Every now and again, something comes along that changes everything.
Sometimes, it’s a piece of technology – the ability to create fire, the invention of the wheel, spoken and written language. Sometimes, it’s a bit of culture – the first codified and written set of laws, the idea of social hierarchy, the recognition of divinity.
Other times the change is subtle, pervasive, the sort of thing that impacts immediately but takes time to fully understand. A book written and copied and added to over five thousand years, starting with a tribe of nomads and spreading world wide. The idea of cinema and how it affects people’s perception of their lives and their history.
And, finally, sometimes it changes the way stories are made and told.
That happened with a video game called Portal.
Portal was released among the cavalcade of first person shooters, games that play like action movies with the violence geared up to insane degrees. It’s still an intensely popular style of game, infesting a number of different genres – the science fiction of Halo, the war propaganda of Call of Duty, the horror of Doom, the slapstick of Team Fortress 2, and even the upcoming heroism of Overwatch all come to mind – but the style never veered away from violence.
As the player, you were handed a gun. Puzzles involved finding keys to open doors and rarely veered from that simple pattern; the real puzzles were figuring out who to murder and it what order.
Enter Portal. A isometric puzzle platformer created as a grad project, the people at Valve viewed the mock-up of the game and liked it so much they offered the whole team contracts before they’d even graduated.
Portal was turned into a first person puzzle game, the first of it’s kind. The gun you were given didn’t shoot any sort of death beam, but was instead used to create doorways that led from one place to another. The enemies didn’t appear malicious – instead, there appeared to be some kind of testing going on, run by the most passively malicious artificial intelligence ever.
It was incredibly well designed and well crafted, rewarding creativity and lateral thinking. The controls were simple and responsive and the game was more satisfying than even the most delicious cake. Valve decided to include Portal as a freebie in their Orange Box, a group of four games that included what they and everyone else expected to be the best game of that year – Half Life 2.
Half Life 2 was great. A remarkable game.
Portal was better in every possible way.
The voice acting was better. The controls, tighter. The story was more engaging. And the game itself was more challenging, removing any obvious offensive capability in favor of a device that did nothing more than create doorways. It sounded ludicrous, but then you sat down to play it and ended up working your way through one of the most satisfying experiences since the original Super Mario Bros.
How important was Portal, culturally?
It shifted the way games were made. Puzzles became much more complex in the wake of Portal, as game designers felt the need to try and echo what Portal had done. The ending theme became one of the most popular songs of that year in the geek community. Cake jokes are still a massive part of geek culture, all traced back to the Black Forest pastry promised by this game.
References are made in movies, on television. Pieces of media outside of gaming make direct reference to or draw from Portal. People that don’t play games and have never heard of the source know things about the story, the song, the things that happen in it because they permeate our culture.
In Vancouver this weekend there’s going to be a theatrical musical production of Portal done by Geekenders and hosted by the Rio Theater, because of course there is. They’re sold out of pre-sale tickets, though the Rio is keeping a hundred tickets on hand for those of you lucky enough to get there before the hundreds of other people that want to see it show up.
Get there early, grab a ticket, and get in the door. If you know what the fuss is about, well, you already know you’re in for a treat. If you’ve been wondering what all those ‘deadly nerve toxins’ and ‘still alive’ and Cave Johnson and horrible machine voiced comments are all about, why not come and find out?