‘We hope your brief detention in the relaxation vault has been a pleasant one.’
You can never really be sure how you woke up in the facility. The game doesn’t tell you. You slide off the side of a steel bed inside a pressurized glass cube, and hear the voice of GLaDOS – the operating system who runs the Aperture Science facility. Once you leave the room, however, there is no more truth beyond that. You must solve puzzles for a malevolent god for some unknowable reason, and there is no recourse to action beyond successfully completing her divine mandate. Stumbling through a prison of unknowable dimensions, left to a fate one can only speculate on – the journey of Portal is one of the true great journeys into the unknown.
Portal was the result of an independent development that was expanded by Valve, a large American games company founded by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington. Although Valve is primarily known for their digital content services now, once upon a time, they were the paragon game developers of the industry; and the lessons from their games would go on to shape some of the finest examples to follow. They were responsible for Half Life, a series of games which have come to define narrative possibility, as well as Counter Strike, one of the most popular e-sports titles in the world. It takes quite a company to generate such a broad pedigree.
The only real problem with the legacy of Valve, and especially their time as games developers, is that their lessons are not more frequently applied. There is at least a whole article’s discussion on the first ten minutes of Half Life (1998), which comprises a train ride through an underground facility. It introduces not only your character, but the nature of the whole space in which you’ll spend your time. You wouldn’t need to play any more than that to understand the space of the game. As an achievement in ontological perspective, it ranks among the greatest; and yet the number of times a game will choose to open with such strength and trust in their player is rare.
All you can hear on the train, as the facility passes you by, are the generic messages of the PA system. As far as the player is concerned, they are just riding the train, trying to get to work on time. For a genre typically associated with bombast and hero worship, this moment was a revelation.
Portal begins differently. You don’t start in a train, you start in the room. And GLaDOS isn’t a generic voice connected to a living, breathing place. She is the AI responsible for an abandoned, dead facility, and she is very specifically talking to you, even when it doesn’t seem like it. For the three hours it takes to complete the game, and even when she’s at her wittiest, she will rank high among the most existentially sinister voices you’ll ever hear.
The mechanics of Portal are not complicated. You can move at a certain fixed speed, take no damage from falling or jumping (chalked up to an exoskeleton leg attachment) and have a ‘Portal Gun’. The player is slowly introduced to the concept, but it doesn’t take long before the game mechanic is fully realized and within your control. The gun fires ‘portals’, one orange and one blue, which are linked to one another. They open like oval mirrors on the surface of floors or walls, have a limited capacity (they cannot be deployed on glass or water, for example) and are precisely large enough for one person to fit through. Pass through the blue opening, and you’ll emerge out of the orange one. Pass through the orange, and so on, and so on.
It doesn’t sound like we’ve quite approached Rembrandt’s legacy yet; and no, to describe the simple mechanics of Portal is not to describe the great masterpiece of all time. They may not sound like much, but they put you in full control of your character, and you will need that control. It would be difficult to convey in words precisely how disorienting the game can be. The player goes from room to room, each connected by an elevator, and each numbered by an information screen, displayed on the wall as you enter. The spaces are different each time. Only the building blocks remain consistent. But they give you a clear enough language of the pieces that no puzzle really needs to be explained. GLaDOS does, sometimes, and if you don’t listen to her you might miss the point of the room, and be unable to continue. Paying attention to the things that people say is not always palatable in games. In Portal, the developers have found a way to make her voice essential, which gives every word a resonance, and more importantly, ensures the player will listen.
This becomes very, very important later on. GLaDOS needs to be listened to, but the mere fact of speaking is not going to ensure that happens. Games are not films, and the player is not passive. If you are running around a space, examining details or frenetically defending your life, a voice in the distance might not be quite as engaging. Half Life solved this problem by making human interactions occur far and few between, especially when the facility starts to unravel. You begin to crave it, those breaks from the danger. In Portal, your character does not speak, and virtually nothing is written on the walls of the facility. The possibility of human contact is like a dangling thread; but you never get to meet a fellow person. When GLaDOS speaks, you are entranced; she is the most human thing in the concrete maze to which your life now belongs.
And it is a maze. It is a maze whose dimensions do not seem to extend beyond its own four walls; a maze where escape beyond the firmament is limited by the ability of your own mind to perceive of it. The game does not do any of the work; you are never told why this place is the way it is. It takes the hardest road of all – to say nothing – and achieves the greatest possible effect. As you navigate this space, twisting your mind and your reflexes to solve the puzzles presented you, you are also twisting your personal compass. It is like cleaning paint from plaster, and hoping to reveal what might lie on the other side of the wall.
