It is no secret that Valve’s product managers have a knack for recognizing talent when they see them. After all, games like Team Fortress and Counter-Strike were first conceived by people who were not employed by Valve but would be after Valve has cast its eye on them.
The good times provided by these games would soon come to pass due to an increasingly older and jaded base of game consumers and plenty of me-too’s which would join the scene, ‘inspired’ by these games.
Portal is one such Valve game. Plenty of other games had been made after it, jumping on the bandwagon of physics-based puzzle-solving gameplay which it very much single-handedly driven.
Yet, as much as Portal can be blamed for starting a fad which eventually made physics-based puzzle games stale for some – especially in the indie scene – it still deserves to be vaunted for some gameplay elements which remain difficult to copy even to this day.
Portal is set almost entirely within a vast research facility, which was apparently run by humans before its fickle AI purged them.
The player takes on the role of a lady, who would later be known as “Chell” (initially because of the name given to her character model, and later in one brief scene in the sequel). Chell would be described later in another section. (“Described” is perhaps a word which she does not deserve, considering that that Chell remains an enigma at this time of writing, even with the sequel.)
Chell is apparently a human guinea pig, used to test devices and run experiments designed by the rogue AI known as “GlaDOS” (who would become one of the most memorable and entertaining examples of the villain archetype that is the rogue AI).
However, GlaDOS would eventually realize that she/it has made a rather poor choice of a test subject, mainly because Chell has the same silent tenacity of that other Valve-designed protagonist.
With that aside, it has to be said here that there were hints that the story for Portal is somehow tied with that for Half-Life.
Half-Life: Episode 2, which came together with Portal in the Orange Box compilation, and the ending of Portal would suggest that Portal is set in the same universe as Half-Life. However, this connection never went beyond mere mentions, and appears to be fading away with memories of the Half-Life franchise.
As had been implied earlier, Chell is an archetypal silent protagonist, the trope for which has been exemplified by none other than Gordon Freeman. Perhaps Chell had been intended by her creators to be someone with her own motivations, but there were to be none; the much more colourful villain would drive the story in Portal instead.
That is not to say that Chell has no appeal; rather, there had been a lot of speculation over Chell’s background and backstory, e.g. how she came to be at the Aperture Science facility. Yet, jaded veterans of that other Valve IP would not be surprised at such fervour among the game’s fans.
Regardless, Chell is yet another incongruent and possibly anachronistic work of fiction which goes against that other Valve tradition, which is otherwise well-written and convincingly executed stories.
In terms of gameplay, Chell is indeed a tenacious player character. She has no health meter whatsoever, and can apparently take some damage from sources of danger, e.g. bullets fired by sentient turrets, without any lost-lasting debilitation. However, environmental hazards such as pools of fuming chemicals are particularly dangerous to Chell, who dies rather quickly when exposed to them.
Unlike many other Valve protagonists, Chell is immune to fall damage; this was explained away by the presence of leg augments which appear on her character model. Chell also has a great sense of balance, considering that she can reorient herself quite easily after going through portals and coming out upside-down.
Chell can also apparently haul boxes around and hurl them all over the place without getting tired.
All of these convenient player character designs are, of course, intended to facilitate the solving of the physics-based and often dangerous puzzles.
Not long after starting a playthrough, the player comes across a certain Aperture Science project, specifically a device which can create the titular sci-fi phenomenon.
After the player character retrieves it, she is shunted over to experiments which require the use of the device. They start out easy at first (albeit with some caveats like the presence of hazards), which is just as well as these experiments are intended to introduce the operation of the portal gun.
Essentially, the portal fires energy projectiles which are colour-coded according to the two fire control inputs. The primary input fires the projectile which turns into the blue-trimmed portal, whereas the secondary input fires the projectile for the orange-trimmed one.
There may be some confusion over which portal is the entry portal and which portal is the exit portal, but they actually work both ways.
Anyway, Chell can enter one portal and come out the other portal, direction and momentum maintained according to the player’s perspective. There will be more elaboration on this later, because knowing this is important in solving the physics-based puzzles.
Observant players may notice that the aiming crosshairs for the gun have a few visual variations. These indicate which of the two portals has just been placed, and which surface allows the placement of portals. The visual indicators can take a while to learn, but observant players would eventually do so.
PORTAL GUN LIMITATIONS:
The portal gun has no limitation of ammunition, but it does have other restrictions and drawbacks, most of which are intended to make the puzzles not as easy as the portal gun’s capabilities would make them out to be.
Firstly, the portal gun does have a set rate of fire. The player must know this, because the gun cannot fire off portals as fast as the player can mash away at the fire input controls.
