"Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You'd have a chance, at least. You could lie there thinking, 'Well, at least I'm not dead. In a minute somebody is going to bang on the lid, and tell me to come out.'" - Rosencrantz
Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
There are spoilers ahead. Let me make this excruciatingly clear. The desire to talk about something you love is often overwhelming. There's that feeling that you need to share, that somehow, you need to preach the good news, like a first-century disciple who has witnessed miracles first hand. Most of the time, this is harmless well meaning propaganda. But there are times when the mere act of sharing is in and of itself too much information. Where saying too much will destroy the very experience one wants to proselytize.
Portal is such an experience. Go play it. When you're done, come back and read the rest. There are spoilers ahead.
There, now that that's over with, here's the thing.
Portal is the best game I've played this year. It may be the best game I've played in the last few years. I'll go so far as to say I'm looking at the release schedule and I'm not sure I see what's going to kick it off the top of the list for the coveted Julian Murdoch Game-of-the-Year award. (Hint: I can be bought. With cake.)
I say this with unmitigated respect for Ken Levine, and his brilliant piece of storytelling, Bioshock. I'm such a slavering fan of Bioshock that even my daughter's elementary school teachers are tired of hearing about it, and they don't even own a TV much less an Xbox 360. For nearly a year I have sung the praises of what Levine was trying to accomplish, and when the game delivered – and it did – I felt a vindication which caused me to evangelize the cult of rapture with the verve of a rabid monkey faced with a wall of sun-ripened bananas.
But having my expectations met is a very different experience than the feeling of discovering greatness with no expectations whatsoever. There have been very few experiences like this in my life.
Off the coast of Kona, Hawaii, while on a "pretty little fish" dive that was as routine as dirt, my wife and I were surrounded by a pod of two dozen dolphins. They played with us until we ran out of air. Then a humpback whale and calf swam by not 20 feet from us.
That's greatness without expectation
Driving across country after college, I parked half a mile off the freeway on a random dirt road to catch a few hours sleep. I woke to a sunrise over a thousand acres of windblown wheat, the sunlight reflecting off the dew, turning the world into a ground-trapped net of stars, shining brighter than any canopy of heaven.
That's greatness without expectation
And then there's Portal.
It may seem absurd to compare a three hour puzzle game with these images and shadows of divine things, but what they share in common is uncommon, and worth dwelling on.
I had no expectations of Portal. I barely had awareness of its existence, and I certainly would not have gone out of my way to buy it. My foreknowledge of the game was that it was "a puzzle game with the same gimmick that made Prey mildly entertaining." I had read virtually nothing about the game. I knew that it had been some sort of student project or something. (It is, in fact, the successor to "Narbacular Drop," a project launched by a group of students at DigiPen. Valve snatched up the team and clearly their brilliance).
My experience on launching Portal for the first time is casual – the Team Fortress 2 server is full, my PSP is all the way across the room, my DS needs to be charged. The first few levels are amusing. The cleanliness of the art, the elegance of the construction, the crispness of the sound design, and the refinement of the controls are all enough to make it a pleasurable exploration of a cute one-trick-pony idea. By the third level, the gentle voice of GLadOS, the AI who is training me like so many disembodied drill sergeants have trained me before – is starting to be genuinely funny in a creepy Douglas Adams way.
At chamber 5 I realize she's more than programmatic, when she intones "As part of required test protocol, we will stop enhancing the truth in 3"…2"…" By now she's clearly insinuated that she's capable of lying, and there is something wrong with her - several times now she's had a verbal hiccup (in this case, fizzing out before the "... 1" but in retrospect it started on the opening screen of the game when the overhead lightbulb exploded.
At chamber 7 I get the first opportunity to get close to the other side of the facility - the rusty, vibrating orange mess that is back stage. In this case, it's just a view under the stairs.
By chamber 8, the puzzles are now challenging enough and different enough (due to the introduction of vector and timing requirements) that the momentum of the game is established; I know I'm not going to be playing TF2 tonight. It's also here in the mid-levels that I have the first glimpse that there is something more to the game than just solving puzzles. The voice of GLaDOS starts taking on troubling overtones.
"Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death."
Chamber 15 is when the cake is first introduced. Until this point, GLadOS has been using nothing but the stick - threats of imminent doom, the notion that I will be "missed" after testing. But now, there will be cake at the conclusion of my journey.
Chamber 16 introduces the idea that it is androids who are tested in the facility, and thus, perhaps my identity is in question. It's also the first time I have any inkling that escape is possible. After my initial encounter with the first truly malevolent force - the sentries - I find the rats nest - a hideout for rogue androids.
And yet, what exactly am I - milk and beans? The toilet in the starting room? Clearly I'm some kind of human. Perhaps I'm an android in the Phillip K. Dick sense of the word - an engineered being so close to human as to be nearly indistinguishable. Or maybe that's just another mistake, and I'm nothing but another disposable human pawn caught in an android's wasteland.
Later in chamber 16 I see signs of sabotage - the telltale handprint of a runner and a malfunctioning box delivery chute. But then comes the great unveiling.
The story first generates an emotional response in chamber 17, with the introduction of the companion cube. While the puzzle itself is straightforward, the introduction of a physical object that I own creates pathos – goofstupid pathos, but pathos nonetheless.
