My Ten Favorite Games Ever – Part 5: Portal

You’ve made it this far.  I’ve gushed over basketball and dudes with enormous swords.  Or enormous enemies and moogles mingling with Donald Duck.  I shed tears reminiscing about the good old days with Goldeneye, and had a glow about me while describing the miracle of Red Dead RedemptionI talked about my childhood favorite, and a game that made me feel like a child again.  Eight games that shaped my gaming life.  From a technical standpoint, they might not be considered the best games, but they are the games I had the most fun with.  And now it’s time to move to my two favorite games ever.  Games that I’ve gushed about so much that I have to split this into two parts for no explicable reason.  How very Peter Jackson of me.

How do I define what makes a game one of the best ever made?  Superior graphics?  Intelligent level design?  Originality?  Those all factor in, but ultimately, these are the two games that I had the most fun with.  That’s what gaming is about.  Entertainment.  And these are the two games that I personally had the most fun playing.  So when someone asks me “what is the best game ever made?” it should be one of these final two titles.  Starting with..

Portal

Age I was: 18

Last attempt at playing it: A year later when Still Alive was released on XBLA.

Would I ever play it again: No.  Yes, I know there’s a huge modding community doing new Portal stages.  I’m not really into user-created content.  I quite enjoy the Little Big Planet games, but I’m not a big fan of the user-content.  It’s 90% garbage, and not worth the effort of finding the “good stuff” that typically isn’t as good as the real levels.

About halfway through Portal, I came to two realizations.  Number one: I was playing something that will remain special to me for the rest of my life.  Number two: there are going to be so many knock-offs and clones of it that it will render the game retroactively obnoxious.  I was right on both accounts.  I don’t blame Portal for being a landmark game by any means.  I blame developers (indie or otherwise) for allowing it to stunt their growth the way it has.  I’m personally going to stomp a beautiful flower every time I see any variation of “the cake is a lie” joke from here on out.  I mean, really people?  That’s what you took away from Portal?  Not the superb level design?  The amazing hook?  The originality?  The sense of awe?

A lot of gaming culture’s less than charming quirks are beyond my understanding.  The obsession with the cake bit in Portal goes further than that, where I feel the only way I could ever grasp it is by pulling a Mason and taking a power drill to my brain.  Even more annoying is how many people think they are capable of making their own variation of the cake thing funny.  Stop it!  It’s not funny!  You killed the gag years ago and all you’re doing now is desecrating its corpse.  Here’s a thought: come up with your own gag.  Maybe it will be funny and you’ll get to be the one watching in horror as people get in line to run it into the ground.

Honestly, I didn’t find the cake or the companion cube bits funny at all. So of course that’s what people still use in increasingly unfunny jokes to this day.

But I’m not going to let those douchebags spoil my memories of Portal.  You know what?  They can’t, no matter how hard they try.  The really funny part about the whole situation is how much they missed the point of why Portal is special to so many people.  Portal probably shouldn’t have been has good as it is, but the game self-corrected every possible problem that could come up.  The sterile environment should have sucked the energy out the experience.  Solution?  The maniacal, monotone GLaDOS and her increasingly dark running commentary gave players a reason to want to continue.  But GLaDOS by herself wouldn’t have been as iconic.  What tied it together and made it work was the juxtaposition.  It was the polar opposite of the highly structured, professionally scientific setting.  If Portal had a more “trapped against your will” feel to it, like the Saw movies for example, it would be funny but not pantheon of gaming humor funny.  Don’t believe me?  That’s too bad, because Valve themselves proved I’m right with Portal 2.  When removed from the professional test-chamber setting, and with your character unquestionably being tortured for giggles instead of science, GLaDOS is still funny but nowhere near on the same level.

And what about the puzzles?  If there’s just one thing I’ve learned since starting Indie Gamer Chick, it’s that people really dislike it when you hate on Sonic the Hedgehog.  But if there’s two things I’ve learned, it’s that Sonic hate is off-limits and people really aren’t drawn to puzzle games.  Even ones that get high levels of acclaim are tough sells.  What makes Portal different?  At first I figured it was the first-person-shooter thing.  Having a shooter, no matter what kind of shooting is involved, lures in people who otherwise couldn’t identify their own name out of a lineup.  But I don’t think it’s the gun thing.  No, it’s the fact that it doesn’t feel like a puzzle game.  Even if there is only one solution to a room, Portal gives players an artificial sense of freedom.  That, and it doesn’t feel like you’re being given an exam.  Instead, fun is the focus of Portal.  Portal’s Xbox Live Indie Game counterpart Gateways has that feel to it, where fun sometimes is pushed the background in favor of testing a player.  You don’t need to do that, and Portal is the proof.

Yes, like everyone else, I’ve thought about what I would personally do with a Portal gun. The best I could come up with is teleporting a dog across the room and giggling at its befuddled reaction. It’s the sci-fi version of a laser pointer on the floor. Hey, you have to be able to enjoy the simple things in life, like confusing a lower species for your own personal amusement.

Portal is greater than the sum of its parts.  Games have been funnier.  They’ve been smarter.  They’ve made better use of their concepts.  But no game has ever done all the of the above as well.  And just when you think they’ve run out of ideas and things are going to get stale, it’s over.  Has there ever been a better use of brevity in a game?  The quick ending that left you wanting more while still feeling wholly satisfying was the final nudge that pushed Portal past the realm of excellence and into the realm of legends.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Like all the best games, Portal was lightning in a bottle.  Portal 2 was good.  Very good.  One of the best games of this entire generation.  Funny, clever, intelligent, and memorable.  It even avoided overstaying its welcome, which I figured could be a problem.  Portal just barely scraped the three-hour mark.  Portal 2 hung around two to three times longer, but never felt padded.  So why isn’t it as special as the original?  It goes beyond the puzzles being inferior (which they mostly are, quite frankly), or the hook no longer being as awe-inspiring.  Portal felt like a game that was made to see if they could take the concept and make it work.  Portal 2 ultimately felt like a game that was made because it had to be made.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m a business person.  I get it.  I’ll be first in line to get any more sequels that they have to make to, you know, eat and pay the bills and shit.  And I’ll expect continued excellence from the series.  But that once in a lifetime sense of wonder that the first one produced can’t be recreated.  I’m certain more games in the future will stimulate similar reactions in me, but it won’t ever come from a Portal game again.

Continue to the Final Part: WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$!

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About Indie Gamer Chick
The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

8 Responses to My Ten Favorite Games Ever – Part 5: Portal

  1. Tom Happ says:

    One day, I’ll play this, and finally understand the timeless appeal of cake and lies about cake and t-shirts mentioning cake on them and I’ll split my sides as I laugh myself to death. But it’s pretty far down on my increasingly long list of “urgent must play as soon as possible or die of shame and lose my geek card” games.

    • I found Portal a fun game, but the ubiquity of the references to it manages to bleed a lot of the humour out. I can imagine the cake thing was pretty awesome if you weren’t expecting it, but when you’ve already heard that hundreds of times you won’t appreciate it when it pops up.

  2. Dangus says:

    Wario ware holding it down at number 1, eh? Congratulations, you have ADD.

  3. CJ says:

    I think the Portal game sucks donkey dong, but I love the technology. 😀

  4. Pingback: Luminux | Indie Gamer Chick

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