Virtual ventures #9

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From their revolutionary titles to their inception of Steam, no developer is more synonymous with modern PC gaming than Valve.

They first got on the map by introducing an immersive combination of storytelling and gameplay in the first-person shooter genre with 1998’s Half-Life. I’ll still call 2004’s Half-Life 2 a masterpiece on a technical level, though I can admit the same thing about Naughty Dog’s nihilistic The Last of Us.

For my first several playthroughs of Half-Life 2, I found that its ostensibly pro-life and humanistic themes put it above other violent shooters of its kind, subverting the original Half-Life‘s climactic abortion symbolism. It wasn’t until later where I realized that such themes were there to get us angrier with the bad guys and revel in killing them for turning the world into a horrifying reality.

Thankfully, there is a much less violent side to this universe, as shown in Portal, which doesn’t seem all that related to Half-Life on the surface.

In terms of unconventional “shooters” with theme songs titled “Still Alive”, Portal ended up in a higher place in gaming culture than EA DICE’s Mirror’s Edge, and with good reason: not only was it published by the legendary Valve, released alongside the debuts of Team Fortress 2 and the final spinoff of Half-Life 2 in 2007’s The Orange Box, but it’s a heck of a better game.

Of course, whereas Mirror’s Edge is still a straight-up action game, Portal is a straight-up puzzle game (for the most part…), a short, simple, yet ingenious one. Portal was actually developed by a small indie group who pitched their idea to Valve, so Portal is essentially an indie hit in blockbuster clothing.

To save resources, the team incorporated elements of the Half-Life universe, such as by including a similar gameplay presentation and Half-Life injokes, the latter of which shouldn’t bog down the game for newcomers.

Portal has us wake up as silent human test subject Chell in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, run by its omnipotent A.I. GLaDOS. Not far into GLaDOS’s puzzles, which generally consist of us figuring out creative ways to place cubes on buttons to open the doors to the next puzzle rooms, we get to the titular mechanic: obtaining a gun that fires both a blue and an orange portal to more easily navigate said puzzles, which on first playthrough cramped my brain like Algebra problems would.

GLaDOS not only offers dark wit with her voice over, but her godlike role in Aperture turns Portal into a cautionary fable about the idolization of technology.

Such a theme is carried over into 2011’s Portal 2, a true blockbuster successor. In Portal 2, we go into the literal depths of Aperture’s past and find out the facility was messing with nature in ludicrous experiments that turned out to be both useless and self-destructive. Portal 2 is a clever expansion upon Portal, from its gameplay to its characters to its hilarious satire. However, its tone is a bit more mean-spirited, which is why I personally pick the first Portal over the second one (which I wouldn’t have said before this most recent replay).

The only significant issue I have with Portal is an incident where GLaDOS forces us to “euthanize” an inanimate “Companion Cube” by throwing it into a furnace to continue on, which, as evidence collected by “Game Theory” indicates, may be more problematic than it seems. On the other hand, the evidence for their theory that the cube contains a living human is hardly explicit, so unless one digs for said evidence, GLaDOS is just using words to twist the situation.

The game is also very short, where I’ve now gotten to the point of beating it in under two hours (if I remember correctly, my record is 70 minutes); Portal 2 has gotten to three-and-a-half hours on repeated playthroughs.

However short Portal is, it’s still a gem. For whatever reservations I have about the sequel, it too is a must-play, culminating with an unforgettable ultimate boss takedown and a surprisingly feel-good denouement. The original, though, may still be the more interesting game, with its charming simplicity and eerily mysterious atmosphere. If there’s one must-play for PC owners, it’s Portal.


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