The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

Portal: A Reflection

Didn’t we have some fun, though? Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said ‘Goodbye’, and you were like ‘NO WAY‘, and then I was all ‘we pretended we were going to murder you’? That was great.” –GLaDOS to Chell

Twelve years after Aperture Sciences is abandoned, Chell awakens in a Relaxation Chamber and is given instructions from GLaDOS, an AI overseeing the facility. She acquires a single-portal gun and begins the testing procedure on the promise that cake is to be provided for all successful testers. As Chell progresses through the different test chambers and picks up the full portal gun, things become increasingly dangerous: some test chambers are flooded with toxic compounds, and GLaDOS also introduces test chambers with automated turrets. Chell eventually acquires the weighted companion cube in one chamber, and is forced to destroy it to continue. In the final test chamber, after successfully finishing it, Chell finds herself facing certain death, but uses the portal gun to escape to safety. GLaDOS attempts to persuade Chell into returning back into the facility, but she ventures deeper into Aperture Sciences’ maintenance areas, eventually locating GLaDOS’ chambers. Here, Chell eludes GLaDOS’ attempts to kill her and manages to crippled the system, causing an explosion that propels her to the surface. Beginning its life as a Source Engine re-imagination of an older title (wherein recycling assets from Half-Life 2 and using the Source Engine simplified the development process), Narbacular Drop, Portal was released in October 2007 alongside Half-Life 2 Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 as a part of the Orange Box. The game became an unexpected hit for its clever mechanics and narrative, as well as for its unique aesthetic and promotion of scientific principles in problem-solving.

Because of its minimalism, Portal is characterised by the immense sense of loneliness that Chell faces during the game’s events. There are no other humans in Portal, and as Chell progresses through each test chamber, the only interaction she has is with GLaDOS, an AI that becomes increasingly sarcastic and hostile as the game wears on. Chell also finds signs that everything is not what it seems after finding an opening to the maintenance area in one of the test chambers, where another test subject had hastily scrawled “The Cake is a Lie” on the walls. In spite of these ominous signs, Chell initially complies with GLaDOS right up until the final chamber, where it is revealed that GLaDOS had planned in killing her after all. After escaping, Chell is truly alone, and so, begins to follow signs left by the previous test subject, eventually deciding that the only means of survival is to destroy GLaDOS. In the absence of human contact, Portal succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere that suggests loneliness can drive individuals to follow anything that resembles social interaction. In Chell, this first takes the form of trusting GLaDOS and obediently completing test chambers, and then in placing her trust in the previous test subject’s discoveries. With its dark humour and play on the human psyche even as players complete the puzzles of the test chambers, Portal quickly became a success, and Valve would follow up with a sequel, Portal 2, in 2011.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Because Portal was built in the Source Engine and recycles assets from Half-Life 2, the game even utilises the same menus and sound effects. The Portal Gun itself is a re-skinned Gravity Gun with the power to pick stuff up and place them, aside from its portal-making functions. Initially, the puzzles of Portal are very easy, designed to get players used to finishing test chambers, but as the game wears on, they become increasingly challenging.

  • According to my Steam achievements, the first time I played Portal was back in September 2011. This would have marked the start of a new term after a summer of research and adventure: besides building the prototype renal model that would form the basis for my undergraduate thesis, I also travelled about both to the Eastern Seaboard and regional mountains, spent memorable days at LAN parties and enjoyed the beautiful summer weather on campus. Entering the new term, I found myself rejuvenated and quite ready to get my GPA back on track for the Honours programme.

  • Late in September, Valuve made Portal free to pick up, and having seen one of my friend’s The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi mashups with Portal, I decided to grab a copy and began playing it later in the month. The first month of term is always slower, so I hastened to finish Portal before things became too crazy, and I would end up wrapping up the game closer to the Thanksgiving Long Weekend in October. Subsequently, I focused my efforts into my studies and wound up doing okay, sufficiently well to return my GPA to the faculty satisfactory standing of a B- or better.

  • I have no screenshots from that particular playthrough of Portal, but if I did, they likely would’ve been 1024×786. In order to acquire screenshots for this post, then, I beat the whole of Portal in a shade under two hours. While there are no mirrors in Portal, the fact that the game does render portals fully means that it is possible to see Chell, and as such, Valve ensured that Chell has a player model – I do not believe that Half-Life 2 actually rendered Gordon Freeman, but thanks to the simplicity of Portal, no crazy models are needed: Chell only needs animations for running and jumping. In Portal, Chell is equipped with the advanced knee replacement mod, which allows her to automatically right herself when moving through a portal and absorb the impact of a long fall.

