I told myself I wouldn’t, but screw it: This was a triumph.
What are video games if not the ultimate expression of technology for its own sake? If NASA first got to the moon with the processing ability of an iPhone, how ludicrous is it that we spend so much time and computing power rendering ever-higher-defintion space marines and dragonslayers so we can play make-believe for an afternoon? This is an industry where “new” is often shown off in place of actual content, and sometimes the benefits that innovation will bring to the medium seem like a mystery to even those developing them. Look at the dismal software line-up rushed out for potentially interesting hardware like the Wii U, or go back to past console failures like the Virtual Boy: game creators have an obsession with being first, even when they don’t fully understand what “being first” entails.
The folks at Aperture Science could certainly relate to this problem; it probably even crossed a few of their minds as a killer AI flooded their facility with deadly neurotoxin. (At least when Nintendo falters, they only have to worry about sales dips and snarky blog write-ups.) There are about a million practical uses for a gun that can create wormholes between two disparate locations, but Aperture mainly seemed interested in its portal device’s ability to move a crate onto a big red button. Valve Software, the near-unparalleled funhouse constructors who gave life to Aperture Science and all its products, are video game designers who, unlike the fictitious weapons manufacturer they created (not to mention most of their real-world competition), are always asking, “Why?” instead of, “Why not?” They recognize a company like Aperture inventing something as mind-melting as the portal gun just so you can move a couple boxes around is downright moronic. However, they also know that you’re conditioned to accept such absurdities and under-explained design elements as par for the course in video games, and that’s why Portal‘s tricks hit home. Big-budget, mainstream stories with a hint of technophobia, from Wall-E to The Matrix, rarely acknowledge the irony of using cutting-edge technology to spin tales of science running amok. In Portal, that irony is practically the central thesis.
What does it say about this medium that Portal‘s biggest surprise – far beyond its actual plot twist – is that it even bothered adding story, wit, and personality to the proceedings? People seemed genuinely shocked that Valve took the premise so far past the neat, clever tech demo that it purports to be for its first half. (Releasing it as an almost incidental addition to The Orange Box collection, alongside the high-profile likes of Half-Life and Team Fortress, might have been an accidentally brilliant way to keep the game’s true depth under wraps.) “The cake is a lie” didn’t resonate with gamers because they were actually surprised that there wasn’t a happy ending after all the hellish test chambers, but because they were surprised such a seemingly straightforward puzzle game was getting under their skin.
While perhaps nothing can compare to the thrill of mastering the portal gun itself, it’s the sinister cake Indian-giver and aforementioned neurotoxin enthusiast that really earns Portal its reputation. GLaDOS is that rarest of things: a truly great video game character, consistently surprising and delightful even when she’s trying to poison you. She’s HAL 9000 as voiced by Big Science-era Laurie Anderson, filtered through your most passive-aggressive ex-girlfriend and able to transition from hilarious to terrifying in the space of a single line. Like HAL, you defeat GLaDOS by taking her apart piece by piece, but whereas HAL reverts back to childlike simplicity, disassembling GLaDOS turns her into a hysterical, violent, near-primal monster. (You’re actually destroying different aspects of her personality when you fight her, stripping away morality, curiosity, intelligence, and finally, emotion.) GLaDOS’ increasing anger and pettiness in the final moments of Portal makes it about as tense a finale as I’ve ever experienced; I’d seen sassy robots before, but never one where her ill intentions seemed so at odds with her placid programming.
It’s this dichotomy that lends Portal its beating heart. The game isn’t anti-technology as much as it’s disturbed by how often applied science is presented in soothing, falsely objective tones. It’s an anti-anti-human game, reminding you that behind every gleaming surface there are rusted vents and scrawled messages from madmen. Valve’s satire is broad and ridiculous, but you buy it, knowing that in the name of science, mankind has subjected its own to far worse than an obstacle course and some apologetic turrets. (Do you think if it was possible, the Manhattan Project scientists would have developed an A-bomb that said “no hard feelings” in Ellen McLain’s cutesy voice?) The previous test subject who leaves you rambling hints (identified in supplemental material as “the Rat Man”) also has a habit of painting crude handprints on Aperture’s walls. Be it a cave painting or an artifical intelligence like GLaDOS or a multimillion dollar computer game, aren’t they all monuments to the base human desire for recognition and self-discovery?
It’s safe to say at this point that Valve employees spend a lot of time thinking about what makes games tick. In many ways, Portal is a literalization of what we subconsciously look for in video games, and it does it all while barely leaving the training room. It’s an easily graspable premise, one with tropes and iconography that can be reproduced and augmented forever. (The PC version of Portal 2 now has a mapmaker to prove this, aptly called “The Perpetual Testing Initiative.”) It’s a game about escape, about altering the physical world for enjoyment and problem-solving. But perhaps most tellingly, it’s a game about feeling smarter than a computer.