Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Review Date: 2/23/11
It only took me four years to assume the party escort submission position and play the little darling of Valve's "The Orange Box" collection. I've never been a fan of first person shooters and even the puzzle premise of "Portal" held no appeal to me. However, I became intrigued when I found out that the protagonist was a woman (since I'm a huge fan of female action games), and after hearing a live performance of "Still Alive" at Video Games Live I finally decided to give it a shot. The game, and that song in particular, have become such an important piece of gaming pop culture, that I felt it was my duty to at least become familiar with the material so that I could be in on the joke.
The game starts out with a woman named Chell waking up in an isolation cell at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. When she is let out of her cell, she is informed by an AI named GLaDOS that she is part of a scientific experiment and must maneuver her way through nineteen increasingly difficult obstacle courses using a handheld portal device. The device allows you to manipulate space by creating interconnected dimensional portals. For instance, if you create one portal on a wall and another portal on the ceiling, when you walk through the wall you will fall out of the ceiling. Each testing area is a challenging exercise in spatial perception, designed to make clever use of portals, gravity, and momentum.
While the game starts out as some sort of sick and twisted joke at the player's expense, it quickly becomes something much deeper and considerably more sinister. Whether by design or chance, GLaDOS is as sadistic as she is curious, pushing Chell to extreme limits and placing her in harm's way merely for the sake of collecting data. Her innocently dispassionate sarcasm is disconcerting, and her sincere bluntness is darkly humorous. Is her complete lack of ethics and empathy the result of naïve mechanical innocence, or does she take some sort of perverse pleasure in torturing humans? As you get deeper into the game, you realize that things are not right at the lab, and it takes on an eerie "Westworld" aspect. There is some palpable science fiction going on here due to some very tight and clever writing, and a spectacular vocal performance from Ellen McLain. The game's presentation has a bit of a Ray Bradbury feel to it, and explores some interesting philosophical and psychological constructs regarding humanity and technology. The game also ties into Valve's "Half-Life" universe, presumably some time after the Combine have subjugated Earth. There are lots of "Half-Life" references and in-jokes in the game if you're looking for them. Unfortunately, the majority of the back story is filled in during the final showdown with GLaDOS, but you're so busy with the encounter that you can't pay attention to what she's saying. It's one of those times where you need to record yourself playing the game so that you can replay it later and catch all of the details that you missed. The conclusion is unsatisfying, but perhaps "Portal 2" will expand on Chell's fate.
The game is relatively short, but long enough to meet its modest objective. The graphics look great and the controls are tight and responsive. However, it's clear that the game was designed for the elite mouse and keyboard crowd, so quick and precise target acquisition is difficult to pull off with an Xbox gamepad. The game also suffers from numerous bugs and glitches, and the frequent loading times are long and disruptive. And like most FPS games, you can't see your own feet, which is annoying and disorienting. Still, none of these issues affected my ability to make steady progress, or my desire for cake. Overall, "Portal" is a fun and engaging game that can be as deep and philosophical as you want it to be.