Portal Play-by-Play

This will be at least the fourth or fifth time I’ve played Portal all the way through. I’m waiting until my clock reads exactly 8 to start, so I can have a decent idea of how long it takes me…although to be fair, this won’t be a strict time attack, since I’ll be pausing at the end of each level to make notes and comments. Sadly (pssh), I’m playing on my PS3, so I can’t take my own screenshots…though approximately 178 billion people* have played Portal, so I should be able to find screenshots for any particular instance of anything.

* - Approximation based on the population of just one planet in the section of the galaxy ruled by Xenu

Well, 8:00 is almost here, so I’ll have to return to this later.

Level 00 – Start time: 8:00PM

Commentary: ON

The game starts you out, as the commentary remarks, in a visually unique room as a way of demonstrating how portals work. The only way to leave the room is through a portal which appears, and the portals are positioned in a way to guarantee that the player can see themselves/Chell. It’s also, thus, positioned in a way that you can see where you were and where you are going. The commentary remarks that some players thought Portals put you in another dimension, or into some sort of ‘Portal Space’, rather than simply putting  you out on the other side of the portal.

The commentary points out the observation windows. Having played the game before, I know that there is no one behind them, but they are placed rather conspicuously, with just enough detail visible to make out tables and chairs, desks, computers, etc. First-time players will likely never notice that there are no people behind the windows; I certainly didn’t. Now, of course, the emptiness of the observation rooms is glaringly obvious, and disconcerting.

The test chambers have a hint of grime and dirt to them, which a player might not notice if they’re not looking for it (despite the fact that everything has a very antiseptic look to it, with everything being in clean whites and grays).

Notice, for instance, the rust(?) stains beneath the tube feeding into the bed in the Relaxation Vault, and the scuff marks along the side.

This is our first introduction to GLaDOS, as well, who really doesn’t give you much direction in this area, mostly just exposition. There are several commentary bubbles here, if you play with commentary on, which remark on things such as demonstrating immediately how portals work by forcing you into one, as well as leaving an ‘audio cue’ in the form of the radio, showing you that you have, indeed, been placed exactly outside the room you were just in. The commentary also references Narbacular Drop, and how they took the player feedback from that project and used it to refine Portal. Remarks are also made about how the entire game is basically one long tutorial. Sort of puts the ridiculously long tutorials of many new games into perspective; the tutorial for FFXIII may have been, like, 20 hours long, but at least it wasn’t the entire game.

ATB Tutorial TL;DR Version: Mash X.

Level 01 – Start Time: 8:27 PM

Commentary: ON

As we saw when this level was played in class, a lot of first-time players have difficulty figuring out where they’re supposed to go for this level. They had a tough time with the timing, as well as figuring out what, exactly they were supposed to do. The commentary remarks that this room can be solved with no fewer than 5 portal movements, so it requires a solid understanding of the game mechanics in order to proceed. I was able to get in and out very quickly, but it was designed so that stumbling around aimlessly would lead you to dead ends. The level is trying to get you to understand that a firm idea of your destination is necessary to proceed in the game. This room also makes use of frosted glass, teasing you by showing the rooms you need to reach are right next to you, and if only you could use the cube to break the glass, then you could waltz right through. The game has not yet introduced the mechanic of ‘portals can’t be placed on glass’, though.

Fun fact: when you play this level with the commentary on, the length of time the first commentary bubble takes to play is the exact length of time necessary for the portal leading to the Cube Room to pop up.

Level 02 – Start Time: 8:35 PM

Commentary: ON

The Portal Gun is now in my possession. This is the first level in which GLaDOS starts to seem less than benevolent (though still, at this point, relatively benign). She remarks on the Material Emancipation Grid removing teeth, and informs you of how dangerous the Portal Gun is (though she assures you the portals themselves are safe, a mechanic taught in the first chamber).

Commentary reveals that early players would miss the fact that the Portal Gun was even there, and so a mandatory waiting period behind glass was introduced, to allow players to see what was making the portals all this time. The fact that there are big arrows on the floor pointing to it is a good hint, as well. They also added some really loud audio cues to indicate something was there, and made big, flashy particle effects. Interesting to me, by the way, was the fact that our first-time players were afraid of the Portal Gun particle effects; whenever they saw a portal being fired in their direction, they ran. Granted, the Energy Beads would kill you, but the penalty for touching the beads (instant death) carried over to any shiny thing flying through the air. Our new players thought that the portal particle effect would harm them as well.

