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Memory Leaks: Portal

📻This Was a Triumph...

Portal was one of five titles included in Valve's The Orange Box collection alongside Team Fortress 2Half-Life 2, and the somewhat confusingly named Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and Half-Life 2: Episode 2. The Half-Life content was the real draw, as people in 2007 still believed that series would be completed some day. Team Fortress 2 was a re-imagined sequel to a Quake mod that, while niche, at least had a community behind it. But Portal was the real outlier, a short puzzle-platformer technically set in the Half-Life universe but disconnected from the events of that series. Nobody saw it coming, and it soon became the reason to buy The Orange Box.

How I Remember It...

There are the games that define your childhood and then there are the games that define your adulthood. I never really got into Half-Life, but I had friends who did and discovered Portal that way. My first exposure to the game at all was hearing the iconic closing credits song Still Alive in my friend Theo's truck. (This was also my first exposure to Jonathan Coulton, but that's a story for another time.) I actually learned the story and heard all the spoilers before ever sitting down to play it, and honestly that was the draw that got me to buy it. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I really wanted to see how it would play out.

Story-wise, Portal is a great example of a premise-plus-complication plot. The premise is that you're a test subject in a scientific facility going through a series of tests involving a portal gun. The complication is that GLaDOS, the AI running these tests, is a homicidal maniac. There's not much more to it than that. As you go through the tests, GLaDOS seems at first indifferent to you--giving you compliments but referring to you as "subject name here"--and then surreptitiously hostile, and finally openly hostile, promising you cake but trying to drop you in a fire pit. At that point, you're running around behind the walls, discovering what happened to the apparently vacant facility.

Like most games that revolve around a central mechanical gimmick, Portal is really a series of tutorials walking you through different ways to use your portal gun, all of which will be used in concert when you arrive at the game's final act. The otherwise sterile lab environment is offset a bit by small incongruities and GLaDOS's pitch-black sense of humor, all of them hinting that something might be horribly wrong until the big reveal comes at the end of the final testing chamber. In 2007, Valve had some of the best game writers in the business, and it shows. Story emerges through gameplay rather than cut scenes. The dialog that clues you in to GLaDOS's state of mind never interrupts the levels. In fact, this is a game where I'd recommend going through the commentary nodes, because you can learn a lot about level design and player UX. And of course, there's Still Alive, the Jonathan Coulton-penned pop ditty that GLaDOS sings over the closing credits. It's really the game in microcosm: charming, boppy, bright, hilarious, and unexpectedly demented.

My first playthrough took about three hours, and I think I did it in mostly one sitting. Once you know the solutions to the puzzles, it goes much faster. I've played it many times since, and it consistently takes me about forty-five minutes. You wouldn't think a puzzle game would be that replayable, but it's such a compelling world that you can't really help but want to revisit it every few years. There was a sequel released in 2011 that is a much bigger game--a full 10 to 12 hours of story plus a two-player co-op campaign mode. It's not better than the original, but it's a worthy successor.

Portal is widely available. It's probably best played on PC and is usually cheap--and occasionally free--on Steam.

In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.


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