We do what we must, because we can (a retrospective on Portal)

Portal screenshot
Portal, a game that is part of the Orange Box collection by Valve Software for the PC, XBOX 360, and PlayStation 3, is the most fun game I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a long, long time. It’s not just me saying that; Ars Technica and Games Radar also love it, and so does pretty much everyone else who I haven’t bothered to link to. Just a warning: this post contains heavy spoilers. If you haven’t played it yet but are planning to, don’t read any further. Otherwise, read on to hear what all of the fuss is about. Even if you’re a non-gamer, Portal contains many elements of note worth hearing about.

Portal takes a single new game mechanic and runs with it, blowing the entire genre wide open. We’ve never seen anything like this before, and It Is Awesome. The mechanic is this: you have a portal gun that can make a portal in nearly any type of surface of the game (floors, walls, ceilings, and angled joints included). You can place two portals at once. Other games have had features like this, but in them, you touch one portal and you are instantly teleported to the other portal. Not so in Portal. The portals aren’t mere warp points; they are warps in time and space.

Look through one and you see everything on the other side. Line them up correctly and you can see yourself, or if you have just the right line of sight, you can see yourself many times over, kind of like a barbershop mirror effect. Place the portals near each other on two faces of a corner and amuse yourself for minutes by continually chasing your figurative tail. I did. Make a portal in the ceiling and one in the floor directly below it and fall forever. And if you have any speed going into a portal, you keep it coming out of the portal, allowing you to translate vertical momentum from, say, falling into a floor portal, into horizontal momentum upon exiting a wall portal. Launching out of 45 degree-angled portals is the best. And you can better believe that the game’s puzzles take full advantage of these features.

Enemies see through the portals too. I got myself killed once by accident when I opened up a portal right in front of a turret while the other portal was behind me. The turret’s targeting laser went through the portal and right onto my back, and the turret proceeded to riddle me with bullets. And the puzzle with the rocket turret, where you have to backtrack in the level to get the turret to shoot a rocket at you and travel through the portal to blow up a glass barricade far away, is sheer genius.

Portal is amazingly fun to play. There’s never been anything like it. And the designers enjoy teasingly rubbing it in your face. There are several puzzles in the game that appear to be platformer problems, with an intricate series of moving objects that seem like they could be traversed in the normal platformer fashion (but can’t). Of course, the solution is actually just being observant enough to notice the one portal-able surface at the other end of the set of obstacles and simply skipping over the entire trap. After you figure out these puzzles, you can’t help but admire what a different kind of gaming experience Portal is.

But that’s not all. Portal has a ludicrously funny and touching plot of a seemingly Monty Python-esque lineage. You are a prisoner trapped in a series of pristine white experiment rooms by the psychotic artificial intelligence GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) of Aperture Science. You slowly get more and more hints that the artificial intelligence is planning on disposing of you at the end of the experiments, though it keeps insisting that your reward is cake (and indeed, there are a series of icons listing the hazards that will be encountered in all of the experiment chambers, along with a cake icon, and the cake icon is only lit up at the beginning of the last one). Along the way, every line the AI says is borderline hysterical. In one level the AI continually mocks your abilities and intelligence, and then after successfully completing the level, says that it was just a test of how well you would perform in an extremely pessimistic environment.

The weighted companion cube is a special treat. Random boxes are staples of platformers, typically used to keep depressed a floor switch, freeing up the player to move through the door the switch opens. There’s no difference in Portal with this basic mechanic. The difference is in the box. The AI brands one such box a “weighted companion cube”, and just to make sure you won’t forget this fact, it’s painted with a heart. You have to carry your cube along with you through the entire level to solve a series of switch puzzles.

