When I look at the puzzle game genre, I see two distinct categories. There are games like Tetris and Lumines that forego technically complex graphics and an engaging narrative in order to focus on gameplay, and there are games like Braid and Limbo that have more artistic aspirations. Portal fits squarely into the second category with its distinct art style and memorable characters.
Portal starts out innocently enough. The game is played from the first person perspective and the controls are immediately familiar, with the mouse and keyboard controlling aim and movement respectively. You find yourself in a test facility where you’re tasked with completing increasingly complex puzzles for research, guided by a sarcastic computer named Glados who explains the basics and describes your objectives. The promise of a delicious cake upon completion of the tests is enough to make you comply. The puzzles are simple at first – a switch to trip here, a barrier to cross there – but once the concept of portals is introduced, you’ll have to throw everything you know out the window and adapt to a world where walls are the least of your worries. By the end of the game, you’ll be redirecting turret fire, rerouting balls of energy and utilizing your own momentum to launch yourself high into the air with a series of portals. The puzzles are perfectly balanced, providing enough head scratching to make you feel like you accomplished something when you finally discern the solution.
Aside from the sense of accomplishment provided by the puzzles, Portal will draw you in with its narrative. This is a game that can make you feel emotions you never expected. By handling the narrative with expert subtlety, Valve allows the player to be immersed fully in Portal’s unique world. Your perception of Glados will change as she becomes more coercive and you discover warnings scrawled on the walls by other test subjects. The atmosphere is amazing and adds to the tension of the puzzles, especially near the end of the game. I’ll never forget the sorrow I felt when I had to make a decision about the inanimate “companion cube.” You’ll know what I mean when you play the game.
Portal adopts a simple art style that works perfectly. Stark white walls line the halls of the test chambers and different lights indicate the flow of electricity or the direction of your next objective. The environments are designed with care and add to the game in more ways than one. You’ll be shaken by the distorted windows that overlook the chambers as you complete your tests and you’ll begin to question your role when you see the messages left behind by other subjects. The clean art adds to the clinical tone of the game and puts the emphasis on the puzzles.
Portal will force you to adapt to its puzzles. By the time you reach the later levels of the game, you’ll have to think with portals to survive. The controls allow you to make precise movements and tear through the puzzles as you begin to master the portal gun, but just as you begin to feel comfortable with your abilities, Glados becomes a new roadblock. Is she trying to kill you? Were the past subjects right? Is the cake she promises upon completion of the puzzles just a lie? The game engages the player in many ways, from the cleverly constructed puzzles to Glados’ sarcastic quips, and every time you think you’re ahead of the curve, a new challenge will rise to stand against your progress. This is a game that surprises with its elegance. Valve has created something truly artistic here, and I would urge every gamer to play through Portal at least once.