Portal. Who doesn’t know Portal by now? You might not have played the game, but odds are you are aware of its existence. If asked about the game, you could probably at the very least be able to tell me that the cake is a lie, or maybe even hum the first few bars of the song Still Alive. You might even be able to tell me a little bit about chatty turrets or how to keep momentum as you hop through a set of portals. The game itself has seeped into mainstream pop culture to the point where references to the game invade just about every other medium out there. JUST ABOUT.
Next week, Valve’s long-awaited sequel, creatively titled Portal 2, will hit shelves. It’s been a while since I’ve been excited for a new game release, but I can’t help but get excited for Portal 2. So today I sat down with the original, courtesy of my Xbox 360 version of The Orange Box to get reacquainted with the psychotic computer marm GlaDOS and the silent protagonist who may or may not be an android, and to try to peer into the murky depths of the future to see if portal physics can apply in the world of video game production. In short, if a good game goes into the portal, does that actually mean a good game has to come out the other end?
There’s really not much to say about the plot of Portal. Honestly, there’s not much of one, and odds are, if you’ve been on the internet for any length of time, you can probably figure out what happened in the game. You play as Chell, a quiet young woman who wakes up one day in an Aperture Science facility in some kind of sleeping pod, presumably due to being placed in suspended animation or something like that. GlaDOS welcomes her back into the world of the living through the facility’s speaker system and then proceeds to inform her that she will be involved in some rigorous testing involving Aperture Science’s handheld portal device. Some portals are activated, and off Chell goes into the testing chambers to claim the gun and to see what it can do.
Something is rather off about GlaDOS, though. She’s prone to glitches, which hilariously seem to happen right as she is about to impart helpful warnings or advice, and it quickly becomes apparent that Chell’s survival is pretty low down on the list of priorities. GlaDOS, voiced by Ellen McLain, breaks down the idea of portal physics for you. Speedy object goes in one end and shoots out the other, you can place portals here but not there, and so on and so forth. She does this with some chilly jokes and a liberal helping of sacrasm.
Chell never says a word, and GlaDOS never refers to her by name. The only reason her name is known at all is that it appears during the ending credits, thanking actress Alésia Glidewell for providing the face model for the character. For the entirety of the game, it’s just you and GlaDOS’s unique brand of murder-help.
GlaDOS’ lines are top-notch here and will keep you laughing through the entire two to three hours this game takes to beat. If it wasn’t clear, the insane, sarcastic computer is the real reason for playing Portal. Without GlaDOS, Portal would have been another unique puzzle game that would have probably worn out its welcome an hour into the game.
That’s not to say portal technology is bad. The game encourages “thinking with portals” which is actually a bit trickier to get the hang of than you’d think. After playing an endless amount of games where the idea is to blow shit up first and make peace with the ashes later, having to figure out where to place portals to propel yourself forward or higher can be tricky. But after a certain point, you’ve done what you can with them. You can only bonk a turret in the head with another turret so many times before you start wanting to see something else.
Yeah, turrets. It doesn’t take GlaDOS long to start apologetically send you through courses lined with live fire turrets and electro-death floors in the name of testing. This is where you first realize the truth: GlaDOS maaaaay not have your best interests in mind. And then things take a turn that isn’t very lighthearted at all.
For such a lighthearted game, Portal is also surprisingly creepy. Chell isn’t the first person to wander through GlaDOS’ testing chambers, and here and there you can find little hidey holes, where the previous tenants went crazy and probably starved to death over the years, but not before writing a string of jibberish on the walls. This look into someone else’s final days is unsettling, and makes you realize that in all the time you’ve spent in testing, you’ve never seen one single scientist up behind those glass windows.
Which brings us to Portal 2. As excited as I may be for the sequel to this surprisingly fun game, I’m also pretty worried about how it’s going to turn out. The first game had novelty working for it. GlaDOS and the portal gun were something we had never seen before in a game, creating a charming and psychotic little gem hiding in The Orange Box. The sequel, well, we’ve now seen all that. We already know GlaDOS isn’t to be trusted, and the gun itself has already been extensively tested. What reason is there to return?
I have no doubt Portal 2 will have some excellent writing behind it, but I guess I’m also worried that things will be reused and recycled from the first game. Will the cake be a lie again? What about the weighted companion cube? Will we see a little bit more into the company that created the crazy AI and her love for neurotoxins? Or will it be just another series of test chambers?
These answers, of course, I won’t know until I play the next game. From what I gather about Portal 2, though, Chell has company this time around, and talks to other personality cores that have been separated from GlaDOS sometime in the past. I hope these cores are as well thought out as GlaDOS and not a cookie cutter video game everyman stereotypes.
We’ll see, I suppose. We’ll see. The original game has become so entrenched in internet culture it now has enormous shoes to fill. I’m just worried that the first game has unwittingly been hyping up the sequel since before Valve decided to do a sequel, and that there’s no possible way it’ll be anywhere as good as it needs to be.
That’s why I promise to run this game through rigorous testing when I pick it up next week.