In 2007, Valve released The Orange Box, a unique compilation of five different games: re-releases of Half-Life 2 and the subsequent Half-Life 2: Episode 1, as well as the then-new Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was the fifth game included in the bundle that perhaps stole the show. This title was called Portal, which was one of the most brilliantly realized pieces of creativity gaming saw in both that decade and console generation. Combining an innovative take on the puzzle and first-person shooter genres, Portal remains a highlight of its era due to its innovation, humor and all-around fun factor.
The premise of Portal is simple; Players take control of silent protagonist Chell, who awakens in one of the many chambers of Aperture Science, and soon realizes she is a test subject being held against her will by the diabolical-yet-hilarious AI named GLaDOS, who promises Chell a delicious cake if she can overcome the test chambers.
Chell is to test out Aperture Science’s greatest innovation: the Portal Gun! As its name implies, the Portal Gun fires portals (initially only a blue portal, which connects to orange portals found in the various test chambers. But soon enough the Portal Gun is upgraded to shoot orange portals of its own). It’s up to players to solve every test chamber’s puzzles by means of navigating through portals. Fire two portals. Go in one portal, come out the other.
It all sounds simple enough, but Portal’s execution really is something to behold. The game is constantly finding new ways to add twists to the puzzles, such as energy projectiles that need to be guided to their stations via portals, or walls that will erase your portals when you walk through them. The game even uses its portal setup to tamper with physics in some incredible ways (fall into a portal fast enough and you can fly through another if you’ve placed them properly).
Portal is played through a first-person perspective, like any of the countless shooters that ran rampant at the time (and still do so today), but here you’re not out to kill hordes of enemies by riddling them with bullets (Your only foes are a few bumbling, robotic turrets and a quasi-final boss against GLaDOS herself). Your goal is simply to survive by means of being creative. It’s as fresh of a twist on genres (and indeed, the video game medium itself) today as it was in 2007.
Visually speaking, Portal has held up pretty well. Its graphics may not wow players today like they did a decade ago, but the sheer splendor of seeing your environment (and Chell herself) in different perspectives through the portals remains one of gaming’s greatest visual delights. The music, though minimal, is similarly off-beat and charming.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Portal comes in the form of its writing. Though Chell never speaks, GLaDOS is one of gaming’s great sources of comedy. GLaDOS reveals her more psychotic behavior as the game goes on, but she frequently tries to cover it up with some lightheartedness and the aforementioned promises of cake, making for some delightfully dark humor.
If there’s any caveat to be had with Portal, it’s that the entire experience is done within a few short hours. While the content that is here is almost flawlessly realized, it all ends all too soon. This has only been magnified since its sequel was released in 2011, and turned the concept into a much heftier experience, while also improving on basically everything the original started and introducing some great tricks of its own. While Portal remains a stellar game in its own right, compared to Portal 2, it now feels like a demo for what was to come.
A short run time and being overshadowed by an exceptional sequel are hardly unforgivable sins, however, especially when considering just how creative and fun Portal still is. It’s objectives may be a simple case of getting from point A to point B, but such a simple premise has seldom been so innovative as it was – and is – here in Portal.