The Portal Series – Into The Gem Vault

Welcome to the second entry in our irregular series, Into The Gem Vault, this time covering the Portal series! With the first entry being the Mass Effect trilogy, the mammoth sci-fi RPG epic, I just had to follow it up with something just as iconic, or at least as cool. 

If you haven’t played the Portal series, well first, you’ve made a huge mistake and I’ll give you 10-12 hours to go play both of them and come back… all good? Great! 

Portal 1 & 2 are both puzzle games that rely on the use of physics and environmental challenges to help you complete “test chambers” designed by Aperture Science. The gimmick is that you’ll be using Portal Technology to do it. More on that later.

This is where I need to explain something and it might get a little weird? Portal 1 & 2 are self contained stories that do not require anything else to enjoy, but are actually intrinsically tied to the OTHER famous Valve series – Half Life. Black Mesa, the research company at fault for the whole alien invasion in the first Half Life game, is actually mentioned multiple times by characters throughout both Portal games. 

See this is, aside from the fantastic physics based puzzles, where I think the Portal games achieve the most success. Puzzle games are notorious, even now, for foregoing standard narratives in favour of the puzzling mechanics. Portal does things differently. The puzzles and obstacles to overcome are only made more interesting by the narrative, and the narrative is driven by the puzzles in many ways.

Speaking of narrative, In Portal 1, you wake up as Chell in the “relaxation vault”. You’re commanded pretty quickly by the resident AI GLaDOS, who also made an appearance in our Top 6 Villains article, to go through multiple testing chambers using Portal Technology to clear each room. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that the research facility is abandoned (at best), and that GLaDOS is actually just waking up test subjects for her own amusement. 

Now I don’t know if there’s a statute of limitations on game spoilers? Portal 1 released in 2007, a whopping 13 years ago after all! For the sake of clarity throughout this article, I’ll probably need to spoil the first title, but I’ll avoid going too deep on the second. 

After quite a few test chambers, GLaDOS tries to incinerate you. Fortunately you’re still equipped with Portal tech, and you’re able to evade capture and then work your way through the back corridors and machinery of the facility. After a time you’ll reach GLaDOS and seemingly shut her down by removing and destroying parts of her system. Once she explodes, you’ll awaken in the facility’s parking lot, only to be dragged back inside by another unseen robot. 

Portal 1 is a very short experience, coming in at around 2 hours to reach the credits. It launched with the Orange Box collection originally, and always acted as more of an appetiser for the rest of the bundle more than anything. However it saw huge popularity, and Valve obviously saw potential for a sequel.

Enter Portal 2. 

Now for full honesty, I’ve finished Portal 2 four times to date, I’ve completed the co-op multiplayer 3 times with different people, and I’ve even dabbled in the community challenge rooms (to no avail, they are HARD). I love this game, and it took a lot of self control to not put it in my “top 6 favorite games”, over Firewatch. 

Fact is Portal 2 takes every idea and concept thrown at you in the first title, and dials it up to 11. To jump back into the narrative, you wake up again as Chell many, MANY years after the first entry. It’s much discussed but the most popular theories I’ve seen is that there is EITHER 20,000 years between the games… or 273 years, or maybe 50,000 years? Could even be 27 years. So basically no-one has a clue. It does make for a good forum browse though, reading the theories. 

You’re woken up rather abruptly, but thankfully not by GLaDOS this time. Instead you’re greeted by an adorable little robot by the name of Wheatley. If any of you haven’t heard of Steven Merchant then shame on you, but he’s an English director, writer, and comedian. He’s also the voice of Wheatley. 

Wheatley is Steven Merchant’s only attempt at a video game acting role, and my god if it isn’t perfect. I fully understand him maintaining the 100% record because almost everything that comes out of the little robots mouth (or speakers? I suppose) is perfect. Credit should go to the writers, as his lines are hilarious in general, but Steven Merchant gives it a perfect delivery.

Given the subject material and back story it’s probably a bit odd to hear that Portal 2 is a comedy, but it is. It’s probably the most naturally funny video game I’ve played and still makes me laugh even after four play-throughs. 

