Sunday, June 6, 2010
Top 50 Games - 25. Portal
Portal is perfect and everybody loves it. These are irrefutable facts. It's also an extremely inspiring game for people like me: it started out as Narbacular Drop, the senior game design project at a tech university. Impressed, Valve hired the team right out of school and commissioned them to work on Portal, minimizing risk by keeping the team and budget small and including the final product in The Orange Box. Needless to say, it was a resounding success, one that has spawned a beloved new IP and the most overused inside jokes in the industry. This tremendously positive reception is a direct result of Portal's conceptualization, execution, and sense of humor. While nearly everyone who plays video games today loves GLaDOS (the evil computer that values science more than human life), there's more to Portal's greatness than her cold, snide quips. This game's development team truly knows how to convey information visually, and the elegance of this game-to-player feedback is apparent everywhere. Go through blue portal, come out orange portal, and vice versa. You can shoot portals onto white walls but not brown walls, etc. There is also an interesting and almost ingenious dichotomy in the game's intentions: it's part tech demo, part training program, part straight-up puzzle game, and part story-driven adventure (in that order, actually). The mind-bending spacial recognition obstacle courses are bested with only a few tools, and a lot of player ingenuity. GLaDOS offers the lab rat of a player guidance and narrative context, connecting gameplay and story together brilliantly through one of gaming's most cherished and unique villains. By employing these features, Portal's take on player progression and challenge vs. reward is incredibly effective. Similarly, pacing is a tenet that the Portal team embraced with a surprisingly mature and expert touch. Through GLaDOS and the sterile test chamber environment, the player (this time a woman named Chell, and who in the Valve tradition is a silent cipher) learns more of the horrifying truth behind the experiments that take place in Aperture's facilities as the game goes on. It doesn't go on for very long however; Portal only takes about 4 hours to beat. This is however, mostly a blessing. Swimming against today's stylistic current, Portal is short and sweet, brimming with well-implemented ideas that never outstay their welcome. Included in those hours is a wonderful, surprising escape tale told with uncanny ability, one that takes full advantage of its medium to balance humor, horror, novelty, and loads of fun. And I didn't even mention cake once. I'm so proud of myself.