Submitted by: Retro Gamer
First came Narbacular Drop, a game built by a team of students who would later go on to create Portal – this project went down so well that Valve hired the entire team to expand on some of its ideas, the most crucial of which was the ability to create two portals to move between different parts of the environment. Valve is a relatively secretive developer when it comes to the actual process of making games, but it’s interesting (and retrospectively obvious) that so many of the elements that were warmly received in Portal came directly from the personalities of the staff working on the title.
The game is intended as the story of robot overlord GLaDOS, rather than the protagonist, with Portal structured to be the beginning, middle and the end of the AI – charting her gradual descent into madness and eventual demise at the hands of the player. And at the climax of the game, this AI sings a song, with lyrics about cake and light dialogue about death. This sense of humour came from project lead Kim Swift and writers Erik Wolpaw, Chet Faliszek and Marc Laidlaw – Swift suggested the idea of the ‘companion cube’ that would become the iconic image of Portal, an arbitrary block with a heart on it. The song itself came from a collaboration with singer Jonathan Coulton, which was also based on Swift’s suggestion, and also became a key component of Portal’s reputation.
Interestingly, Portal was initially just part of a larger package, the Half-Life 2-themed Valve compilation The Orange Box, but Portal would be singled out by some critics as the strongest product on the disc. It was later released separately from the package.
Portal is a an odd and hypnotic experience, a series of challenge rooms framed as a human experiment within Valve’s quirkily presented world. Using a portal gun to move between two parts of the same environment, the three-or-so-hour arc sees Valve at its most consistent when it comes to level design. Each puzzle is designed to test your physics and logic skills, except the changing nature of these challenges means that creativity must soon play a part, too, and it’s that progressive approach to design that forms one tenet of why Portal is such a damned good game: this is not an easy genre to reinvent, but Valve managed it with typical flair.
The other breakthrough comes in story. The first part of everyone’s Portal experience was firing two portals with this fancy new gun in front of and behind Chell, the protagonist, and staring down an infinity tunnel that had just been created. That feeling of gradually being pulled into this extraordinary world is echoed by Portal’s multi-layered narrative, which combines the discovery of minute details about the background of this backdrop with the comical psychological torment of sorts fired at the player by GLaDOS, Chell’s captor.
Valve subtly merged two elements that are usually found in opposing types of games; the delicacy with which narrative is looped into these physics-based puzzles, how they adapt to the necessarily slow pacing of Portal, is admirably precise. The story is elevated far beyond being just an audiovisual theme for the puzzles, or a zany skin to carry the player along – it ended up getting much more critical dissection than the game’s later ingeniously constructed puzzles.
That’s due to the fact that you spend the entire tale unsure of what exactly is going on, following a breadcrumb trail of obscure clues to GLaDOS’s lair. Portal doesn’t have a complicated story, but it’s designed so you’re always reconsidering your surroundings as you go, viewing every test as not just a logical challenge but a shard of the story. Like Half-Life 2, which forms a pastiche of various gaming genres but ultimately has its own creative voice, this represents a clever philosophy towards interactive storytelling that offers a snapshot of what many first-person games could be like in 20 years: cutscene-free, finding clever ways to represent characterisation that only this medium can pull off, and not being afraid to let the player piece together a story beneath the one being beamed to them by the developer.
Why It’s A Future Classic
While it’s by no means the first shorter form experience in videogames, Portal has certainly popularised the concept of an unashamed three to four hour arc that allows ideas to be conveyed without having to adhere to the format flabby, 12-hour £40 boxed titles. It was very much an experiment for Valve, another selling point for The Orange Box – yet Portal deservedly grew into something beyond that, becoming its own franchise that is now synonymous with the fusion of progressive narrative design and innovative 3D puzzles.
Half-Life 2 is the jewel in the crown for Valve, of course, yet Portal is the kind of game you’d show to someone who hasn’t played anything since 1991, to demonstrate what the very best brains in the industry are capable of.