Portal, Art and Game Design

Portal goes beyond innovative gameplay.
Portal goes beyond innovative gameplay. | Source

Warning!

This hub contains spoilers! Read at your own risk!

But seriously...if you haven't played this game yet, do yourself a favor, pick up a copy and play it right now, then come back and read this.

It's short, and the last time I checked, you can get it for $9.99US on Steam (though I recommend The Orange Box, since it's a fantastic deal).

Everybody knows that Portal is considered by many people to be a great game, but why is it so popular?

It's short (I spent 6 hours on it, but I was soaking it up and exploring every nook and cranny), there's only one 'gun' with a single upgrade, you never directly interact with another character, the environments are Spartan, the graphics are decent, but not spectacular, there are few enemies to beat, there are no health kits or power-ups, no character-building, no cut-scenes or 'epic' moments (well, maybe one).

The list of things that Portal doesn't have--things that are par for the course in most big-budget action games--is longer than the list of things that it does have. So how on earth did it manage to win a 9.5 from players on Metacritic? Why did most players (myself included) love it?

The lessons to be learned from Portal go beyond innovation and economy in game design and reach right into the heart and soul of gaming, and if any game can be considered art as well as entertainment, Portal is that game.

But let's start with the obvious.

Portal's gameplay is simple, but rich with possibility.
Portal's gameplay is simple, but rich with possibility. | Source

Innovation

The one thing that most people know about Portal is the innovative gameplay. The concept is simple: point your gun at the wall and shoot and a portal appears that you can walk through. You can left-click to create a blue portal, and right-click to create an orange portal. (It doesn't matter whether you use a portal as an entrance or exit.) If you create a second blue or orange portal, your first one disappears, so you only ever have two portals at the same time. That's it. It sounds simple, and pretty dull, which is why most people are somewhat dubious about the rave reviews that it continues to receive.

Unless you're used to creating portals everywhere in real life, even the most basic kind of gameplay is pretty fun. Want to get up on a high ledge, or on the other side of a pool of toxic waste? Just create a hole in the wall where you want to be, create a hole in the wall beside you, and walk through. Even this simple act is surprisingly liberating and entertaining.

But the thing that makes using the portals really innovative (and tons of fun) is that they properly account for your momentum, so if you create a portal in the floor and jump through it, you will be propelled through the exit portal by the momentum created by your own body mass. If you happen to be on a high platform and create a portal in the floor forty feet below you and jump in, that's a lot of momentum, and it's the principal way that the puzzles are solved.

This liberating feeling, combined with the exhilaration of being flung across a room under the weight of your own momentum, accounts for a lot of the visceral pleasure of playing the game. Of course, there is a lot of pleasure to be had in solving the puzzles themselves, some of which are quite clever. This combination of intellectual and physical stimulation is rare in a game and accounts, in part, for its broad appeal.

Chell in the stasis chamber at the start of the game.
Chell in the stasis chamber at the start of the game. | Source

Brevity

Many people, both reviewers and players, complain about the length of Portal. (It takes most people 2-6 hours to beat.) Just as many players thought the opposite and approved of its brevity, arguing that it didn't need to be any longer than it was.

While I want to agree, for artistic reasons, the truth is, I think that Portal suffers a little for its length. What Portal lacks is a period of satisfying competence: by the time the player has mastered the skills he or she needs to beat the game, the game is already over. I really felt like it ended just when things were getting good. I think the almost immediate release of additional levels in various packs is a good indication that I was not the only one who felt this way.

Economy

Another thing that players notice fairly early in the game, and which some players consider a negative, is the extreme economy with which the game is designed.

There are very few elements in the game that don't explicitly serve to enhance gameplay, and the few extra elements that do exist serve to reinforce the narrative. You are only give one 'weapon' with two 'functions' (and they're both really just two sides of the same function). There are no stats, no health bars or medical kits (you die if you take too much damage too quickly, but you recover quickly), no inventory, no journal, maps, or HUD elements. There is very little non-essential clutter (furniture, junk) and few enemies. The levels are not very large, and the game itself is very short.

In spite of the absence of most of the trappings of traditional action games, most players approved of the design (though I do think something is lost in the brevity). To make a math analogy, Portal is an elegant solution to a complex problem.

Pacing

The simplicity of the design works in lockstep with the game's pacing. The first half of the game is essentially an extended tutorial, but is so well designed and paced that by the end of it, it doesn't feel like a tutorial at all but blends seamlessly into gameplay.

At the beginning of the game, the player, adopting the role of Chell, who has just been woken up from a stasis pod, is given simple instructions about an upcoming series of tests by GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), the artificial intelligence in charge of Chell's training. These instructions are supplemented by a series of well-designed wall and floor icons that serve to warn and advise the player how to proceed. Each level builds on the skills the player has acquired in previous levels.

As the player progresses through the training levels, the amount of assistance that GLaDOS provides is gradually reduced (and becomes gradually more unreliable), though the icons remain available throughout the training session. As the player approaches the end of the training segment, these icons begin to be supplemented by notes scrawled in blood. After the training is over, these notes replace the icons, serving a similar, but attenuated function until, eventually, they too become less frequent.

Portal gives the player plenty of instruction at the beginning of the game, and the initial tasks are very easy to execute; by the end of the game, however, the instructional aids have been all but eliminated and the challenges facing the player have become fairly complex. Very few games provide a comparably fine degree of control over the player's learning curve or handle it's execution so gracefully.

