Thinking With Portals

Hey there folks. Just to clarify, this blog was originally posted on a different site in January 2020. In the interest of keeping all my games-focused writing in one place, I've decided to copy it over to my Giant Bomb blog.

The Portal Will Open in Three... Two... One...

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I'm not sure there's another video game whose first ninety seconds are as perfect as Portal's. Fading from black, the player is placed into the body of protagonist Chell and encounters the disembodied voice of GLaDOS for the first time. As the psychopathic AI delivers her opening monologue, the player has the opportunity to explore the confines of their cell, their ability to roam limited by glass walls fencing them in. Then, something incredible happens. GLaDOS's speech tails off with a countdown, and at the end of that countdown, a mysterious opening appears in one of the walls of Chell's cell. Approaching it, the player sees something seldom witnessed in a first-person game; their avatar. Not face-on, as one might see themselves in a mirror, but from the side and at a distance, like some sort of out-of-body experience. Curiosity gets the better of the player, so they step further forward, and pass through the opening. As they do so, they witness themselves stepping through the void in real time, and as they emerge on the other side, they find themselves on the outside of the cell looking in.

​This is the genius of Portal; in a little over a minute, it introduces the core conceit of its gameplay and reinforces the player's understanding by making their first interaction with it as memorable and meaningful as possible. This is no happy accident, but the product of intelligent game design. The developer commentary track, unlocked after beating the game for the first time, explains as much. The player's cell is rendered memorable by the inclusion of recognisable objects that act as visual anchors. The radio is playing an instrumental version of Still Alive to provide a constant audio anchor as well. The portals are positioned in such a way that the player will always see Chell's character model when looking through them. All of these design choices amount to a short segment of gameplay that teaches players how Portal operates on the most rudimentary level without the need for a conventional tutorial or any on-screen prompts.

This is especially important in Portal's case because its core mechanic is not a conventional one. In a first-person shooter, where the core mechanic is point-and-shoot, it's not unreasonable to assume that players will be familiar with that mechanic, because it's in a lot of games out there. There aren't many games out there that allow the player to defy the laws of physics by passing through wormholes connecting different points in space. By extension, it's therefore not unreasonable to assume that players might need familiarising with what is a pretty complex concept. By framing the player's first interaction with a portal in this very deliberate way, the developers are able to give players the basic understanding needed to engage with the game's other mechanics and solve the puzzles it presents to them. It is information conveyance at its very best, and that is why I hold the opening moments of Portal in such high regard.

Environmental information conveyance is a big part of Portal's design philosophy. The game communicates with the player through a language comprised of audio-visual cues that the player subconsciously learns to read as they play the game, even if they may not realise they're doing it. This is not an uncommon practice in game development; one of the best examples of this is red barrels, whose striking colour denotes explosive properties in almost every game in which they feature. Because Portal's core mechanic is so unique, it goes to follow that the language it uses is pretty unique as well. In another example taken from its developer commentary, Portal communicates points of interest to the player through shapes; objects which can be interacted with, or are important for solving puzzles, typically have rounder edges (not unlike the game's eponymous portals) to make them "pop" against its angular environments. The contrast between light-grey, concrete walls and darker, reflective metal ones teaches the player to recognise which surfaces can and cannot host portals. When it comes to "flinging", a late-game mechanic which involves using gravity to build up momentum and launch out of a portal across a gap, Portal educates players by placing a checker-board pattern on the ground in places where it needs to be employed. These constants help the player to associate mechanics with certain aspects of the environment, giving them at least some indication of what the solution will involve without ever explicitly spelling it out.

Aperture Science: We Do What We Must, Because We Can

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Portal's environments don't just relay information about the game's mechanics. They're also one of its most important tools when it comes to storytelling. Environmental storytelling is a technique largely unique to video games, where interactivity permits players to explore maps and extrapolate narrative threads from things like object placements. Valve have long been proficient in this kind of storytelling, and Portal is no exception. Although Chell's personal story is never really addressed in Portal, morsels of the wider story of Aperture Science are littered throughout the test chambers and backstage corridors that make up the Enrichment Center.