The portals can only be created on flat surfaces which are large enough to fit them. The portals are slightly taller than Chell and are half as wide as they are tall. Anything which is bigger obviously cannot fit through, assuming that a collision glitch within the Source engine does not happen.
Portals can be formed on most types of surfaces, but there are a few types of surfaces which disperse the portal projectile upon impact. These surfaces are easy to visually differentiate from the others, fortunately.
There are also surfaces which move, displace or otherwise shift away from their previous configuration. Any portals which are created on these surfaces can be dispelled if the surfaces happen to shift and thus break the silhouettes of the portals.
Whenever the player reaches the area for an experiment which involves hazards or factors which were not in previous experiments, he/she is given some vague guides on how to deal with these.
These guides come in the form of signboards on the walls at the starting point of the level. They have images which are composed of primitive or symbolic shapes, some of which resembling the aforementioned hazards or factors. The images also show the ways to – or not to – deal with them.
At first, Portal just seems like any other puzzle-solving game before it, where additional puzzle elements are introduced in the subsequent level. The premise of experimentation makes this understandable from a narrative perspective, but it will begin to feel boringly familiar and tedious for jaded players.
In the puzzle-solving game genre, the boredom becomes a certainty when a game no longer has any new puzzle elements or complications to introduce, but merely reuses and rearranges them for more difficult – and more tedious – puzzles. At this point, only players who love puzzle-solving for the sake of puzzle-solving would push on.
Portal makes use of its narrative to break out of this typical trope. When the test chambers start to become all too familiar, observant players may notice subtle differences in the next ones; they seem incomplete, as if they are areas which are still under construction but had been hastily improvised. The signs also become fewer and fewer (thus leading to a natural reduction in hints for puzzle solutions).
Then, the plot twist happens. The subsequent levels are nothing like the test chambers, and solutions to the ‘puzzles’ in these levels have the impression of being more like methods of escape instead of yet more logical and systematic answers to physical conundrums.
There are several types of environmental hazards in Portal, most of which veterans of platforming games would recognize. Examples include bodies of hazardous fluids and crushing machinery.
There are no surprises from pools of dangerous fluids, but moving machinery is used for some puzzle solutions, if only as moving platforms.
Many levels require the player to manipulate and transport around cubes of composite materials, usually to weigh down and depress a large button on the floor.
Such things are not new in puzzle-solving games, of course. In the genre, there had been plenty of similar objects, such as boxes, crates or curiously square-faced boulders.
However, Portal would introduce a comical twist to this trope with GlaDOS’s personification of one of these cubes. The “Weighted Companion Cube” is, of course, an in-universe gag, but the writing for Portal does not overdo this too much such that it becomes irritatingly unwelcome.
Switches are another staple of the physics-based puzzle-solving genre; Portal will not deviate from this.
Granted, however, there may be some entertainment to be had from figuring out how to cut short travel distances between switches and where the player needs to go.
Portal also shows which switches are connected to which devices, usually through lines of LEDs which change colour when the switches are engaged or disengaged. This is an appreciable visual convenience.
Portal is also a platforming game as well. However, instead of jumping from platform to platform, the player character will be creating portals leading to the platforms, and at other times leaping through portals in order to get onto them. Chell will also be standing on a moving platform, waiting for the opportunity to fire off portals.
The game poses these scenarios more than a few times, each one with different circumstances from the last but otherwise requiring the same motions.
FORWARD MOMENTUM PRESERVATION:
During its time, one of the greatest innovations which Portal had was the preservation of forward momentum whenever something moves through one portal and out the other.
Before Portal, the trope of teleportation was already quite pervasive in games with sci-fi settings. Without the preservation of forward momentum, Portal’s portals would have been nothing more than yet another version of this trope.
Anyway, the keywords here are “forward momentum”; oblique momentum is not entirely preserved. Therefore, the portals are best used for leaping in directions which are perpendicular to the planes of the portals.
In hindsight, this limitation could seem a bit disappointing because it reduced the versatility of the element of forward momentum preservation. However, the main purpose of this gameplay element is not affected by the limitation, which is to build up speed from having gravity accelerate the player character’s “fall” through conveniently aligned portals.
This will be used in some of the later puzzles, as well as the advanced ones, in order to reach places which could not be reached otherwise.
Even at this time of writing, there have been few other puzzle-saving games which allow the player to perform such a shenanigan.
Translucent spheres with glowing cores appear in Portal, emitted by wall-, floor- or ceiling-mounted devices. These spheres float about, defying gravity but otherwise keeping their original momentum until they hit hard surfaces. Upon hitting surfaces, they rebound off them, usually at angles which are equal to the angle between the original line of movement to the plane of said surfaces.
