You wake up in a glass cell in the middle of a room with white panel walls.
Looking around, you spy a clipboard, a coffee mug, and a radio spewing out a jaunty tune. You also see a timer ticking down to nought. A female robot chatters over the intercom, announcing that the enrichment centre testing will begin shortly, and that dangerous trials lie ahead. You respond by picking up the clipboard and putting it in the toilet. Welcome to Portal.
It’s the blend of the sinister and the hilarious that sprung Valve’s unique FPS to the top of everyone’s favourite stash of gamer porn, The Orange Box, in 2007. And yet, the deeper you look into this miniature tale of a crazed robot and her fallacious cake promises, the more you understand the kind of mad limitations set on the game from the very beginning. Portal’s origins can be found in Narbacular Drop, a student project that Gabe Newell liked so much he took the game’s developers on board to recreate it under Valve. But with only a handful of people working with existing assets, it’s surprising they managed to get anything substantial out, let alone a game that would have critics showering praise upon it years afterwards (case in point, this review).
Thankfully Portal works perfectly within its limits, using every second of its brief timespan effectively and creatively, like one of those irritating 25-year old millionaires you see doing a Ted talk. The game is inherently linear, but all the better for it; every puzzle is polished until you can effectively see your face in it, every new element is introduced with just enough tutorial time to get you going, and a brisk pace flings you from challenge to challenge so quickly you’ll likely end up finishing the game in just one sitting. What a sitting it is, though.
As Chell, the awoken test subject running through the hamster wheels of Aperture Science, you start out with just an orange jumpsuit and a pair of neat heel extensions to null fall damage. Soon enough, you’re be popping portals on walls with ease, darting from one side of a room to the other using motion accumulated from cunning use of gravity and, of course, hauling trusty storage cubes onto pressure pads. Or, of course, you’ll be dicking about. Other games let you dick about, but never quite as cerebrally as this. They don’t let you stick two portals on adjacent walls and run around chasing yourself giggling, or engineer an infinite falling loop, but Portal does. Not only that, it actively encourages it.
Like her Source-engine sibling Gordon Freeman, Chell’s not particularly chatty, although you’ll see more of her through portals than any other talkative FPS protagonist. Most of the dialogue is left in the hands, or rather cold metal circuitry, of another – GLaDOS, a kooky computer who grows steadily more bat-shit as you progress, teaches you the basic teleportation tricks while spouting sassy one-liners so good they’re still being mercilessly repeated on t-shirts at games conventions everywhere. There’s no doubt she’s brilliantly played by Ellen McLain, a woman who probably didn’t realise at the time she’d be lending a voice to gaming’s most famous mechanical villain, or, indeed, its most cringe-worthy end credits pop song – There, I said it. Come at me, Portal fans.
What makes Portal great isn’t just that it’s a fun way to escape from the real world by trapping yourself in a Saw museum with a maniacal robot that wants to kill you. It’s that it essentially builds the blueprint for the perfect puzzler before subverting the genre with some ingenious touches. The demise of a certain cube with a heart badge, after carrying it through several tricky puzzles, might have had a bit of an OTT reaction from game critics – “heart-wrenching” is a word for Schindler’s List, not an inanimate object – but as a surreal joke about attachment to allies in games, it works a treat. And the entire latter half of the game, where Chell turns the tables on GLaDOS in a gloriously unexpected shift from hunted to hunter, takes an established format, flips it on its head and pushes it through a portal into another dimension.
In fact, the armour of Portal’s campaign is so solid that the few chinks barely show up. The game’s visuals take an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach, nicking the aging assets and effects from Half Life 2, a game that came out three years before, but you don’t notice. You wouldn’t notice what the game looked like if it was made from paper-mache and glitter, it’s that well designed. That said, the confined corridors and labs of Aperture, expanded to the game’s detriment in the sequel, lend a claustrophobic, austere atmosphere to every nook and cranny of the environment. Rarely has a game made you feel as much like a rat in a maze as the original Portal, nor given you a more exciting and original method of escaping it.
Though merely intended as an extra on a box-set of other brilliant titles, Portal stands as the little game that could, and you owe it to yourself to play it if you haven’t already. Though I’ve never been much of a fan of GlaDos’ singing chops, the passion I share with millions of others for Chell’s original adventure is very much Still Alive.