  • All of the puzzles in Portal involve reaching an exit to the test chamber, and then variation comes from how to open the door and getting to the door. Weighted cubes can be acquired to activate switches, while other switches are activated by redirecting high-energy pellets into them. The pellets are Half-Life 2‘s Energy Balls, using the same asset and possess the same properties: coming into contact with one is instant death, and since they follow a linear trajectory, it takes a bit of creative thinking to direct them into their receptacles.

  • The relatively small number of mechanics in Portal belies a certain ingenuity in the game. The use of momentum in the fling manoeuvre is probably the feature that defines Portal: after players are introduced the idea that “speedy object in, speedy object out”, the game is really able to get creative with its level design. Obstacles and hazards are incorporated in a way as to challenge the player to see what is possible with portals, and because of the pure number of portal-ready surfaces available, players can also explore novel ways of getting around more quickly even in more ordinary environments: some test chambers are quite large, and portals can be used as a shortcut to traverse great distances quickly.

  • The fifteenth test chamber exemplifies the sort of genius that went into the integration of game mechanics with level design in Portal: it is a deceptively simple setup involving the Emancipation Grill and glass walls that prevent players from easily traversing the level. The lack of pits also means that flinging is not immediately an apparent manoeuvre, so players must get creative in portal placement in order to pass over the glass walls, then make use of the high-energy pellets to activate a platform. Because the platforms move in the opposite direction as one’s destination, use of portals is required to advance towards the exit.

  • Half-Life 2‘s sentry guns are repurposed as sleek, Apple-like turrets with a laser sight that indicates where it’s pointing. The turrets are sentient, and speak to the player. Chell can take a few rounds from a turret before dying, and the turrets themselves can be defeated simply by knocking them over. This is typically achieved by dropping objects into them, directing high-energy pellets at them or else opening a portal in the ground underneath them. In situations where none of these are optional, the old Half-Life 2 standby of picking up an object and using it to absorb incoming fire is also a possibility.

  • The weighted Companion Cube is a Portal icon, and while only appearing in test chamber seventeen, very quickly became counted as an integral part of the Portal universe. It is the only cube that must be destroyed, introducing players to the incinerator, but as it turns out, the Companion Cube is not unique, and others are shown in spin-off media, as well as Portal 2. Players who pre-ordered Portal 2 also received a Companion Cube pin as an in-game cosmetic reward for Team Fortress 2, and during my short-lived days trading for Team Fortress 2 hats to help a friend out, I ended up picking a Genuine Companion Cube pin up for myself.

  • The penultimate test chamber is the trickiest, requiring a combination of everything that players have picked up: flinging, use of the high-energy pellets, weighted cubes, avoidance of turrets and caution to avoid the hazardous sludge, as well as implements that require careful timing to activate. By this point, Portal has introduced everything that players need to survive, so even the most intimidating-looking test chamber suddenly becomes a fun challenge to overcome, rather than a rage-inducing puzzle.

  • The last test chamber supposedly marks the end of Portal, but players will feel a sense of unease: given how quiet its been, the probability of there actually being cake seems slim to none, and the mysterious scrawl from an earlier test subject indicates that there is more to Portal than meets the eye. Once players activate the platforms and prepare to progress into what GLaDOS promises to be a celebration, the truth behind Portal becomes apparent.

  • There is no cake, and instead, GLaDOS means to burn Chell alive by dropping her into an incinerator. Fortunately, armed with what is about an hour’s worth of skill with portals, Chell is able to beat a quick escape and avoid being charbroiled. From here on out, Portal dispenses with the highly-structured environments within the test chambers, and puts the player’s knowledge to the test as Chell pushes through the back doors and maintenance passages of Aperture Science.

  • The fact that Aperture Science possesses monitors and keyboards suggests that it was once staffed by humans: a purely automated facility would not have a need for any HCI and by extension, any I/O capture devices. Because Portal recycles so many of Half-Life 2‘s assets, the game does distinctly feel like Half-Life 2 without the Gravity Gun and things to shoot at: the sterile interior of the Aperture Science offices do have that gritty and worn feel as Half-Life 2‘s interiors did.