It may take a while for a player to learn how to predict their rebounds, but learn they have to; many puzzles have to be solved by leading these spheres to receptacles which power important objects, often after having them bounce off surfaces.
The spheres also happen to lose energy over time and with each rebound. The spheres do not have to be at full strength when they reach the receptacles of course, but the player has to keep this in mind when redirecting them.
Also, of course, the player must learn that the spheres are lethal upon contact with humans.
At the end of almost every testing chamber (as the game calls the levels), there is a gate of particles which the player has to pass through in order to get to the next chamber. The field acts as a reset button, removing any portals from the level and any objects other than the portal gun in Chell’s possession. This “emancipation field”, as GlaDOS calls it, also happens to block portal shots.
Variations of the field are also used in puzzles, usually to prevent the player from setting up portals easily.
These fields would have not been memorable, if not for their use in some prominent puzzles which require the player to fire off a replacement portal after having hurtled through an emancipation field.
GlaDOS is not the only sentient machine around. There are sleek turret pods, all of whom have deceptively pleasant personalities – until they see a human. Upon that, they deploy their machineguns and fire away, while still being absurdly polite.
They also have unlimited ammunition, and there is no such thing as guns or explosives to knock them out with.
However, the player will soon learn that although they can see far ahead and fire from long ranges, they do have limitations. The most apparent of these is that they can only look to their sides and to their front; they are not capable of turning around, something which the observant player would learn quickly. (He/She would learn even quicker if he/she is experienced with the video game trope of enemies whose weak spots are their rears.)
They also have an embarrassing technical flaw: they go haywire when they are tipped over onto their sides, firing wildly while making comically robotic screams. Tipping them over is as simple as picking them up and releasing them while turning Chell around; this tosses them aside. (Incidentally, this is partly due to the physics-scripting of the Source engine; there will be more on this later.)
This flaw happens to be shared with the sentry turrets in Half-Life 2. In fact, in the developer commentary, the developers do admit that the sentry turrets in Portal are reworked from those in Half-Life 2.
Alternatively, the player can attempt to drop things onto them or direct energy spheres to knock them over; their laser sights facilitate the placement of portals for these tactics.
However, the sentry turrets can see through portals and can shoot through them too. Therefore, the player must be careful with the placement of portals when they are around. Still, although mishaps from misplacement can be unpleasant, they can be amusing the first few times around.
If there is any disappointment concerning sentry turrets, there are not many puzzles with solutions which are clever enough to use their weapons-fire to do things; Half-Life 2 at least had some scenarios with such solutions.
GlaDOS might have been yet another example of the rogue AI villain archetype, but she/it would turn out to be one of the most memorable examples around. She does not break any metaphorical mould, but the mould is a masterpiece which is hard to replicate.
GlaDOS’s less striking facets will be described first. GlaDOS has a snide personality; she/it will make a lot of less-than-praising remarks about Chell. This is very much expected of an archetypical rogue AI with typical disdain for humans. In other cases of rogue AIs in works of fiction, such a personality would have seemed clichéd to a person who is already all-too-familiar with this trope.
GlaDOS is also cruel, though in a mad-scientist manner. The experiments are obviously dangerous, and may well have been designed by she/it to be so. This is nothing new with regards to the rogue AI archetype of course.
However, GlaDOS’s inanity and zaniness go a long way to tone down this trait. They even contradict some of the traits which are associated with the rogue AI archetype.
For example, GlaDOS utters a lot of safety precautions, though these tend to gloss over the fact that the experiments are dangerous. GlaDOS also offers hints on solutions, though these hints are corrupted with static (which may or may not have been deliberate).
Of course, there can always be the reductive argument that a malfunctioning and seemingly crazy AI is an archetype in itself and had been so in popular fiction for a long while, e.g. since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Therefore, if one is to have a cynical view of GlaDOS’s character designs, GlaDOS is nothing more than a combination of variants of the rogue AI archetype. Yet, there has not exactly been many examples of such a combination, much less another rogue AI villain which can be schizophrenic, paranoid, polite and condescending all at the same time.
(One can bring up SHODAN of System Shock and AM of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream here, but GlaDOS has advantages which make she/it more likeable than these other rogue AI characters. This statement will be elaborated further later.)
Some time into the story, the player comes across scenes which are out of place in the test chambers, suggesting that there had been humans other than Chell in the facility.
The player can explore these scenes to obtain hints on the backstory of the game, as well as foreshadowing of what the player can expect from GlaDOS.
