How Portal could take its concept another step

FROM JASON’S CHEAP-ASS GAMING ETHIC — So, a day late and a dollar short as always, I finally played Portal.

Yes, yes, I understand that it came out last October — nine months ago, for those of you counting along at home — but I had no desire to play Team Fortress 2 and I am indifferent at best about Half-Life. Andrew posted his analysis of Portal way back in November, when it was still relevant, and I realize how right on the money he was back then.

But I’ve got some thoughts after blitzing through Portal in about three-and-a-half or four hours and I just had to share. First of all, I’m not a puzzler, and Portal is little more than a puzzle game. It’s a mind-bending and slick puzzler, to be sure, but still relies on a figure-this-out-and-move-on mentality.

So the problem, for me at least, was that the game was too much about solving mazes and not enough about outsmarting AI. There were so many times I wanted to find a flesh-and-blood enemy — a Nazi, because that’s what video games are for — and open a portal under him straight into an incinerator. I wanted to open a portal behind a super-soldier and sneak through with a knife to slash his neck before he could scream. I wanted to fire bullets through a portal. I wanted to make portal pits, teleportal baddies into shafts, drop them from so high that they splat on the ground, and make looping portal traps in enemy paths with bullets flying in and out infinitely.

I didn’t get a chance to do any of that. Instead, I (briefly) got to outwit turrets, which turned out to be my favorite part of the whole ordeal. Zapping a portal exit behind a tripod turret and tipping it over a second later was exhilarating. Imagine how much better it would be if the turrets were actually smart….

I think it’s a safe bet that some Portal-esque weapon will make appearance in the next Half-Life episode. The clues are all there; the Aperture logo can be spotted in the Orange Box installment. I can offer one bit of constructive criticism: The gun needs a laser sight to show me quickly what direction I’ll pop out of the exit. That would have been extremely helpful in lining up switch activation puzzles, too.

I really did enjoy Portal, don’t get me wrong. It was just so deterministic. Shoot this place on the wall to get to the next level. Do it this way, not another, smarter alternative. Don’t do it that way. There’s only one, four-step method to get across that gulf. There’s only one way to disable that trap. There’s only one way to get through that map. Ugh.

There’s enough been said already on teh Intarwebs about the game’s humor — which was amazing and original — so I won’t waste time there. I want to dally instead on one specific atmospheric component: The blood trail markings.

There were no NPCs in Portal to give you the story, to point you along toward the end. There was only evidence that someone else had been there before, a weary and insane lab rat trailblazer who scribbled survival tips and ravings on the walls. It reminded me a lot of the film Cube, which was another survival thriller that hinted at a never-ending and deadly testing of human reasoning.

Andrew’s right in his November post: Portal is important. Let’s be honest — PC gaming hasn’t given birth to a new genre in a long, long time. I remember those early adolescent years when things like RTS and FPS were new and shiny and full of hope. That doesn’t happen anymore. Admittedly, Portal is just a new spin on an old genre, but it’s the best spin I’ve seen in more than half a decade. It made me think — really wrinkle that brow! — in angles perpendicular to the ways I usually do. It bent gravity. It made space meaningless. And it taught us about the dangers of lying.

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