From There To Here: A Portal Retrospective Or How How I Learned to Stop Worrying About People Who Won’t Shut Up About How “The Cake Is A Lie" (And Love the Bomb).
With the nearing release of Portal 2 and Valve's recent amendment to Portal's ending, we take an in depth look at just what made Portal so special, and how it has helped redefine what can be done within the first person genre and the interactive medium that computer games occupy as a whole.
Despite using the Steam (digital distribution) service for a while now, I still hadn't played through the supposed landmark game, Portal. For all I knew the cake was not a lie, but completely trustworthy and I could put the same degree of faith in it that I do with other baked goods. Like muffins. Honest muffins.
So when Steam started giving free copies of the game away, no doubt to herald in the announcement of Portal 2 as well as for the benefit of exposure to the newly founded Steam for Mac, I jumped (through a portal) at the chance.
I Love the Smell of Portals in the Morning; Smells like… Science:
Portal starts in a fashion similar to the Half Life games (all made by the same developer, Valve), with your admiration of the surroundings and a gentle introduction to the game world, while the credits roll. In this case, you appear to be awaking from some sort of stasis, fresh for enrollment into an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device training course.
What struck me as innovative about Portal is that it's a first person puzzle game. That in and of itself may not sound impressive, but it's not exactly a genre or sub-genre that I've had a lot of exposure to; the idea is so simple and opens up many possibilities. Physics based games are not a new idea in any sense; they've been a staple of the indie games scene for a while and the degree with which physics has been a prominent factor in most game genres has increased as technology and processing power have improved.
Gravity is Like Morality - Relative:
One of Half Life 2's key features was the use of the gravity gun, which opened up the possibilities of what you could do when given the ability to actively manipulate the environment; though this was somewhat limited to repurposing objects as projectiles and the occasional box stacking and lever puzzles.
Portal expands on this by allowing the player to create wormholes and therefore the power to manipulate how you can move through the environment, and by extension, the environment itself, as necessity dictates. The real core of Portal's innovation is in using the physics interactions as the entire anchor for the experience rather than shooting or spell casting or some other form of combat as a means to generate engagement. Though it's the case that not every first person game is wholly dependent on violence as a mechanism, it is the exception rather than the rule.
What it represents is a divergence from convention; usually, the physics engine would serve to better facilitate the main aspect of the game, e.g. shooting. Here the physics engine IS the main aspect of the game.
The portal mechanism creates a whole new dynamic which despite running around with a gun of sorts, was refreshing and removed from what had come before. Obviously, when the focus and objective of the game is about problem solving, then the experience will be cerebral rather than a reliance on the reaction time of the trigger finger. Ironically, Portal also works that aspect into its puzzles.
The significant element of a first person physics game is that the player places themselves into the puzzles, which is more affecting and immersive than say, a third person view (where the player would be external). Being virtually hurled across the room through a portal at several hundred miles per hour is much more dizzying and disorienting, and most of all convincing when it's done through the view of the person being hurled; though I suppose that argument could be pretty much made for anything using a first person perspective. Emulating the perspective of the character experiencing these things lends itself better to immersion.
Had the question of "What are physics based games like?" been asked before Portal, I would not have naturally thought of them being frenetic and tense, despite their obvious potential to be. Portal changed that.
Good Listeners Always Prevail:
Portal has been described as just a "tech-demo", which is not to say that it is not a full game but that its primary purpose to show off the technology at its core. I would say that it is unfair to merely relegate it to being regarded as a simple set piece:
As mentioned earlier, the premise of Portal is that you are undergoing a training course in Aperture Science Computer Aided Enrichment Centre; your only real company being that of the AI monitoring the course. In usual Valve tradition, the protagonist is mute, so interactions appear rather one sided, though perhaps "being talked at" would be more accurate than "interaction". The various stages of the course take place in a sterile, seemingly empty, closed facility. An eerie silence fills the Aperture Science complex, only suppressed by occasional ambient mechanical noise and your own efforts. The only time you ever see a person is the time you catch glimpses of yourself in portals.
What follows is the feeling of utter isolation and a dawning loneliness, which in and of itself is a powerful device for creating immersion. I've yet to see it matched or even come close to being approached in the interactive medium. Perhaps parallels could be drawn with the horror genre here.
It's not that there is something you can't see lurking, waiting to jump out, it's the growing certainty, that there is nothing, just you. It's unsettling rather than scary; and plays on the fear of the unknown.
Despite not seeming like it would at first glance, Portal does have a plot, and a clever and effective one at that, but many of its details are implied rather than overtly told.
The pace is set by the various stages of the training course, which are conveniently numbered and serve both as levels of the game and chapters of the story. While some may complain that the game is too short, I would argue that it is near perfect in length.
At first you are trained in the use of the tools given to you and the puzzles gradually become more elaborate and complex as the game progresses. Had the game’s "training course" been longer, the puzzles would more likely have become repetitive. Towards the end this seems to the case, but this is obfuscated by the complexity of the problems presented.
It's also what makes the final part of the game so refreshing, as it feels much less ordered, even if that is merely an illusion of game design and a product of the atmosphere established.
I suppose what it comes down to is that Portal doesn't feel "cinematic" as marketers so often like to say; it's not an epic story, quite the opposite, it's very much a personal one. The fate of the world doesn't hang in the balance. There's no clunky, unnatural love interest (i.e. in every Bioware game), in fact it's called in to question whether you have any friends at all.
Much is made of the implication that you are not unique or important, and more than likely, the only one really affected by what transpires in your story, will be you. It takes the usual fantasy element of world saving heroism and cataclysmic events of myth and legend and turns them on its head to great effect.
It's still escapism just not the escapism you may have come to expect. Portal takes the building blocks that are so familiar and flips them over. Maybe it hasn't changed the shape of the blocks but it's shown us new things that can be made with them. Still, I'm not going to say that it's unequivocally art in a way that other games aren't. If we are to consider video games as art, then Portal is a prime example, not necessarily because it's so different at its core, but because it's more (if not the most) clearly artful.
GlaDos to be of Service
In the consideration of both video games as art, and the medium of computer games as a whole, Portal feels like a stepping stone to something beyond the normal implementation of the medium; it strips away much of what is considered to be necessity and gives a glimpse at what can be done when not entrenched in genre definitions or enforced convention. Sure, convention is often there for a reason, but by defying it in some small measure, Portal takes a leap toward realising the untapped potential of the medium.
While it’s undeniably a puzzle game, perhaps foremost, there were many times in my experience it transcended that to become interactive fiction, unencumbered by the mechanism at its core. It could be argued that it isn’t unique, but it is definitely in the minority. What’s significant is that it stands out as perhaps the purest example of synergy between every facet of game design. I never once felt that I was doing anything in spite of the plot in Portal, always because of it.
Every single action is a tool of the narrative, even if at times it may not be an overt narrative.The method that the game is played only serves to enrich the setting, not diminish it, because of how intertwined all of Portal's composite elements are. Never is the player removed from the scene to fulfill some game-play balancing need. Never is the player actively reminded that Portal is a game, rather than a story.
That’s not to say Portal is perfect, or the ULTIMATE EXPERIENCE in terms of virtual worlds; what it is, is a near perfect example of things coming together to form something greater than its individual parts, and that is no word of a cake.
I mean lie. No word of a lie.