Review by Steerpike
November 2007

He Said It, Not Me

Valve Software’s Orange Box is a complete breakfast of video games, containing five products—Half-Life 2, Episode One, Episode Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. This has led to no small amount of anger, as it’s more expensive to purchase the games a la carte and most people already own half of the package. But with the ability to give your duplicates to other Steam subscribers and the fact that even with the repeats you’re still getting five games for 50 bucks, it’s kind of hard to stay mad. The interesting aspect of Orange Box is where the value truly lies.

Portal is very nearly worth the price of admission by itself,” opined a friend recently. “And with one of the best villains since SHODAN. There, I said it.”

Given that he’s referring to a game so brief it’s more of a tech demo, that’s a bold statement ... and a totally accurate one. But let’s back up a little bit.

In 2005, a team of students at the DigiPen Institute for game development released their senior project, a quirky little oddity called Narbacular Drop. The object was to navigate through a dungeon by placing and manipulating interconnected gateways. This peculiar game won a zillion awards and caught the notice of the industry at large. Half-Life creator Valve Software’s giant cash maw yawned open and swallowed in its entirety the Narbacular Drop development team. Valve was hard at work on the Half-Life 2 episodes and intent on expanding the already absurdly complex Half-Life universe (see our Half-Life 2, Episode One, and Episode Two reviews for details). The new team took the reins of Portal, which bears many similarities to that senior project.

Truth is, there’s a lot to like in the Orange Box, especially for people who haven’t gotten onto the Half-Life 2 bandwagon. But it’s Portal that makes the purchase worth it. This will be remembered as a supremely important game, and a sublimely good one. Portal calls for a special kind of nonlinear thinking, creating a world around its puzzles. It features outstanding art direction, writing, and voice acting and an experience so tightly tuned that this couldn’t be anything but a Valve game. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed myself as much as I do when I play Portal.

Aperture Science: We Do What We Must Because We Can

Set in the world of Half-Life—though when in that world is unclear—in Portal you play a woman named (according to Wikipedia) Chell, who has ill-advisedly signed up for a research project sponsored by Aperture Science Laboratories. We never learn the circumstances of her recruitment—Chell may just be a hapless victim of Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, which it happens to be at Aperture; she’s a little old for that, but who knows. All we know is that she wakes up in a test chamber, the first of 19 in the experiment. Her job is to get from the entrance to the exit of each. This is more challenging than it sounds, but Aperture has thoughtfully provided a handheld transdimensional interconnect generator, a “Portal Gun.” This gun fires blue and orange doorways into flat surfaces. Walk into one, come out the other. Simple!


“Up” and “down” lose meaning when you can walk through a wall and tumble out the ceiling. You retain momentum when you pass through a portal, so it’s possible to “fall” upward or hurl yourself laterally by combining gravity and creatively placed portals. You could create a portal above a threat, then create another beneath a heavy crate, so the object falls through and squishes your target. Or just shoot a portal at your feet to effect a speedy escape. And you can look through these portals and see yourself across the room, possibly upside down. Or pass through them so quickly that you chase yourself in circles. Staring into the endless, Escher-like repetition of certain portal combinations is an outstanding way to liberate your meal all over the keyboard.

Portal is totally unique puzzle game. While getting from A to B is the point, in Portal the challenge isn’t about accomplishing that. With the Portal Gun, you can go in anywhere and come out anywhere, provided you can see your destination and the surface you shoot at can hold a portal; walls, fences, locked doors, and deadly traps don’t mean what they do in other games. The most amazing thing is how quickly you get used to the power. Why walk down a hall when you can cross 50 yards in a nanosecond? Why bother with the floor when the ceiling’s right up there? The navigability of Portal’s topsy-turvy world is dictated not by Sir Isaac Newton, but by the gun in your hands. It starts out gently to teach you the ropes, and Portal is obviously a product of Valve’s clinically obsessive, alarmingly tortuous level-design-by-playtest process. There is not a thing out of place. Puzzles will never frustrate or even stump you, though you’ll have to stop and think often. While there are moments when you’ll need speedy reflexes, you solve most challenges with your brain, not your fingers. You’ll transfer your Portal experience to the real world, eyeing cubicle walls and grocery aisles as possible teleport opportunities.

Portal is also funny—very funny. Valve now employs Old Man Murray refugee and Psychonauts co-scribe Erik Wolpaw, and his script is a deft lattice of intrigue, menace, and hilarity. The many lighthearted moments don’t undermine its construct of fear. Portal is a lonely, dangerous-feeling game; you are literally a rat in a maze, in serious peril, overseen by an entity whose motivations are unclear.

I’ve Experiments to Run, There Is Research to Be Done

Your test proctor is a computer named GLaDOS, and from the beginning she doesn’t seem ... quite right in the head. But her voice is your only companion in the austere and creepy test chambers. Each chamber has windows through which observers might peer, but there are never any people behind the glass. Only her cameras watch you. In some rooms, you’ll discover cracks in the set pieces and see frightening evidence that other subjects have died in this experiment ... unless, of course, that’s all part of the test. GLaDOS’s generally peculiar behavior induces a disorienting paranoia.

