Science Can Be Fun Or Deadly, Take Your Pick: “Portal”

Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.

I don’t normally play video games, but when I do… I prefer it to be something like Portal.

A first-person puzzle-platform game developed and released by Valve, Portal is perhaps the most fun I’ve had in a game.  It’s got inventive puzzles, a quirky soundtrack, great voice acting, and some of the most brilliant black humor I’ve ever heard.  I didn’t originally get into it when it first came out (having not done much in video gaming before), but after years of going through all the Internet memes about “there will be cake” and “thinking with portals”–not to mention a few strong testimonials from my gaming friends–I was finally convinced to play and downloaded a free copy through Valve’s delivery system, Steam.

The Story: So Much Science To Be Done!

You play the game as Chell, a protagonist with no backstory who wakes up inside the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, where you are promptly let loose into a world of bizarre and sometimes (okay, half the time) deadly tests.  The only way to beat some of these tests–and the AI running them, GLaDOS–is to both obey and break the laws of physics by the way of a handheld device that lets you shoot portals.

And occasionally, you’re promised cake if you succeed at all the tests, because who doesn’t love cake?

The Cast: The Player Vs. The World (As Run By A Lunatic AI)

No word yet on whether or not the Companion Cube counts as part of the cast. Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.

The player character is Chell, a woman whose face we really don’t ever see (being in first-person view) and whose backstory we don’t really know except that she’s probably an employee of Aperture Science, where all the tests with the portal gun are being done.  Her only goal in this case is to succeed at the tests and survive both them and GLaDOS when things don’t go as planned toward the end.  She never speaks or gets moments to emote; she just goes through the tests and does her best (and by “her” best, I mean, the player’s).

GLaDOS is the AI running the tests.  She doesn’t appear in the flesh (so to speak) until the last part of the final level.  For the rest of the game, she’s just a voice on the loudspeakers in every test chamber, documenting your every move with sardonic wit and some very dark sensibilities along the lines of…

“The Enrichment Center promises to always provide a safe testing environment. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.”

“The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event that the Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.”

In contrast, around Level 16, you encounter the Turrets.  These plucky little military robots can’t move or turn on their own, but if they get you in their cross-hairs they will open fire and most likely kill the player in a heartbeat.  However, what offsets their lethal presence is the fact that they’re so gosh darn cheerful about their jobs, even to the point when knocking them over only warrants a response of “I don’t blame you…”

The Gameplay: Better Start Thinking With Portals

Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.

The way you play is this game is the entire basis for its existence.  There’s no real plot beyond “Solve the puzzle, survive attempts on your life.”  But beyond that, the use of portals is spectacular.  For one thing, momentum isn’t lost when you travel through, so trying to clear a long distance or jump a barrier isn’t a problem once you know how to turn gravity and momentum into assets.  Timing is also crucial to this game, not so much on the time to complete each level but to starting one process via portals, then manipulating an entirely different process with a new set of portals in order to advance to the next stage.  It’s quite clever when you think about it, although I would also say it’s frustrating as hell.

But in a good way.  Seriously, even as I got frustrated trying to figure out some of the harder puzzles, I was still having some fun along the way and that’s a sign of good game development.

Final Verdict: High-Quality Testing For The Brain

This game is a challenge at times, but a worthy challenge at that.  It doesn’t have a giant cast of characters or a detailed story.  It’s just fun and creative and isn’t terribly long.  And while some might take exception, I love its dark sense of humor, which goes nicely with the brightly lit Test Chambers.  It both honors and mocks science, just as its honors and mock the ability to play this game.

Bibliography: Portal.  Developed by Valve Corporation.  Published by Valve Corporation and Microsoft Game Studios.  Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360.  Released on October 9, 2007.


7 thoughts on “Science Can Be Fun Or Deadly, Take Your Pick: “Portal”

  1. When reading this, I was reminded of a download game for Xbox called “Limbo.” Its nothing more than a puzzle game with 2-D characters that are nothing but silhouettes. The plot is also simple — you go into limbo to find your sister.


    1. Sounds cool. Yeah, I loved that this game was simple but challenging. My one moment of soul-crushing frustration was during Level 15, when I had to try to time two different sets of portals to get this energy ball to hit a disc on the other side of a door so I could turn on the moving platform. I think it took me 11 tries and several walkthrough viewings to get it right.

      Thanks for reading!


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