Portal Analysis

Portal is a good game, pure and simple.

To summarize why Portal is such a good game, I think I would only need the word ‘simplicity’. However, that would be an entirely misleading way to describe the game, despite being true. After all, Pac-Man could be summed up by the word ‘simplicity’ as well, but comparing the simplicity between those two games would be akin to comparing the simplicity of the rules of tag to the rules of chess.


Tag: Five minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.

Visually, Portal has a very simple aesthetic design, with a color pallet of grays for the background, designed to make important objects, such as trigger buttons and your brightly colored portals stand out very clearly. Also of note in the aesthetics of the game is the contrast between ‘sharp’ edges and ‘curved’ edges; objects that the player is meant to interact with, such as doors and buttons, are round or have round features or designs (i.e. Cubes have circular panels on each side, and moving platforms have circles on them as well), whereas stationary objects and background objects such as wall panels are squared off.

A standard level design, demonstrating the muted background color pallet contrasted with the brightly colored interactive objects. Also note the fact that interactive objects are round in shape.

The test chambers themselves are also uncluttered and clean, delineating the break after Level 19 between actual test chambers and the innards of the Enrichment Center very clearly. The ‘back rooms’ of the Center are rusty and grimy and cluttered with things like broken turrets, work benches, overturned desks and computers, and stashes of canned beans. (Not to mention the visual cues of graffiti left by previous test subjects behind the walls of the test chambers.

Though Portal makes use of simple aesthetic design, it manages to pack a great amount of minute detail into every wall panel and floor tile. The wall tiles are not simply blank stretches of gray, each one has character. Scuffs and marks abound on each object on every floor, indicating a lifetime of use. And once players make their way behind the walls, they find huge amounts of detail in rusty pipes, swaying wires and broken staircases. Though simple, the visual design of Portal is rich.

Musically, Portal is very simple as well. There are very few musical cues throughout the game, usually marking important events in the game. For instance, a subtle musical cue plays when the player obtains the portal gun, when the player obtains the orange portal upgrade to the portal gun, and when the player is descending into the incinerator at the ‘end’ of Floor 19.

Notice the lack of background music until 2:20 in the video,
when background music begins, signalling an important game event.

The lack of background music throughout contributes to the feeling of the game taking place in a laboratory, where unnecessary outside stimuli could have an effect on the test subjects. (I remember, for instance undergoing a test in Diff A&P back in high school, where we were monitoring changes in heart rate while people breathed in and out of paper sacks. One student turned on the radio that was normally on during lab days, only to earn sharp reproach from the teacher, who informed us that music affects heart rate–as if being yelled at by a teacher doesn’t.) The lack of background music also has a practical gameplay application; the overall silence of the soundtrack means that things such as important audio cues (often contained in the ambient noise of a level) don’t get lost in the background music. Many objects in Portal have specific, but subtle audio cues. The sounds of the Energy Pellets, for instance, are unique, and can be heard from the other side of the map, but the sound of a distant pellet could be easily drowned out by even a quiet ambient soundtrack. Other cues, such as the lines spouted by the gun turrets, hint at whether or not you are currently in the line of sight of a turret (a very important thing to know), and the vibrating hum of the moving platforms can help players judge when to jump while they keep their eyes on other parts of the room. As Salen and Zimmerman would say, the lack of background music actually helps make play meaningful by presenting all sorts of auditory cues which would be drowned out by ordinary musical filler.

In fact, there is only really one song in Portal, the ever famous Jonathan Coulton track, Still Alive.

Including a copy of Still Alive should have been a requirement for our analysis.

Story-wise, Portal is also very simple on the surface. The player character’s name isn’t even revealed in the course of the game, and only one character ever speaks. The object is also very simple, with GLaDOS explaining to you that you are supposed to get to the elevator at the end of every level. The objective for the entire game is essentially ‘get out’. However, though the story is simple, GLaDOS’s interaction with the player goes through many iterations. In the beginning, she is a somewhat helpful, if generally benign overseer, who gives you helpful safety tips (“Do not look directly into the operational end of the device…”). As the levels progress, though, she becomes less benign and slowly more malignant. The first real demonstration of this is in her ability to outright lie, a trait not commonly associated with computers, and one which any fan of sci-fi should be nervous about. The next worrying step is her adding water floors and informing you that the consequence for your failure would be death. Her disregard for human life becomes more and more apparent as she sends you into a live fire course, attempts to incinerate you, and ultimately begins pumping a deadly neurotoxin into the Enrichment Center in an attempt to kill you.

GLaDOS’s lines are also amusing to listen to, and are very cleverly written. GLaDOS slowly goes from being a very mechanical-type voice to being a very human-sounding character who happens to speak with a computerized voice. For example, GLaDOS doesn’t use computer-like terms while you are running around outside the parameters of the test chambers, but attempts to cajole you into returning to the test chambers with promises of cake and parties. She doesn’t return to speaking about tests and mechanical terms until you encounter her in the final battle, and even then, it’s only passing remarks, like ‘deploying surprise’ and ‘that crazy thing is not part of any test protocol’, and are juxtaposed against lines such as ‘The only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart’ and ‘If you love that thing so much, why don’t you marry it?’. At once, GLaDOS is a nagging mother and a juvenile annoyance in her interactions with the player…at least until you destroy her morality core.

And this is to speak nothing of Portal’s place in the larger picture. One could easily play the game without ever knowing of it’s greater connection to Valve’s big game franchise, Half-Life. For example, the projectors running in some of the meeting rooms show information about Aperture Science and Black Mesa, the latter of which is the company responsible for the technology in Half-Life, and which Aperture Science often competes with for military contracts.

A vast amount of viral marketing occurred in conjunction with Portal as well, including websites like aperturelaboratories.com, which featured subtle hints about the game from the perspective of the doomed employees of Aperture Science, as well as hidden features like a timeline of Aperture Science history, which mysteriously ends with the entry noting GLaDOS’s first activation (coinciding with Aperture Science Bring-Your-Daughter-To-Work Day). There was also a 50 question ‘application test’ viewers could take to determine their eligibility to become future test subjects, which featured a series of questions that began fairly innocuously (‘How would you describe your pain?’), but eventually descended into lunacy (‘On a scale of 12 to 11, with the numbers arranged like on the face of a clock, how would you describe your awareness of physical tics?’), rather like GLaDOS herself throughout the course of the game.

The simple appearance and presentation of Portal makes it a very accessible game, while still having great depth beyond the simple surface of the game. I think in Portal’s case, this is what makes it a good game.

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