Observant players can also notice some amusingly absurd yet likely possible going-ons, such as someone having boiled some water over overheating computer motherboards.
(Some of the promotional material which was released in the lead-up to the sequel happens to reveal who these other persons are, though not necessarily their ultimate fate.)
Veterans of Half-Life 2 may recall that the physics scripting of the Source engine is not exactly always reliable or stable, especially with regards to objects which are being thrown around. Thrown objects usually collide with other objects when they meet, but they might get stuck together instead and jitter in place afterwards in an unsettling manner.
Fortunately, the solutions for most of the puzzles in Portal, or at least the regular ones, do not require the player to toss and/or drop objects around. If the player is observant enough, he/she will notice ways to achieve the “default” solutions for the puzzles.
The “advanced maps” do require knowledge of Source physics though; this will be elaborated later.
BONUS MAPS – IN GENERAL:
A few years after the debut of the game way back in 2007 as part of the Orange Box package, Portal has since been repackaged into a stand-alone product. When this happened, it was also updated with “bonus maps”.
The official set of “bonus maps” are actually six of the test-chambers revisited and redesigned, in the case of the “advanced maps”, or recycled but with additional goals instead of just reaching the exit elevator, in the case of the “challenge maps”.
The player can also import maps from packages which have been made by third-parties.
However, the game does not come with a dedicated, simple-to-learn level editor; incidentally, the software package for this would come with Portal 2 instead.
The “advanced maps” make noticeable changes to the aforementioned test chambers. The test chambers are still recognizably similar to their original versions, but the changes make them more dangerous and more complicated.
It has to be said here that the “advanced maps” do happen to reuse GlaDOS’s lines for the original test chambers. She/it can get a bit tiresome, especially after more than a few restarts.
The “challenge” variants of the test chambers practically recycle their original versions, with the only differences being secondary goals imposed on the player. These goals limit the number of portals, amount of time and even number of footsteps which the player can use to complete the level with. They can seem a bit anal-retentive. Also, they are hardly new to the puzzle-solving game genre.
However, they do require the player to make use of gameplay elements which are not exactly featured in the regular test chambers. These gameplay elements actually concern Source physics.
Veterans of Half-Life 2 may have an advantage here. They might recall tricks about Source physics from what they have learned in Half-Life 2. For example, they might recall that they can have the player character toss boxes further by making a forward jump first before releasing the boxes.
In other words, the player certainly needs to think outside the box which the player has created from his/her experience of the regular test chambers, despite the simple-sounding goals.
VISUAL DESIGNS – IN GENERAL:
Most of Portal’s visual designs are intended for gameplay purposes. For example, the player will eventually learn which surfaces can support the presence of portals through their mere looks alone.
However, the game also avoids using too many gaudy visual indicators. Other than the designs for the crosshair, the user interface is mostly free of anything else. There are text prompts which appear when the player should do something which is not frequently done to solve puzzles with, such as crouching to get under objects and subtitles which appear if the player had turned on the “closed captions” options.
Since the majority of the game is set in a research facility, the player can expect sterile, laboratory-like environments. However, after the plot twist has happened, the player is thrown into other places, namely the heavily mechanized workings behind the more aesthetically pleasing sections of the facility.
The first-person camera is not always the most effective or efficient for platforming gameplay and for solving physics-based puzzles. As an elaborative example, when the player needs to have the player character jump from one platform to another, the first-person camera is not very helpful for gauging distances.
Fortunately, jumping from one platform to another is not something the player will be doing. Shooting off projectiles to create portals is the substitute activity instead, and in this case, the first-person camera is plenty appropriate, thus making Portal an outstanding exception.
However, praises aside, the first-person camera can still cause problems, especially to players who are used to having a stable sense of orientation.
ORIENTATION OF PORTALS:
As mentioned earlier, Chell reorients herself after going through a portal, if the exit portal is skewed or outright upside-down with respect to gravity. Chell always attempt to land on any surface feet-first. However, this reorientation can be dizzying for players.
The player can attempt to reduce the amount of orientation by keeping in mind Chell’s direction of approach before going through portals. This is easier for portals which have been placed on vertical walls (these portals will always be vertical), but for portals which have been placed on ceilings and floors, their orientations are dependent on the player’s own view when they are placed.
RE-USE OF VISUAL ASSETS FROM HALF-LIFE 2:
Portal was originally made by enthusiasts who made use of the Source engine, which was already freely usable back then (to Valve’s credit). To that end, they had made use of pre-existing art assets which came with the Source engine – namely most of the models and textures seen in Half-Life 2.
