Originally just a side note released alongside fan favorites such as Half Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 in the Orange Box, the Portal franchise has bloomed into its own fan-favorite game series, even if Valve and Steam continue to be unable to count to 3. With the introduction of GLaDOS and the genesis of Aperture Science to mirror Half-Life’s Black Mesa, this series has grabbed the hearts of many fans for years to come, and this a short classic worth revisiting if you are new to the concept.
1 - Visuals
Considering Portal was initially released nearly 14 years ago on October 10th, 2007, the graphics are nothing to sneeze at. The minimalist and austere room designs help to highlight what is important for gameplay and puzzle solving, and the environment building and story provided by the Rat Man drawings help to hint at the larger narrative challenges before they arise, leaving savvy players anticipating and being rewarded for their view. The original Portal has very few unique graphics of its own, and the vast majority of the visual assets are reused from Half-Life 2, supporting the same base source code and art due to the small team size. While extremely efficient from a development standpoint, it does leave the game lacking for the visual punch other games from this era may have.
For decent, if plain, graphics, Visuals gets 3.5 stars.
2 - Audio
In a similar vein to its sequel, the Portal soundtrack largely consists of highly atmospheric, non-lyrical ambient music designed to match the mysterious mood of the environments. Sounds of distant movement, along with musical motifs for puzzle solving elements, work as a backdrop to the puzzles of the game, driving players forward without stealing the spotlight. Most notably, the main antagonist of the game, GLaDOS, performs a single, lyrical song over the credits working to wrap up the climactic end of the game and tease players towards the second game.
The song is an exceptionally memorable way to end a high-tension moment and catchy AF. It’s also surprisingly difficult to sing, showing off Ellen McLain’s (the voice of GLaDOS) background as a classically-trained operatic soprano. For one of my favorite songs, Audio gets 4 stars.
3 - Story/Progression
Now, the story… the tone… this is what really makes Portal stand out for many players as a favorite game. With GLaDOS as our only speaking cast member, her narrative and dialogue are practically oozing with dark, deadpan humor, causing players to fall in love with the mad AI. Despite its short game time (about 40 minutes for the experienced player), Portal holds a clear and cohesive narrative structure with a beginning, middle, and end that feels both satisfying and complete by the end of the experience.
For a short and sweet story with such beloved characters, Story gets the full 5 stars.
4 - Gameplay
The gameplay and concept of Portal were actually initially found in the student game Narbacular Drop; soon, Valve hired the original team to work on Portal due to their innovative puzzle-solving mechanics and physics which actually worked despite the conceptually-challenging topic. Personally, I’ve seen the gameplay of Portal lauded in video game museums due to its cutting-edge technique and mechanics, being considered one of the best video games of all time. With the simple mechanic of two portals and the conservation of momentum, players waste no time at all in flinging themselves around with very little need for tutorial or explanation. While hard to explain in writing, playing the game feels natural and intuitive, with just enough really hard puzzles to trip people up.
For memorable and momentous gameplay, Gameplay receives the full 5 stars.
5 - Context
Riding off the existing fans of both TF2 and Half Life in its Orange Box release, Portal received more critical acclaim and praise than either of the games it shipped with. The fan base loved it, with an extreme fan-following generated behind the Weighted Companion Cube, despite the cube neither talking nor moving on its own for the entirety of the game. Portal has also become known for a number of popular quotes and lines of dialogue, such as the enigmatic statement from Rat Man that “The cake is a lie.”
Despite its age, Portal still holds a place of honor among its dedicated fans and earns a Context score of 4 stars.
Portal is an excellent puzzle-platforming game with outstanding and innovative gameplay, and a pitch black sense of humor. From killer AI personalities to ambient soundtracks to test to, Portal is a great game to revisit and reintroduce to a new generation of gamers with a love for dark humor, and soaked in cultural references.