Portal is one of the oldest works of “cyberpunk” interactive 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.