Dystopia: noun. 1. an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.


The word for today is “dystopia,” and I’d like to thank the makers of Portal for reminding me how wonderful a bleak, empty dystopia can be. You would think Portal, with its virtually non-existent plot, absence of characters (the player-controlled character being little more than an avatar and the computer-narrator), short length and sterile design would be ill-suited to encapsulating any sort of 50-dollar words at all, much less “dystopia,” but you’d be wrong.

I purchased The Orange Box unsure of what to expect. I’d played Half-Life 2 already, but hadn’t played the much-ballyhooed Episode One, not being much of a fan of Steam and even less of a PC gamer of late. Back in the day, when the original Half-Life and Team Fortress Classic were hot properties, I’d played the crap out of both, reveling in every explosive second of gameplay. In fact, Half-Life, until recently, remained my favorite game of all time, largely because of how thoroughly it exploded all expectations of what an excellent game should be, and how it perfectly captured what seemed to be missing from all other games, how it nailed dystopia and the feeling of dread that comes with having to claw your way out of a place that was once familiar, but has now turned on its head, capturing you inside.

BioShock came very close to unseating Half-Life in this regard, but ultimately fell victim (in my mind) to its own excellent storytelling. It simply tried too hard, and there were few moments – if any – in which you, as the player, felt connected to the fate of the world. This is what Half-Life taught us: In the absence of story, the player will concoct his own and become that much more engaged.

Gordon Freeman graduated from MIT and worked at a place called Black Mesa. That’s it. That, aside from a few incidental, extraneous extras, is all we know about him. It’s all we need to know about him. The rest of his story is written (or so it seems) by us with the lion’s share of scripted and gameplay ephemera occurring to him, not through him. We aren’t given any grand revelations about Freeman’s past as cut-scenes, and, in fact, in the original game, there aren’t really any major plot moments revealed at all.


The story is left scattered about as bits and pieces you can either pick up or not, and the ultimate questions (what happened, who started it and how will it end?) are left unanswered. What story elements are revealed (Barney’s last stand, the arrival of the soldiers and the fabulous scene played out over the command radio in which one soldier says to the other, “Forget Freeman!”) are played out in-engine as curious asides while the player retains full control of the character. Contrast this with BioShock, in which large portions of story are revealed as cut-scenes, monologues and flashbacks, and you begin to feel the difference such choices make.

BioShock featured a wonderful story well told, and its highly-detailed dystopian world dripped with awesome. But in wandering Rapture’s weepy halls, I rarely felt more than a tourist, and never as invested in my character’s fate as I felt playing while Half-Life. I was always aware that I was playing a game and being told a story and that the two felt separate. Obviously BioShock is still an excellent game, and the best I’ve played in years, but in creating such a detailed story experience it crowded out the possibility that I would become invested in my story, as the person exploring the world, and if it hadn’t been for Half-Life, so many years ago, I would never have known what I was missing.


What’s truly depressing is Half-Life‘s sequel similarly erred. Valve didn’t go so far as to create a pivotal moment in which the player had no control of his actions, but they did cram Half-Life 2 with so many extra characters and so much blatant exposition that it often felt like playing a completely different franchise. In fact, if it were called something else, I probably would have enjoyed it more.

Steven Spielberg has often said about the movie Jaws that it was his intention to have the shark in as many scenes as possible, to use it as a character and frighten the bejeebus out of people with its gigantic monstrosity. Unfortunately for Steven (but fortunately for us), his shark was faulty, so they didn’t get to use it as often as they’d planned. The result: a film experience far more successful than what he’d intended. The shark, because it’s unseen throughout much of the film, becomes even more menacing, and the rare glimpses we get at its terrifying form are all the more terrifying because of their rarity.

In Half-Life, the extraordinary story of an expedition through a dimensional gateway (or whatever) was all the more compelling because of the relative lack of exposition. (After all, alien invasion wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking genre convention, even in the ’90s.) The few rare glimpses at the true nature of the chaos supporting Half-Life‘s story were all the more engrossing because of their rarity. What played out between – the minor dramas of “How do I escape this missile silo?” or “Can I save this security guard?” – took center stage and the experience was all the more fulfilling as a result.

In replaying Half-Life 2 and playing Episode One, I was reminded that, for all of their inventiveness and excellent storytelling, the sequels fell well short of the original. In much the same way that Jaws 2 and 3 (in 3-D!), in spite of being excellent action films, suffered for the lack of (albeit accidental) suspense created by the original film’s restraint.

In Half-Life 2 Gordan Freeman seems to have been outclassed by his co-stars. In Half-Life, he was the man of means, uniquely suited (pardon the pun), and mentally and physically equipped to take on the task of finding a way out of Black Mesa’s crumbling cave. In Half-Life 2 he seems all but unnecessary.


In his absence the assembled cast of characters has created a teleporter, built a gigantic robotic dog and started a revolution – far more than he ever accomplished (and ever will) on his own. Even his erstwhile sidekick, Alyx, often finds her way into spaces he can’t, and by the time he arrives at a new destination, she’s already there. Throughout the game, he seems helpless without help of others, and the most interesting parts of the game happen while he’s elsewhere. In fact, it often seems like they don’t even need him at all, unless it’s to run errands or be fawned over.

If the scientists of Black Mesa can replace a limb with a curved piece of flexible steel, why can’t they tailor a suit to fit someone else? The answer is: Because that would blow the story, and from the people who blew the doors off of the FPS genre 10 years ago, that answer isn’t good enough.

Still, I was expecting this. I’d played Half-Life 2 already, and knew what I was getting myself into there. I was convinced Valve had resigned themselves to leaving their past brilliance behind and focused instead on technology evolutions as revealed through great – if not excellent – game experiences. Which is why Portal completely blew my mind.


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.

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