Portal (The Orange Box)

Portal image

Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Release Date: October 9, 2007 (Xbox 360) / December 11 (PS3)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Valve Software
ESRB: Teen
Genre: First-Person Puzzler
Multiplayer: none
Format: DVD release ($64.99 CAD)
Official website

(The Orange Box is an unusual, maybe unprecedented, bundle of games. Within it you actually get Half-Life 2, with its antecedent Episodes, as well as Team Fortress 2 and Portal. This review deals with Portal alone.)

Portal began its life as a small indy game based on a single spectacular software trick. It was called Narbacular Drop.

Some college kids made this trick happen, demonstrated it to Valve, and were promptly inhaled like so much skill-krill into the whale belly of the software publisher. The trick is this: in Portal, you can create wormholes within the typical first-person shooter environment, and travel between them. That’s it. This forms half of the game’s overall appeal.

The other half lies in its writing, which is an equally impressive feat in and of itself. As you play the game, you become very conscious of the fact that someone wrote a great software trick, and someone else was tasked with the problem of creating a compelling story and environment around that trick. These two parts, working together so effortlessly, are what make Portal a good game.

So, first, the trick. Let’s just leave aside the setup for a second and speak purely in terms of game mechanics.

At first blush it looks like any other first-person shooter. You run around with the left stick, look with the right. You’ve got a jump button and a crouch button, but that’s basically it for mobility. No guns. No weapons at all, actually. With me? Ok.

Now, imagine that you have one device which looks like a sci-fi gun, but isn’t. It has two modes, mapped to each trigger, left and right. When you aim this thing and pull the left trigger, it creates a portal (which is blue) on the surface you pointed at. Aiming at a different spot and pulling the right trigger creates another portal (which is orange). At this point, you can walk up to, and through, the first portal and emerge simultaneously from the second.

That’s it. That’s the trick.

Why is this different from a teleporter pod in Quake, or any other FPS game?

For starters, you can look through these portals. I don’t mean just peer into the next room – I mean they perfectly, accurately reflect the viewport from the opposite portal, in both directions. An example: if you pointed the first portal at the wall of the room you are in right now, and then created the next portal on the wall to your right, you would look through the first portal and see a profile of yourself looking through the portal. From the side. As you walked into that portal you would watch yourself walk into it, from the side, because that’s what the other portal “sees”. It cannot be overstated, how perfectly, mathematically correct these portals are. They are literally holes ripped in the world, a two-dimensional spacial construct torn apart and arbitrarily assigned wherever you feel like. As if you had somehow created one window that existed in two places.

The possibilities quickly begin to multiply. Put an entrance in the floor and an exit on the ceiling – you can fall through the same room repeatedly, forever. Put an entrance on the opposite wall and an exit downstairs, then throw a rock through it – the rock appears downstairs. Someone downstairs would see the hole in the wall, and see you picking up the rock, and throwing it at them. It’s a wonderfully perfect mindfuck.

Furthermore, objects travelling through portals do not have their velocity affected (or as the game puts it: “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out”). Imagine you were on one of those window-washing rigs they use to clean skyscrapers, twenty floors up, and you have your portal device. You place an entrance on the ground below, then you place an exit on the wall of the building, right next to where you are. And then you jump, falling into the entrance. What happens? That’s right – you emerge from the wall of the building twenty floors up near where you started, but moving at terminal velocity, travelling laterally.

Starting to grok the possibilities? It’s a really, really good trick. I can see why Valve basically wrote these kids a cheque on the spot.

The setting for Valve supposedly takes place somewhere within the Half-Life universe, although it is never made clear exactly how or where. You begin the game in an antiseptic white room containing a sleeping pod, a clock radio, and a toilet. A disembodied, computerized female voice tells you that the test will begin in sixty seconds, and a portal appears on the wall next to you. This voice is GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence that seems to run this section of Aperture Science. GLaDOS informs you of your tasks and what is required of you, without much preamble. She does mention that if you are cooperative, there will be a party, and cake.

It doesn’t take long before you start to wonder if GLaDOS has possibly gone totally fucking insane.

Portal’s plot does not lend itself to extensive description without running the risk of *massive spoilers*, but I will say that you and GLaDOS are pretty much the only characters in the game. You must complete the tasks GLaDOS assigns you, ostensibly in the name of Science, and her voice is the entire character and shape of the game. GLaDOS seems to want to test this new portal device, and an elaborate, THX-1138-style rat maze of bland white rooms and corridors bereft of decoration await you. (Mostly.) The only other ability granted to you is carrying crates, which are used variously to solve the puzzles presented.

Throughout the various trials you’ll hear GLaDOS say things that become increasingly ridiculous. Again, I don’t want to elaborate and ruin the surprise, but I will say this: it’s not very often that I have difficulty completing a puzzle because I am laughing too hard to properly hold the controller. The script is flat-out hilarious.

Portal is a puzzle game that tries to stay true to its roots. Your abilities are limited; indeed, the portals cannot be affixed to just any surface, but only smooth contiguous ones of a particular tile shape. Other tiles or non-even walls will not allow portals to be created on them. In this way, the designers shape the limits of the puzzles, but as the player you cannot help but wonder about the actual worth of this amazing gizmo. Sometimes you’ll find yourself standing in these elaborate 3D mazes, but the portal device won’t work on just any available surface, which renders the possibilities somewhat lesser than they might have been. Could you break into a bank vault with the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device? I dunno, are the bank’s outer walls made of that specific kind of tile that allows portals?* Obviously these limits are there to preserve some element of gameplay, but this can become a bit frustrating (in terms of story-fiction) since you are supposed to be holding a wormhole device, after all.

The playtime depends entirely on your skill at solving various spatial puzzles, but safely ranges between three and six hours, which isn’t much. After finishing the game you are offered several “challenge levels” which are much more difficult than the main plot levels and provide some replay value. The ending itself – again, I am studiously trying to avoid any spoilage – is one of the more enjoyable videogame endings I’ve seen, as unique in its execution as is the entire character of the game. It’s just so seldom that you see these kinds of resources and attention to detail lavished on what is a relatively minor player, game-wise, sandwiched as it is between the twin monsters of Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2. It’s as if Portal was almost never born, but then got made, but then Valve wasn’t sure what to do with it. Thus The Orange Box. (Essentially a 3+year old game + a multiplayer-only game + a weird, short, cool 3D puzzle game.)

I hope that they take the enthusiastic feedback that the community has given the game and turn it into its own series; as a 3D puzzler, Portal is rather unique, and the execution story-wise is shockingly fresh and original.

* Now, if you had the portal gun and another gun that shot that specific kind of tile, then you’d really have something there.


One response to “Portal (The Orange Box)”

  1. The game wasn’t overly difficult, but I lost about 2.5 hours of gameplay when I forgot to save my game, and I accidently quicksaved when I was about to die. Anyway I finished it and loved the ending : ) A very funny game.

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