This review is spoiler-free. Find Portal’s Steam page here.
Remember: The Aperture Science Bring Your Daughter to Work Day is the perfect time to have her tested. -GLaDOS
Portal is a first-person puzzle game from Valve where you are equipped with the “portal gun”. Put a blue portal in one place, an orange portal in another. Walk through one and exit from the other. With this simple device you warp the topology of levels, connecting and disconnecting areas to solve puzzles and reach the exit. All you are doing is making far areas become close, but with some thinking, seemingly impossible levels become solvable and impenetrable defenses become trivial. Almost every level had me learn something new about how portals work. In other words, I was learning how to “think with portals”1. Indeed, from this single tool spawns many new techniques for traversing levels, pressing buttons, and working with the “Aperture Science High Energy Pellet”. I won’t discuss any of these techniques as they are more fun to discover on your own.
Portal’s setting, Aperture Science, is fitting. What better place to play and experiment with puzzle game mechanics than a huge research lab? White panels line most of the walls and floors but the levels’ simple visuals still invoke curiosity. No one stands behind occasional frosted glass observation windows. Perhaps that’s more offsetting than if there were scientists, other humans, there to observe me in the test chambers. Who brought me here and why? I was all alone, save for GLaDOS of course.
Throughout Portal you are guided by commentary from GLaDOS, an AI who speaks in a text-to-speech voice. GLaDOS’s cameras watch your every move and I was reminded, not only of HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also of our friends Siri, Alexa, and Cortana2. The combination of well-timed quips and creepy comments makes GLaDOS an unforgettable character.
Portal is not a hard game. The logical leaps required are never so large that you get stuck for extended periods of time. There’s always a nudge in the right direction. I remember one earlier level felt close to an exact copy of the previous one. The end of the final level also includes repetitive actions. If Portal were purely a puzzle game I would consider the low difficulty a big problem, but Portal is more than puzzles. Getting stuck would stall the narrative and GLaDOS’s excellent commentary. Even without difficult puzzles, the portal gun makes for a good toy to play with. If you are craving extra challenge, there are six advanced levels which slightly alter some campaign levels to boost difficulty. There are also challenges that pose problems of completing levels in X number of steps, portals, etc.
Portal is not a long game. The campaign levels can be finished in one sitting or around three hours, but there is further content. Along with the aforementioned advanced levels, I recommend Portal’s included developer commentary to everyone, not just those interested in game design. You play through the level and activate voice-overs by the devs where they make known how levels were changed to improve players’ experiences or subtlety nudge them in the right direction. One developer mentioned that the use of moving platforms(Aperture Science Unstationary Scaffolds) or other timed devices was included to add more tension to the gameplay. Sometimes this resulted in the opposite effect when I knew how to solve a section but had to wait for the device to reset before trying again, forced to watch a platform crawl towards me.
The main menu features a background that looks like a laboratory along with some unsettling ambient music. Upon starting a new game, you wake up in that same lab, but with fun, upbeat music playing. Such flip-flopping in tone, environment, and gameplay is common in Portal. Most of the music is ambient, but it’s well utilized. The sound design is also well done. The portal gun makes it fun to just move around or experiment, and the juicy sounds it makes enhance that experience. The end credits song is also a treat.
Portal may be on the easy side, but it paves the way for the more ambitious Portal 2 which improves on and extends the above ideas. Using the portal gun is a joy, and its elegant function injects a tiny twist into the physics that forces you to change how you see the topology of the levels. Indeed, after playing, you too will think with portals.