Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Portal, or how a minimalist game can be utterly amazing

Grade: B+
Platform: GNU/Linux, PC, 360, PS3
Genre: Physics puzzler
Steam: $9.99
Released: 2007

Portal was both an amazing game and the inspiration of far too many "the cake is a lie" jokes.

What makes Portal amazing is how such a minimalist, and very short, game could be such a huge hit, and have no imitators at all to speak of.

If you haven't played Portal, snag a copy and enjoy.  You'll be glad you did.

One thing that makes Portal so intriguing is that it is such a simplistic game.  You make portals, you bounce through them from point to point, and you try to get to the exit.  Admittedly the puzzles are often delightful and well thought out, but the game taken just as physics puzzler would at best merit a C.

What pushes Portal into the realm of greatness isn't just the fact that it had snappy gameplay and tightly designed levels.  What made Portal great was the setting, the story, and the characters.  And only one of the characters talks which makes it all the more amazing.

Portal is a deeply creepy game, one that manages to be menacing, almost frightening at times, all without gore, jump scares, or or any of the other things that are usually deployed in media to up the creep factor.  The first few seconds help establish how subtly, and not so subtly, wrong everything game is.

You waken from a "brief detention" in a "relaxation vault", to find yourself locked in a cell with no door, a radio playing a cheery tune, and everything tries to look like a shiny futuristic lab but actually looks a bit.... worn.  There's subtle stains on all the surfaces, the glass of your suspension pod is scuffed, there's cracks and discolorations on the tiles, and most disturbingly of all you can clearly see that there are no observers behind the frosted glass windows set high in the walls.

All that even before GLaDOS even has the "glitch" where she doesn't tell you the safety procedures.

There is a not so subtle menace in dialog and warnings pretending to be helpful.  "Perfect. Please move quickly to the chamberlock, as the effects of prolonged exposure to the Button are not part of this test."  The words meant to encourage the player are clearly designed to discourage, and the promised reward of cake at the end of testing seems calculated to be all but insulting to an adult.

Long before you encounter the first overt sign of anything wrong, the first of Rat Man's lairs where you see the phrase "the cake is a lie" scribbled over and over on the walls, you know that the testing is a fraud, that the computer (not yet named) is seeking to kill you.

The Rat Man lairs also provide you with your first glimpse behind the scenes.  The formerly pristine white tiles of the test chambers, now discolored and cracked, are merely a facade on ugly industrial particle board.  Behind the once gleaming lab is a grungy machine struggling to keep up a false appearance.

And then, when you reach the end of test chamber 19 and break out, into behind the scenes, you see it from the other side.

Other than the turrets, so creepily saying "I don't blame you" when you destroy them, GLaDOS is the only voiced character, but the other characters are not exactly empty or undeveloped.  Even Rat Man who appears only in the debris left in his lairs has a personality of sorts.

Like many games, Portal offers no character customization.  Unlike many games, the character you must play is a woman, and Chell is no tarted up sex object.  You catch a glimpse of Chell in the first chamber, hair pulled back into a functional ponytail, a prison orange jumpsuit, and a face with no makeup and no smile.  Chell is very far from a typical game protagonist.  She has no dialog and yet her appearnace and the setting convey some character.  She is clearly not a woman in a place she wants to be, and she will clearly let nothing stand in the way of her escape.  Chell does not fuck around, and every detail of her character is designed to say this.

GLaDOS you don't see until the end, and she is a cluster of spheres on a central apparatus of some sort.  Her voice is calm, mechanical, and menacing even before she begins directly threatening you. The dialog is cleverly designed to sound like bits and pieces of what might be actual testing dialog snipped apart and recombined for GLaDOS' own purposes.

All of which makes the shift in her tone to a less artificial, less distant, sort of voice into one with much more personality and direct interest in you seem so very much more threatening.

A physics puzzle game without an intriguing setting and characters, even one as mechanically sound and well designed as Portal, wouldn't be as memorable.  Portal, like all the best games, gives the impression that there is more to it, that if you tried hard enough you could find out more about the characters, that you could find more secrets, that you could open more doors and find more places.

The fact that the designers managed all this in a game that, even on the first playthrough only takes four hours or so, is nothing short of amazing.  Portal is pure poetry, every line and level polished to perfection.

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