All along, the AI makes comments designed to make you feel more of a connection to your cube, though it does warn that you may be losing it if you start hearing the cube talking to you. And then, in a sad twist of fate, you have to euthanize your companion cube as the last task of the level by dropping it into an incinerator. I had genuinely grown attached to it by that point, and struggled in vain for a few minutes trying to find a way to proceed without destroying it. It’s a powerful game that can make you feel attached to an inanimate cube that has no other purpose than to be carried around and dropped on switches. Here’s the cube level:

As the game progresses, you find more and more evidence that things are seriously wrong. Cracks in the shiny white veneer of the laboratory rooms start appearing, allowing you to explore dingy, decrepit back rooms, hallways, and experimental infrastructure. You find evidence of other unfortunate souls who have been through the experiment, some leaving helpful messages leading the way to safety, others leaving messages indicating they didn’t make it. You even find observation rooms full of equipment that are unstaffed. It’s like all the orderlies are missing and the AI is running the asylum. After the final test, you manage to break out of the confines of the experiment and travel through the back end of the horrible Aperture Sciences laboratory to eventually do battle against the AI. All along the AI is trying to play tricks with your mind, alternately saying you’re going the wrong direction and making fake pleas for mercy.

The final scene before the credits shows a room with waiting AI spheres and the promised cake with a solitary candle that is sorrowfully snuffed out by a robotic arm. Apparently the promises of cake and a congratulations party were real, and you were being the cruel one by destroying GLaDOS. But the peak of the game’s brilliance is during the ending credits, which play to the tune of Still Alive by John Coulton, a song specifically written for the game. It’s just an absolute delight to listen to, and still funny after the tenth listen (yes, I ripped the mp3). It contains such lyrical gems as “Aperture Science: We do what we must, because we can,” a perfectly irrational motto that implies doing whatever the hell one wants, but with an air of ideological certainty to it. Aperture Science sounds like the Bush administration. Here’s the ending:

After the credits finished rolling, I was filled with an immense feeling of sadness because the game was over. The only knock on Portal is that it is very short (around three hours), and when it ends, you’re at the height of enjoyment and aching for more. Here’s hoping for Portal 2. I’m certain that much, much more can be done with the innovative portal game mechanic, and I really want to dive back into the world of Aperture Science and finally get my cake.

4 Responses to “We do what we must, because we can (a retrospective on Portal)”

  1. Vio Says:

    *sniff*

    poor GLaDOS

  2. JO Says:

    Don’t feel sad for GLaDOS. Remember she was glad for you because she got burned. Anyway she’s “still alive”…. doing science …. on people who are still alive … but not for the benefit of those who are dead …. only for those who are still alive.

    My own special message to GLaDOS: Give it up, honey, Black Mesa won the funding war and the only replacement parts we have for you are red eyeballs.

  3. Joe Cassara Says:

    GlaDOS has you all fooled if you think she’s the victim here…

  4. Ugletek Says:

    <3 We did what we must, because we could. <3 Well the Portal itself is filled with so… i-dont-have-even-words-for atmosphere that You will get to love the game. From the very starts of neat white rooms, and as the game progresses by "proving portals are safe, but gun however is not", "atmosphere of extreme pesimism", GLaDOS getting more and more upset with your progress as You take control over the whole thing, lab observing spots (which you get to visit in the very end of game), the 33 (actually more) cameras, our beloved Companion Cube, and most of all to watch inner stories of game authors… That's just the best about it all. Well I saw it at a friend who told me "hey check it out, it has nice engine and all like that" so I did. And I must say I was very surprised about it. Started the game at 10pm and didnĀ“t move till the end. Before this I didn't have an idea what a good game is. Well now I do and I would like recommend portal to everyone who didn't play it, and for these who did: "Go play it again three times, get all these precious achievments, complete everything You can, and try to understand every word that was implemented inside the game. But don't be sad! CHEER UP FOR Portal 2!!!

    PS: Forgot about android training center! @;– sorrie!

    PPS: Love U Portal!

    PPPS: Read about the people's experiences on the internet!

    FINAL THOUGHT: Still alive…