The game blossoms. At the point of connection with the cube, GLadOS informs me that "the symptoms most commonly produced by Enrichment Center testing are superstition, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, and hallucinations."
I suspect, with sadness, that some number of players, oblivious to the behind the scenes story, will simply play through to the end, allowing the cube, and then themselves to be incinerated, walking away thinking the game was cute, but no big deal. But as someone now tuned to the behind-the-scenes, I discover the Companion Cube chapel; easily the games weirdest, funniest, and yes, emotional moment. This space, besides denying the cake, worships the cube. The story of the chapel is of a longing for connection. The previous denizen clearly had only one emotional connection during their (one suspects short) existence. That this was the cube, an inanimate object, given by the tormenting GLadOS, The mis-en-scene is simply perfect. The pictures of real people with imposed cube-heads, the pleading of "why why why," the cherubic winged cubes – these all speak to the pain of a very real soul, while at the same time being ridiculous and funny and creepy all at once.
With this pathos established, I'm then forced to destroy my companion cube. – the first act of player-directed violence in the game.
On entering chamber 18, I'm reminded again that I will be given cake, but the glitch in GLadOS informs me that I will be baked. And then there will be cake. I immediately discover another nest, this one two stories tall, and with a door. Alas, a locked door, but now there is a sense that escape might be possible. This introduction of an actual door marks the turning point in the game. Getting OUT now becomes more interesting than moving forward, and the two challenging puzzles that follow feel more like escapes than solutions.
The games critical moment – the crux – comes when I head for destruction into the incinerator after the next chamber. Acting to save myself, avoiding the flames, signals the transformation or Portal from puzzle to Logan's Run. In my new roll as runner, I am increasingly reminded that I am not alone – previous runners have left signs, petroglyphs and overt directions for me every few minutes. And yet I never see a single piece of evidence that another person, android or even monster exists. No bodies, no body parts. Nothing but the mechanical apparatus of GLadOS.
During the behind the scenes run – fully the second half of the game – I'm taken through the supporting environments that are implied by the sterile testing spaces of the first half: cube delivery chutes, the back sides of piston rooms, power stations. The portal gun itself is required perfectly, leveraging all of the critical skills taught during the first half lab experience: fine targeting, portal flinging, timed shots and redirection. This keeps the gameplay pulling the story along, and vice-versa. It's a critical balance between fun and story that seems obvious in retrospect, but is all too often where a game completely fails.
The story that pulls the game along is subtle. Despite the implied presence, the facility is entirely empty. Every homage-to-Xbox computer is unplugged, yet the screens throb with endlessly displayed cake recipes. The only evidence of my predecessors is the occasional clipboard with a diagram of a previous test subject with "failed" stamped across it. Perhaps most importantly from a Half Life canon perspective, there are two opportunities to view the Aperture Science business plan, and their contracting rivalry with Black Mesa (the history of the firm is further expanded at the off-site Aperture Sciences website).
Eventually, I emerge into the room containing GLadOS herself, and she reveals herself to be a machine – perhaps just like me. The story told in the 5 minutes I remain in her demesne is quite simple – that she desires to kill me and that she has most likely killed everyone else in the facility. But she is, as she has been throughout the journey – disembodied, insane and ultimately helpless. She lacks any way of projecting herself into the physical world beyond the limited resources of the testing system.
So she resorts to insults and manipulation, going so far as to insist that I'm adopted.
The destruction of GLaDOS mimics the destruction of my Companion Cube. Here at the end of the game, I realize that I am alone, as much as GLadOS is alone. Throughout the journey, there have only been two actors: myself and GLadOS. The facility is abandoned (perhaps she gassed them all, or perhaps its connected to the imminent destruction of City 17? But then where are the bodies?) I have already killed my only companion. So my act of self-protection is the destruction of the only other soul I have ever known, to pursue the dream of the runner.
And that dream does come true after GLadOS implodes, thrusting me into the blue sky and clouds of the outside world.
But I'm still fundamentally alone. Even when there turns out to be cake in the end. And my companion cube.
If all of this close reading sounds absurd, it's because it is. The game is ultimately literature of the absurd, as clearly as Kafka's "Metamorphosis" or Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions" or perhaps most directly Tom Stoppard & Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." Yes, it's funny – capped off by the fabulous song from Jonathan Coulton. But funny doesn't mean light, or stupid, or indeed unimportant.
Portal is an object lesson in interactive storytelling. We in the media are so fond of shaking our heads, scratching our beards and looking for the "art" in videogames. Well it's time for us all to shut the hell up. This is it. It's in this finely crafted, lovingly rendered piece of short-story literature.
Honestly, I'd be surprised if the authors themselves see it as the accomplishment it is. It's a simple set of mechanics, a few pages of sound-booth dialog, a handful of textures and repetitive level designs.
But then, a novel is only made up of 26 letters, black ink and white paper. And most artists of lasting brilliance don't recognize the importance of their own work. And how many now-revered musicians and painters died unknown and broke?
Portal is a seminal work of storytelling. Yes, we as gamers are so starved for intelligence and subtlety that we grasp at the thinnest straws of intelligent storytelling, but that doesn't matter.
Portal is the real deal.