RPS Verdict: Portal

By John Walker on October 10th, 2007 at 8:01 am.

Concept: A gun that shoots holes in the fabric of reality. Fire once to create an ‘in’ hole, and again to create an ‘out’ hole, enter one, and exit the other.

Application: A puzzle game, obviously. Elaborate obstacle courses only traversed via this dimensional manipulation.

Execution: Mellifluous.

Welcome to the playground

Hello? Can I Help You?

The fairytale story of how Portal came into being has all but entered into legend. A plucky group of Digipen paupers created a final year project, Narbacular Drop, that was shown at the annual Digipen event for visiting developers. The handsome princes at Valve saw it, and liked it. Valve invited the team to visit their castle and demo their concept. Before they were halfway through their presentation, they’d all been offered jobs by the king. And then a couple of years later, a beautiful baby Portal was born. And we all lived happily ever after.

That the result – a first-person puzzle game compelling beyond reason, and funnier than you could imagine – came from a fledgling team on their first professional project is both testament to the talent within the group, and the remarkable nurturing environment of Valve. Portal is so evolved, so more elaborate and involving than anyone could have expected.

The world's earliest appearance of a toilet in a game.

Not Never But NOW

The first hint that something peculiar is afoot would be the opening moment. You’re in a very small plastic cell, surrounded by a pharmaceutical white room, with little more than a bed, cabinet and a toilet for company. It doesn’t feel particularly normal. It doesn’t strike you as how most puzzle games begin.

The next hint would be the robotic sing-song voice of GLaDOS, an unseen over-watching voice, explaining that you’re about to begin training with the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. This is the gun that fires the portals, which you don’t have just yet. So once you’ve had a chat with the toilet, you make your way through your first portal to leave the cell. And you’re off. (Yes, that’s what we said.)

After trying to look at your own back via the portals – your character is a girl, with an unnervingly blank face, and a pair of peculiar leg braces below her knees – you make your way to the lift, and note the next clue that this isn’t your average puzzle game. The bleakly white lift is padded. This seems ominous. But at least there’s the promise of cake.

Hello infinity!

The lift takes you to Room 1, where you’ll be taught the very basics of using portals. At this point your Aperture Science Handhel… your ASHPD can only fire one portal at a time, the other pre-placed in the room. Over the next couple of training rooms, you’ll learn how to manipulate this, and then eventually get a fully functioning portal gun, for fully functioning portal fun. Meanwhile, GLaDOS is getting weirder. And still promising you that cake.

In total there are 19 rooms, each advancing the difficulty in leaps and bounds. You aren’t stuck in the mire of a tiresome tutorial, but rather having your intelligence respected, as it asks you to think beyond what you’ve already learned and make the next intuitive leap. And each room is precisely designed to provide you with all the information you need, only ever obscured by your own lack of inspiration.

If you were to be sat down in front of, say, Room 17 having never played the game, you’d not stand a chance. It would be blisteringly difficult, and too daunting to try. Taking into account Portal’s brevity – easily finished in under three hours, and possibly closer to two for the clever-clogs – Room 17 is challenging, but relatively intuitive by the time you reach it chronologically, and this Portal’s greatest achievement. It’s a shining beacon of how to build a difficulty curve, never leaving you impossibly frustrated, but always demanding more of you, requiring experimentation based on acquired knowledge.

Toward the end you’ll be almost nonchalant in your manipulation of the space-windows to create acceleration and propel yourself across obstacles – something that but an hour and a half ago would have been impossible for your brain to consider, let alone execute.

Best not to go for a swim

Courage Is Not The Absence Of Fear

Were Portal to leave things there, with a brand new (if you don’t count Narbacular Drop) gaming mechanic, and a series of near-perfect puzzles, it would be something fairly special. But there’s so much more happening in here.

GLaDOS, to name it. She’s voiced by the utterly excellent Ellen McLain – a trained soprano who has appeared a few times before in Valve games. She’s the voice of the Overwatch in HL2 and Episode One, and – amazingly – the stern British woman barking announcements at you throughout TF2. This lady has range. GLaDOS’ synthesised voice carries a gentle melody that is at once alluring and threatening. And always hilarious. With each new room, her instructions become more peculiar, almost unhinged, as it becomes quickly apparent that she’s messing with your head. She doesn’t seem to like you very much, and she seems a bit too keen to point out the deadly nature of the brown goo on the floor of some rooms.

The script is written by a former half of Old Man Murray, Erik Wolpaw (in collaboration with the Portal team, and anyone else at Valve who piped up), and is quotably brilliant. I’ve been living in a hellish prison for the last two weeks since playing it, unable to bellow out favourite lines at everyone I meet. Come this blessed day I am freed, and able to jump up and down in people’s arms, blabbering on about how I’m in love with the Companion Cube, or offering them cake. It’s safe to say there’s not been a puzzle game that’s had that effect on me before.

