Portal Explained

Posted by | November 07, 2013 | Game Library | 6 Comments
portal

Portal and Portal 2 are first-person puzzle games created by Valve.

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Sex, Drugs & Rock n' Roll

Violence: Though there is no traditional health meter, your avatar can die while playing these games. Because the game is from a first-person perspective, that can makes the deaths a little creepy. Common methods of death include falling into poisonous water, being crushed by a falling block or being shot by a robot. There is a little blood, but it is not gory, and because the game is first-person you only see the blood on walls or the floor (not on your own body).

Strong Language: You might hear some very light profanity like “hell” or “damn.”

Scary Imagery: The puzzles in the game are presented as mental and emotional torture for the main character, who is forced to risk her life over and over for the satisfaction of her captors. She is a lab rat, being manipulated by an AI who has no concern for her well-being. The absence of other human beings, along with some creepy graffiti, some startling action, and a very dark sense of humor, may be too intense for young kids.

Player Interaction: If you’re playing Portal 2 on the PS3 or Xbox, you can play the co-operative level with other players online. If you have a headset, you can speak while you play. This obviously opens the door to unregulated content. Co-op play becomes available only after the single-player game has been completed.

Savepoints

You can save at almost any point of Portal simply by pausing and selecting Save. If you die, you are automatically returned to the last significant accomplishment in your gameplay (pressing a button, passing through a door, etc.). The game’s many levels provide nice breaking points.

Story & Gameplay

Gameplay

Portal and Portal 2 are composed of brilliant explorative puzzles. With a gun-like machine called the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, the player can create blue and orange portals which connect two flat locations. If you go through the blue portal, you will come out of the orange portal (and vice versa). If you shoot the floor and then shoot a distant wall, you can then jump into the portal on the floor and come out of the portal on the distant wall.

What’s more, momentum and velocity are maintained through portals, which makes them fantastic for teaching physics. If you fall a long distance through a portal, you can use that momentum to “fling” yourself horizontally across a great distance (see below).

Portal 2 introduced several new game mechanics, including colorful “gels” with various properties, such as propulsion and repulsion (which cause interesting speeding and bouncing effects).

Portal Physics

Source: Wikipedia

Because of Portal’s brilliant use of FPS to create inherently nonviolent gameplay, it has been hailed as one of the most innovative video games ever.

Story

This game is fun even when you know the ending, but beware spoilers below!

Portal and Portal 2 take place in the universe of the game Half-Life.

Portal begins when you wake from stasis and find yourself inside the Enrichment Center for Aperture Laboratories, a massive research facility. The voice of a maternal AI named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) tells you to prepare for several tests. If you successfully get through every test, GLaDOS promises that you will be rewarded with cake and grief counseling. The goal of each “test” is to reach the exit on the other side of the room with the assistance of  a gun-like machine called the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device and a large block called the Companion Cube. The obstacles in each level become increasingly dangerous.

Over time, GLaDOS’s motivations are slowly revealed to be sinister. She continues to insist that the rooms are simply experiments, despite the fact that the obstacles include gunfire and toxic liquid that can kill you. Eventually, you discover a dilapidated section of the lab, ignoring GLaDOS’s pleas to return to the test course. Graffiti on the walls indicates that several test subjects have died there. It’s implied (and later confirmed) that GLaDOS murdered everyone in the science labs with a deadly neurotoxin.

portal graffiti

“The cake is a lie.”
Source: Mario’s World

You must then attempt to destroy GLaDOS by attacking her system mainframe. A massive portal malfunction disables GLaDOS and leaves you unconscious on the surface, where (in the rereleased version) you are dragged away by a robot. The game ends with a shot of the cake promised by GLaDOS, deep within the Aperture complex.

