Portal is one of those rare examples that demonstrate video games as an artform. The geniuses at Valve have created a game that inspires a new way of thinking, a compelling storyline, and gives us a glimpse of the larger world that is the Half-Life universe. Portal is one of the innovative games in Valve’s “The Orange Box” package which includes Half-Life 2, HL2 Episode One and Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. Portal is available by itself via Steam if you have a PC.
You wake up in a white sterile environment enclosed in a glass cage. A computerized voice (the same one on “The Orange Box” TV commercials) tells you that you are part of an experiment and you will be let loose shortly. Your first “portal” then appears inside your transparent prison, and you can see another exit outside your cage. You immediately get a sense that these two spinning ellipses are connected gateways, as you can see a mirror image of yourself from the outside gateway.
This is the dynamic that you will use to solve the puzzles in Portal, which rely heavily on three-dimensional thinking, and a paradigm shift on how we think about gravity. Source’s physics engine is critical in these puzzles, and there can be several ways to solve them.
At first you may feel as confused as your lab-rat avatar in what to do, and may not feel compelled that this title is not worthy of your time. It only takes a few minutes before the puzzle aspect becomes intriguing, and you will be thinking about it long after you stop playing. The puzzles become addictive, and you get hooked on them; and then the story begins to unfold which really ropes you in.
Anyone who is a fan of Half-Life will enjoy the wry wit of GLaDOs, the omnipiant overseer of this experiment. She also lovingly refers to you as “<< insert test subject here >>”, and says things to playfully antagonize you; one minute providing encouragement, and the other insulting you, much like a good cop/bad cop scenario. A typical example is how she explains that the next puzzle is impossible, and then states that she wanted to see how you did when discouraged. Another example is how she says she won’t watch you for the next experiment, and then says “our previous statement that we would not monitor you was an outright fabrication. As part of a required test protocol, we will stop enhancing the truth in 3… 2… “.
Another one of my favorite GLaDOs quotes are “Safety is one of many Enrichment Center goals. The Aperture Science High Energy Palette seemed to have been left in the chamber can, ans has caused serious permanent disabilities, such as vaporization. Please be careful.”