Forget videogames as art—they’re games. Portal was genius and its sequel will take the cakeby Sam Leith / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
I was told there’d be cake: Chell and her reality-blasting gun in the videogame Portal
A shooting game that isn’t; a puzzle game that tells a story; and a joke that became a meme. Indulge me if I depart from my habitual tone of Arnoldian high-mindedness to shout yippee at the release of the sequel to one of the most interesting videogames of all time. If you’ve never played Portal, you’ve missed out on something big. Forget the old videogames-as-art thing; here’s videogames as videogames—and as artful as you could want.
Portal was remarkable because it was a “first-person shooter”: that is, a game in which you see through the eyes of someone running around a 3D environment carrying a BFG (or Big Flipping Gun). But it was the only first-person shooter in the history of videogames in which you didn’t actually shoot anybody. At the same time it was a platform game—where you navigate from platform to platform to cross the gamespace—and it was a physics puzzle.
What’s more, its protagonist was a woman (not too common in computer games). Chell is the lone test subject in a strange, antiseptic research facility, trying to make her way through a series of increasingly complicated and dangerous test chambers. The gun she carries doesn’t shoot bullets, which is the reason why no one dies. Instead, it shoots holes in reality.
Point the gun at a wall and shoot, and a hole appears in the wall; then point it elsewhere, and shoot again. Another hole appears. Look through the first and you see out the second. Step through the first and you emerge from the second, or vice versa. Where this gets clever is that your momentum is preserved, so that if you drop 40 feet into a portal on the floor, you’ll emerge from the other portal travelling at quite some clip; if it’s positioned on a wall you’ll go flying across the room.
Portal was also one of the vanishingly rare instances in which character-based humour—and…