Portal has an exceptionally well-executed learning curve.
Portal has an exceptionally well-executed learning curve. | Source

Subtlety

In spite of the terseness of style and the minimalistic approach to level design, Portal is surprisingly subtle. There are only two characters in Portal (three if you count the author of the scrawled messages) but one of them, the protagonist, has no lines at all. While you assume the role of the hero and use your wits and reflexes to survive, the game has little, if anything to do with your own history and personality. Instead, the narrative orbits the mystery and personality of GLaDOS almost exclusively, and is handled with such dexterity and finesse that it elevated GLaDOS to the rogue's gallery of many players' all-time favorite video game villains overnight.

The use of an unreliable narrator is not a new device in fiction but Portal uses the device with great skill and sophistication: the world surrounding the player evolves in pace with his or her growing realization of GLaDOS' darker ulterior motives. As the sanitary institutional facade peels, the pristine conditions of the laboratory begin to show signs of wear and decay and eventually break down entirely. The moment that GLaDOS' true intentions are revealed, the player is catapulted from the superficial workaday world of the laboratory into it's grimy underbelly. The player's insight into GLaDOS' personality and motivations is mirrored precisely by changes in the environment, a virtuoso display of the marriage between form and function.

Portal does an excellent job of showing just enough of the narrative to suggest a deep and rich back-story without ever making the details too explicit. This holding back and refraining from the need to explain every nuance accounts for much of the intrigue. The clues are there to be found--an empty water jug, a radio on a box, an empty can of beans, all found in a crawlspace behind the wall--but they imply more than they explain; the player is never burdened with tedious expository on tapes and in written journals but is free to come up with their own interpretation based on circumstantial evidence found in the game world.

The narrative in Portal is told through circumstantial evidence, rather than expository.
The narrative in Portal is told through circumstantial evidence, rather than expository. | Source

The Companion Cube

Although the developers personified the Companion Cube in order to keep players from losing it, many players developed a real attachment to it. These players expressed genuine regret at euthanizing it.

For me, the euthanization was not only a way for the developers to instruct me in a game mechanic necessary for defeating GLaDOS, it was also a foreshadowing of the regret I would feel at the end of the game. Intentional or otherwise.

It's a subtle and sophisticated touch that lends real emotional and moral weight to the game.

Depth

Although the design is minimalistic, the gameplay concepts are fairly straightforward, and the narrative is more suggestive than intricate, Portal is a very complex game; not in the sense of hard, but deep.

Trust, authority, the amorality of the scientific process and the questionable ends to which advancement may be put, manipulation and guilt, isolation and survival all play an important part in shaping the player's experience.

Portal is not a simple game of 'defend the earth' or 'defeat the evil overlord' (though there is some of that in there as well). GLaDOS plays (or preys) upon the player's sympathies, goes through the stages of denial, anger and sorrow, tries to bargain with the player, deceive them, intimidate them, and appeal to their compassion. GLaDOS is like an ingenious but spoiled child with an arsenal of weapons at her disposal. And, ultimately, there is something bittersweet about defeating her. In spite of her deranged, unpredictable, dangerous personality, the world is somehow diminished by her absence. Few video game villains can claim to share an equal hold over our sympathies.

But these themes are not what makes Portal complex, or why I think it deserves to be called art. It's the fact that every element of the game serves the same purpose and leads toward the same end, and that end is not a simple battle of good versus evil, but of two individuals pitted in a struggle for survival against each other. It is, in short, a theme of many of the greatest works of art ever created.

Although the antagonist is a machine, and the protagonist never speaks, the drama of Portal is a peculiarly human drama. GLaDOS brings the same range and depth of emotion to the game that the player does and that gives the conflict weight and meaning. By destroying GLaDOS, you're destroying a person, however artificial and demented they may have been. And that's almost unique in this medium. For the first time ever in a video game, I killed my enemy because I had to, not because I wanted to. And I still feel bad about it.

There is a dark underbelly to Aperture Science's pristine laboratory conditions.
There is a dark underbelly to Aperture Science's pristine laboratory conditions. | Source

Portal and Art

For all of these reasons, Portal is considered a great game, a true modern classic, and a game worthy of emulation.

But it is important to understand that Portal isn't a great game just because it has innovative gameplay, or just because it has an interesting antagonist. It's a great game because it does everything that a good game should do: it innovates, engages and immerses the player, inspires complex emotions, and presents a real moral conflict. It does everything, in other words, that good art does.

And that's a good enough argument for me that, yes, games can be art.

Portal Poll (Say It Five Times Fast)

Have you played Portal yet?

  • Yes, I liked it.
  • Yes, but I didn't like it.
  • No, but I plan on playing it some day.
  • No, I have no interest in playing it.
See results without voting

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Comments 2 comments

j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 4 years ago from Waterloo, On Author

Very much belated! It's not really supposed to be a review so much as a 'why the heck was this game so popular?'. Not sure what you'd call that. More like literary criticism than a book review only for games, I guess.

I haven't actually played Portal 2, yet. I was thinking about how different games handle learning curves and got side-tracked and ended up writing about Portal.

Thanks for reading! :)


William157 profile image

William157 4 years ago from Southern California

A thorough (albeit belated) examination of Portal. I'd love to see your take on Portal 2, and why it's better or worse than the first game.

Voted up!

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