Essentially Wheatley finds you, and wakes you up, in order to help him escape the rapidly deteriorating Aperture Science labs. He’s thoroughly unaware of your previous involvement with GLaDOS, and takes you through her lair (she is still dead at this point) in order to try and leave. 

Wheatley is a moron. As GLaDOS delights in telling both of you when he accidentally wakes her up.

That’s where I’ll leave the story. Any more would be full of spoilers, and while Portal 2 IS still a puzzle game at its heart, it’s driven by a surprisingly compelling plot. Before I move onto finally talking about the gameplay, I want to give a special shout out to the voice actor behind Cave Johnson, the always terrific J.K Simmons, seriously he matches Wheatley for comedic delivery almost the entire way through, and he’s genuinely a treat to listen to.

Now for gameplay. Puzzlers always have a gimmick, with Superliminal using forced perspective to navigate and solve problems, and the Witness using complex mazes. In the Portal series it’s…. well, portals.

Somehow, amongst all the wacky and almost certainly ethically questionable testing, Aperture Science managed to create working Portal Technology. Using a Portal Gun, Chell can fire either an orange or blue portal, essentially creating a pathway between them. 

This simple mechanic quickly expands into a variety of different uses. In Portal 1 you learn the idea of using momentum to fling yourself out of a portal, to bridge gaps, or reach a high ledge. In Portal 2 however, they add in light bridges, suspension tunnels, bouncy gel, speed up gel, and lasers. Almost none of those are the actual in game names by the way, in case you couldn’t tell.

Many of the late game puzzles for both games in the Portal series require you to manipulate all of the provided mechanics to get where you need to go. This had the potential to be SO frustrating, with so much room for trial and error, but Portal 1 & 2 have rather wonderful design languages that helps you out. Environment and objects are placed “just so” in order for the player to gain an idea of what they are supposed to be doing.

The Portal series is unique in puzzlers in that they aren’t necessarily hard. They’re challenging games, but once you learn how Valve wants you to think, they’re very approachable. See Portal wants you to think outside the box, not just to use your portals as a bridge. That method works a treat in the very early puzzles, but as the obstacles get more complex, so do the solutions.

One late puzzle had me teleporting a suspension tunnel UNDER a dispensary for bouncy gel, then using that tunnel to clear a gap, whilst also transporting the gel inside the tunnel. Once I was over the other side, I had to hit a button to reverse the direction, and reposition the exit portal over a bunch of turrets that prevented me from reaching the button I needed. Once the gel was over the turrets, I removed the portal, and watched as 3 pesky turrets bounced into an abyss to their doom.

Figuring out that exact solution took me around 10 minutes? During which time I was experimenting with various other methods. Having completed it four times, you’d think I’d have memorised each solution, but given the stretch of time between each playthrough, I always come back to it fresh. 

I think my only issue with the gameplay in the Portal series is that there is rarely (or ever, maybe?) more than one solution to a puzzle. You can experiment and mess around, but generally there’s only one route to victory, and you just have to locate it. 

While a downside, this “one size required” method does house some positives. 

Each test is designed to stump you. Often the solution is simple, and you’ll overthink it. Other times you’ll approach it with tunnel vision, only to miss something important. There’s a long running gag later in the game about the “high” that the AI overlord in charge of the tests gets when one is correctly solved, and it’s an ironic way of describing how overcoming these obstacles feels. 

Each correct solve on your part feels good. The puzzles are there to be solved, but when something clicks and you complete one in 10 seconds after wandering around confused for 5 minutes, it feels rewarding. 

The Portal series avoids the trap that a lot of puzzlers fall into. It doesn’t ever frustrate or annoy. It doesn’t ever feel like it’s going out of it’s way to irritate you, or make things harder than they should be. The difficulty scales fairly and consistently the further through the game you get, and while some puzzles are definitely harder than others, the tools you need are always right in front of you. 

In fact the trick to solving so many of them, is looking at where you need to be, and working backwards:

“Okay so I need to be up there but it’s way too high up, so I need somewhere to jump from to gain momentum… Okay up there looks good, but I need a way up, ah look there’s bouncy gel dripping from a pipe over there..”