Level 03 – Start Time: 8:43 PM

Commentary: ON

The commentary reveals that this level was designed to demonstrate that Portals are bi-directional; you are forced to go in and out through both colors of portals, showing that there is no ‘in’ or ‘out’ portal. Just like how there are no ‘up’ or ‘down’ stairs.

And these stairs don't go anywhere.

The commentary also remarks on how the ‘fizzlers’ (Emancipation Grids) are used to keep people from portalling across level loads, and how the idea was used in later levels, much to the frustration of players everywhere.

This is also one of the first levels in which you can remove all of the cameras. Doing so can earn you an achievement in the Xbox and PC versions. (Shockingly, the Orange Box doesn’t have any Trophies for the PS3 version. Not shockingly, this is touted as a disadvantage regarding the PS3 version next to other versions.)

Level 04 – Start Time: 8:52 PM

Commentary: ON

In this chamber, curious players can find that it is not possible to press buttons with the weight of the observation cameras you knocked off of the wall with your portal gun. You have to use something at least as heavy as Chell, i.e. Chell herself, or a cube.

The commentary explained how early test floors were designed to have only one solution, in order to properly demonstrate the mechanics being taught. This required redesigns of early levels, since many of their play testers were remarkably practical. In this level, they had to add barriers to keep people from just portalling across the level without actually using the button/cube mechanic.

The glass barrier between the button and the exit was not originally there. This level is the first to use 'You can't put a portal on glass' as a rule.

As a consequence, this room also introduced the ‘non-portal-able’ surface of the ‘black wall’.

Chamber 05 – Start Time: 9:07 PM

Commentary: ON

This floor really demonstrates the idea that the chambers are modular, as pointed out in the commentary. It shows that raised platforms are sometimes raised by hydraulic lifts, and gives the impression that the area beneath the test chambers is somehow heated (warm red-orange glow from under the grates). I also had fun removing the cameras here, which prompted dialogue from GLaDOS, despite the fact that she wasn’t supposed to talk to you in this room.

The commentary also remarks that the early floor layouts involved more clutter, like in Half-Life 2, which was distracting. They eliminated the clutter from the main testing floors, which really served to delineate the early floors from the final test. (This idea of cluttered floors also seems to be coming back in Portal 2, which makes sense in several contexts.)

Level 06 – Start Time: 9:15 PM

Commentary: ON

On this floor, players meet the High-Energy Pellet, and learn that it is rather uncaring for human life. The walls of this room are made entirely of ‘black wall’, and cannot be portalled on. The only surface which will hold a portal is the floor and the ceiling. This is also one of the first rooms where death is easy; in past rooms, if the player could somehow maneuver their way underneath a cube drop spot, they could be killed, but the cubes were often dropped before players could even reach the delivery chutes. Here, however, there is a moving energy pellet that can kill you.

Level 07 – Start Time: 9:23 PM

Commentary: ON

The rooms are starting to feature more ambient sound and music, such as mechanical noises, and sounds associated specifically with the energy pellet. Observant players will even note that there is a visual change in the energy pellet as it grows closer and closer to its own evaporation; it grows dimmer and dimmer before popping out of existence. While standing on the moving platform, players can hear a lot of mechanical ‘whooshing’ coming from the open vents underneath the light track, and can see gently swaying cords and pipes.

This floor introduces the moving platform, as well, and the commentary describes the difficulty in implementing an appropriate track. Originally, the track was a physical rail, and players would run across it to the end rather than actually playing the floor out. The programmers then introduced death as a penalty for touching the rail, which proved to be too frustrating for players (since now, a miscalculation in timing your drop onto a platform would kill you). The programmers finally settled on this harmless laser beam. Audio cues become more important here, to help the player time their drops onto the platform; even though touching the rail no longer results in death, it still results in ‘missing the platform’, which is still a little frustrating.

As I moved between floors, I noticed that all the elevator doors had the same faded rust stains, seeming to imply that it’s the same elevator over and over again…or, perhaps, that all of the floors are just the same two floors, redesigned by GLaDOS over and over again. (We later find that isn’t the case, but it certainly appears to be possible.)

Floor 08 – Start Time: 9:36 PM

Commentary: ON

This playthrough is the first time I noticed that there are subtle indicator tiles on the ceiling to help you position portals for dropping onto platforms.

This is also the first floor to introduce the grody water. The subtle musical cues are still there, but now there is a gross bubbling underneath it from the floor. Ick.