This cube isn't special. Not this one.

Furthermore, everything has personality, right down to an inanimate plastic block. Best of all of these are the turrets. Despite their smooth, white-plastic design, they’re essentially the same as turrets you might have seen in the Half-Life games: incredibly deadly, but very vulnerable to being knocked over. Except now they talk. In beautifully cute melodic voices. “I don’t hate you,” sang a turret to me after I rendered it useless. “No hard feelings,” modulated another. “I don’t blame you,” chanted a third – particularly haunting.

The use of the Source engine, and the similarity of the turrets, is not the full extent of the game’s connection to the Half-Life universe. You’ll recognise the energy orbs from Episode One, along with other familiar, perhaps even iconic furniture. Quite how it’s connected to the larger universe is a matter of personal interpretation of the events. Valve aren’t saying. But rest assured that if the FPS cousin doesn’t interest you, it never stops being a pure puzzle game, with just the one ‘gun’, and the tight 19 levels.

No need to look back here

I Thought The Cube Would Last Forever

It’s easy to be disappointed by Portal’s brevity. Just when you’re feeling like the master of the tool, it’s over. While the story is complete, and the ending is the funniest gaming moment in many years, there’s no denying you’re left still hungry. It gives you a bite of a delicious cake, but then doesn’t let you gorge until stuffed. Fortunately there’s more to do once the main game is over. Six of the rooms can be replayed on a significantly higher difficulty level, and there are specific challenges for the regular levels, completing them either in a limited number of footsteps, a restricted number of portals, or a rigid time limit. These offer a terrifying challenge, with Bronze awards in reach, but Silver and certainly Gold seeming madly impossible. At first.

The advanced levels say something significant about the game. These are essentially the same as the original version, but with your previous means of completing them blocked. So perhaps you succeeded by toppling turrets with a cunningly placed portal. Now the turrets might be in protective cages, impossible to damage. Or the ledge on which you shot the necessary propelling portal exit? Covered in a portal-protected surface. You have to improvise further, manipulate the environment more elaborately, and with more cunning. And best, you could have completed the level this way the first time, but you’d never have thought of it.

Hear them mock you

Less defensible is the rather glum look to many levels. The once white walls are contrasted by dark brown anti-portal tiles, and the only colour on offer is that of your blue and orange meta-doorways. It’s highly stylised, and creates the sterile atmosphere the game desires, but it’s nevertheless a little dull.

It’s hard to find fault elsewhere. It’s telling that having played through both Episode Two and Portal, it’s Portal that I’ll be leaping onto first when everything unlocks. Episode Two is the superior, if we’re being so crass as to compare two wildly different games, but it’s a solid, linear narrative that I’ve joyfully experienced very recently. Portal I still have to defeat – those Silver and Gold challenges mocking me.

This is Valve’s trademark knowledge of the player put into a new genre. Because it knows how you’re going to think as you walk into a room, it is once more manipulating you, both to aid and hinder, such that when listening to the commentaries on a second run through, you’ll feel like the marionette of some lunatic benevolent puppeteer. You thought you looked up at one point because you were inspired to by your own ingenuity. But no – they tricked you into it. The cads.

As the Half-Life games are a target for FPS developers to aim toward, Portal is the exemplar for puzzle design. Every apparently simple object, every room layout, every crazed comment from your pathological guide, is tailored with ruthless precision to push you forward, keep you thinking, and challenge you further. It’s short, but it’s sweet like a gateau.

It never stops hurting your brain

An Angel Visited This Gray Path

Don’t think of this as an extra bonus content in The Orange Box. This is a game worthy of sitting alongside Episode Two and Team Fortress 2, as well as Episode One and Half-Life 2. It’s brief – possibly too brief. But it’s magnificent. And so, so funny. I’m not going to mention it, but when you’ve finished the game you’ll know what I’m not mentioning right now. It’s something so special that this allusion is specific enough for those who know. So for goodness sakes, go play it so we can share the happiness.


Don’t forget our Half-Life 2 Episode Two verdict. There’s also plenty more (spoiler free) pics in our Portal Screenshot Gallery. Please note, don’t post any spoilers in the comments thread below. Anything even vaguely spoilery will disappear – there will be plenty of time for discussing it all once everyone’s had a chance to experience it for themselves.

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49 Comments »

  1. Watcher95 says:

    Great Stuff! Thanks!

  2. Dan says:

    Only another 7 hours to go before I finish work. I fear they will go slowly.

  3. Betsy Duncan-Smith says:

    I got about twenty minutes of Portal this morning before I had to leave.