That is the genius of the game. It doesn’t build the prison. You build the prison – and in the process engage a whirlwind of speculation that doesn’t really end, even long after the credits roll. And yes, the design of the spaces is critical, but I would argue that the soundtrack is one of the most important reasons the game succeeds the way it does. Flitting melodies of electronic sound usher in the the sort-of-promise of a gigantic scientific testing facility. They give one the impression of a corporate ad for NASA, if they made those sorts of things. It generates wonder, and immediately invokes the dream of the future. Remember, the player has no reason to suspect the world is against them. It is merely odd, the circumstances of the game; and GLaDOS is very funny. The music lulls you in.
Until it doesn’t, and the pattern of the melodies is darkened by drones, like atmospheric wailing in a great body of water. You can imagine those same, excitable tunes being stretched and distorted as they become lost in the cavernous terror of the abandoned facility. As the soundtrack becomes darker, so do the spaces – quite literally, sometimes. Areas won’t be lit properly. You’ll find panels in the sheer concrete prized open, with strewn radios and empty tins of food. Later in the game, you’ll find graffiti on the walls. The messages make sense in the context of the game, but I shan’t repeat them here – they became the butt of an internet joke, and to remind one of that might be to dampen the effect of the article. Needless to say, they’re disquieting in their proper context, and represent the only contact you ever have with (once) living people.
As the spaces of the world begin to unravel, so does the way the narrative is structured. In the beginning, it is always one room after the other, and always at the behest of GLaDOS. Towards the end, and after escaping a particularly sinister machination, you find yourself roaming freely through the back-corridors of the Aperture Science facility. The effect of this is to peel back the curtain, much like watching a play from the backstage area, or rather, seeing a decommissioned theatre where such things were once performed. You now find yourself in amongst the vast machinery of the complex, all gantries and pistons, with locked doors, empty offices and still no way out in sight.
GLaDOS tries desperately to convince you to stay for the remainder of the game. Behind the veil, she has no power. She may be in control of the facility, but her body is fixed and her influence depends on her ability to control the conditions of the level. When you leave the constructed spaces, there is no power for the malevolent god to rule over you. Extricate yourself from the arena, and there is nothing to stop the process of discovery in its tracks. The strewn waste of the facility may be all around you, but the genius of the truth is revealed, too; and it is a force more powerful than whatever twisted games the overlord had in mind.
But the prison remains. You are freer one layer only, and if it were possible that it was folded indefinitely, wrapped around itself, then you would never actually escape, and the freedoms would remain illusory. Much like the existential thought experiments puzzled over by the great philosophers, so too is the facility of Portal – a place where it is only possible to listen to someone who is lying to you, and whose four walls may exist only in the far corners of a distant place, inaccessible beyond your imagination.
So what has Portal achieved by the end? Without guiding the player using facetious maps or arrows, or explaining in lengthy monologue why the story is the way it is, the player is left with a picture of the world that is not only vivid, but meaningful.
The primary interaction with a piece of interactive entertainment is spatial. In the future, it might be possible to create conversations with characters that morph on their own, or are crafted in real time by artificially intelligent programs. In the meantime, however, an in-game conversation can never really be a strong thing. You must care about the world to care why someone is talking about it, since the lure of being in the world is so much stronger than hearing someone speak – knowing, as you do, that you cannot change the outcome.
Portal took the weaknesses of games at that time, acknowledged them, and turned itself into one of the most prominent and enduring examples of possibility in the medium. There will always be those who argue that games are not art, or could never be art. If all they know of the medium is the blasé and the brash, then they would have every right to think that way. Profit margins and the presence of huge, like minded and male development teams have largely created an ecosystem where not much can really escape the zeitgeist of the present. Publisher’s demands and business models increasingly starve the market of games that are short, simple and enduring. They demand their bells and whistles, are largely unchecked by their echo-chamber media, and if the slightest controversy erupts everyone tends to prattle on like children.
But the presence of open source development tools and the increasing power of delivery technology means that more people than ever can create games, and the lessons of early titles like Portal are starting to make their way across. The developers of the future could learn a great deal from letting games speak for themselves. In the meantime, Portal, a ten year old game, can still shock us and make us laugh, all in the same breath. Being trapped in the concocted nightmare of an AI has never been so entertaining. It might even be considerably meaningful.
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