Portal (2007, PC)

By mothman spirit / February 14, 2013

Portal sucks. It is not a miracle or a great game. It’s not the best game of 2007. It’s not even a proper videogame. It’s a cool tech demo or a mini-game included as a bonus alongside the Half-Life 2 compilation. The game’s reception is exasperating!
   Let’s start over: Portal is a puzzle game, played from the first-person perspective. You use a gun that shoots portals, one orange, one blue, to solve various puzzles. Go in one, come out the other.
   And that’s kind of awesome! It’s damn cool. However, a cool gimmick doesn’t make a masterpiece. Because that’s all the portal gun is, a gimmick. What else can I call it? The puzzles are all totally easy. It’s zero substance and all flash. Portal is a game whose sole redeeming feature is that it has one totally cool mechanic and nothing else, just like those awful Red Faction games that I always give a chance, because damn is the environmental destruction technology cool, and you never know, they might’ve done something worthwhile with it this time. But they never do!

And the concept is wasted on a bunch of puzzles. I would much rather play an FPS where you had to use the portal gun in various clever ways to outsmart and kill a bunch of enemies. Like, imagine an FPS where you could shoot a portal behind some enemy soldiers, drop a grenade, seal the portals up, then watch them explode from a distance? How cool would that be? Something where you not only can do stuff like this, but where the game is sufficiently hard enough that you have to come up with all kinds of cool, creative solutions. It would be more engaging thematically, and it would force you to think on your feet in ways plain puzzles can’t.
   After Portal was released, there were a lot of articles on sites like Gamasutra and the like about how developers should take inspiration from Portal. Let’s hope they don’t. The game feels like an unskippable tutorial. I already get the portal gimmick, so why do I have to spend the first hour of the game just walking through portals, or only being allowed to shoot one portal with the exit placed for me, or why do I need entire so-called test chambers teaching me that buttons can open doors, that projectiles can activate switches, or that you maintain your speed when traveling through portals? It’s a waste of time. It’s a mandatory introduction to a simple concept. The only entertainment to be had in the first hour or so is the robot voice guiding you around. There’s nothing to discover for yourself. If I were the sort to feel offended by a videogame talking down to me, Portal would bother me. I don’t need two levels to understand the concept of placing boxes on switches! Portal was praised for how naturally they’ve integrated the tutorial into the game. Besides the fact that I would rather just have a stupid tutorial that told me everything at once than this crap, here’s an even more progressive idea: Just make one of the opening areas a little room where the player can just mess with this stuff until he gets it!
   The graphics in this part of the game are really boring. Every room is a white box containing no points of interest or any interesting sights of any sort. Besides the fact that these are simply boring to look at, the way they’re presented completely robs them of any illusion they could’ve had. They’re supposed to be test chambers, which is practically a fourth-wall breaking reference. I mean, being a videogame, you know on some level that everything is a pre-designed test chamber, but a decent game would have a great audiovisual presentation that let you forget that you’re not just interacting with a piece of code. Soundtrack is a bunch of boring ambient tones.
   Towards the end of the test chambers, there’re a few puzzles which require you to use everything you've learned to beat, but they're still only marginally more challenging. Then, there's a different area. This part is a little more interesting, as it at least has some color and a few visual details. The mood is more frantic since, according to the plot, you’ve finally broken out of the boring test chambers and into uncharted territory, but it's still incredibly bland and the puzzles are just as easy as before. And then the game is over!
   As for the plot and writing, maybe they'd be a lot funnier if every single insufferable videogame blog and forum wasn’t littered with quotes from the game ad nauseam. Which isn’t really Portal’s fault, but you have to wonder about the merits of a game that attracts so many cretins. Glados, the villain with a morbid sense of humor, is a pretty fun character, but who cares if she stars in such a dumb game?
   Then you have people wanking over this one scene where you put a cube with pink hearts on its sides into an incinerator. I guarantee these people have some sort of guilt over playing videogames instead of watching movies. They saw this cube incineration thing, then they thought, “Yes, finally, a scene in a videogame that I can ‘interpret’, sort of how film critics ‘interpret’ contrived symbolism or painting critics ‘interpret’ ‘contemporary art’!” To be fair to Portal, the cube scene is a lot intentionally funnier, but the humor seems to be lost on these people who are all too eager to FINALLY shirk their videogame-related guilt by spewing out loads of pseudo-intellectual psychobabble, and in doing so, damaging the artform they supposedly love, which, prior to these people’s arrival, was completely free of this nonsense. It’s a decently funny game, but it has a miserable fan base.
   If people weren’t stupid, I’d have enjoyed Portal for what it was, a cute little bonus included alongside Half-Life 2 and its expansions. But as things stand, with the entire universe collectively shitting its pants over it, all I could notice was how bad the thing sucked in comparison to the Portal everyone else played and how gruesomely people managed to mangle the amusing writing and plot. The portal gun is pretty sweet, though, so I hope Valve works it into an actual videogame sometime.