Portal is most easily the masterpiece among the contents of the Orange Box. Granted, I haven’t even played through Episode 2. Or Episode 1, for that matter. But that’s not the point. I just finished Portal, and I can’t imagine anything else in the Orange Box providing more of a memorable experience than that quirky little game. If you have not played (or finished) Portal yet, STOP READING THIS AND PLAY IT. There may be spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
About two-thirds of the game is spent traversing the 19 meticulously prepared chambers in traditional, linear puzzle-game fashion. By “traditional”, I do not, in any way, mean to imply that the puzzle mechanics aren’t novel. Quite the contrary – you’ll find yourself looking at every room with a tilted head and a squinty eye. I was on the verge of vomiting by the time I reached the final chamber – but then again, Half-Life 2 had the same nauseating effect on me.
“Incredible. You, [subject name here], must be the pride of [subject hometown here].”
But while the mind-bending portal mechanics seemed to be the focus of every Portal preview in existence, I think one extremely important merit was overlooked – the humor! Portal was genuinely hilarious, witty – even satirical, if I may go so far. Hear me out. The research AI – which goes by the name of GLaDOS – is funny because of its ridiculously base assumptions about human intellect and motivation.
“The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it… Frankly, this chamber was a mistake. If we were you, we would quit now… No one will blame you for giving up. In fact, quitting at this point is a perfectly reasonable response… Quit now and cake will be served immediately.”
“Fantastic. You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.”
And then there’s this elusive cake – the simple treat proffered to you as the reward for your mechanic diligence in completing the trials. The AI operates under this hilarious premise that you, the player, are a twit – a naive child – one swayed all too easily by the promise of a tasty treat. And you play along. You traverse GLaDOS’s little obstacle course. But along the way, you stumble upon areas “behind the scenes” – rusted metal walls, broken stairs, and locked doors – a very real element behind the white-washed high-tech chambers. Scrawled on these hidden walls are pleas for help and an obvious revelation – “the cake is a lie”. C’mon… did you ever think the cake was really what awaited you at the end of your journey? In a turn of events, the last third of the game is spent exploring the areas that lie just out of sight – beyond the chamber walls and behind the facade of GLaDOS’s controlled environment – hunting down the entity that would mistakenly seek to exploit you.
Coincidentally, the Orange Box was released very shortly after N’Gai Croal’s series on videogame infantilization. The theme of Portal resonates with this contemporary issue – how the mainstream media treats videogames like a childish distraction, basing this idea on the assumption that gamers have little to no mind of their own. This same assumption often leads the media to agree with Jack Thompson’s conclusion that games single-handedly turn people into killers. This “mindless gamer” philosophy could even extend to the industrialization of the medium – how publishers base contemporary videogame design on tried and true formulas, ignoring the very real fact that players are looking for new and creative experiences. The members of the gaming community are just seen as children, easily led by a leash of simple pleasures and soulless praise. It comes as no surprise, then, when you, the protagonist in Portal, find a way to rebel – to break away from GlaDOS’s assembly-line mentality and stick it to the man… or woman… or… thing. Portal is a clear tribute to player ingenuity and an allegory for the gamer’s struggle to be treated as more than an automaton – in both the mainstream media and the mainstream design philosophy. While Portal was, on the surface, already a game about looking at situations differently, that theme continues to pervade the game in more subtle ways throughout the presentation and the narrative. From the very beginning, when you first look into the portal and see yourself – an adult female – the game is already making such a statement about the ridiculousness of assumptions.
After all, making assumptions is a piece of cake – a cake fed to the public by the mass media – a cake that publishers enjoy at the gamer’s expense. It’s the cake you glimpse after your escape from the Aperture Science facility – the cake you see but never taste. It is a cake built upon the belief that you would blindly do as commanded for an insignificant reward that purports to satisfy and make the rat maze worth it. Yes, that cake is real – and the cake is a lie.