Caution: Some spoilers.
Developer & Publisher: Valve
Release Date: October 2007
Format: PC (version played), PS3 (not yet released), XBOX 360
Genre: First-person puzzler
When stuck, remember our motto: there's a hole in the sky, through which things can fly
Portal is a first-person shooter with a twist: you have no weapons. Instead, equipped with the "Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device", the player must navigate their way through the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre by creation of wormhole-like portals. These allow objects- typically the player - to be teleported, momentum intact, around the level in otherwise physically impossible ways, the implications of which drive most of the puzzle-solving gameplay. Whilst the challenge is mostly cerebral, towards the end typical FPS timing and precision skills become a necessary part of the solutions you come up with.
Momentum- a product of mass and velocity - is conserved between portals. In layman's terms, "speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out"
The portal concept was developed for the game Narbacular Drop, a project by students at the DigiPen Institute of Technology. Both the concept and the students were picked up by Valve, to develop Portal as part of the Half-Life universe for inclusion with the next installment of that series. This, coupled with an early demo video that outlined most of the clever abuses of physics made possible by the portals, meant that Portal could have held few surprises, serving as a clever but straightforward side order to the meat of the main game series, more an advertisement of the Havok physics engine than a game.
The Enrichment Centre is committed to the well-being of all participants. Cake, and grief counselling, will be available at the conclusion of the test.
But they've created a masterpiece, and I've barely touched Episode 2 as a result. Portal is a convincing candidate for videogames as art - it's as much an experience as a game. This is in large part due to one simple element- your progression throughout the game is accompanied by the narration of the brilliantly scripted GLaDOS, the AI apparently in charge of the Aperture science project and variously your instructor, guide, and often would-be murderer. Ellen McLain (who also contributed to HL2 and plays the role of the Team Fortress 2 announcer) provided the voice of GLaDOS by carefully mimicking the unusual intonation of a text-to-speech program, with her dialogue then being further distorted to enhance the mechanical feel.
Please be advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test protocol but is an unintended side effect of the aperture science material emancipation grille. Which may, in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel, and teeth.
Gameplay begins with your awakening at the Aperture Centre, proceeding immediately to what seems to be basic training. Clinically clean rooms contain simple challenges to familiarise you with the basic principles of portal gun operation: using portals to trigger switches, cover vast distances in an instant or avoid hazards. As well as simple icons on viewscreens around the facility, GLaDOS offers advice on these techniques: although her announcements carry a tone of casual disregard for your well-being that British Rail would be proud of.
Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death.
As you progress with your training, it becomes apparent that all is not well with the Aperture Centre. Occasional glitches in GLaDOS lead to garbled warning messages and monotone references to "subject name" and "subject home town" in the middle of speech routines. Observation windows are bereft of observers, and indeed the whole place seems deserted: WolfDaddy points out the interesting fact that with both the narrator and player character being female, the game features no men at all! Further investigation turns up broken computers, stockpiles of beans, and deranged graffiti'd warnings that the oft-promised cake is a lie. Challenges become increasingly difficult, then outrightly hostile, culminating in GLaDOS's attempt to incinerate you once all the official tests have been completed. Escaping this fate leads you behind the scenes of the test chambers to a ruined, perilous industrial environment, where you must put your skills with the portal gun to true use.
Uh-oh, somebody cut the cake. I told them to wait for you, but they cut it anyway. There is still some left though, if you hurry back...
Throughout, GLaDOS becomes increasingly disturbed, and jumps between an assortment of personalities in an attempt to regain control over her test subject- but curious to see what can be achieved. Promises of painful death are interspersed with offers of cakes and a party: previous threats are laughed off as a prank only to be reiterated. Yet for all her malice, GLaDOS remains a detached observer- beautifully contrasted to the sentry turrets, which pair lethal weapons with endearingly childlike personalities - and to the companion cube, which does nothing at all yet you'll still feel bad about disposing of.
That thing you're attacking isn't important to me. It's the fluid catalytic cracking unit. It makes shoes for orphans. Nice job breaking it, hero. I don't care.
Once the storyline is completed (and I have no wish to ruin the brilliant ending), the original test chambers can be revisited individually for a more conventional puzzle game- advanced versions of them are also unlocked. Valve have adopted the achievements idea from the XBOX 360 for use within the steam community, the latest addition to their online content delivery platform, and these provide further goals to enhance the replay value of Portal. The freedom of movement afforded by many FPS series has lead to subcultures of gamers interested in challenges beyond killing, such as speed runs or trick jumping techniques and Portal clearly lends itself to these. Thus achievements are available for using as few portals, footsteps or seconds as possible to complete a level, and I'll be fascinated to see what else the community (and Valve) comes up with, as there is a facility for importing additional maps.
We do what we must, because we can
For the good of all of us- except the ones who are dead.
But there's no sense crying over every mistake
You just keep on trying til you run out of cake...