On April 18th, Portal 2 turns eleven. It’s been remembered and beloved all those years for several reasons; it was, for the longest time, the last true Valve game before the company became more known as a sales platform. The Half-Life and Team Fortress games, alongside the original Portal, were intensely popular throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, especially online, for their stories, tones, and unashamed playability. The residual and forlorn resentment against Valve for the last decade – mostly for their (lack of) handling of the Half-Life series – missed Portal, though. Despite originating as an afterthought alongside Half-Life: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2, those games were slowly forgotten in the mainstream while Portal and Portal 2 stayed in people’s hearts and minds. Why is that?
In spite of the fact that the games come from the same era, and are set in the same universe as Half-Life, the wild differences and stark originalities of Portal are what makes them remembered. Whereas Half-Life was a bleak and sprawling journey through what feels like the end of human history at the hands of an interdimensional empire, Portal was a personal and intimate puzzle-based adventure. The deft marriage of genius design, intuitive gameplay, and heartful comedic writing led many to argue that either Portal or Portal 2 is one of the best games ever made. It’s hard to disagree.
The opening is simple and sanitary. You wake up in a glass box. A strange, warbling voice speaks to you over an intercom. It’s time to test. The mechanical thrust of the game is the portal device, which allows the player to open up to two portals on selected surfaces which can then be moved through. Momentum is retained, allowing players to fling themselves or important objects across testing areas, with the aim of reaching the exit. Deadly turrets, poisonous acid pools and severe drops are just some of the obstacles that must be overcome to reach the next chamber.
It would’ve been easy for the game to feel like a treadmill – you solve one puzzle for a momentary rush of dopamine, get a robotic wise-crack from the voice on the intercom, before the game begins loading it all over again. It might be a bit more complex next time, there could be a new mechanic about to be introduced, but Portal ran the very real risk of making the player feel like a rat in a maze. And it did do that, extremely effectively. Which is why the game continues to be adored.
You run through clean, utilitarian prefab testing chambers. You use the same assets and physics mechanics. You hear the same disconcerting voice at the start and end of every puzzle. There’s no real tutorial, as such. The game places you right at the start of the maze and you learn as you go, each new mechanic and concept building upon the previous in exciting ways. You don’t just get a rush from completing the chambers, but also as you learn. There’s nothing more gratifying than your first playthrough as two parts of the puzzle visibly click together in your head. There’s nothing quite like using momentum to hurl yourself through the test chamber, soaring across the room like a bird. Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out. Maybe it’s part of the solution. Maybe you just felt like it.
That’s just the gameplay. That’s your day job. What’s really key to the experience is the story. Against all odds, Portal made players stop and appreciate a video game’s writing. For the first two-thirds, you assume that voice, later revealed as GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), is recorded. Only when, after chambers and chambers of promises regarding freedom and reward, the voice guides you into a fiery death does the scope of your problem click. You escape your fate, through nothing more than your innate instinct as a person to not get thrown into fire, and begin moving through the backrooms of this facility – Aperture Science. Suddenly, she’s actively commenting on what you’re doing. Warning you that you’re making a big mistake. And you can’t help but agree with her.
Then a whole host of questions, that hadn’t been on the table during the tests, come into your mind. Where actually am I? Did I consent to these tests? Now you know that the game isn’t just a surface-level puzzle platformer with a funny script. Now you’re painfully aware, as GLaDOS’ inhuman words echo through the empty offices and industrial spaces you’re navigating, that you’ve been observed this entire time by something aware. The final act of Portal is masterful in creating a sense of dread, playing on the contextless manner of the testing chambers. GLaDOS, for all intents and purposes, is smarter than you. She’s in control of this entire facility – a place that was clearly, once, run by humans. Desk chairs, computer monitors still displaying presentations and readouts, litter the observation rooms above the testing areas. The same observation rooms you might have noticed during the earlier sections, the same ones you might have stared at for a while, trying to catch a glimpse of the humans who must be the ones actually conducting the tests.
