It goes without saying, but I'm going to anyway. Valve employs some of the best talent in the games industry. They have an incredible knack for timing, and the fiction they create draws me in like a moth to light. But why? What about the Portal universe has that effect on me?
During a recent discussion with friends I realized what it is that I find so appealing about the series. The games are the complete antithesis to anything I have ever played, and as such are a breath of fresh air that I, and the industry desperately needed.
Initially I had no interest in Portal. It was a puzzle game and if there's one thing I didn't play, it was puzzle games. Sitting down to play I was of the mindset that I would solve a few puzzles and be done with it. And then something happened that I hadn't anticipated. There was an entertaining robot lady to keep me company every step of the way. Where as most puzzle games watch you in silence from a distance, she was there incessantly mocking my attempts every step of the way.
And then I discovered a room behind one of the panels. It was at this point that I had what I like to call my “Gorbachev” moment. That large wall of tropes I'd associated with puzzle games, and to a greater extent the way in which characters and narrative work in games came crashing down. We've all had that moment in games, watching a film or reading a novel. It's the moment that, for me, was filled with confusion, an adrenaline rush and a general lack of cognitive abilities while my woefully inadequate brain tried processing what just happened.
It's as if my thoughts about antagonistic tendencies and game narration were a large plate glass window and Valve was the hammer. Up to that moment I hadn't played a game that challenged my beliefs like that. It was as close to a religious experience as I've ever had.
From the moment I discovered that room my opinion of GlaDOS changed entirely. I knew, as most people did, that her mention of “me being missed” meant there would be no party. She was no longer, in the context of the story, funny. And what a fantastic way to reveal her dastardly intentions. Imagine if you had passed the reveal and read nothing. I can't imagine the confusion when you're on that last platform.
That she is in constant contact with you throughout the game adds a whole new level of immersion. In that I mean you get to piece together the plot with each puzzle, instead of starting as a puzzle game and then facing death at the end. It wasn't as if you met her at the outset and then at the end, left to wonder what had happened. No, you are left to piece things together on your own. With exception to Bioshock's Andrew Ryan, I've yet to encounter a narration device that worked to the effect Portal's did.
If I'm being honest GlaDOS is my favorite antagonist, ever. Before Portal who knew I would enjoy fighting a monomaniacal robot with megalomaniac overtones. She's witty, sharp and often spouts comedy you might find in a Mensa meeting. She is infinitely smarter than you and communicates in a condescending tone. What's not to love about a robot who has an impeccable sense of comedic timing and uses it to play on your emotions?
The contrast between Wheatley and GlaDOS in Portal 2 was the perfect narrative device. Both characters story arc's were smart and immensely satisfying. When you replace GlaDOS with Wheatley and are leaving the facility on the elevator, and you hear Wheatley quickly go from bumbling dolt to test mode, your heart sinks. Well, my heart sank a little. This guy helped me defeat GlaDOS, and now instead of escaping he wants to test. And I know it won't go well because he fumbles his way through everything. I wasn't ready for the ensuing ride, but more than willing to buy the ticket.
I don't think Valve needed to include the section of the game where you venture through Aperture Science's past, but I'm glad they did. They could have easily thrown you back into testing with Wheatley. I understand why they did it, and I appreciate the extra effort. Getting to spend time with GlaDOS, even though she was there for comedic relief more than anything else, was a good time.
Valve seems to be one of the few companies that "get it". Their games have an inordinate level of detail, polish, and love that other games should aspire to. To play through Portal 1 & 2 is like no other experience I have ever had. I don't know if it's the simplistic aesthetic of the game or the overall quality, but their games always feel like a solid, complete experience. At no point do I feel like I have to fight the game (mechanics, visual style) to continue. In so many games the controls are clunky or the environments are littered with things to get caught on. With Valve I never seem to have those issues.
Here's hoping Half Life 3 and Portal 3 continue the tradition.