If you ask me, Portal’s signature moment involves putting a portal in the ceiling and another portal in the floor just below it. Thump, thump. These portals, for the uninitiated, are basically two sides of the same magical hole; walk through the orange portal and you emerge through the blue portal. In the game’s deliriously arch fiction you are testing a device that projects these holes, allowing you to do unusual things with space as a result.
How unusual? With the floor and ceiling set-up, you have created an extremely short tunnel, the height of the room you’re in. And yet it’s also a tunnel you can fall through forever, that single room zipping by again and again like the repeated domestic background in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Here is the thing, though. Over a decade after Portal’s release, just thinking about Portal can be a bit like falling through that simultaneously brief and endless tunnel. Oh, to make a Slinky of your thoughts! Blue becomes orange, distance becomes time, ceiling becomes floor becomes ceiling again. Absolutes clash against conflicting absolutes.
Let me give you a quick example. Portal is a sandbox. It’s a suite of often nearly empty lab rooms for you to move through as you play with one of gaming’s most thrilling toys – a gun that allows you to fire out two sides of the same hole onto any applicable surface and then screw around with what you have made. But listen: it’s also the consummate anti-sandbox, because these empty rooms are home to one of the most exacting puzzle games ever presented, where everything from lighting, geometry, textures, and the voice in your ear – which we will return to in a minute no doubt – are guiding you endlessly towards one correct, if sometimes torturous, solution after the next. Because Portal wants to show you such clever stuff, and specifically because it gives you so much potential power in order to show you that stuff, it has to become restrictive, too.
Floor becomes ceiling becomes floor. To put it another way, Portal breaks its own spaces into impossible shapes, and brilliantly allows you to break those spaces yourself, in order to give you the Platonic example of a linear video game. Meanwhile, its plot requires the slow, muttering creep of entropy – the steady reveal of chaos and decay burbling beneath the sterility of the testing lab you’re trapped in – but the entropy itself is perfectly stage-managed, and micro-surgically deployed and is not, in other words, anything like entropy at all.
Onwards it goes! Over the last decade, this perfect linear video game – near linear, even now I am compelled to remember that there are moments hived off for self-expression, generally involving the disposal of turrets – over the last decade this precision game has been gleefully broken into pieces and rearranged by speedrunners. But then, wait a minute! Perhaps that was the intention, the main campaign laid out as a taunt, a prompt to shatter something that had been so carefully, airlessly constructed? A truly lovely IGN video, in which developers react in astonishment and confusion to what speedrunners are doing with the game they made argues otherwise, but the point still stands I think: you can build a teetering crate tower of contradictions very easily with Portal – a crate tower that will allow you to reach the ceiling. (Or is it the floor.)
I guess what I am trying to say here is that thinking about Portal can get quite complex and annoying. And for years I haven’t actually played Portal, so it’s just been my memories of it, steadily ossifying into the idea of something that is ingenious but rather airless, a game so brilliant it sort of deconstructs itself as you play, while its antagonist patronize you for your progress. Fine. But this week, I went back. I went back in! Portal has arrived on Switch so I put all of my headachey Portal theories and counter-theories out of my brain and played the game. And guess what? Above all else, Portal is just really, really fun.
And more specifically, it’s still surprising. And I mean surprising in a very specific way. When I first played Portal all those years back, if you’d been weird enough to record my voice as I was playing, you would have heard nothing but a staggered stretch of delighted laughter. You gasp when something is a moderate shock, but when something is sort of mind-blowing, I think laughter takes over – and Portal is consistently, level-by-level a mind-blowing game.
It’s mind blowing when the first portal appears in your test subject’s cell at the very start of the game, exactly where you did not expect it to be and doing exactly what you did not expect it to do, which is to give you a sort of player self-portrait, a glimpse of the visual embodiment that Valve otherwise dispenses with for mich of the course of the game. It’s mind blowing when you first work out that you can use portals to kind of hypertext yourself around the environment, the way that clicking a contents link sends you from one part of a document immediately to another. (It’s mind blowing just to have reason to think of the player as a kind of cursor, but maybe they are? Maybe they always are!)
It’s mind blowing when you start toy with momentum, starting with that one brilliant level where you loft yourself higher and higher by dropping through one hole after another. momentum! Portal is at its most free, surely, when you’re zinging through the air, portal-puncturing the approaching floor just in time to step backwards in the arc of your own movement but with your added speed intact.
And it’s mind blowing when you bring all the parts of your arsenal together for the final levels and discover that the cognition-disrupting things that you have been asked to do with space and geometry in this game have somehow – somehow – become internalized to the point where they’re second nature.