Perhaps the most well-known examples of this are the "Rat Man dens", a handful of hideouts tucked away in corners of the game's last few test chambers, with scribbled drawings and text adorning their walls. These dens represent a crack in the gleaming facade of the Enrichment Center, often being the player's first opportunity to get behind the scenes and see what the facility actually looks like beyond its clinical test chambers. While nothing in these locations advances the core story of Portal, their existence fleshes out the wider scope of the narrative by painting a picture of events transpiring outside of the player's perspective. In these instances, the scrawled warnings on the walls of the Rat Man dens also serve to foreshadow upcoming events in the story by alluding to GLaDOS's murderous and mendacious nature before it ever becomes apparent to the player through Chell's eyes.

The Rat Man dens are the most obvious example of environmental storytelling in Portal, but there are several more, and most of them much more subtle in their execution. One of my personal favourites is the projector screen that appears in the game's final stages, when the player is traversing several office environments on their way to confront GLaDOS. This simple prop, which cycles through about four slides on a loop, depicts Aperture Science as being in fierce competition with another scientific organisation, namely Half-Life's Black Mesa, for several government contracts. Not only that, but it shows that Black Mesa clearly has the upper hand in this regard, with their awarded contracts and funding far exceeding those of Aperture. It's the kind of thing that could easily be missed, but which adds so much flavour to the situation around the core story, as well as giving a glimpse of the connective tissue that ties Portal to the Half-Life universe.

One final example I'd like to highlight, and which I only really noticed through this most recent playthrough, is just how empty and abandoned the Enrichment Center feels. It's a fact that manifests itself through several facets of Portal; for instance, how the player never meets another human character for the duration of the game. It's also evident in the environmental design, though. On this playthrough, I fully appreciated the textures attached to the walls of the test chambers; clinically pristine at first glance, but under closer scrutiny, revealed to be crumbling at the edges. The water hazards that cover the floors of some chambers are not clean and clear, but murky and green, also suggestive of an environment gone to seed and not properly maintained. When the player makes it beyond the test chambers and into the bowels of the facility, the metal panels on the walls and floors are rusting. The environment artists went to incredible lengths to create this air of abandonment about every single aspect of Portal's visual style, and I feel they deserve nothing but the highest praise for doing such a fantastic job that I felt it without ever really noticing why until now.

Didn't We Have Some Fun, Though?

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But what of the story itself? The moment-to-moment events that unfold as the player makes their way through GLaDOS's fiendish labyrinth of challenges? In all honesty, I think it's okay. It justifies the gameplay well, and provides just enough of a motive for the player to tackle the antagonist that the final confrontation feels rewarding, but it is at its core a very simple story without too many unexpected twists or turns. Portal's story is elevated not by its content, but by its delivery. Environmental storytelling, information conveyance and gameplay are important parts of that delivery, but what ties it all together is its inimitable personality. Almost all of that personality belongs to GLaDOS, the sardonic AI communicating with Chell (and by extension, the player) from that aforementioned incredible opening to the game's equally memorable denouement.

For a significant portion of Portal, GLaDOS serves the role of narrator by being the player's guide through the Enrichment Center. The player may or may not trust her, but given she is the only character present besides themselves, and therefore the only perspective the player has on the unfolding action, they have no choice but to follow her instructions. As the player progresses through the test chambers, seeds of doubt begin to be sown, primarily through the environmental storytelling in the Rat Man dens I discussed previously, which start to call GLaDOS's reliability into question; if "the cake is a lie", can this AI really be trusted? This comes to a head at the end of the final test chamber, when GLaDOS attempts to incinerate Chell as a "reward" for completing her little game. In this moment, GLaDOS's role changes from mentor and narrator to primary antagonist, and the remainder of the game becomes about getting to her and putting her out of action. In a fantastic example of ludo-narrative concordance, this is also the point in the game at which the training wheels really come off and some of the established rules around portal placement and puzzle solving get re-written, mirroring Chell casting off the shackles of GLaDOS's control.

Let's be honest, though. GLaDOS isn't just memorable because she's a mentor figure who transforms into an antagonist. She's mainly memorable because she's very funny. There's a clever juxtaposition between her cool, robotic delivery and the darkly humorous content of her dialogue, which often results in jokes only truly landing when the player stops to think back on the meaning of what they've just heard. Credit is due to both the writers at Valve for imbuing a supercomputer with so much personality, and voice actress Ellen McLain for delivering her lines so brilliantly. In the age of "meme humour", it's easy to think back on Portal as just "the 'cake is a lie' game", but I think that to do so is a disservice to how legitimately funny Portal was, and indeed still is.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

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