Bob Dunn | Game On: Why 'Portal' is the perfect video game ...


 "Hey Bob, what's a perfect vid ... "

"`Portal.' It's `Portal.' Case closed. Anything else? Because the answer to your question is `Portal.'"

Previously, we've talked about video games being a legitimate form of art, and for me, there's not a better example than Valve's 2007 masterpiece.

Yes, there are longer, more intricate games out there in which people, including myself, invest more time than they would in "Portal," but much of that time investment is by design and doesn't speak to a game's relative quality.

If you haven't experienced "Portal," (and you really should. Like, immediately. Seriously, stop what you're doing and go play it. Now.) it is, at its core, a puzzle game in which the goal is to solve a series of increasingly difficult physics-based challenges.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it sounds like homework from a class you're only taking to satisfy a course requirement, but bear with me here.

"Portal," arrived in our lives in an almost Trojan Horse-like way, when it was released as part of a collection of games, called "The Orange Box," in an apparent attempt to come up with the worst title ever.

Most of the early excitement about the "The Orange Box," was due to the inclusion of Valve Corporation's classic "Half Life: Episode Two," and the wildly popular online shooter, "Team Fortress 2"; "Portal" was this relatively unknown bonus.

That bonus, on top of the other excellent software in that bundle, turned out to be something more akin to being told you're getting served a perfectly-grilled medium-rare rib-eye steak, with "something extra," only to find out that something extra is a piece of filet mignon.

A lot of games have elements within them that work to greater and lesser degrees including a compelling story, fun and interesting game mechanics, great characters and can elicit genuine emotional reactions from the player.

It's the rare game that can effectively stick all of those multiple landings at once and that's where "Portal," stands apart.

The game is presented from the player's perspective and you are guided through a series of rooms, from which you must escape.

The game's main and eponymous mechanic is the use of portals, which can be placed upon surfaces within the environment, and, through which, the player and objects can move.

For example, placing one portal on a wall across the room and placing a second portal on the floor in front of you, will transport you to the portal across the room, when you step into the portal on the floor.

It makes sense when you see it in action, and that is one of the things that makes the experience so wonderful and unique. It is the very essence of learning and each time you successfully navigate through one of the rooms, you feel like the smartest person alive; at least for a few moments.

Each room builds upon the skills learned from the rooms before it and forces the player to adapt to new and increasingly complex mechanics to progress.

Then, at the game's midpoint, both the narrative and gameplay change, and the player is left to apply everything they've learned up until then to a series of far more abstract puzzles.

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The satisfaction derived from observing your environment, formulating a plan and seeing it successfully executed is palpable and what elevates "Portal," from fun distraction to genuine art; it makes you feel something.

And, not just by finishing the puzzles, it elicits emotional reactions throughout. There will be a moment when you, as the player, realize you've developed a legitimate emotional attachment to a lifeless metal cube.

And, you're going to feel really guilty and horrible for what you're going to have to do to it.

"Portal," is also a master class on non-traditional storytelling, delivering its narrative through use of subtext and the most unreliable of narrators, GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), an artificial intelligence whose malevolence is revealed slowly over the course of the game.

And, speaking of GLaDOS (brilliantly performed by opera singer and voice actor Ellen McLain), she is another high point in an experience full of them, a villain and foil that ranks among the best in popular culture, right up there with Hans Gruber from "Die Hard."

And, if you know how I feel about "Die Hard," you know what high praise that is.

Over the course of the game, GLaDOS' darkly deadpan, often contradictory instructions morph into a wonderfully tragicomic series of increasingly hilarious passive-aggressive taunts.

During the game's climax, she mocks you for what you did to the metal cube (referring to it as "your best friend") and how she wasn't able to invite it to a party, which had been promised throughout the game.

"All your other friends couldn't come either, because you don't have any other friends. Because of how unlikable you are. It says so here in your personnel file: unlikeable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikeable loner whose passing shall not be mourned," GLaDOS says while you're trying to defeat her in the endgame. "'Shall not be mourned,' That's exactly what it says. Very formal. Very official. It also says you were adopted. So that's funny too."

The relationship between Chell (your character) and GLaDOS and the fate of previous test subjects is revealed slowly through subtle bits of dialogue and the environment of the game itself, where backstory can be gleaned from graffiti scrawled across some of the interior walls late in the game.

Some of that graffitti led to another, perhaps unexpected, thing that makes the "Portal" experience so wonderful, the "secret language" and community it fostered.

"The cake is a lie," became an inside joke almost instantly and when you saw it on a T-shirt or bumper sticker, or surreptitiously scrawled on a wall somewhere (vandalism is bad), you felt special and connected to a shared experience and, maybe, a little less alone.

If all of that weren't enough, the game delivers one of its best surprises at its end when the credits are rolling; Jonathan Coulton's "Still Alive," a darkly bittersweet song sung from GLaDOS' perspective that elevated Coulton to immediate cult status within the gaming community.

Such a disparate collection of elements; great storytelling, unique mechanics, unforgettable characters, sublime music and the creation of a community probably comes along in gaming once in a generation, and it is something to be cherished.

I don't know when we'll see its like again, but my hope is that, because video games are an art form built on iteration, somewhere out there is someone who was as inspired by "Portal" as I was and has the knowledge and skills to take that and create something moving and remarkable.

As the opening line of "Still Alive," says, "This was a triumph "

Game on.


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