Portal: Simultaneously Enthralling and Disappointing

Sometimes, expectations are everything. A big reason for buying the PS3 version of The Orange Box was Portal. But since being released over a year ago, the game has been talked to death, and I thought I knew everything about it going in. I was both right and wrong.

The first handful of Portal test chambers were magical and enchanting. They were short and simple enough for me to be able to absorb the atmosphere, soak everything in. I knew that there was no shooting involved, just the Portal gun, but I was somewhat surprised that you don't have full access to it until somewhere near the middle of the game. Despite having only one "weapon," this works really well to acclimate you to the handful of features of that tool. At first, the concepts of Portal seemed impossibly hard for brain to process. But as you are introduced to new techniques one by one, you naturally start to see where you can apply them in later levels. The portal gun really does affect the way you see the world and approach the puzzles in the levels.

Despite the slow and meticulous introduction of features, problems, and hazards in this game, I felt somewhat of a disconnect when I suddenly encountered lethal test chambers. Although I suppose that's part of the point. GLaDOS has gone off the rails and can no longer be trusted. No longer am I just going through the tests. I'm trying to escape. But I was completely enveloped in the non-lethal, "safe" encounters of the early levels. Personally, I would have welcomed the entire game resembling the first half, with no sentry turrets or pools of acid.

Speaking of GLaDOS, the voice of the computer controlling your experiences of the research facility, I think she's every bit as smarmy, humorous, and captivating as I had been led to expect. The problem was that while I caught all of her instructions, advice, and commentary in the first handful of levels, once the action heated up, I wasn't always able to pay attention to her. One play through of this game for a first-person perspective novice like myself is simply not enough time for me to absorb everything. Much of her dry and misleading commentary in the second half flew right by me, as I focused on more pertinent issues like surviving or crossing a huge pool of acid. GLaDOS adds a lot to the game, but I worry that I only appreciated her as much as I did because of the extensive amount of Portal coverage I had already read since its release.

On a final note, I was fully expecting Portal to be a three hour adventure. And I was fine with that. In fact, I was looking forward to a shorter game. But after getting stuck on a couple of the later puzzles, and wandering around lost in the final search for GLaDOS, my time with the game probably stretched out closer to the seven hour mark. Again, still not that long for a game, but much longer than I expected. And to some degree that ruined my experience of the game. I kept thinking it was almost over when I still had a while to go.

The larger issue here is that of learning too much about a game before it comes out. There's a good chance I'll have this problem repeatedly over the coming weeks as I check out numerous PS3 titles I finally have the opportunity to try. After reading dozens of articles about a particular game, it's bound to not fully meet my expectations. In a perfect world, I would go into a game knowing just enough to get an idea of whether it appeals to me or not. I don't want to know everything about a game before I play it. But as someone who constantly reads about games and the games industry, it's hard to avoid encountering too much about those games I most want to play.

I'll have to try to temper my expectations a bit as I begin future games. Portal was a lot of fun, and if I ever have the time, I'd like to play through it again. GLaDOS's commentary was funny and memorable, and the difficulty ramped up nicely. But somehow, it managed to be simultaneously what I expected and what I didn't expect. At the very least, I can be thankful that I'm "still alive."


Gregory Weir said...

The issue with understanding speech in moments of tension is what leads me to always enable subtitles in games. I find that I can read and process subtitles much more easily than I can handle parsing spoken dialogue, especially when other complex sounds are playing.

Valve does one of the best jobs in the industry at subtitling their games, and the Source games even have a captioned mode for the hearing-impaired. I have fine hearing, so I can't fully evaluate the success of the captioning, but it's nice that they have included it.

Korey said...

Actually, thanks for pointing this out. I had completely forgotten that I used subtitles during not only Portal, but my current play through of Half-Life 2 as well. It did help me process the speech presented to me, but I know I still missed bits of it. That's ok, though. Portal totally deserves another round.