What GLaDOS didn’t count on, for all her turret traps and bottomless pits, was the hairless mammal with a portal device running through her facility. You make your way to her chamber, revealing GLaDOS in all her twisting, sleek, and inhuman glory. It’s all or nothing. What ensues is a weapon-less boss-fight, with GLaDOS’ ticking clock before she poisons you with the same neurotoxin which has already killed everyone else displayed on huge screens. All you have is the testing knowledge she handed to you, using portals and platforming (now on a timer) to blow circuits off of her – pulling apart this living supercomputer and burning it up. It feels like the only thing you can do by this point.
It’s funny, though. GLaDOS is funny, her constant one-sided berating and bickering with the player character reveals an intense childishness. This humour’s never at odds with the true chaos and tension of the section, the facility shaking and collapsing as you blindly destroy your way to what you hope is freedom.
Portal 2 (2011)
The first act of Portal 2 is a condensed version of the original. Instead of representing a lack of new ideas, all this choice does is indicate that Valve thought there was nothing in the original gameplay progression that needed fixing. An admission, therefore, that they had nowhere else to go, right?
You don’t get your freedom. What you do get is also considered one of the best games ever made. Waking up in a strange room, you meet Wheatley. He looks like one of the circuits – personality cores, as they’re called now – that you ripped away from GLaDOS last time, revealing her more malevolent, more childish, personality. On the other hand, Wheatley’s an idiot. The polar opposite of GLaDOS, every plan he comes up with in order for you both to escape is blatantly nonsensical. You’ve been in stasis for anywhere from decades to millennia, stuck in the heart of this expansive complex, and all you have to your name is a little moron and a portal device.
The happy marriage of puzzles and story is expanded on, basically perfectly. You learn more about Aperture and GLaDOS. This could be taken as removing the contextless dread of the first game, but you’ve already had that experience. Now you’re getting a new experience, demonstrating in even more complexity that fidelity to environmental storytelling and humorous characterisation. Wheatley was built to be as dense as he is, designed to curtail the Machiavellian tendencies of GLaDOS. He was built so effectively, though, that in the process of trying to escape all he accomplishes is reawakening GLaDOS. Whilst trying to shut her down, all he accomplishes is putting himself in charge of the facility, becoming corrupted by that same all-or-nothing urge to watch people test.
Portal 2 lacks that adroit self-awareness to the form. The way in which the true nature of the world in the original never crosses your mind, because you think you’re just playing a simple puzzle-platformer, is gone. But it’s still unashamed in being a game, being a fun game, being funny and engaging. Sure, it’s a puzzle game – but let’s resolve the final boss fight by firing a portal on the moon. Let’s end it all (literally all, as this was Valve’s final full game for around a decade) with a turret-performed opera number. The huge, exciting set pieces are just as thrilling as that rush you get from completing tests. Slowly learning about the origins of Aperture, down in the oldest chambers and rooms of the laboratories, through that same mixture of environments and script, is basically unmatched. Paradoxically, it offered much-needed context for a game that worked because of its lack of context.
There’s never going to be a Portal 3; all the depths plunged by the games might be all there is in that story. Portal 2 ends with your hard-earned freedom, in the aftermath of however Half-Life ends. That’s a story that does, in many ways, require a definitive continuation. And there’s many, many ways in which that continuation could theoretically be terrible. Valve have a great, if frustrating, track record. They’ll hibernate until there appears to be a new frontier in gaming, at which point they’ll inevitably blow everyone away with their form-redefining gameplay and stories. Portal was, on a technical level, impossible a decade prior to its release. Half-Life: Alyx was a short FPS released in 2020 for most PC VR headsets. Ten years ago, that technology didn’t exist. Alyx isn’t a full Half-Life game, but there’ll almost certainly be one once that VR technology is more widely available. Maybe Portal will get the same treatment but, being an essentially-perfect pair, there’s not really a need for a trilogy.