Into the Portal

The Orange Box

Many of my nerd friends are all excited about Portal, Valve’s brilliant reworking of Narbacular Drop. I’ve only played about five minutes of the game myself, but have had a lot of thoughts about it, so at the urging of some friends, here’s a couple of quick thoughts:

  • Talking to Jesse and Rebecca about Portal, they both described it as a “perfect short story”. That’s a fantastic compliment to the game, and a rather damning indictment of the ego of traditional game development (or the constraints of traditional game distribution), where everyone feels compelled to try to create the Great American Novel every time out. (Incidentally, Bioshock was praised as being as much of a leap over Half Life and its ilk as Half Life was over previous first-person shooters: Half Life introduced real narrative to the genre, and Bioshock demonstrated that the narrative could be truly literary.)
  • The fundamental element of Portal’s gameplay, the ability to move from disconnected parts of a level, is essentially similar to abilities that were considered bugs in early first-person shooters. Anyone who’s ever messed around with making FPS levels is familiar with clipping errors and the hall-of-mirrors effect, and there were a lot of ways in games like Doom and Quake to be able to see “through” parts of a level if it was improperly constructed. Instead of seeing this as a bug, Portal sees it as a feature.


  • Pac-Man’s side exits and Mario’s pipes are both really just portals, aren’t they? (Think of Mario Bros.-era pipes, not the 2D platfomers.)
  • It’s kind of astounding that the Portal gameplay didn’t come from Nintendo. The fundamental idea of transforming an environment and fighting enemies without having a traditional weapon seems right up their alley.
  • I can’t imagine anyone would have seen the Narbacular Drop homepage and imagined that someday this would be reimagined as a polished, professional XBox and PC game. It’s kind of the best example I’ve ever seen in the video game world of an indie band breaking out as a mainstream pop act. There’s more in this interview with the team, which features some spoilers.
  • By naming it “Weighted Companion Cube” and giving it a heart, the humble crate has been taken from being a trite, thoughless staple of first-person shooters into actually being a character. That’s subversion of convention at its finest. See also:Crate and Barrel – Not Just a Store! from earlier this year.
  • Someone’s going to make a killing finding a way to combine Portal’s gameplay with Katamari-style mechanics. Just let me know when you get that game done.
  • It’s criminal that Portal’s theme song “Still Alive” (Warning: The whole song is essentially a spoiler.) isn’t getting radio airplay. Find out all about the song on MetaFilter, check out MTV with a view of the song’s place in video game history, read Jonathan Coulter’s own words on the making of the song, and then close with this interview with Ellen McLain, the voice of GLaDOS and the singer of “Still Alive”.