How I love Portal? Let me count the ways

I played Portal for the first time a few months back, and loved every bit of it. This weekend, however, I found myself playing it again after I showed it to my friend Flint. I sat by him as he played through the game once, occasionally asking me for hints; then I played it through on my own in an hour. Then I played it again.

Running through the game a second time in a few months, I’m struck by the brilliance of this game. This may well be the best pure videogame experience of the decade. I’m convinced this is one game that will stand the test of time, and still be highly enjoyable even once the graphics are severely outdated.

Portal is a game technology achievement. The portal mechanism, rather than being a gimmick, is one of those game mechanics that is both technologically impressive, and a paradigm shift in gaming. After playing through a few levels of Portal, you find yourself gauging your immediate environment not in terms of distance, but in terms of portal mobility. Suddenly, a high wall is not an obstacle, but an opportunity to jump a great distance, if you can only find a deep enough hole to fall down into before opening a portal at your feet. Portal is one of these amazing games that actually forces you to rethink a map’s topology in terms that are unique to the game. In other words, it makes you think differently.

Far from being a tech demo, however, Portal is also an incredible story. The story of <insert test subject name here>, the unknown and quiet prisoner of Aperture Science, is expressed subtly, through the one-way relationship the character develops with GladOS, the psychotic, passive-aggressive AI. The pathetic begging that GladOS deploys to convince the player to turn around and die a horrible death is simply priceless, and full of pathos.

For all its simplicity, the Portal universe is actually pretty well-realized. The game never, EVER needs a cutscene to expose its universe; you wake up in the lab, and are given the promise of cake at the end of the 19 tests. And that’s it. The rest is told through quick glimpses into the inner workings of the laboratory, including hidden corners where human lab rats have hidden, as well as Aperture Science Powerpoints. The intensity with which the survivors write “The cake is a lie” over and over on the walls is a quiet testament to how surreal and oppressive the lab environment is meant to be. Talk about driving the point across without the need for a cutscene.

Back to the gameplay mechanics themselves, I was stunned, watching my friend Flint play through, to see how progressive and rewarding the whole game is. Sure, some of these puzzles are pretty wicked, requiring clever thinking, but also some decent skills with a controller. But these puzzles are constructed in a sequence that gradually gives you the tools needed to solve the more complex puzzles, and makes you practice the techniques you’ll need. What’s left is an intense sense of satisfaction when you solve a challenging puzzle.

Overall, Portal is one of these rare combinations of technological, gameplay and storytelling innovations, all rolled into one neat, unpretentious and focused game experience. In my mind, the craft and creativity that went into making such a game makes it stand head and shoulders above the top tier of positively-reviewed games such as GTA IV or Halo 3. This is what videogames should be, and as such, Portal needs to be celebrated.

Bravo, <insert Portal game creator here>! You must really be the pride of <insert game creator’s home town here>!

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

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