Portal is one of the oldest works of “cyberpunkinteractive fiction, having pre-dated the mainstreaming of the Internet by about 15 years. Rob Swiggart wrote Portal in 1986. This article is my attempt to describe this groundbreaking interactive work, the novel and my attempts to revive this long forgotten project.

I’ve recently been working on recovering this long forgotten game / novel. It’s one of the oddest works of fiction I have ever read, and although flawed in places, it has had a strong influence on the cyberpunk and interactive fiction genres.

Portal was first published as a video game in 1987. In this title, the player assumes the role of an Astronaut who has returned from an aborted 100-year space voyage only to find the earth deserted of human life.

Finding his way into a warren (mankind lived underground in the 22nd century) the astronaut discovers one of the last remaining working “WorldNet” terminals. This can be used to contact the only sentient entities left on the planet – twelve ageing amnesiac artificially intelligent supercomputers, each controlling a database of information that contains clues as to the causes humanities disappearance.

This is where the game begins – you play by browsing the WorldNet – surfing the filestores of eleven of the database for clues in order to piece together the events of the last century.

Players must surf the ‘net, in order to find nuggets of information for Homer – a “raconteur algorithm” and the 12th AI, to piece together.

Unfortunately Homer has been shunned by the others AIs for being erratic controversial and intrusive. Homer has been driven insane by years of existence without stimulation. Homer is desperate for a human being’s assistance to get the information in needs in order to tell the story.

The game was briefly popular, selling well on the Commodore 64, Apple II and IBM PC. Later it was ported to Amiga* and Atari ST for the European audiences where it was less well received (Amiga players were used to more graphically intense games), and as a result it is almost entirely unknown outside the USA.

As the game fell into obscurity, Rob re-published Portal in 1988 as a hardback novel titled “Portal: A Dataspace Retrieval”. This novel included nearly all of the content from the game, minus a few texts that were irrelevant to readers – such as the ones that explained the game’s interface.

Without the futuristic interface setting the scene, Rob added a more traditional narration in between the voices of the computer. The narration tells the story in the Astronaut’s own words as he makes contact with the AI’s and slowly discovers their secrets.

In 2000, the book was republished in paperback via the author’s guild back print programme and continues to sell.

Recently Rob gave me permission to re-work the entire interactive novel as a website. The story has come full circle, from hypertext to book and now back to hypertext again. The entire text of the game, plus the additional text only found in the book version can be found online at this site:


I’ve built the site in a very simple way – pages are plain text with the bare minimum of graphics. Pages are designed in such a way such that they can be easily indexed, mirrored or re-purposed. The entire project has been released under the GPL, meaning that anybody who wants to can now enjoy the book for free.

The pages are designed to be search engine friendly – should a crawler bump into one of the pages the entire site should be absorbed in no time at all. I hope people will soon start bumping into theses pages at random, and then perhaps start reading this odd story.

* Thanks to emulators, its actually easier to play the Amiga version of Portal than the PC version, even though most readers of this article will be using a PC. I recommend WinUAE. The Portal binaries can be found in any good Amiga Romz collection.

Author: Rob Swigart
Developer: Activision
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Unique
Platform: Amiga, Machintosh, Commodore 64, Apple II, PC
Year: 1986
Availability: You're kidding me, right?

The wind blows cold from the poles.

You're an astronaut, newly returned to Earth after a failed space mission from a world now lost in cryosleep and time dilation, only to find the planet deserted. There are no signs of conflict; not even bodies. Finding a working terminal you begin to search the remnants of the global network for answers. In so doing you rouse such AIs that remain, and they are just as desperate to know what happened. Your actions are made their focal point, and the peculiar storytelling AI HOMER becomes a companion and a go-between with the more alien ones. Correspondences, military files and healthcare reports are recovered, systems come online and connections form. HOMER collates the mindnumbing amounts of data still remaining, searching, extrapolating, calculating what can be guessed; in the middle of it all, he skillfully tells the tale of the people who brought such solitude about.

Portal: A Computer Novel or A Dataspace Retrieval (subtitles vary) is one of the titles serving to prove that computer games can qualify as art, although it does so by practically being literature itself. It has minimal, mostly symbolical graphics (the PC version still manages to look ugly), one sound effect, no way to lose and a challenge level of zero. Portal is essentially an ad hoc digital storytelling device. The game's interface is the working terminal's very simple one, and "gameplay" consists of jumping back and forth between the dozen accessible databases (lists of text entries), reading newly gathered or recovered information (things that appear) in hopes of shedding light on the mystery. Of the databases, seven have data on history, military deployments, technology and the like; four contain detailed graphs and statistics of the central characters, which are a nice touch but mostly incomprehensible; one is the tale of HOMER. The knowledge gleamed from the seven is vital in understanding the game, although HOMER's narrative takes centre stage as it progresses.

One of Portal's strong points is its thick, slightly eerie atmosphere. Just the basic idea fans curiosity. Plot threads are hinted at, revealed and played out as connections form and things fall into place. HOMER's comments further the feel: he's melancholy, confused and even frightened. The setting is rather optimistic and more feasible in other points than others (namely subterrannean warren cities in the 21st century), but rich and well-constructed - a pleasure to learn about. Among its features are lucid dreaming, loss of short-term memory and proprioception (body-sense), neurophage weapons, artificial hermaphrodites of an "unisex" movement, assault programmers and a girl with otter fur before it was cool. The plentiful background information even describes a multi-sense symphony. Player involvement amounts to looking for the next few linear pages for a few seconds at a time, but the interface still manages to convey a sense of directness, "being there" in a way passive media can't match. Raking the databases can be frustrating, but in its way heightens the experience by being highly reminiscent of the way AIs are forced to scavenge data.

In summary, Portal is a quality story in an unique medium, lacking too much gameplay to qualify even as interactive fiction. It uses its nature well to create an experience infeasible by traditional means. A book version is (as noted above) available online, but the fundamentally different strengths of the format are unlikely to have translated well.

The Underdogs
Wikipedia (as usual).

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