Fifteen minutes into Portal, I believed I was playing a diverting and fun technology demo. Fifteen minutes later, I believed I'd discovered a marvelous gem of a game built around a technology demo. Fifteen minutes after that I was convinced I was playing the best game made all year, perhaps ever.
The challenge of creating a spiritually accurate sequel to Half-Life is daunting. After all, you can only escape Black Mesa once (twice if you force the player to retreat back inside), so capturing that feeling of scrabbling through the remains of a secret, underground laboratory a second time is next to impossible. So, what to do? Well, create a second laboratory. And this time, you're the rat.
It's difficult to dissect a game like Portal without spoiling the very surprises that make it wonderful, so I won't try. I will say this though: This game alone was worth The Orange Box's $60 price tag. The mind-bending puzzles are just mind-bending enough to remain challenging and fun after multiple play-throughs (the option to jack the difficulty settings and challenges help) and the writing, while ultimately unnecessary to enjoy the core gameplay, is just darkly humorous enough to remain funny and entertaining time after time.
Portal is like a juicy, sweet Vidalia onion in reverse; as you peel away the layers, the experience broadens before your eyes. As the levels wear on, what had at first seemed hard is now as easy as walking, and the challenges posed in the later stages test your mettle even further. Once you get your mind around that one, tricky bend, that hard-to-grasp concept that, no matter where they exist in the world, the two portals act as a single doorway, the game's logical expanse opens before your mind like some arcane puzzle from ages past, and you go from feeling like you're on acid to feeling like you are acid, and the universe melts beneath your feet. And then, several levels later, the game really pulls out the rug.
I played through Portal (the first time) in a single sitting. I'd started up the game expecting to spend a few minutes playing with a neat physics toy before bed and, like with a good book, couldn't put it down. Three hours went by in a heartbeat, and in those three hours, I felt like I'd lived a lifetime. Every puzzle solved felt like a victory for my little character, fleeting glimpses of whom I was barely able to capture through the portals, and by the time I was able to guess at the nature of her situation, there just wasn't any way I was going to bed before I'd resolved her story.
That's not to say I know entirely what her story is, even now. Like Half-Life before it, Portal plays its story cards so close to the vest that large chunks are left completely open for interpretation. And that's exactly why it's so brilliant.
Who is your character? What is Aperture? Who's the disembodied voice urging you on? Where are all the people? What happened here, and what's your part in it? The answers to these questions are offered in rare glimpses, and are all the more compelling as a result. In one, sparse, three-hour game, Valve captured the feeling of their unique dystopian future more powerfully than through the 15-plus hours of Half-Life 2, leaving me both begging for more and praying I don't get it.
Finishing Portal (and hearing that excellent song) you can almost hear the fanfic engines turning over and grinding into high gear, which is in itself a testament to the power of this engrossing story. But I hope I don't ever learn more about the protagonist or Aperture. If the price of more time with Valve's excellent creations is the death of what makes them so uniquely wonderful to begin with, I'll take the memories and you can keep the sequels.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.