There’s a Hole in the Sky, Through Which Things Can Fly – A Portal Retrospective

Shhhh… I have a confession to make and I’m pretty sure that I can trust you all, right? I got kinda starstruck the other day on Twitter, but it’s OK because I played it cool and I don’t think the person involved was any the wiser.

Now I’ve grabbed your attention I can reveal that the mystery person was the most excellent game designer, Kim Swift. Through the magic… or weirdness… of Twitter we shared a short exchange about successfully (or not in my case) driving in snow. Unfortunately, despite being strangely informative, that is not what I would ideally have liked to quiz Kim about. In that ideal world I would have asked her about her time heading up the team that developed Portal; her involvement in the Left4Dead games; why she left Valve; what she thought about Portal 2; and her hopes for the future. The whole incident left me thinking about Portal and its legacy. Even the story of Gabe Newall hiring Kim and her team after seeing their short title, ‘Narbacular Drop’, has a touch of mystery about it.

The crazy thing is that Portal is now over ten years old. My initial thought that I couldn’t possibly do a retrospective on a title so modern was slowly replaced with an even scarier thought – there is going to be a large number of gamers out there who may never have played Chell’s original outing.

Message to anyone who hasn’t played the original Portal: Why are you reading this?!? Go and play Portal…

I was infatuated with Portal from before it was released; I watched that first trailer over and over again. Seeing this startlingly simple game mechanic being explained in a cute cartoon then suddenly being translated to a 3D environment viewed through the first person perspective was jaw-dropping. I picked apart each fast-cut; the camera rotating to re-orient the player, the turret bouncing between the ground portals, (the then unknown) Chell chasing herself around a corner. I began to see the potential for how this could come together to form an intricate puzzle game, but more than that, I hadn’t experienced a game that used the first-person perspective for anything other than blasting other people apart.

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Do you remember your first fling?

Some months later I’d managed to tool myself up with a current gaming PC and bought the Orange Box on day one. I knew absolutely nothing about Half life 2 (which still remains uncompleted), or Team Fortress 2 (which did become a favourite of mine), but I picked up Valve’s seminal anthology for that weird little game tacked on to the side of it that I’d waited patiently for. Portal lived up to what I’d built it up to be in my mind and more; it remains one of those games that I keep installed just to meander through from time to time.

The nearest that anything came to the portal mechanic before then was being able to look through some of the teleporters in Quake III, but that didn’t even come close to this ‘movable hole’ leading wherever you wanted it to… not that Portal let’s you do that right away. Each game element; buttons, weighted cubes, high-energy pellets, are handed to the player carefully in one of the most well thought through learning experiences seen in a game. It is a testament to this tutorial section that it looks ‘quaint’ by today’s standards because these types of first-person puzzle elements are now common (largely due to this game), but at the time it was new territory. At the right moment the player is introduced to the concept of portals; a hole to another point in the level that they can pass through (in either direction) to reach places they wouldn’t normally be able to or throw a cube through and become confused how gravity’s effect changes depending on the gateway’s position (and orientation). Even the fabled portal gun is handed to the player piece by piece, firstly only allowing them to place blue portals and finally the complete gun is presented. Hearing the short piece of audio that plays when you are gifted the complete article still gives me a tingle of excitement.

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Stepping behind the scenes for the first time gave me shivers

The very first time I was free to place portals at will I spent fifteen to twenty minutes in the small corridor before that test-chamber’s exit-elevator chasing myself through the wall, falling infinitely, and jumping through that blue shimmering ellipse at weird angles to see Chell smoothly right herself. The existence of that small room, clad in the white ‘portal-able’ tiles, shows just how much the designers considered the player’s experience – they knew we’d want to play right there. With the complete gun the challenge increased, the player learning that sometimes they had to leave portals to get back, look before they leap, and most importantly how to fling themselves.

Slight physics interlude here: I’ve seen arguments stating that GLaDOS’ description that momentum, a function of velocity and mass, is conserved through portals as being wrong because velocity is a vector and as the exit direction of the player (or object) from a portal is now different from their entry vector then momentum has changed. This is completely incorrect, from the frame of reference of the object itself the velocity has not changed so GLaDOS is correct… anywho…    

Flinging is the standout use for portals; falling into a one portal to find yourself zipping through the air as you simultaneously exit the other is liberating. Add in the extra element that you might then need to think quickly and place another portal to keep the fling going makes for some excellent fluid and satisfying sequences. My favourite of these is using ground-flings to work up a series of pedestals utilising that fractional moment of calm at the apex of flight to find your next target.

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Why, hello there!

So whilst the well thought out application of a simple idea makes Portal good, it’s the humour and darkness in the game that makes it great. If I concentrate really, really hard I can take myself back to before we all knew the cake was a lie, before we made a note that it was a huge success, and before we all wrestled mentally with destroying a cube with a heart on it, to the time I first started the game. I had no idea what I was in for as I was dropped into this clinical world of test chambers with a seemingly pre-recorded voice (the then unknown GLaDOS) guiding me through the experience, a companion to instruct me and provide the occasional amusing comment… right? The point at which I first ventured ‘behind-the scenes’ was chilling; through the inclusion of one unremarkable area the designers tore down the reality presented to the player and replaced it with a different scenario, one where the player was a prisoner. The well-trodden “The Cake is a Lie” scrawled on the wall by some previous unknown inmate a stark indicator that we were being deceived by that faceless voice. Sure, the phrase subsequently became overused to the point of exhaustion, but it was a synonym for the collective appreciation that gamers everywhere had for that moment of realisation.

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GLaDOS transforms throughout the game from a neutral to malign, her comments, brilliantly funny and dark, heighten the building tension as the player ventures towards her for the final confrontation. GLaDOS also has a rapport with the other character, the weighted companion cube. Featuring in just one short test chamber, the cube is essentially identical to all the other cubes in the game… with the addition of some cute hearts… but it is also one more lesson in excellent game design. The direct connection that the game makes between the player and cube guides the player to take the cube with them, a necessity for completing the chamber. The continued allusion by GLaDOS that the cube might be sentient highlights further the player’s isolation and adds weight to the moment the player is required to euthanise the cube in a furnace… I spent some time looking for a way around that

Portal’s legacy manifested in the slew of first person puzzle games that appeared in the subsequent years, including Swift’s own ‘Quantum Conundrum”. It also left us with some of gaming’s most well-used memes and truly brilliant closing number, Still Alive. The sequel was bigger, longer, and more overtly funny, but lacked the charm and chilling undertones of the original. It’s a game I feel weird writing about; surely everyone already knows this? Has anyone out there not crossed paths with Portal? Feel free to jump into the comments!

9 thoughts on “There’s a Hole in the Sky, Through Which Things Can Fly – A Portal Retrospective

  1. What I like about Portal is how it managed to deliver a quality experience in a mere four hours; I’ve played games that failed to do that despite being ten times as long. More studios could learn from that.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Seriously though, who goes on the Internet and claims GlaDOS is wrong about something 🤔 I love Portal, it’s the only first person ‘shooter’ I’ve ever finished myself. I was really happy upon starting my current job to discover we have a shared outlook calendar called GlaDOS, not entirely sure what it’s for though!

    Liked by 1 person

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