A polished elaboration of Narbaculur Drop, which was a 2006 IGF Student Showcase winner, as well as a finalist for the Slamdance Guerrilla Game Festival in the same year, Portal is a level-based puzzle game with the tropes of a conventional first-person shooter. The game is published by Valve as part of its "Orange Box," which also includes additional Half Life 2 material.
In each level, you must navigate a set of three-dimensional rooms and corridors; in many cases, as in most FPSes, there are doors you must open by triggering certain in-world items (placing crates on buttons, or directing balls of energy into traps). The twist is that instead of carrying a BFG, you carry a gun-like device that can "shoot" portals against many (but not all) surfaces. Portals are paired; moving through one causes you to emerge from the other. In other words, the gun creates trans-dimensional gates between two arbitrary points in the world. Momentum carries over as you pass through a gate, so that, for example, falling through a gate in the floor may give you enough forward momentum to pass over an obstacle near the portal outlet.
Visually, this is interesting, and there's some clever programming to allow you to see through portals to what's on the other side; in most levels, there are brief voice clips from "GladDOS," an AI who is ostensibly shepherding you through a series of tests of the portal technology. GladDOS also says rather amusing (and occasionally disturbing) things at times, and while there isn't anything you can think of as a real story, she does become a vivid character as you play.
If Portal were, in our terms, an "indie game" (and it can't really be characterized as such, given Valve's prominence in the industry, despite its origins in a truly independent title), there's no question that we would praise it to the skies. And indeed, as first I had no intention of covering it here, since our raison d'etre is to cast attention on smaller projects that might otherwise be overlooked. And yet, because of the debate around Portal, I think it instructive to give it a look.
On the one side, Portal has been rapturously received in many quarters -- indeed, Steve Meretzky goes so far as to imply that its publication alone makes life worth living (a very funny video, and worth watching for that reason alone, by the way). On the other, Nick Montfort has gone so far as to claim that Passage is a better game than Portal. A discussion of that debate has broken out in the comments here, with some wondering what kind of idiots we are for even contemplating the notion that so fine a game as Portal can possibly be compared negatively to little, quick-playing experimental games like the ones we often link to.
The fact is that trying to compare Passage to Portal is absurd on the face of it; one is a little art game with a bit of an emotional sting, and the other is a rather high-budget, very polished, and interesting puzzle game. They're both good for what they are, and that's really all that needs to be said about the comparison between them.
But why the rapturous reception of Portal in so many places? I have to believe the reason is this: in an industry that seems to be doing little more these days than remaking Castle Wolfenstein over and over and over -- with higher budgets, minor variations in story and background, and obviously with lots more polygons on the screen -- a game like Portal, with its very different gameplay, comes across as a breath of fresh air.
And so it is -- sort of. But while there are original elements to Portal -- the non-Euclidean geography of its portals being the main one -- it is not anything like as original and startling as those who praise it to the skies seem to believe.
The simple fact is this: Portal is a very conventional level-based puzzle game, a style of game that's existed in this industry at least since The Incredible Machine and Lemmings (and I might even add Hunt the Wumpus). It's a style of game that the conventional industry, with its blinkered Philistinism and single-minded pursuit of best-sellers has long since abandoned, as it has so many other game styles; but it's a style of game that also continues to exist, and in some cases to thrive, among independent games. I would argue that Portal is a game of precisely the same type as Eets, Chocolate Castle, Storked, and Professor Fizzwizzle. Those games are 2D, of course, and tend perhaps toward cloying cuteness, since they're attempting to cater to the demands of the casual game market -- but they are all, in their own way, excellent games.
Yes, the specific dynamics of play in all of these games is different from Portal; yes, each has its own quirks and style of puzzle. But as with Portal, each presents a series of levels; and in each level in every one of these games, you must use the characteristics of the level, and the known abilities of objects you encounter therein, to solve a particular problem and thereby open an exit, get to a particular location, or achieve some other well-defined and invariant objective ("eat all the chocolate"). "Breath of fresh air?" Say better: Another nicely polished game of this well-established style.
So let us have an end to the panegyrics for Portal -- and also to far-fetched claims that other, unrelated and very different titles, cast doubt on its evident virtues.
In the final analysis, Portal is a nicely polished little puzzle game. Hugely innovative? Not so much. But certainly worth playing.