    It’s clearly from the start that GLaDOS is fucking with you quite substantially. Brilliantly creepy and very funny.

    There’s a hole in the sky through which you can fly.

  4. Pentadact says:

    Not Never But Now is one of my favourite little snippets of Aperture Science madness. Wondered if anyone else noticed it.

  5. John Walker says:

    Oh, I’ve just finished it again, and I’m feeling the same glee as the first two times.

  6. Cargo Cult says:

    Anti-spoiler: Tier 3.

    If that means nothing to you, then you’ve missed something.

  7. fluffy bunny says:

    Are there any spoilers in this text? I was just reading the review on Eurogamer, but stopped because of a horrible one at the bottom of page one.

  8. Watcher95 says:

    No real spoliers, just a description of the scene and some of the gameplay mechanics

  9. John Walker says:

    No spoilers at all. Promise.

  10. fluffy bunny says:

    Thanks. Very nice review. :-)

  11. Thiefsie says:

    The leg braces are of course, to stop you taking falling damage from all the inertial jumps you’ll be making in and out of portals ;)

  12. Bobsy says:

    Just finished Portal (but not touched the bonus bits). Absolutely eye-wettingly brilliant. And why can’t ALL games end like that?

  13. Ghiest says:

    Have to agree, this is one of the best games I’ve played for the learning curve alone. The sense of achievement is great when you figure out what to do.

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Just finished it too, and immediately went back in to have a quick nose at some of the commentaries, which says much.

    KG

  15. wiper says:

    “Execution: Mellifluous”

    You’re worse than Kieron! Does that mean the game’s sticky and attracts bees as well? I beginning to think that RPS really is harking back to ye olde days of EDGE, with the “got to catch ‘em all” approach to large and obscure words. I’m just waiting for a review of Gears of War (or, I suppose, any id game) which describes it as being graphically epideictic.

    I also note that there is no score at the end of this review. Madness! I expect the quality of a PC game to be quantified to the nearest percentage!

    (P.S – one of the above criticisms was a joke. The other was a little more sincere. I’ll let you guess which one’s which)

  16. Betsy Duncan-Smith says:

    I beginning to think that RPS really is harking back to ye olde days of EDGE, with the “got to catch ‘em all” approach to large and obscure words.

    Oh come now. Mellifluous is hardly a long or obscure word. In fact, it’s the same length as the word “Wheelbarrow”. A word that’s not even longer than wheelbarrow is hardly a long word.

    I know several sesquipedalia-admirers of brobdingnagian prolixity; Mr Walker is not one of them.

  17. John Walker says:

    Hey wiper. I’ll tell you the story of how that word came to be : )

    I originally wrote “Execution: Madness”.

    And when Alec was proofing the piece for me, he pointed out that it was a bit crap. He was right, so in the meantime I put in the first word that came to mind to improve upon it, which was “mellifluous”. I intended to replace it with something else later when I had thought of it, but then realised it was best of all best things, possibly destiny, and it remained to shine in glory.

  18. wiper says:

    I would contend that wheelbarrow is a fairly long word (longer than anything else I have written in the above sentence, for example), and that mellifluous is fairly obscure. It’s certainly possible to work out if you have knowledge of Latin, but it’s hardly a word I’ve come across in my everyday reading, never mind in conversation.

    Incidentally, I’ve never understood the influence Gulliver’s Travels holds upon the English language, or, inversely, why Houyhnhnmnian never became a term for elitism. Perhaps because the users of such language would immediately have had to apply it to themselves…

    (or because it’s somewhat difficult to pronounce. But that would be too sensible and inoffensive an answer)

  19. wiper says:

    Mr Walker: if indeed “mellifluous” was the first word to come to your mind, I am truly impressed (and might also suggest that you never tell a psychologist. You’d probably end up with an interesting profile).

    Still, I suppose it does look quite nice, stood on its own like that. Had you stuck it in the middle of a sentence I would be less impressed, but as it is I suppose it can work as a stand-out word. You are forgiven your wordiness.

  20. wiper says:

    Just don’t let me catch you doing it again, young man!

  21. Ian Dorsch says:

    Under the circumstances, I can conceive of no word that would have been as expressive and pregnant with nuance than ‘mellifluous.’

  22. Joel Esler says:

    Just finished. What a brain-tingly ride.
    I love a game that accomodates laziness. “Oh man, I don’t wanna have to walk all the way over there… oh wait, I don’t have to.” *bloop-shoomp*

  23. Jim Rossignol says:

    Gosh, that was a fun time. Next!

