RPS GOTY Revisited: 2007’s Portal remains a lodestar for very good games
When Katharine told me about this idea to take a look at RPS Advent Calendar winners of years past, I thought it was a good idea. But when she said she wanted me to do the first one, and that the first GOTY awarded on RPS was 2007’s Portal, I almost laughed. Does Portal hold up? Why even bother asking? Shut this whole article down. Of course it holds up. It’s Portal.
Of course, conventional bait-and-switch writing would dictate that this is the point where I tell you that, aha, after playing Portal again in the blinding light of 2022 it’s actually a heap of rubbish, such as could only otherwise be found on the streets on day ten of a two week bin-lorry strike. But obviously that is not the case, because we’re talking about Portal. If anything it’s even better than I remember. Like. It’s fuckin’ Portal.
If you’ve not played Portal, you may have assumed it’s one of a bunch of other older games that everyone says are good but that you can basically skip because the industry has improved and evolved since it was made. Portal is not that. You should go and play Portal right now. Push toddlers aside and blast through red lights if necessary.
Portal is a physics puzzle game, except what Portal really is, is some kind of impossible bending of the course of linear time. You play Portal now and you can’t conceive of it existing in 2007. There must be some mistake. It represents such a great leap forward in construction, in tone, in ideas, in writing, that it feels like Portal needed Portal to exist before Portal could exist. Except it did not, and nothing really like it has really come along since. I can’t comprehend Portal’s existence apart from as “it’s as if Oasis was simultaneously The Beatles.”
Behind this hyperbolic paragraph is the truth, which is that Portal was made by clever people with great ideas who met at the right time, and confluences, great conjunctions, just don’t happen that often in the maelstrom of chance that is life.
I’ve teed this up enough, so should actually talk about the game. In Portal, you are Chell, a classic Valve silent protagonist who wakes up in an unknown place at an unknown time, and discovers she is in fact in some kind of… facility. Aperture Science is a white-walled testing lab where you are the lab rat, shuffled around a maze by an increasingly malevolent AI called GLaDOS. In each new room you must get from the entrance to the exit using a portal gun that lets you fire one blue and one orange portal almost anywhere you want. The portals are connected, so thing go in blue one, thing come out orange one – including yourself, weighted cubes, bullets, and so on. You start off using the portals to move between platforms out of reach and progress to dropping boxes on machine gun turrets and dropping yourself hundreds of feet into a blue portal so you can be physics-sneezed out of the orange one at 80 miles an hour, just a bipedal affront to God.
Within the game you become a daring expert, the Indiana Jones of applied physics.
The gradual increase in complexity, and the marvellous tool that is the portal gun, allows you to play. You spit portals everywhere to see what they do. Portal teaches you, gradually, to (as the meme goes) think with portals, to know what happens if this portal is at an angle to that one, or how the angle of the thing going into the portal changes on exit, or how you can make something fall between portals forever… Within the game you become a daring expert, the Indiana Jones of applied physics.
While that is going on you’re also being subjected to a masterclass in funny and poignant writing, combined with level design that reminds you “environmental storytelling” means way more than post-apocalyptic graffiti (and the debates about it that cycle around every 18 months or so). Aperture Science has clean, grey-white walls and glass observation windows, behind which you can dimly see chairs and desks. Early on the game trains you to look for radios playing a tinny, jaunty little tune, and if you follow the noise you find things. After a little while, you realise you never actually see another living person in the place. After another little while, you find dens. Someone has been hiding behind the shifting mechanical walls of the facility in little nests of tins of beans and cardboard boxes, and you see that the guts of the place are rusted and in disrepair.
And then there’s GLaDOS, the only person (??) you talk to. She was conceived, according to Eric Wolpaw (who, along with Chet Faliszek, came on to write for Portal) to be an “adversary personality that hadn’t been done to death”. He explains that, “GLaDOS does yell a lot and shoot rockets at you, which I guess is fairly traditional, but she’s also kind of supportive and funny and sometimes she’s a little sad and even scared”. He points out that GLaDOS becomes more human as she becomes more openly antagonistic, using the pronoun “I” to describe her thoughts and actions, rather than the “we” she used earlier on in the game when she’s acting as the representative of Aperture Science as an organisation.
Her lines, delivered in a robotic voice close-but-no-cigar enough to melodic that it sets your teeth on edge, drip with humour, the kind of jokes that are very funny because they don’t tell you why you’re supposed to laugh. When GLaDOS told me I could donate some or all of my organs to the “Aperture Science self-esteem fund for girls” I laughed so hard I tried to raise my legs up become a little Babybel ball of snorting, and kneed my desk so forcibly I had to go for a little walk around the office. How is it possible that a single-line joke written in almost 15 years ago has only become more funny? Comedy usually ages faster than yoghurt left in the sun!
There are so many good things. The Companion Cube, which makes a comparatively small appearance in the game but is even now immortalised as a tattoo on my actual real life thigh. The way the robotic turrets chirp things like “There you are!” moments before gunning you down. The escalating mentions of neurotoxin.
In fact, Portal as a whole is so quotable that the internet has done its best to drive this game so far into the ground that extracting it would account for a surprisingly large percentage of Scotland’s economy. But somehow this hasn’t ruined Portal at all. For any other game, a decade and change of nerds hooting, “The cake is a lie!” at each other would be cultural death, but when I went back in and heard GLaDOS assuring me that there would be cake after testing I giggled like a little baby.
A wonderful achievement. A lodestar for game design. The best there was and is, but I hope not the best there ever will be. It’s fuckin’ Portal.