Portal: The Way Forward

I’m not a fan of puzzles, and I don’t like first-person shooters like Halo or Doom, either. Despite this, I found myself irresistibly drawn to Valve’s new first-person puzzle game, Portal.

The premise behind Portal is simple; you have a Portal gun that can create man-sized wormholes in walls, floors and ceilings that connect to each other. The best way to describe this is through a video:

Teleportation devices are not new to first-person shooters, and other games such as Prey have used wormholes before. What distinguishes Portal is that the wormholes are not simply opaque surfaces but actual holes in space through which you can see. I spent a couple of minutes marvelling at this when I first started playing Portal, walking back and forth to see the different angles through the wormhole (and yes, if you line up the wormholes correctly, you can see an infinite corridor containing infinite versions of yourself).

The other, more well-known feature of the wormholes is that they have ‘proper’ physics – they conserve momentum. Not only does this mean that if you jump into a wormhole on the floor and come out of a wall, you’ll emerge feet-first, horizontally, but it means that if you fall into a wormhole ten floors down, you’ll emerge out of that same wall at a much higher velocity.

By itself, the Portal gun suggests a wonderful variety of puzzles. Add in moving platforms, pressure-sensors, flying energy balls and automated drone-guns, and you what I am happy to say is an entirely original puzzle game. New puzzle games don’t come along often at all, and the ones that I’m interested in are even rarer, so even the concept alone is impressive.

Without good execution, however, Portal would be just that – an impressive concept. However, the designers did three things to avoid anything quite as depressing a fate as that. Firstly, the game had a very gentle difficulty curve; the first dozen levels were a breeze and introduced new game mechanics one-by-one – but you still had a sense of achievement on completing them.

Secondly, the puzzles were all well-designed and tested. Though some of the later puzzles had me thinking for ten minutes or so, I never felt as if I couldn’t figure them out, unlike puzzles in other games where solutions were sometimes completely obscure and unreasonable. This meant that I didn’t have to consult a walkthrough or look up a solution a single time during the game – for a puzzle game or FPS, this is unprecedented for me, and I was particularly grateful for it.

Most of the puzzles did not require fast reaction times, and those that did straddled the boundary between exciting and frustrating very well. In all cases, you were given plenty of time to sit back and simply consider the puzzle, wandering around the environment testing things out without fear of being punished by the game. Incidentally, I feel that this is the why Portal is so original and so successful; it’s a puzzle game rooted in a real world that you can physically explore and experiment in. It’s not abstract – you interact with the world primarily through the delightfully simple and instantaneous Portal gun, as opposed to the tedious barrel-lifting and button-pushing that bedevils so many other FPSes (including Valve’s).

Finally, they gave the gave a setting and story that suited the gameplay perfectly – nothing overwhelming, just a hint of science fiction and with a strangely twisted wit.

According to my computer, I spent just under two and a half hours playing Portal from start to finish. This may seem like an awfully brief game to be gushing over, but on the contrary, I was perfectly happy with its length. I very rarely finish computer games of any kind these days, either because they’re too long or too difficult, and I find this very annoying since some of the best gameplay is usually placed after the point where I give up. Being able to complete Portal in a reasonable length of time, under my own steam, was a refreshing change.

Some people may have the time and stamina to spare hours and hours playing a single game, but most people don’t. Right now, Portal is one of the most talked-about games online, and I think that reflects a desire not only for new gameplay, but also short games that can be finished in a few hours. I hope other designers learn from its example – I know I will.

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