I can’t think of a better topic for my first video game post, than to tell you about the awesomeness that is Portal. Incredibly, Portal was just an add-on game to Valve‘s popular Half-Life 2, the future dystopian First Person Shooter, released sort of as an “extra” in Valve’s Orange Box package, and yet it has managed to outstrip HL2 in praise, popularity, reviews, and cult following. All this despite its length (Jodi played through the bulk of it in about 4 hours, and she doesn’t much like FPSs), and the fact that instead of being a first-person shooter, built off the Half-Life engine or not, it’s actually a first person puzzle game.
So here’s how the game goes. You wake up in what appears to be a cryogenic stasis tube in a small glass-panelled room. There are no visible exits to the room. An AI computer voice hopes that your “brief detention in the relaxation vault” has been pleasant, and informs you that the testing is about to begin. And then a portal opens up on one of the walls of your cell.
This portal doesn’t work like other video games or sci-fi, though. If you look through the portal, you can see everything on the other side of it, seamlessly. If you look through the portal from a sheer angle, you see through it at that same angle as though it was actually a window. If you step through it, there’s no indication to you that you’d done so save for a little *fwoomp* noise.
The sheer awesomeness of the way this portal works within the video game world, from a technical standpoint, is mind-boggling. Once you get your portal gun, you can’t help but to experiment with it. Put the blue portal on one side of a hallway, and put the orange portal on the other, then look down it, to see not just a hall-of-mirrors — you could practically reach through the portal and tap yourself on the shoulder. Put two portals on the ground, pick up a box and drop it into one of them, and you can see the box, affected only by gravity, drop into the one, pop out the other, and then reverse the process. There’s only one box, but you see two — both of them doing a strange up-down oscillation, each opposite the other, over and over again. Put a portal on the ceiling, and another on the floor, then drop into one — and fall infinitely; that is, until you hit a wall with another portal and go screaming out of it at terminal velocity, only sideways. Luckily your player character has some strange contraptions called “spring heels” on her legs to keep her from taking damage after any such foolishness.
The properties of these portals are incredible, once you learn just how useful they are, and how versatile. Frankly, though, all of this has to be seen to be believed, so here’s their official trailer. Some of the stuff that happens in this trailer must be from beta, though, as it never happened in the actual game.
All other modes of transportation, like running, jumping, or using lifts or platforms, pale in comparison to being able to throw a portal up onto a high ledge and drop a portal right under your feet, putting you practically instantly wherever you want to be. Need to get through a wall, but all there is is a pinhole sized hole? Shoot a portal through the hole and you can get to the other side, no problem. Have a large chasm you have to jump over somehow? Find an angled piece of wall, put a portal on that, then jump off a cliff and put the other portal where you’re going to land. Your downward momentum is translated into a 45-degree upward momentum, because the portals do not actually affect your momentum when you go through them. In the computer voiceover’s own words, “Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman’s terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” The speed at which you were dropping suddenly becomes the speed at which you’re being launched over the chasm, and your camera has to twist to catch up sometimes.
Now, I suffer every now and then from vertigo when playing video games. I’ve caught myself yelping or turning away from the camera as Mario hurtles downward into the infinite abyss in the 3D Super Mario games. Every now and then, in Portal, there were puzzles that churned my stomach — like one where you had to conserve your momentum while popping up from one floor portal after another (jump off a cliff, land in a portal, and pop out of another floor portal you’d placed earlier — then place the next floor portal up on a higher cliff, then again, and again, falling then popping up, falling then popping up). But this is more than made up for by the mere fact that you have to think like a person with a portal gun at their disposal. Vertigo is nothing when you have a portal gun. Forget ladders. Forget moving platforms. You can get from point A to point B instantly, and you have to learn to process the 3D world that way. This phenomenon is known as “portal thinking”, and it does take a significant adjustment. (The SomethingAwful goons seem to have it down pat, though.)
I could talk about the portals themselves for days. However, they aren’t even half of the awesome that you can find in this game. Throughout the game, you’re being “helped” along by an evidently crazy AI named GLaDOS (pronounced “Gladys”), the Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System. I say crazy because she seems to want to kill you once the testing is complete, and has an unhealthy obsession with cake. The cake, however, is a lie — a previous test subject known as the “Rat-Man” has made that much clear in the notes he’s scrawled to assist you in your trek through these puzzles. Also, you’ll always want to keep your Weighted Companion Cube close and treat it with the utmost respect and dignity, and never trust anyone who says things like, “any contact with the chamber floor will result in an ‘unsatisfactory’ mark on your official testing record followed by death.” Anyway, you’ll find out about all of that soon enough.
You owe it to yourself to play this game. And I don’t say that about many games. I don’t even care if you’re not a gamer — you’ll likely enjoy this, or at least find it interesting to think about.
And if you’re not much for first-person games, or don’t have a powerful enough computer to handle them, here’s a poor-mans version of the awesome — a Flash-based 2D version of Portal. Oh, and if you already know and love the game, you can buy the t-shirt. Or buy one for me.