Commentary reveals that this was originally the first floor with the energy pellets, which resulted in too many new mechanics at once (water, energy pellets, and moving platforms), as well as too difficult a puzzle for two brand-new (and deadly) mechanics; essentially, when this room was the first energy-pellet room, it was teaching ‘basically, anything new will kill you’ and ‘all of the floors from here on out will be ridiculously challenging puzzles’. Instead, they added the two prior floors to introduce the pellets, then pellets and their relationship to platforms, and then finally water.

As our first-time players showed us, this redirection puzzle is actually fairly difficult. Our players had a compulsion to go through every portal they made, it seemed, heedless of the dangers ahead. They saw an orange portal, and even though there was an energy pellet flying right in front of it, they felt they had to go through it immediately.

Fun Fact: I ended up glitching  the game here by activating the commentary bubble, then walking through a portal immediately above it. Creating the portal above the bubble resulted in a little semi-transparent box appearing next to my blue portal, which caused me to ‘catch’ on my downward fall by about a fifth of a second. Ironically, the commentary bubble was discussing the mechanics of ‘collision’ involving portals, or, how the game renders the player’s ability to go through portals and how the portals affect objects on the other side. (An earlier commentary bubble explained that originally, it took 500 milliseconds for the portals to appear, because the game had to re-render the room on the other side, which resulted in a noticeable lag in gameplay. The programmers instead created things such as a limited fixed camera inside the portals, which only showed a limited field of view for the image of the portal itself, and created a ‘bubble’ of temporary altered physics to allow for objects such as cubes to pass through portals without the 500 millisecond delay.)

Floor 09 – Start Time: 9:51 PM

Commentary ON

This is the ‘impossible’ room. I hung out here for a while to hear all of GLaDOS’s lines. She offered me immediate cake if I quit right now. I also discovered that you cannot see your own reflection in the hydraulic elements of the rooms. Our first-time players in class had a lot of difficulty in figuring this room out, and I remember having difficulty with it as well. The fizzler grid proved to be a challenge for new players in general, who kept trying to carry things through the grid. Granted, they had never tried carrying anything through a grid before (i.e. the radio from the relaxation vault, a cube, a camera, etc.) so they had no reason to think they couldn’t carry a cube through (I don’t think they quite caught it when GLaDOS explained that you couldn’t carry things through the grid).

I’m fairly certain this room is the one which you replay during the final area, as a demonstration of how much easier the game has become now that you have mastery over not only both portals, but all of the game mechanics.

The commentary here points out that the visual design of the game involves ‘sharp’ vs. ‘curved’; ‘sharp’ objects and shapes denote background areas, while ‘curved’ objects and shapes denote things the player can interact with (i.e. buttons, doors, elevators the faces of the cubes even have circles on them). This was not something I had ever actively noticed and connected (‘Hey, the doors and buttons are all round–that must mean that ’round things = interactivity’!).

Floor 10 – Start Time: 10:04 PM

Commentary: ON

This floor introduces the ‘fling’ maneuver, and, as the commentary describes, they had to explicitly state what the object for this room was, which they don’t do for any other rooms. The commentary for the game also pointed out something that I hadn’t noticed before while playing–checkerboard patterns on the floor indicates that the player is supposed to place a portal there for flinging purposes.

so I herd u leik figurin out wher 2 pur ur portalz by trial and errur

Floor 11 – Start Time: I forget

Commentary: ON

So, yeah, this was the floor where you get the ability to fire orange portals, as well. The key phrase for this level is ‘hurry up and wait’. You have to wait for the orange portal to appear where you need it before you can carry out your next steps. However, there are many timed elements, such as the buttons on pedestals. The ticking clock sound cue informs you that you’d better haul ass, but the fact that the floor is made of death encourages you to move slowly.

The commentary also remarked that the design of this floor was meant to keep the orange portal gun in view at all times, thus the large amount of glass in this floor. This is a floor where checking the ‘content labels’ on the floor number panel becomes very useful; it indicates, for example, that there is an energy pellet flying around somewhere and the floor is made of water, so you’d better be careful. Apparently, many a tester ran headlong through the portals in this level to their doom by not checking where they were going. Aah, life lessons, portal-style.

"For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it."