  24. Thiefsie says:

    Awesome, awesome game, and a hell of a lot more fun than I was expecting. The twist is pretty good fun too ;)

    Don’t quite get the ending bit but it is hilarious hehe. I just wish it was a tiny bit harder!

    Time to crack those bonus maps, (Haven’t pre-loaded/unlocked Ep 2 yet… though I did eventually finish Ep1 today in preparation haha)

    Much better and frankly a little bit longer than I expected!

    Can;t wait fo more levels… and for the public to make maps for it!

  25. The_B says:

    Where’s that blooming MP3? If it’s the same as the song in the end credits I want it now. NOW DAGNABBIT!

  26. Cargo Cult says:

    Rot13′d – only decode if you’ve finished the game and are interested in the ending!

    Nal zragvba bs gur fbat fubhyq pregnvayl trg qryrgrq nf n fcbvyre – ohg vs lbh zhfg unir gur rzcrrguerr gura tbbtyr sbe tpsfpncr, qbjaybnq vg naq bcra cbegny pbagrag qbg tps be fbzrguvat yvxr gung sebz lbhe fgrnznccf qverpgbel. Vg’f va cbegny, fbhaqf, zhfvp, cbegny fgvyy nyvir qbg rzcrrguerr, V guvax. Rawbl!

  27. The_B says:

    Effort!

    Although if Valve don’t say anything in the next 24 hours I may have to do that.

  28. Andrew Farrell says:

    Dude, if you’re impressed by ‘mellifluous’, read more!

  29. wiper says:

    Being ‘impressed’ isn’t quite the issue, more that it is a word that quite a few people won’t have come across; a quick poll of my two nearest flatmates (a third-year English Literature student and an MA History student) revealed that neither knew the term. It’s a single word, and stands out because of its placement, so I’m not actually that bothered by it, but I think its always important to do everything possible to draw attention to potentially alienating factors in what should be open-to-all articles.

    After all:

    “When they discussed ‘Lilliputian characters’
    I remained silent;
    I had read Gulliver’s Travels.

    When they talked about Manichean dichotomies,
    I remained silent;
    I knew a fair bit of theology.

    When they told me a game was mellifluous,
    I did not speak out;
    I had studied Latin.

    When they started writing as if for academic journals,
    there was no one left who could understand them.

  30. Jim Rossignol says:

    Balls to alienating factors, I say. People not open to learning new words should be sent to live underground.

  31. John Walker says:

    What Jim said. A word you don’t know is an opportunity to learn a new word. And since you’re already on the internet, there’s no reason not to stick the unrecognised into dictionary.com and add it to your lexicon. I am grateful when I encounter new words, which happens regularly.

  32. wiper says:

    Fine, fine, I’ll stop fussing. But trust me, after two days trying to decipher an incredibly dull article on sophism in the Second Sophistic which assumes an in-depth knowledge of Greek, Latin and obscure English terminology, you start to get a little jumpy around more unusual words and what they might lead to.

  33. Jim Rossignol says:

    Unusual words lead to hot chicks and fun times. Something like that, anyway.

  34. Qjuad says:

    There’s no use crying over every mistake – we all need to keep trying until we run out of…

  35. Roman Levin says:

    Anyone knows what it means when the challenge score screen says “CHEATED”?

  36. Dan Forever says:

    Penny Arcade thrives on the use of a varied vocabulary with the occasional obscure word thrown in for good measure.

  37. Robin says:

    Well, I’m a whole 24 hours late to the party. I thought that was pretty good, but ultimately there are only about two techniques you have to employ to get past anything in the main game. Most of the cyclical momentum jumps ‘just worked’ – Super Monkey Ball it ain’t. Best first person puzzle game evar, though, I guess.

    I imagine it’ll be nightmarish with a joypad, so that’s another point in it’s favour.

  38. Steve says:

    What happened to depth of field?!

  39. IjonTichy says:

    “I imagine it’ll be nightmarish with a joypad”

    Nope.

  40. Bob Arctor says:

    I never saw that room to the side with pictures and laments for the Companion Cube… needs replaying!

  41. Grey Earl says:

    @ Cargo Cult

    UN! V penpxrc vg. Svefg; gurfr pelcgvp jevgvatf, gurn; GUR JBEYQ!

    But seriously, am I a total ignoramus\-anus for not getting that code straight away, and instead spend an hour of my work time figuring and spelling it out?
    Is there any cake at the end of this puzzle?

  42. JKPhantom says:

    I’ll just join everybody and say that this game is very awesome. It is short but there are lots of things to discover like those rooms you see with the windows that don’t let you see things.

    Note: If you listen to the commentary, it gives away something…

  43. PoC says:

    @ Jim Rossignol : “Unusual words lead to hot chicks and fun times.” I think we’re using a different set of unusual words. And I want yours.