“This was a triumph. I’m making a note here: huge success. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.”
Portal is without a doubt one of the most iconic and memorable games of the last 10 years. There was a whole period at the end of the last decade where you almost couldn’t tell someone you were a gamer without receiving the response: “The cake is a lie!”
Portal started life as little more than a tech-demo called Narbacular Drop developed by a group of students attending Digipen Institute of Technology. Then, Valve’s Gabe Newell came across it and offered the entire team a job. Their task? To develop Narbacular Drop into a new, fully-fledged title; thus, Portal was born.
The 10-man Portal team sat down with the Half-Life team, working side-by-side to link Portal into the world of Gordon Freeman. Two years later, we received one of the greatest games of all time. Portal rewrote the way players think about, interact with and manipulate their environment.
Since it’s release as part of The Orange Box, Portal has enjoyed a plethora of awards, a sequel, a comic, some fantastic merchandise and even a few crossovers, including Poker Night 2 and Dota 2.
Despite being almost universally loved, Portal is actually rather short. You awake as Chell, a seemingly mute test subject at Aperture Science who serves as GLaDOS’ (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) lab rat. You’re forced to run deadly gauntlet after deadly gauntlet, all while GLaDOS causally tries to kill you – for no reason other than for science, of course.
While GLaDOS doesn’t outright grade you on your performance, she makes every effort to mock your attempts at survival. She pulls no punches in trying to break you down and belittle you with her snide remarks – comments about your weight, personality and the fact that you were adopted.
“There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend, the Companion Cube. Of course, he couldn’t come, because you murdered him. All your other friends couldn’t come, either, because you don’t have any other friends because of how unlikable you are. It says so right here in your personnel file: “Unlikable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikable loner, whose passing shall not be mourned. Shall NOT be mourned.” That’s exactly what it says. Very formal. Very official. It also says you were adopted, so that’s funny, too.”
You start out empty handed, using only Weighted Storage Cubes as stepping-stones as you run and jump your way through each test chamber. They start out easy at first, until GLaDOS gets bored, and ups the ante.
“Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death.”
GLaDOS makes every test more and more difficult until you reach one notable mission where you’re introduced to your only ‘friend’ in the game – the aforementioned Weighted Companion Cube. It’s different from the other cubes in that it has a pink heart drawn on its sides, and you’re told to accompany it to a furnace where you “euthanize” it to proceed. The Companion Cube has since become massively popular. I actually have a pair of fuzzy Companion Cube dice hanging in front of me as I write this article, thinking about the time I discovered I could carry the Companion Cube all the way to the last door before fighting GLaDOS.
I liked the damn Cube; it was my friend.
As you play through Portal you discover the history of the testing facility, and traces of those who have been before you. You slip through cracks in the test chamber, finding empty cans of beans on the floor and mad scrawlings on the wall: “The cake is a lie!”. If you look hard enough, you can even find defaced photos of the Aperture Science heads of department on the walls, the Weighted Companion Cube drawn over their heads. When you stop and piece together the entire history of the facility, with the implications of what GLaDOS tells you every now and again, there are some very dark conclusions that can be reached.
“The Enrichment Center is required to remind you that the Weighted Companion Cube cannot talk. In the event that it does talk, The Enrichment Center asks you to ignore its advice.”
When GLaDOS went live as an AI for the first time, she tried to flood The Enrichment Center with deadly nerve gas. The scientists at Aperture realized this and quickly shut her off, installing Morality Cores to offset her violent tendencies. When they turned her back on, she still flooded The Enrichment Center with deadly nerve gas and killed everyone she could. Those who lived were forced to run the gauntlets she created, or were put into stasis for future testing. This explains all of the empty offices and viewing platforms throughout the game. At any point in time, the only two conscious beings in the facility are the homicidal GLaDOS and whoever she is currently testing. None of this explains the complete lack of bodies in the facility, but we’ll let that minor detail slide. It’s possible that GlaDOS’ obsession with cremating people, coupled with the photos and the Companion Cube’s potential ability to talk, suggests that the former department heads have now become Companion Cubes themselves, which you murder as part of GLaDOS’ sick sense of humor.
The second act of the game ends with your final test chamber. GLaDOS has grown weary of you not dying, and leads you to a mobile platform which she intends to incinerate as you stand there, helpless. You manage to escape using your portal gun, find and defeat GLaDOS, before briefly escaping the testing facility at the end of the game. As the credits roll, GLaDOS sings you out with the terrifyingly creepy – but ridiculously catchy – song, Still Alive.
It’s this dark sense of humor which appealed so strongly to gamers all over the world. While Portal came packaged with Half-Life 2, its Episodes, and Team Fortress 2, it was Portal that went on to receive the most critical acclaim. It’s not hard to believe that despite its humble beginnings, it could have had a similar level of success if it had been released as a standalone title. It may be entwined with the lore of Half-Life, but aside from a few references it may as well exist in its own self-contained little world.
Seven years and a console generation have passed since the release of the first Portal game, but Portal still feels fresh. Not only is it still incredibly playable – and I implore you to play it if you haven’t already done so – but it stands up as one of the very best games in modern history. When you take the dry humor that was poured into this game, the beautiful level design and the robust mechanics, you have a game which is very difficult to find fault with. Despite being the only character you interact with, GLaDOS has enough personality than the entire cast of most other games combined.
“Look at me still talking when there’s Science to do.
When I look out there, it makes me GLaD I’m not you.
I’ve experiments to run. There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
And believe me I am still alive…”