Even after the game has officially become Valve property, most of the art assets seen in Portal appear to have been recycled from Half-Life 2. Examples of these include the ceramic tile textures, the chemical pools and grime-stained concrete walls.
The most obvious examples are the energy spheres. These are very similar to the Dark Energy spheres in Half-Life 2. They may or may not be related story-wise, but their similarity particularly bolsters the impression that Portal’s developers are using content from Half-Life 2.
As for the more original-looking models and textures in the game, they might seem a bit too smooth and glossy. They can even look amateurish to some players, as if they had been rapidly made using 3D modelling software like AutoCAD. They stand out in stark contrast when they are among the grittier recycled art assets.
On the other hand, this complaint about recycled assets and visual contrasts between the old and the new can seem petty and minor. After all, they do not cause significant issues in the gameplay.
SOUND DESIGNS – IN GENERAL:
Some of the sounds in Portal are recycled from Half-Life 2’s audio assets. These include gunfire, explosions and, of course, the Source engine’s trademark metal-on-metal ricochet.
However, almost everything else which is heard in the game sounds original, or at least not recycled from Half-Life 2. Chief of these are the peculiar bloops and bleeps which are associated with the creation of portals.
The music is composed by the talented Mike Morasky. However, his talent is fully realized in Portal 2; there are not a lot of tracks to listen to in the first Portal game.
Most levels play out without noticeably musical background sounds; there are ominous noises though, which give the impression that Portal was meant to be an entirely different game.
The most prominent piece of music in the game is, of course, Still Alive. This track alone accounted for many fan-made videos which express their admiration of Portal.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of Portal’s sound designs are its voice-overs.
Granted, cynical listeners can always argue that the voice-overs have been heavily altered with software to provide their obvious electronic qualities.
However, in video game history, there had been very few examples of voice-overs for rogue AI characters which can sound robotically informative, manic, polite and harsh all at the same time.
As an illustrative example, GlaDOS always sounds oppressive, but not to the point of the likes of the egomaniacal SHODAN in System Shock. As another example, GlaDOS is condescending, but is not as extreme as the seething and sometimes outrageously spiteful AM in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
The sentry turrets have voice-overs with electronic qualities too, but they do manage to sound quite different from GlaDOS. As mentioned earlier, they sound soothingly pleasant, which contrasts greatly with the fact that they are programmed to shoot at humans.
The “closed captions” option is a feature which is available for single-player experiences in Valve titles that do have single-player modes. They turn on subtitles for not just dialogue, but also text descriptions of other sound clips which may be heard at the time.
Like in Half-Life 2, these have an impact on gameplay. Having nearby occurrences signalled to the player in the form of text scrolls can be convenient, if the player can put up with the ugly intrusion of the text.
The gimmick of achievements in this game would not have been mentioned in this review, if not for the fact that it was used to highlight additional content which had been included in the game in the lead-up to the release of Portal 2.
Chief of these achievements is “Transmissions Received”. This is part of an “alternate reality game” campaign for the promotion of Portal 2. This content would have been quite entertaining to die-hard fans of Valve who eagerly make speculations.
Of course, ultimately, the appeal of this content is only obvious to those who are aware of the popular culture which involves Valve and actually like it. To anybody else, it would seem like a needlessly elaborate gimmick.
It has been many years since the debut of Portal, and a few since the much more ambitious Portal 2. The hype has since gone away, allowing for harsher introspection of the debuting title of the series which might never get a third entry.
Yes, the game is short; clever and observant players can breeze through the regular levels quickly – in around an hour, even. Yet, it would be difficult for cynical players to argue that the puzzles and their solutions are dull, because they do make use of the game’s signature gameplay elements, which remain difficult to copy (at least in three dimensions) even to this time of writing.
Yes, the game looks like a mod of Half-Life 2, especially when it recycles assets from that game. However, its gameplay and premise are obviously very different.
More importantly, since 2008, the game has been discounted many times in asking price and offered for free in myriad ways, so complaints about its value would seem petty and ignorant. Sure, there is still the argument that it could have been made free forevermore, but this is wishfully idealistic.
Yes, the game has yet another example of the rogue AI archetype. However, GlaDOS is still a particularly memorable villain, mainly because she/it is a more refreshing take on the rogue AI villain archetype thanks to her/its oddball personality which is not always entirely antagonistic.
In other words, even if one deliberately goes back to Portal to look for faults, however small – and which this reviewer certainly did – it is difficult to point out perceived flaws and then argue that these detracted from the game and have been glossed over years ago.
To put it simply, Portal is a game which has aged well, and this, in itself, is a triumph.