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).