Settings: Portal

August 24, 2016 ~ by Will McGee ~ part of Settings

In the first installment of Settings, we're going to be looking at the last few areas of Valve's incredible Portal, a game that might have initially looked like an afterthought to Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 but has proven itself to be a mighty force in creative gaming unto itself.  Portal is unique in its combination of the controls of a first person shooter with absolutely mind-bending puzzles, all delivered with a bone-dry sense of humor.  

For most of Portal, released in 2007 for the PC and Xbox 360, you are following the directions of a robotic voice that sounds alarmingly blasé about the apparently serious danger you are in.  The Aperture Science Corporation couldn't be bothered to install handrails to prevent you from falling into a pit of toxic waste, but heaven forbid you try to solve their test chamber puzzle in any other way than the way they intended - THAT'S when they'll take an interest.  But, for the whole game, your progress has been clearly divided into numbered test chambers, each with a different puzzle, and there's been a reward (the now infamous cake) mentioned if you can just make it to the end.  Finally, the end is in sight - a sign on the wall advertises cake just around the corner.  When you round the corner, though, there is no cake, only a fiery pit that the platform you're standing on is drawing closer and closer to.  Just when it seems like the end, you use your portal gun to move to the other side of the fire pit.  The very fact that you can do that seems at first like an oversight on the part of the developers, but it isn't (just an oversight on the part of Aperture Science).  And just like that, you're on the other side of those clean, barren white walls and in the abandoned, decrepit, eerily quiet hallways of the actual Aperture Science facility.  

This area is much larger than any individual test chamber, and it gets no number of its own.  Up until this point, the game seemed like a more modern Chip's Challenge, solving individual puzzles with no particular goal in mind, but now you must survive, and doing so means breaking the rules of the game.  As you move through the corridors, you pass cubicles and work stations for disquietingly absent scientists; your only companion is the same robotic voice, urging you to stay still so that a 'party associate' can track you down and bring you to wherever it is they're keeping this cake, a suggestion that, at best, implies that Aperture Science is surprisingly Orwellian in their approach to partying.  Your journey also takes you through some of the machinery that powers these test chambers you spent the first three fourths of the game in, and in one case, you even re-enter a test chamber and exit out the other side, breaking one of the heretofore sacred rules of the Aperture Science Test Chambers in the process.  This little detail cements your status as a fugitive from the only known authority, and grants a sense of rebelliousness to the player.  It's a mark of a good video game when the developers can trick the player into thinking that they've cheated the rules of the game.  

This rebelliousness, though, comes at a price.  In the test chambers, the only danger was the obstacles that these mysterious scientists knowingly subjected you to, but out of their carefully controlled test environments, there is unguarded industrial machinery and dizzying falls to contend with, without the benefit of an impatient overseer to eventually clue you in to the solution you've been missing the whole time.  Your independence (and very life) has come at the price of being truly on your own.  In the process, though, you begin to really learn exactly what is going on in this obscure laboratory.  Before, it wasn't particularly odd that the only person(?) that you were in contact with was this one voice giving you instructions over an intercom.  Perhaps it was slightly strange that there weren't any people visible through the windows in the test chambers, but not remarkably so.  Now that you're out in the building proper, though, the complete lack of other human beings becomes very suspicious, especially given the fact that all appearances suggest there haven't been any other people in that building for a long time.  This sudden change doesn't just affect your gameplay, it affects the way the plot is framed.  Before, Aperture Science sounded like a humorously incompetent corporation with little regard for the safety of its test subjects.  Now, though, the apathy in that voice seems a little more sinister in retrospect, and as you reach the end of the area and see what stands between you and real sunlight and fresh air, the true nature of one of the most memorable video game villains of recent years is revealed.  

This is a game with complete mastery of revealing as little information as possible to the players, and the speed with which the player learns the truth of their predicament in the final hour or so of the game is a testament to Valve's storytelling.  It sets up its own very strict rules and then, three fourths of the way through the game, puts you in a scenario where you can't win without breaking them.


This is a game with complete mastery of revealing as little information as possible to the players, and the speed with which the player learns the truth of their predicament in the final hour or so of the game is a testament to Valve's storytelling.