In Portal 2, you are awoken several years after the events of Portal by a robot called Wheatley. The two of you attempt to escape from even more test rooms, and in the process reawaken GLaDOS, who separates you. After you make it through a number of obstacle courses, Wheatley rescues you from GLaDOS and you manage to store her consciousness in a potato battery, giving Wheatley control of the compound. Unfortunately, Wheatley betrays you and pushes both you and GLaDOS down an elevator shaft, forcing you to begin an uncomfortable alliance to reach the surface and stop Wheatley.

Portal 2 contains significant backstory about Aperture Science and the character GLaDOS. It is also much longer, and includes a two-player co-op in which two rather silly robots named Atlas and P-Body attempt to cross puzzle rooms by working together.

Atlas and P-body

Atlas and P-body looking at both ends of one portal.
Source: Valve Wiki

The Creators

Portal and Portal 2 were created by Valve.

Conversation Starters

Because Portal and Portal 2 are exploratory puzzle games (often with multiple solutions), it’s a great idea to try playing a few levels with your kids and seeing what methods they choose to solve each room. Try solving a few together, and talking about the process they go through to solve each puzzle.

Here are a few questions you could ask to start a conversation:

  • Do you believe that artificial intelligences have the capacity for emotion? Does GLaDOS have a personality?
  • If a person volunteers to be experimented upon, does that count as consent? At what point does the experimenter go too far?
  • Were you surprised when you realized you were playing as a woman? Why?
  • Can you separate the humor from the drama? What about GLaDOS is funny, and what is scary?
  • What are some other games that don’t rely on violence?

Culture

Feminism  Portal and Portal 2 are first-person games, so you cannot easily see your own body, but occasionally you can catch glimpses through portals. When you do, you see that the main character is a woman. What’s more, she’s a minority woman. Portal is a wonderful step for feminist gamers because the gender of the protagonist does not affect her characterization in any way, nor is she covered in make-up and donning a sexy outfit. Her look is realistic, and it’s extremely refreshing. The antagonist, GLaDOS, is also a woman.

Chell with Portal device

Chell (the protagonist) holding an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device.
Source: Half-Life Wiki

The Cake is a Lie This catch phrase was taken from the graffiti of the dilapidated sections of Aperture Science, and is used very commonly in geek culture to refer to a broken promise or deception. GLaDOS promises you cake if you succeed in the game, but it becomes clear before too long that you will not be receiving cake. When you discover the graffiti in the hidden sections of Aperture Science, it also becomes clear that others have also been promised cake but never received it.

Comic The official Portal comic strip can be read by clicking here.

Chell/Shell The main character of the games is named Chell, pronounced with a hard ch- (like “cheese” or “checkers”). She’s often mistakenly referred to as “Shell.”

Cosplay Despite the low budget of the first Portal game, it immediately became a cult classic, and has inspired a huge number of costumes and geek accessories.

Jargon

Weighted Companion Cube: Sometimes called simply “Companion Cube,” this item is a grey cube with a pink heart on each of its six sides. It is required to finish certain levels of the game, and in some ways it is Chell’s only true ally. Dialogue from GLaDOS and graffiti on the walls indicates that other test subjects have become deeply emotionally bonded with their companion cubes, which makes it all the more cruel when GLaDOS forces you to incinerate it.

Companion Cube

Weighted Companion Cube (Portal 2)
Source: Half-Life Wiki

GLaDOS Stands for “Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System.” GLaDOS is an artificial intelligence created by Aperture Science and serves as the main antagonist for Portal and the first half of Portal 2. She is performed by Ellen McLain.

Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device Also called a Portal Gun. This is the device which allows you to shoot portals onto certain kinds of surfaces. It is super cool.

Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device

Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device
Source: Half-Life Wiki

Courtney Holmes

About Courtney Holmes

Courtney is Pixelkin's Associate Managing Editor. While working with the Girl Scouts of Northern California, she mentored young girls in teamwork, leadership, personal responsibility, and safety. Today, she spends her time studying adolescent development and using literary analysis techniques to examine video games.