Floor 12 – Start Time: 10:31 PM

Commentary: ON

This floor is essentially an exercise in reminding the player of how to fling. It also introduces putting portals on angled surfaces to direct your flinging. Something else interesting about this floor is that in order to solve it, you have to go back a few steps after reaching a certain point in order to proceed. You can also solve this floor by placing one portal only once, and simply adjusting the location of the other one when necessary. (This level demonstrates the fact that portals cannot be placed on moving objects, and that portals placed on previously stationary targets disappear when the object begins to move.)

Floor 13 – Start Time: 12:00 AM

Commentary: ON

Took a long break to nab some noms. After the dinner of champions (Easy Mac, grape soda and Ben & Jerry’s) and some time monitoring eBay to unwind, I sat down to continue.

This is the floor that inspired a thousand crushed dreams. It was the inspiration for the challenge levels of Portal, which my neighbor insists you must complete in order to actually ‘beat’ Portal. In the in-game iteration, a lot of the game’s mechanics are included, with the exception of flinging and water floors. The challenge level for this room includes water floors, and I believe it removes a cube or some other silliness. Having played this floor before, the solution is quite obvious to me, but I can remember it being difficult on my first playthrough–I kept looking for a third cube, rather than going back to retrieve the first one. I had been trained through prior levels that I couldn’t easily go back, due to not having control of both portals.

This room’s commentary explains that the game’s programming checks to see if players have somehow managed to destroy or otherwise remove a cube from play, and then gives you another one via the Cube Delivery Chutes.

Floor 14 – Start Time: 12:14 AM

Commentary: ON

As the commentary reveals, this floor has a secret ‘ninja solution’, in which the player takes the idea used to solve the first element of the puzzle, and simply applies it to solving the end of the puzzle instead, bypassing about 3/4ths of the test. Rather than fixing the chamber to prevent this (as the did in the challenge level version), they let the ninja solution stand.

The commentary also points out how they designed the squares on the ‘black wall’ to direct the player’s attention upward, a classic problem in video games. They put as much lighting emphasis as humanly possible on the cube, by putting a skylight above it, the observation window across from it, and by aiming the player’s eye upward via both the ‘black wall’ blocking and by having the pellet receiver in the same room (which casts its own light up onto the ceiling, which gets players look up in the first place). The cube is also a much lighter color than the black wall around it, making it stand out in its environment.


Floor 15 – Start Time: 12:32 AM

Commentary: ON

This is probably the first really hard level, because it is the first to incorporate all of the game mechanics introduced up until this point, while also introducing the Double Fling maneuver. Flinging, fizzler barriers, energy pellets, moving platforms and water floors all make an appearance here. I died at least twice on this level (with one additional death due to some weird glitch where I stopped moving while the platform kept going–I don’t even know). The game has reached the point where the designers stopped including visual hints and cues for every action you can take, and instead have begun to encourage the player to start carving their own paths. Immediately after introducing the double fling, they place you in a room where you must double fling to escape, without including the visual cues for double flinging. As they said in the commentary, this is very important for the end game.

The most frustrating part of this level is having to place a portal while falling, especially since the visual cue they give you (the checkerboard ‘landing pad’) is placed slightly off from where you actually land. If you place your second portal on the checkerboard section, then you will come out from the ceiling, hit the ground, and skid into the second portal on forward momentum; when you come out again, you will fall considerably short of your target, and you get to start over from the stairwell. The key is in the fact that you have to start placing portals where you want them to go, and just because the game suggests one solution doesn’t mean you can’t try to find your own.

Floor 16 – Start Time 12:54 AM

Commentary: ON

"The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that android hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance."

Ah, the turret level. The new mechanic introduced on this level is something that is actively trying to kill you, unlike the energy pellets and the water floors from before, where death was due to your own negligence.  The commentary describes how they wanted a turret different from the turrets in Half-Life (which are basically just machine guns on tripods). Once they had the design for the turret mapped out, they realized it was a sort of cute robot, and in the words of the commentary, ‘a robot isn’t truly cute unless it talks’, so the Portal Turrets have adorable voices and innocent, passive-aggressive lines.

This VG Cats comic pretty much sums it up.

The floor itself is very straightforward; no flinging, no energy pellets, no water floors, just a lot of turrets shooting at you. This level introduces the idea that you can use cubes as shields, though, which is about to become very, very useful. The floor tends to be rather dark, making the red laser eyes of the turrets stand out.

This is also the first floor where we see signs of the Rat Man, one of the previous test subjects. This is the first time we are able to get behind the walls of the Enrichment Center, and lets us see into the belly of the beast, as it were. The player gets to see rusty machinery and dirty, grimy walls, as well as the disturbing messages left by previous occupants.