So on, and so forth. It’s a remarkably smooth transition from the early game to late, where at the start the solutions are ALWAYS simple, yet you can get stuck on what could simply be a geometric issue, but then later on you’re juggling 5 or 6 different mechanics.

It requires a deft hand throughout, and Valve have proven time and time again that they have the creative smarts to make subject matter bend to their will. Their most famous franchise is almost certainly Half-Life, without a shadow of a doubt.

But personally? I think the Portal series is their crowning franchise, with both games melding an invigorating mental test, into an interesting plot that’s narrated by an eclectic and hilarious suite of characters and voice actors.

The VP of Marketing at Valve, Doug Lombardi once said:

“Portal was a test-bed. Portal 2 is a game.” 

Which is definitely true, Portal 2 is the better game by a fair margin. But for this writer? Playing both from start to finish for this article was a treat, and I cannot recommend them both enough.

Now to finish off this article, in a thoroughly unorthodox manner, a series of my favorite quotes from the Portal series:

“Good news: I figured out what that thing you just incinerated did. It was a morality core they installed after I flooded the Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin to make me stop flooding the Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin.” – GLaDOS (Portal 1)

 “That jumpsuit you’re wearing looks stupid. That’s not me talking, it’s right here on your file. On other people it looks fine, but right here a scientist has noted that on you it looks ‘stupid.’ Well, what does a neck-bearded old engineer know about fashion? He probably- Oh, wait. It’s a she. Still, what does she know? Oh wait, it says she has a medical degree. In fashion! From France!” – GLaDOS (Portal 2)

“Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an “unsatisfactory” mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!” – GLaDOS (Portal 1)

“Okay. Look. We both said a lot of things that you’re going to regret. But I think we can put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.” – GLaDOS (Portal 2)

“Do you understand what I’m saying? At all? Does any of this make any sense? Just tell me, ‘Yes’.”

(players follows on screen command “Jump”)

“Okay. What you’re doing there is jumping. You just… you just jumped. But never mind. Say ‘Apple’. ‘Aaaapple.'”

(Player follows on screen command again and jumps)

“Okay, you know what? That’s close enough” – Wheatley (Portal 2)

“Not interested in anything else. Don’t TOUCH anything else. Don’t even LOOK at anything else, just – well, obviously you’ve got to look at everything else to find ESCAPE POD, but as soon as you’ve looked at something and it doesn’t say ESCAPE POD, look at something else, look at the next thing. Alright? But don’t touch anything else or look at any–well, look at other things, but don’t… you understand.” – Wheatley (Portal 2)

“Hey! How’s it going! I talked my way onto the nanobot work crew rebuilding this shaft. They are REALLY small, so -ah – I KNOW, Jerry. No, I’m on BREAK, mate. On a break.” – Wheatley (Portal 2)

“They say the old caretaker of this place went absolutely crazy. Chopped up his entire staff. Of robots. All of them robots. They say at night you can still hear the screams. Of their replicas. All of them functionally indistinguishable from the originals. No memory of the incident. Nobody knows what they’re screaming about. Absolutely terrifying. Though obviously not paranormal in any meaningful way.” – Wheatley (Portal 2)

“Oh! I’ve just had one idea, which is that I could pretend to her that I’ve captured you, and give you over and she’ll kill you, but I could go on… living. So, what’s your view on that?” – Wheatley (Portal 2)

“Those of you who volunteered to be injected with praying mantis DNA, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Bad news is we’re postponing those tests indefinitely. Good news is we’ve got a much better test for you: fighting an army of mantis men. Pick up a rifle and follow the yellow line. You’ll know when the test starts.” – Cave Johnson (Portal 2)

“Alright, let’s get started. This first test involves something the lab boys call repulsion gel. You’re not part of the control group, by the way. You get the gel. Last poor son of a gun got blue paint. Hahaha. All joking aside, that did happen – broke every bone in his legs. Tragic. But informative. Or so I’m told.” – Cave Johnson (Portal 2)

“Alright, this next test may involve trace amounts of time travel. So, word of advice: If you meet yourself on the testing track, don’t make eye contact. Lab boys tell me that’ll wipe out time. Entirely. Forward and backward! So do both of yourselves a favor and just let that handsome devil go about his business.” – Cave Johnson (Portal 2)

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