rom its first sighting over a year ago, Valve Corporation's first-person puzzle game Portal was, however strange, distinct. When a two-and-a-half minute trailer emerged last summer, its vocoded and processed voiceover by Half-Life 2 actor Ellen McLain conveyed Portal's theme and object in a single line: "At the Enrichment Center, we believe that a highly motivated test subject can carry out rather complex tasks while enduring the most intense pain — so if you don't make it through the testing, Goodbye!" One of five games in Valve's The Orange Box, released this month, Portal turned out exactly as anticipated. It is a utopian brain-tickler: engineering by M.C. Escher, script by George Orwell, set design by Woody Allen in his Sleeper phase, narration by the stepsister of HAL 9000.
This one didn't originate with Valve but rather — as with Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, conceived as modifications by other programmers which Valve then commercially adopted — was another result of the game developer choosing to be more resourceful than innovative. Narbacular Drop, described as "a 3D dungeon" in which "two interconnecting portals...can be freely placed by the player," was a student project at Washington state's Digipen Institute of Technology. That the "portal system" had "never before been the central focus of a game" must have been obvious, Valve snapping up Drop while hiring its creators and assigning them to Valve's own realization of their idea.
Portal consists of indoor, spacial navigation problems which players overcome with the selective placement of man-sized, elliptical, trans-locational gateways — layman's terms, "portals." Following insertion in hygienic, glass-enclosed quarters of the fictitious industrial conglomerate Aperture Science, challenges begin immediately after the receipt of a "Handheld Portal Device." Trapped or cut off by blocked paths, inaccessible heights, uncrossable chasms or lock-and-key sequences? There will be no feasible linear solution. Instead, one uses the Device to target an entry point and exit point on valid surfaces (i.e., Portland cement concrete) and, via inscrutable science, create a walkway for the player between the two interfaces.
The game is said to "take place in the Half-Life universe" and it does — from comic denigration of Aperture Science's rival Black Mesa to the very sounds, models and textures of Half-Life 2. In fact, Portal plays a little like Half-Life distilled, as if removing combat and X-Files-manner deus ex machina from Valve's principal title would leave a game devoted to the series' breakthrough "Gravity Gun," a tool which the Portal Device meetly resembles. Similarity here assists but may also detract, as one familiar with Half-Life will sense that surroundings have been borrowed. At least two puzzle elements come directly from Half-Life 2 and Episode One (also on The Orange Box), modified only slightly for Portal. Valve's production of this game, of course, was uncharacteristically swift. And, too, Portal was promoted as an accessory, with which neither its three-hour length nor its derivation are inconsistent.
Were Portal just a string of puzzles, it would have succeeded. The game's superb direction, however, is visible as the first few test levels are passed. Simple objects — locked doors, hydraulic buttons, weighted cubes, moving platforms, energy capacitors and receptacles, sentry guns — are deployed in complex and paradoxical combinations. Every element is unique, and iconic enough to be identified on the wall at the entrance of every chamber. More interestingly, the objects are anthropomorphized, either subtly or else actively by intimations of the synthetic narrator who, speaking to Portal's player character, shows increasing sentience. The game ends having established a library of piquancies, and even a wry theme song.
Standalone, Portal should contribute a certain volume to gaming culture — that song is pretty catchy. Yet Valve has an opportunity, especially with the makers of Narbacular Drop on staff, to elaborate in the form of a sequel. While Portal's story does turn on peripety — and can't be protracted without banality or repetition — the concept of Portal has fewer boundaries. What about the introduction of more simple machines? Objectives other than proceeding from the test chamber? Cooperative or competitive games? Valve has incorporated as much in its other titles; these aren't requests it can't fulfill. Herein is the semblance of a classic.