  • An ominous orange light fills these back ways, along with bits of lighting from lamps illuminating these areas. Filled with pistons and other hazards, it takes a fair bit of observation to figure out where to go, and even though I’ve already beaten this game some eight-and-a-half years earlier, some areas still required that I slowed down to find a suitable surface to place a portal on. Progressing through these areas, markings hastily scrawled in red paint point Chell in the right direction, and with GLaDOS hellbent on killing Chell, players have no choice but to trust these markings.

  • The page quote I’ve got for this Portal talk is probably my absolute most favourite line from the entire game. While it’s not very convincing, it exemplifies the sort of humour that went into Portal. It suddenly strikes me that ten years ago to this day, Otafest 2010 would’ve been starting: back in those days, Otafest happened on University grounds, and so, the organisers opened the event in the afternoon to avoid disturbing the researchers on campus, and the first day’s events were of a much smaller scale.

  • After clearing an arena’s worth of turrets out, Chell travels upwards into the Aperture Science facilities, passing through a cavernous open area that eventually leads into the chamber where GLaDOS’ main body is held. The use of distance fog in conjunction with the orange lighting creates an atmosphere that is simultaneously ominous, yet melancholy, and the colours stand in stark contrast with the welcoming glow of the portal gun. The scale of the interior at Aperture Science suggests to players that they’ve become entangled in something vast, although Portal does not explain what it is.

  • The rooms overlooking the skybridge leading into GLaDOS’ chamber brings to mind an atrium in the Professional Faculties on campus, which had a similar (but warmer) aesthetic. During my time as a university student, I only ever had one class in the Professional Faculties building, which was located a fair distance away from the events of Otafest: the proximity of the Science department’s buildings to the campus student centre meant that the areas where I took most of my classes in, and where my old office was located, would see host to most of Otafest’s events until they moved the venue downtown during my final year of graduate studies.

  • After surviving numerous perils, Chell finds herself face-to-face with her nemesis. Defeating GLaDOS is a relatively simple task: once the rocket turret is deployed, it’s a matter of using portals to redirect rockets to hit GLaDOS’ main body, and then chucking various personality cores into the incinerator before the molar concentration of nerve gas becomes lethal to Chell.  Eventually, damage sustained during the fighting causes the facility to go critical and explode, forcing Chell up to the surface. It turns out that Chell was dragged back into Aperture Sciences and put into stasis, being reawakened an indeterminate amount of time later for the events of Portal 2.

  • I will, of course, be writing about Portal 2 come June, and for now, the fact that we are sitting a decade after Otafest 2010 means I’m feeling nostalgic, so I will be revisiting Lucky☆Star tomorrow, which was when ten years earlier, the main events of Otafest 2010 would have taken place. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is another one of the anime that brings back memories of a simpler time, but since I’d forgotten so much of what happened, I do plan on spending early June on a re-watch before attempting to write about it. Because we’re on course for the end of May, as well, the last post I have planned at the moment is a massive one on Halo 2, which joined The Master Chief Collection nine days ago.

While elements of dark humour typically go over my head, what’s not lost on me in Portal is the strong gameplay. The gradual progression allows players to be slowly introduced to game mechanics, and so, when players reach the later test chambers, a bit of creativity will yield a solution. For instance, using portals allows Chell to “fling” herself great distances: as GLaDOS puts it, “speedy object in, speedy object out”. By applying the conservation of momentum, players can reach otherwise unreachable areas needed to solve a test chamber. Momentum is first introduced in a simple room with a pit, but later rooms with the emancipation grills and impassable glass walls prevent players from simply using portals to enter. Instead, players must recall that they can create a portal in the floor and then near the ceiling, after which they can build up the momentum needed to fling themselves into the next area. The end result is that players feel very clever for having completed Portal‘s puzzles, and after GLaDOS goes rogue, players are assured that they know all of the tricks needed to survive. Using only the most basic of mechanics and the laws of physics as defined by the Source Engine, Portal managed to create an experience that was memorable: this sentiment is shared by countless others who’ve played through it, and the game is counted as one of the best games ever made. My time with Portal began in 2011, shortly after Portal 2‘s release and Valve made Portal free to download for a while: coupled with an interest in the series stemming from a series of Otafest videos one of my friends had uploaded, I finally had the chance to experience what is one of the best-known games in recent memory.

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