The Rat Man Den

However, from here on out, the astute player will find that the Rat Man has left clues to future puzzles, which also become very handy.

The player can also find another radio in a room full of cubes. There’s also a coffee cup and a wrench. On one playthrough, I managed to break the coffee cup. Though it does lead one to wonder, what on earth was someone doing with a coffee cup and a radio in floor 16?

Floor 17 – Start Time: 2:04 AM

Commentary: ON

Okay, it took me a really long time to find that screenshot of Data coming out of the pool of plasma coolant, so that’s why it took me an hour to move from level 16 to level 17.

This is probably the most famous level of the game, the level featuring the Companion Cube. It is surprising, how popular the Cube became, considering it only makes one appearance throughout the entire game. I think what really made the Cube so popular, though, is how important the game made it. The only thing GLaDOS talks about through the entire floor is your Cube, and reiterating the fact that it cannot speak, and thus, will never threaten to stab you. It’s somewhat akin to the urban legend about SS officers being given a puppy to raise, then having to kill it, or like having to murder Aerith yourself.

lol spoiler alert

Floor17 really cements how amoral GLaDOS is. If you make it to the end, but just sit instead of actually going through with destroying your cube, she will continue to instruct you to destroy it, and no matter how long you wait, she congratulates you on destroying your cube in ‘record time’.

Floor 18 – Start Time: 2:45 AM

Commentary: ON

I keep getting distracted. I’ll probably leave off here for tonight, and write up my run of floor 19 and onward tomorrow morning.

Floor 18 is one large flinging puzzle, with a nice break in the action provided by a room full of turrets. The only room where I ever die on Floor 18 is in the turret room, and this playthrough is no exception. I died twice, and neither time was due to turrets. I think the primary purpose of this room is to build up anticipation for how difficult Floor 19 must be.

The majority of Floor 18 is made up of black walls with water floors, which makes the walls and floors where portals will stick stand out strongly. There is also a Rat Man Den in this floor, containing a radio (though it is turned off), and a commentary bubble from Ellen McLane, the voice of GLaDOS, talking about how the voice direction she received for the game was wonderful, and lamenting how rare it is that she gets a line that is supposed to be ‘explosively vehement’.

Level 19 – Start Time: 4:16 PM

Commentary ON

Got all the way to the turret room before I got super distracted by my weekly webshow at 4:30.

Level 19, Turret Room – Start Time: 5:56 PM

Commentary ON

Finished up at about 6:15, so I get to jabber now.

It’s been a long time since my first playthrough of this game, but I know I struggled for at least twice this long when I first played Level 19 and beyond. I also had lots of trouble with the final battle with GLaDOS; I kept placing the turret redirect portals on the wall at GLaDOS’s level. It wasn’t until watching a new player attempt it that I discovered an easier way involving placing the portal on the floor beneath GLaDOS.

The player gets the chance to go inside the observation rooms, as well as the chance to replay floor 11, which becomes much simpler when the player has both portals available to them. As the commentary remarked, it was a way of showing the player ‘running amok’ through the facility.

As I’m playing the Orange Box version, I didn’t get to see the updated ending that our associates playing on Steam got to see:


But that’s okay, because I have the internet. As such, I also got to look up the third-person version of the new ending–the one where Chell is shown as a gray box instead of a person. I also got drawn into a YouTube comment fight with idiots who were saying that if there was a robot there to escort you after you assumed the party escort submission position, then that means that GLaDOS really wasn’t trying to kill you, and there really was a party, and that Chell is a monster for killing GLaDOS (who was, y’know, flooding the Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin for funsies). In the end, they were just trying to justify liking GLaDOS, despite the fact that she’s evil. I don’t have this problem. I like evil characters for being evil, not because I invented some twisted solution to my moral dilemma by making the bad guy good and the good guy bad (even though to most villains, that is how the story actually plays out–the villain is the hero of his own story, after all).

Whew, hopefully this will be enough ‘research’ to build my commentary on.


    • Sadako
    • March 25th, 2011

    Well, it was one way to make my playthough different from every other playthrough I’ve done. lol

    • bboessen
    • March 14th, 2011

    I really like this idea of level-by-level notes, especially for a game as nuanced as Portal. I may have to steal it for a future version of this assignment. I’ll be sure to give you credit, though. ;)

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