Backlog Club: Portal’s A Triumph – I’m Making A Note Here: HUGE SUCCESS

Picture: Valve

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For the good of all of us — except the ones who are dead — I am going to talk about Portal. It’s a puzzle game. It’s a 3D first-person shooter. It’s a comedy about untrustworthy robot overlords. And yes, it’s a modern classic, and yes, I hadn’t played it in full until recently. That’s what Backlog Club is for! Leave me alone!

Through cultural osmosis (read: every webcomic I read between 2007 and 2011, plus Tumblr), I picked up a lot of elements. There’s a gun that shoots holes. There’s a robot that’s part-stern-teacher, part-goth-girl-at-school-who-hates-you, part-mommy-issues, and she lies a lot, sometimes about baked goods. There’s a cube, and we love him. Right. Got it.

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This Weighted Companion Cube will accompany you through the test chamber. Please take care of it. — Picture: Valve

I’d dabbled in Portal during the tail-end of my Flash game era, but I wasn’t really into using dual analog sticks back then, since the majority of my games at the time were DS-based, so I didn’t get very far into it. I didn’t even meet the fabled Companion Cube! But now I have met him. I have loved him. And lost him. RIP Cube.

It’s hard not to love Portal. Even when its janky physics engine is catapulting things across the room because they got caught on an edge somewhere; even when you’re waiting in long loading screens for a fifteen year old game; the trademark humor and writing of Portal is what’s made it so universally beloved for so long.

No one is looking back on Portal and thinking, “oooh, that’s not aged well,” because it has. There aren’t any off-color jokes (to my knowledge), and the most violent it gets is when your body gets in the way of a turret’s bullets, and you spray blood everywhere for a generous few seconds until you can find cover. It’s fantastic proof that a game can be funny without being cruel to people, even as it is incredibly cruel to the protagonist as a science-experiment-gone-rogue.

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How would you describe the portal sound? pwap? pshoo? Bwoomp? — Picture: Valve

Obviously, the core of Portal is the portals, but it’s that writing that elevates it to something exceptional. Were it just a puzzle game about a portal gun, it might be appreciated, but probably not hailed as one of the GOAT games — after all, there are plenty of puzzle games with cool twists. But the brilliance of an omniscient, omnipotent (well, almost) sociopathic robot, the setting of a broken-down scientific research facility, and the incredible character work that voice actor Ellen McLain does with GLaDOS and all her weird personality cores all come together to make a video game cake that is so delicious and moist.

GLaDOS is unusual amongst video game characters because she’s a likeable villain. You love her up until you throw her last body part in the fire; if there weren’t a timer, I would probably spend hours hanging out with the Cake Core and the Curiosity Core. She’s passive-aggressive and sassy in the way a grandma with no filter is, and the only way you can communicate with her is through your actions. Those actions tend to involve a lot of disobedience and cube-related mischief.

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Cake and grievance counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test. — Picture: Valve

If I were to hope that developers everywhere could take away one thing from Portal, it would be this: It’s the good writing that people will remember long after a game is over. The marriage of mechanics and narrative is, in my opinion, an underrated one, and in my experience, too many games are developed with narrative as either an afterthought or a siloed department brought in to smooth over cracks.

Dialogue is cheap, as they say, but good dialogue is worth a thousand good levels. And good dialogue — as Portal proves, although that’s really technically “monologue”, isn’t it — doesn’t have to be ten billion words. In fact, it shouldn’t be. I’ve found, as a writer of both journalism words and video games, that concise writing is so much harder than long form writing. It’s actually quite easy to waffle on for a thousand words (I just have); it’s a test of skill to write 250-word reviews with all the information a reader might require.

Portal’s brief sections of writing are entirely spoken by one person/robot lady, and they’re usually just observations or instructions, yet so much personality and humor can be conveyed in such a short space of time. Mechanics make the game, it’s true — but characters make the game.

How have you been finding Portal so far? Have you played Portal 2? What are your feelings about The Companion Cube? Tell us in the comments below!

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