After a year of massive overexposure to Portal-related internet memes, I was finally able to play the game myself (thanks to the miracle of Festivus) and learn once and for all whether or not the cake was, in fact, a lie. Despite its fantastic word-of-mouth, I had two major concerns about this game.
First, I was worried that having lived through a year of references to the Weighted Companion Cube would rob this game of its freshness. Secondly, I hate first person games.
My first concern turned out to be no problem at all. Portal’s genuinely funny writing and brilliant integration of narrative and gameplay were too wonderful for even the collective awfulness of the Internet to ruin. Breaking out of the sterile testing areas to explore the unkempt guts of Aperture Science feels truly subversive. As much as I understand in theory that this is an artificial sensation created through thoughtful design, while actually playing I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had discovered some secret way outside the boundaries of the game that the designers never intended.
[[image:cg_portal.jpg:Everybody do the double fling.:center:0]]
This is enabled by visual design that is at once minimalist and highly expressive. When you enter the forbidden areas of the Aperture Science laboratory, it’s clear that you’re breaking the rules. This is not simply because the story tells you so via dialogue, but rather because everything changes, both visually and in terms of how you solve puzzles. The fundamental gameplay mechanics remain the same, but the sterile and familiar objects you spent the first couple hours of Portal getting to know are gone, replaced with a decaying industrial labyrinth you have to learn anew how to interact with. It’s enjoyably disorienting and feels like breaking out of one game and entering another.
Many of my favorite games present environments with simple but well-defined defined rules that slowly become clearer as you interact with them. Portal goes a step further; it’s bold enough to abandon the environment it creates. The early test chamber sequences establish what seems to be a complete game, and the only vague hints about the world outside these chambers are found in strange hidden rooms with walls covered in graffiti. Leaving the test chambers to escape into a complex with the same visual design as these early hidden rooms creates an exhilarating sense of rebellion and also opens up new gameplay possibilities as mechanical precision of the first part of the is replaced with raw, sprawling machinery.
Portal was a joy to play, and I can’t believe there was a time when I considered avoiding it because of stale internet memes. As far as my general dislike for FPS games is concerned, Portal is just too different from standard entries in the genre to really make me reconsider that stance. However, I’ve been impressed enough by Valve’s design sense that I’m now sincerely excited to give the other games on The Orange Box a try sometime to see if they can get me to change my mind.