they’re games, so by definition, they’re real games.
What I mean is that Portal is very different from the three games I listed. Notwithstanding its nature as a (sometimes quite tricky) puzzle game, it can get incredibly dark in its tone and themes.
You might be surprised to know that there are some similarities, however: Nintendogs and Portal, for example, both ask you to form a bond with something in the game. In the case of Nintendo’s pet simulator, it’s a puppy (of course), and in the case of Valve’s puzzle-platformer, it’s a particular Weighted Companion Cube, a variation on the often-seen Weighted Storage Cubes, that is essential to getting through a particular level. Adorned with hearts, of course, to make it as cute as possible.
But while Nintendogs has you feed, wash and walk your beloved pet in a comforting digital world, Portal makes you chuck the Weighted Companion Cube into an incinerator when you no longer have need of it.
OK, let’s take this back a step or two.
Portal was released in 2007 as part of Valve’s ‘The Orange Box’ bundle, along with the first-person shooter Half-Life 2 (and two sequels, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and Episode 2) and the multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2. I believe my dad bought this bundle back in the day on his Steam account, and I ended up playing Portal — I’m not sure how far I got through it, but I definitely played it — on our old desktop in the living room.
The game asks you to progress through levels of increasing difficulty and complexity, solving problems through the use of ‘portals’, using what’s commonly known as the portal gun. The portal gun fires blue portals with a left mouse click and orange portals with a right mouse click, and you can pass through portals (along with objects, like the aforementioned cubes). Certain surfaces can’t have portals fired onto them, and there are many hazards in the levels, such as fast-moving energy balls (called High Energy Pellets) that need to be directed, via the use of portals, to hit targets; little ‘turrets’ that will fire at you the moment they spot you; and swampy areas that you should really, really avoid falling into. GLaDOS tells you that if you fall in, you’ll get an ‘unsatisfactory mark’ on your test record, ‘followed by death’. Good luck indeed.
You play, in the first-person perspective, as Chell, who wears orange overalls and who can only be seen in the reflections provided by portals. Chell is being ‘tested’ by GLaDOS, a disembodied robotic voice that can be heard throughout the levels, after waking up in the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre. She will alternately taunt and assist Chell, and intends to motivate Chell to get through the testing by promising cake at the end, but there is clearly something very wrong with all of this. If you hadn’t figured that out from the desperate scrawlings and the handprints on the walls, you might from GLaDOS’s frankly bizarre quips and voice lines, such as promising that the mysterious ‘we’ at Aperture Science will stop ‘enhancing the truth’, or her repeated assurance that the Weighted Companion Cube, cannot, in fact, speak.
It’s quite difficult to talk about the puzzles without completely ruining them: they’re puzzles, after all, so the onus is on the player figuring them out by themselves. I will say, however, that they’re done really well, with some ingenious mechanics, multiple possible solutions, and some thinking outside the box (or maybe instead, outside the Companion Cube). A particular highlight has to be the use of momentum within the puzzles, especially ‘flinging’, where placing a portal high up on a wall and then falling into a second portal from a great height allows Chell to fly across gaps. In GLaDOS’s words, ‘speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out’.
However, at least for me, the best thing about Portal is the way it builds its atmosphere. The use of music and sound is one thing worthy of discussion: Chell wakes up to the sound of a cheesy, upbeat song on the radio, and the same song — only that song — can be heard at subsequent points on radios dotted around Aperture Science. It’s… weird. Unsettling. Everything is wrong. You’ll complete levels accompanied by the sounds of machinery, and you might sometimes notice ambient music in the background, but it’ll blend in. As the game progresses further, the tone changes even more, but I won’t say anything else.
I mean, really, a variety of elements combine to make Portal feel like an extremely lonely experience. You feel absolutely isolated, there’s no exposition: you’re just dropped into this facility and told you have to solve puzzles. The clean lines and clinical colour palette of the levels mean it still looks pretty OK by today’s standards (it might help that we don’t see Chell much, because character models in particular are often where a game shows its age) and, if anything, the fact that the game is obviously from a while ago adds to the atmosphere. It gives it an eerie quality — it’s not primitive 3D like we see in games from the 90s, but it’s not more polished 3D like we started to see in the early 2010s. It feels like it’s trapped in time, almost.
I’m absolutely dying to talk about some of the more surprising, even shocking, moments in the game, but I think it would be taking something away from the element of the unexpected that works so well in Portal. It’s tricky to rush through Portal on a first go — you need to take the time to figure out the solution, particularly in later levels — so make sure you explore everything. Portal can be very surprising.
The game received a sequel in 2011: Portal 2, no less. It’ll receive its own review, but I promise I won’t end this one with a tired reference to that cake meme. And I’m definitely more trustworthy than GLaDOS.