Do you remember what your existence on planet Earth was like before Portal? Does it even matter to you anymore?
No? Let me rephrase: do you remember the release of The Orange Box, back in October of 2007? It was a compilation of Valve software that bundled the first two instalments of Half-Life 2 with a brand new episode and Team Fortress 2. Oh, and there was some weird little puzzle game packed in to bring the game count up to a nice, neat five. Cool.
No fanfare, no expectations. That very same element of surprise is the core of Portal’s style and humour.
You awaken in a chilly little glass cell to the uplifting notes of a catchy little number on the radio. Moments later, a speaker clicks to life and a deadpan voice issues forth, welcoming you to Aperture Science’s Enrichment Center. This is the AI named GLaDOS, and she’ll be your guide to the testing process. Welcome to Portal.
The world of Portal unravels slowly and carefully, never giving away too much at once. It’s a lot to take in, after all, what with your newfound power to cross large distances in the blink of an eye and pull off all kinds of stunts that spit in the face of modern physics.
Your exploration of the early test chambers is punctuated with advice and encouragement from GLaDOS—along with the occasional sarcastic quip or subtly condescending remark that slips through. Charming quirks of her programming? You chuckle, and go back to wrapping your head around the possibilities of these crazy puzzle mechanics.
But just when you’re settling into the routine and feeling pretty satisfied with your ability to blow through yet another test chamber, you stumble upon a hole in the wall and discover the crazed messages and warnings of a fellow test subject who has come here before you. Welcome! The real Portal starts here.
It is perhaps the happiest marriage of sinister puzzle mechanics and black humour ever seen in our fine industry. The deathtrap count quickly ramps up with each new chamber, and GLaDOS’s commentary and backhanded threats feel less and less like the harmless barbs they were before. The solutions for many of the test chambers themselves become part of the comedy routine, as I’m sure anyone who formed a close bond with inanimate objects during the course of the game can attest.
This build-up culminates in a breathless moment that shows GLaDOS for the kind of maniac she really is, followed by an escape from the metaphorical rat maze and a showdown with the mastermind herself where all bets (and niceties) are off.
Portal is a one-two tango of gameplay and humour from start to finish, each working in tandem for a slow and steady build of discovery, eureka moments, tension, and laughs.
Nearly four years passed, and the Internet would never be the same. Cakes became synonymous with lies, human-object relationships were discussed in meticulous detail, and the world of Portal was spreading across the gaming industry, the Internet, and beyond.
Memes live and die, they wax and they wane. They’re plastered on forums and image boards until everybody becomes profoundly sick of them, and then they’re posted some more. A game's entire legacy can be built around its memes: just ask Zero Wing.
It follows that word of a Portal sequel was followed by great expectations, excitement, and fears. Portal 2 couldn’t count on cakes, cubes, and surprising shifts in tone to bring it the same critical accolades as its predecessor. Could lightning strike twice?
The original game led players from the white-washed test chambers of the Aperture Enrichment Centre to the black, churning guts of the pistons and assembly lines that sit behind the scenes. In Portal 2, this fundamental structure of turning the facility inside-out was taken to new heights.
In fact, a case could be made for the Aperture Science facility being Portal 2's main character. The humour and progression of the game is built around your interactions with the future, past and present of Aperture Science and the brilliant characters who help and hinder you—old and new faces alike.
Decades have passed since the events of the original Portal, and Aperture Science is crumbling, neglected, and overgrown. Nature has been doing her best to reclaim the dead facility, but it isn’t long before an old friend awakens and switches the power back on.
She hasn't forgotten, you know.
Participating in the rebirth of the facility is your first taste of the brand of comedy that Portal 2 contributes to the games' mythos. The many malfunctioning components of Aperture Science buzz and click frantically as they attempt to untangle and unwind themselves, hastily hiding debris and ducking out of sight as if they’re embarrassed to be seen in such a state.
Even GLaDOS’s demeanour has shifted. She splits her time between repair duties and employing a quiet, frigid, condescending tone that makes you feel like you’re the number one murderous jerk around these parts. You broke all this, you disobedient monster. You did.
The second leg of your journey has you on a tour of Aperture Science's past. In the vast caverns below the facility are the remains of old test chambers from the company's earliest days, decaying on the outside yet bursting inside with garish 50’s sci-fi trappings, gee-whiz gadgetry, and–of course–even more experiements of questionable academic and ethical value.
This new side of Aperture Science is complemented wonderfully by commentary from the bombastic Cave Johnson, founder and former CEO of the company and a true visionary; when you meet his character, all of the madness the Portal universe has thrown at you to this point will finally begin to make perfect sense.
The final stretch of the game shows what happens when the facility finds itself under the management of an inept caretaker. If Portal showed us the guts of the facility, Portal 2 shows us the rest–as you attempt to save Aperture (and yourself) from certain destruction, you almost feel a twinge of pity as the test chambers are plucked apart, smashed together, abused and misused in every way possible.
Whatever the differences between the two games’ approaches to storytelling, the series as a whole functions as a proof of concept for interactive comedies. You’re watching and laughing with the jokes and characters, but you also experience the genuine feeling that you're the one breaking the rules, disobeying those who would control your actions, and forcing the world around you to bow to your needs. Your ingenuity, imagination, and portal gun are the real stars of this show.
If it is nothing else, the Portal series is proof that linear video games don't have to mean limited, by-the-numbers experiences. When games are confident enough in the worlds and stories they’ve built to allow the ingenuity of their players to fill in the gaps, beautiful and hilarious things happen.