Oh, and it’s mind blowing when you hit the end credits after a few hours and there’s a lovely song to listen to, the villain singing you a toxic lullaby built around the cheery subject of futility. Why doesn’t COD end this way?
On the topic of that song: Portal is very funny and very knowing, and it has, in GLaDOS, one of the great baddies in all of video games, so human in their pettiness and creeping failures, so clearly readable as a depraved strain of every eLearning presentation deck The Man has ever made you click through before they let you use the restroom. Nobody has done this stuff better, but I don’t think that’s why it remains so surprising to return to. If anything, this could be a mark against it: brilliant jokes that have been worn down to memes through repetition, a satire of corporate euphemism which led to far, far too many weaker imitators, and the attendant diminishing returns.
Portal has great detailing too, from the twitching, beetley mandible grasp of the portal gun itself, to the ribbed glass that semi-animates the empty surveillance chambers behind it as you move past them – did you just see something? Is there someone there?
This again is maybe incidental to its greatness though. Coming back to it, and wondering why it’s so much fun – and why it still feels so fresh, so full of dazzle – I was struck by the fact that above all else, Portal is weirdly honest. And it’s honest about one thing in particular. It’s honest about how bizarre and tricksy video game space is even when it’s trying to be straightforward, even when it’s trying to simply make sense.
From what I’ve heard over the years, everyone who’s ever worked in QA on a video game has probably logged a bug about a point in a level – an ordinary street or office building – where for no reason the player character sinks through the floor . You know, as if the floor itself was not a floor at all, but largely just a texture or group of textures laid out in virtual space.
For my part, no matter how often I hear about it, I am always staggered and almost dimly troubled when someone patiently explains to me that video games do not draw the world behind the camera in first-person games – they do not draw the world you are not looking at it until you start to look at it. Worshiping Bishop Berkeley, they do not even draw the backs of the buildings that you are looking at the front of. Games are weird – even, and perhaps especially, when they’re trying to be normal.
Portal takes all that and builds an entire adventure around it. It makes the tricksiness that allows virtual spaces to exist an entertaining thing in and of itself. Look at this world! And now take this gadget that reduces it to glittering geometry, to promising plains and inclines, and that allows you to hypertext between walls and ceilings, disappearing through once-solid surfaces before landing somewhere else with a reassuring thump. (That thump in Portal is so important: it grounds you after each magical journey. Back in the room!)
And more, in doing all this, Portal reveals the fact that, really, this space-breaking stuff is no big deal for the kind of faux-places we’re dealing with in games anyway. Its plot reveals in removing one mask to reveal something sadder and stranger, but its mechanics, the heart of the thing, are engaged in a very similar business too: Portal takes a tangible video game space it’s just built and then methodically demonstrates to you that all video game spaces are fundamentally intangible – they are built of light and cleverness and the desire to believe in an illusion.
I know: I have probably had too many hits from my Captain Tom memorial bong by this point. But it strikes me as entirely fitting to see the Portal speedrunners I’ve watched over the last few weeks ignoring the visible world and instead diving straight into the invisible radioactivity of the code and its hidden consequences. They mess with ‘portal chamber states’ and trick the game into placing the player character in several spaces at once. They shoot through walls they have lured into becoming absent. Or sometimes they simply walk backwards, exploiting an old Source bug that meant you always moved quicker in reverse.
That’s a beautiful, and very Portal sort of thing, I think: hacking your way through this precision gauntlet, and moving backwards as you do it. Portal reminds me, a person who is happy to admit they barely understand any of this stuff, that the physical world in a game is a clever, time-intensive fabrication, while what’s truly real is the invisible rules that govern everything and can never even be guessed at by a lot of us.
This is heartening to me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but people are pretty good at making games these days. There are plenty of developers out there who have exquisite taste, and piercing psychological insight about what players want and what they tend to do inside games. And with all this comes a very strange kind of danger: the danger of making something brilliant but too completely closed off to any possibility the developer didn’t intend. The danger of making a game with no accidental ugliness or awkwardness, no chance for a player to slip free and ruin their own experience.
Maybe that sounds great! But there’s also that danger of: Hey, here’s something luminous and elegant for you, and in making it, I guess I also killed it. The offering up of a beautifully dressed dead bird, that simply sits in its cage and only swan-dives off its perch when the glue on its claws comes loose.
I worried, I think, that I might return to Portal and discover it had become that kind of game – that all it had – as if this would be an easy thing in itself! – was its poise and brilliance. But it’s not the case, thank Lucifer. The fleetness and wit of Portal’s story is matched by the fact that it seems determined to worry away at this fascinating question of what video game space really is, and how it can be made to behave. And misbehave. Just the stuff to make a glorious Slinky of your thoughts, I reckon.