Monday, July 11, 2011

Portal: The Cake Is Amazing...Even Though It Is A Lie

Puzzle games have existed for centuries, and in the digital arena, they have been around for almost as long as video games have been. Some are pretty straight to the point, like Columns or Klax, while some are a bit abstract, like Zoop. One thing holds true though, and that is if a publisher releases a quality puzzle game, gamers will flock to it. Over the last few years, one such puzzle game, created merely as an add on for Valve's Half Life 2 expansion known as The Orange Box eventually became more popular than it's source material. That game is Portal, and while the Half Life series has been seemingly in limbo while Valve released it's incredible co op zombie apocalypse game Left 4 Dead, they did recently release Portal 2. Some gamers may look at the Portal games and not see the greatness contained within, but rest assured it is there, and it may be one of the best brain teasers you will try to solve with a controller.

Both Portal games put the player in control of Chell, a young lady trapped in the Aperture Science testing facility. Her progress is monitored by a sarcastic and sadistic artificial intelligence known as GlaDOS. During the course of this game, you are charged with completing a series of puzzles or "tests" as GlaDOS calls them. These tests can range from reasonably easy to frustratingly difficult, but they never feel unfair. There are also instances in the first game that hint at something much more sinister going on in the testing facility.These bits of conspiracy theory help to flesh out a story where one may not have existed. There are handprints and incoherent scribblings about the cake being a lie. These don't necessarily take away from the game, but again they offer a minute bit of calm in the constant storm of trap laden puzzles offered up by GlaDOS. The first game ends with Chell being able to shut down GlaDOS and allegedly leave the facility. However, as the single player mode in Portal 2 begins, you learn that isn't the case.

Portal 2 is seen as a much more story driven game in the sense that the narrative is much more involved than the first game, and the relationship between Chell and GlaDOS takes a very unexpected turn. We are also introduced to the founder of Aperture Science and given insight into a major part of GlaDOS' personality. Portal 2 also gives players a new wrinkle in the form of local and online co op play. Each player is given a portal gun and they have to work in concert to complete each puzzle. Both the single player and the co op are both very rewarding experiences that can't be compared to other puzzle games.

Some of my favorite films contain deep, engrossing dialogue. The great thing about video games is that dialogue sometimes only needs one character talking. This is the case with the Portal series. I mean, for two full games, you never hear one solitary syllable from Chell, the series' protagonist, but you hear a lot of barbs being thrown by GlaDOS. In Portal 2, you also hear pre recorded messages from Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson, and from another AI named Wheatley, but it's still a deliberately small cast of characters, and the fact that a player can complete 2 full games and never hear a word from Chell is a throwback to several classic games. That dialogue isn't what makes Portal as a group of games so good, but it most certainly helps. For my money, Portal might be one the most engrossing experiences I have experiences in quite some time.

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