My Favorite Games: Portal

Looking back on a masterpiece that lets you take a peek through the fourth wall but never breaks it

I’m not going to be the guy who suddenly has a breathtaking new insight about Portal. Even if it hadn’t been analyzed and re-analyzed and over-analyzed over the past 15 years, I’ve already had multiple chances to write something clever about it. And I’ve never come up with something better than “Damn this game is good, huh?”

While I’ve been making this ongoing list of my favorite video games, I’ve been trying to come up with a concise1At least, as concise as I ever get explanation for why it’s so memorable to me. That’s especially difficult with Portal, because it gets everything right.

It’s the perfect length, lingering on each idea just long enough for you to get it before moving on2Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel. Its antagonist is one of the best-written and best-realized characters in any game. Its aesthetic is instantly unforgettable and fits perfectly with the tone of the game. And that tone was a revelation: confidently hilarious, sinister, and self-aware while never coming across as trying too hard. It’s obvious why it more or less became the default “voice” of the whole company.

And while a lot of people (including myself) were navel-gazing and trying to figure out how narrative games function at their core, trying to solve the unresolvable tension between what the game wants and what the player wants, Portal just did it without making a big fuss about it. “What, is this supposed to be hard?”

Now that it’s been so long since I last played it, and I’m so far removed from it, what sticks with me is how it seemed to be making a point of shattering the fourth wall, when in reality it was doing anything but. While there seemed to be a fad at the time for game developers to wave their hands like stage magicians and whisper “ludonarrative dissonance!” as if they’d just blown your mind, Portal just seems to treat the whole question as if it were silly.

The game’s most surprising moment — when you first “accidentally” get a peek outside of the test chamber — is still fantastic, but in retrospect, it’s not actually as performatively avant garde as I’d thought at the time. The designers weren’t suddenly turning around in their high-backed chairs, taunting us with a sneering “Well well well, it seems you have discovered that this is a video game. But the question remains: are you the player, or are you being played?!” In reality, it was just an unprecedentedly ingenious way of saying “hey, the tutorial is ending.”

I have to be a curmudgeon here and admit that I’m now unimpressed with the games that did make a much more overt assertion that they’re meditations on the nature of player choice and free will. They seem kind of obvious and clumsy now, like the people who act astounded that the Rescue Rangers were designed to look like Indiana Jones and Magnum PI and nobody ever noticed! It’s kind of silly for a game to act like it’s making some deep philosophical observation about player agency when they’re all observations that every player makes the first time they’re allowed to jump on a table or teabag someone during a mission briefing.

So what’s remarkable to me about Portal now isn’t that it breaks the fourth wall, but that it keeps the wall completely intact. It embraces the “gameness” of the game in a way that makes players feel like we’re all in on the joke. The last half of the game, outside the test chambers, is constructed of puzzles that are every bit as contrived and artificial as the ones in the first half; the only difference is that the goal of the puzzle and all of its components aren’t as explicitly spelled out for you.

At the time, I misunderstood that to be a minor flaw in an otherwise perfect game, since all of the “real-looking” environments just drew attention to the artificiality. Now, I feel like they were never all that interested in making it feel “real” at all, but instead assuming that people buying and playing a video game understood how suspension of disbelief works.

It’s not a comment on narrative game design, it’s just really good narrative game design. It keeps the player and the player’s character perfectly aligned throughout: what you want is always exactly the same thing that she wants.

  • 1
    At least, as concise as I ever get
  • 2
    Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel