Photo by Fredrick Tendong on Unsplash
*Spoiler warning: major spoilers for Portal.
On Oct. 10, Portal turned 15 years old. Let’s look back on one of the landmark games in gaming history.
Any video game that captures the gaming public’s attention has one of two things: unique gameplay or an engaging story. An example of the former is Neon White from June of this year, and an example of the latter is 2019’s Disco Elysium. However, for a game to truly dominate the public’s attention, it cannot settle for one or the other and must bring both to the table; these are the games that end up defining a generation. These games include Undertale, Dark Souls, and undoubtedly Portal.
Portal is a first-person puzzle game set in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, wherein players must complete various tests under the supervision of the robot GLaDOS. Despite nearly being old enough to drive, the game’s visuals hold up well, with the emphasis on robotic designs over humanoid ones preventing its characters from falling into the uncanny valley like many of its contemporaries did.
The player’s main tool in completing the game’s puzzles is the Portal Gun, which fires portals connecting two points in space together. For example, if the player needs to get up onto a ledge, they can fire one portal in front of them and another on the ceiling above the ledge, then walk through and land on the ledge.
The puzzles are complex but never too challenging. While a few of the puzzles require finicky jumps to solve — a hassle in a 3-D first-person perspective — most of the other solutions are cathartic to discover, and the game makes the most of its unique mechanics. It can take some time to get used to “thinking with portals,” but Portal eases this by breaking this mechanic in slowly: the player starts with very simple puzzles and no control over the portals, and gradually builds up to larger, more lethal puzzles and total portal control.
This gradual increase also correlates with the story. When you start the game, your character, Chell, wakes up and GLaDOS guides you through the simpler tests. But soon the tests start to get deadly, incorporating hazards like acid moats and military turrets, before GLaDOS flat out attempts to murder you.
Part of what makes this story engaging for the player is the way this turn is foreshadowed to the player. Among her benign instructions for the given test, she will include sinister comments like, “any contact with the chamber floor will result in an ‘unsatisfactory’ mark on your official testing record. Followed by death.”
Along with these comments, players can seek out the broken panels in some test chambers leading to the Rattman hideouts. Rattman, a former test subject, established these hideouts to escape GLaDOS. While he is nowhere to be seen, his scribbles on the wall inform you that she is always watching and that the cake she promises is a lie. These can go entirely unnoticed by players, and this element of background environmental story-telling makes Portal feel like a story that players interact with rather than simply watch.
It’s safe to say that GLaDOS is the star of Portal. While in the sequel she’d compete for screen time with Wheatley and Cave Johnson, here she is the only character other than the silent protagonist.
Right up to the final battle, her lines are delivered with such calm confidence that you almost miss how off the walls they are, and once you start fighting her she gets even colder and more sadistic. Even as the player beats the game and thinks they’ve won, the end credits have her singing a song about how she is “Still Alive” and waiting to get back to testing.
GLaDOS has made several appearances outside of the Portal series. She was the dealer in Telltale Game’s Poker Night 2, appeared in a 2022 GEICO commercial, and had a level along with Chell and Wheatley in Lego Dimensions. Her likeness has been used in other media as well, such as Pacific Rim, Cyberpunk 2077 and Death Stranding. She ranks among the top villains in gaming, falling just short of Super Mario Bros.’ Bowser in terms of cultural impact.
Portal is a fairly short game; when preparing for this review, I opened it to find some quotes and ended up beating it from start to finish in an hour and a half. That being said, it’s certainly not lacking in content; it simply does what it needs to before letting the player go. And the depth in both its dialogue and level design make this a game well worth the $12 price tag, which regularly is further discounted on Steam.
If you play video games and have somehow never experienced Portal I cannot recommend it enough. Its unique gameplay and sharp wit is unlike anything that has come out before or since, and it remains one of the greatest games of all time.