This brings us back to the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, or SHODAN, the fascinatingly vicious AI antagonist from the System Shock games. Where most game enemies are formulaic and depthless, SHODAN is a source of endless discussion among game scholars: because she is always with you, watching, taunting, interfering. Because she does display affection for you at times. Because she’s kind of sexy. And because unlike most “villains,” who are “evil,” SHODAN simply hates, she hates, relentlessly; her unyielding malice renders evil irrelevant.

GLaDOS isn’t like that at all.

Variously plaintive and threatening, at times GLaDOS appears rather genuinely to want to be your friend. GLaDOS promises you cake. GLaDOS sings you a song. But she also lies and hinders. She tries, hard, to kill you. Always beneath the erratic behavior is a thread of cruelty. Sometimes obvious, often veiled, the constant undercurrent of viciousness in every remark she makes. It’s amazing how close you get to this disembodied voice, at times so distorted it’s difficult to understand. You come to know her from her initial clinical detachment to anger to desperation and fear. GLaDOS is afraid of you and far too confident of her own superior intellect, relying on ever more ridiculous and transparent deceptions to throw you off course.

It’s interesting that the two finest enemies in video game history are both female supercomputers; I think it has less to do with gender or species and more to do with the fact that they’re hovering over your shoulder throughout, commenting on and dissecting every move you make. By the end, you’ve known them for so long you can’t help but be fond of them.

And the Science Gets Done, and You Make a Neat Gun

You’ll finish Portal in less than three hours and enjoy one of the most hilarious, enigmatic, and tantalizing endings in years. The question now is whether (and how) Valve intends to migrate the characters and equipment from Portal into Half-Life, in which I’d welcome the appearance of GLaDOS and Chell. Like Gordon Freeman, that series’ protagonist, Chell doesn’t speak; also like him, she’s a pretty tough cookie. The franchise could use another major female character to supplement Alyx Vance, and I’d love to see GLaDOS spar with Overwatch, the AI that controls the wicked alien Combine’s security services.

There’s already some crossover. Aperture Science gets a mention in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. This company—a humble manufacturer of shower curtains for the U.S. Army before it branched out into transdimensional physics—was in direct competition with Black Mesa Research Institute for government money. Near the end of Episode Two, the human resistance discovers the location of the Borealis, an Aperture-owned ship that apparently vanished in a Philadelphia Experiment–type of situation shortly before the Black Mesa incident. If Half-Life has a moral, it’s that teleportation is a dangerous toy best left unplayed with. Black Mesa’s teleportation research triggered two alien invasions and the near-extinction of humanity; Aperture seems poised for similar disaster.

I’d welcome the characters, but I’m less sure about the hardware. The Portal Gun is a game changer, much more so than Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun. I think it’s a little risky to give it to Gordon Freeman. First, he already has a lot to carry. Second, while Half-Life’s environmental puzzles could be even cooler with portals, it is primarily an action shooter. In the hands of a creative player, the Portal Gun would be such a devastating weapon that the rest of Gordon’s arsenal would be obsolete. So we’ll see.

These Points of Data Make a Beautiful Line

The complexities of incorporating portal technology into Half-Life 2’s Source engine are not inconsiderable, as the Developer’s Commentary section of the game reveals. Physics, which play such an important role in Source, just act weird when you add portals to the equation, and much of the team’s effort was devoted to getting the technology to work.

Their time paid off. Portal functions as advertised, stable and elegant. Its antiseptic look has earned some complaints for lack of flair; I disagree. I think Portal looks the way it does for a very good reason. The art direction is clean and stylish, a dystopian minimalism well removed from the gloomy urban hell of Half-Life 2’s City-17. It’s unfair to say that a game isn’t varied enough when the whole thing takes place in a series of scientific test chambers. All of Portal’s original art and sound effects work in harmony.

The only real complaint about Portal is its length. Even if you play through a second time to hear the Commentary track, even with the included Challenge Levels, there’s just not enough here. Still, whether purchased as part of the Orange Box or as a $20 standalone over Steam, Portal is worth every dime. But I can sympathize with your skepticism on that matter if you haven’t played the game. Had Portal included 50 test chambers instead of 19, I’d be a much happier camper.

I am fascinated by Portal, this game made by students who got the developer’s dream come true: the chance to work with Valve Software at the height of its awesome. The chance to try something different, something unique and a little crazy. Everything from the gameplay to the closing credits is risky. Most publishers wouldn’t touch something this ... off-kilter. But Valve is Valve; it has limitless resources and is a font of innovation. For them, it’s a small gamble—Portal wasn’t that expensive to make, it’s part of a larger package, most of the team were recent grads so no reputations were really on the line—and it paid off.

Ironically, Portal completely overshadows the good but unmemorable Episode Two, supposed star of the Orange Box. Portal, tucked neatly alongside four other games, outshines them all and ensures itself a place in posterity. The End


The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Release Date: October 2007

Available for: Windows Xbox 360 Playstation 3

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System Requirements

1.7 GHz processor (P4 3 GHz or better recommended)
512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended)
DirectX 8 level graphics card (DirectX 9 level recommended)
Windows Vista/XP/2000
Internet connection

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