The following is an entry in "Growth of a Gamer," a series of articles exploring the profound ways that video games can touch people's lives. For more information and more great content, you can check out the series' hub page! Until then, please enjoy "Portal to a New Phase of Life."
For the majority of my adolescence, I only owned Nintendo consoles and was, for lack of a better term, a complete Nintendo fanboy. The Wii was my jam. Never could I see myself owning a non-Nintendo console or playing one of those violent video games I associated with those other consoles. However, by age 12, I began to experience the more mature side of games. This is when I discovered my love for Valve’s games. Over various summers in middle school, I had taken courses at a tech camp that taught students how to use the Hammer Editor, the tool used by Valve to make levels, to create maps for Counter-Strike: Source and Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, games that had a certain mature appeal to them at the time. This piqued my interest not only in level design, but also in Valve. The germ of an idea to perhaps one day work as a game developer had already infected my mind, but at this point, it began evolving into something more. I thought that if I practiced using their map editor to make levels and got to the point where I was as good as (or better than) my counselor, maybe I could one day end up landing a job as a game designer at Valve (forward thinking for a middle schooler, I know).
When I bought Valve’s The Orange Box and played through Portal for the first time, I didn’t really know what to expect. But I loved it. I ended up playing through Portal many times, making it through the AI antagonist GLaDOS’s devious test chambers and Aperture Science’s abandoned research facilities with as much enthusiasm as the first time. The main hook of Portal, which can be described as a first-person platform-puzzler, is that you get equipped with an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (commonly known as the Portal Gun), which lets you fire an orange portal and a blue portal onto certain surfaces. When the player or any other object goes through one portal, it comes out of the other portal without losing any momentum.
This made for some very interesting puzzles, many of which involved using portals to fling things, myself included, at high speeds to reach otherwise unreachable places. As I progressed through the game, different puzzle elements, such as weighted cubes, volatile energy balls, turrets, and deadly pits of goo, were introduced to me, adding more layers and leading to more complex puzzles. With its unique mechanics, Portal broke the tropes of mainstream video games I was so accustomed to in that, for much of the puzzle solving that makes up the game, there are no enemies to overcome. The game relies on ingenuity and logic, not violence, to make it a compelling experience.
The main character of Portal, Chell, is a silent protagonist. This allowed me to step into the hero’s long-fall boots, and the first person view made it even more engaging and immersive. Looking through the eyes of the protagonist, I actually experienced the successes of puzzle completion along with the feeling of flying through the air, using the forces of gravity to my benefit to gain velocity as I launched through a perfectly placed portal.
Fast forward to eighth grade, middle school. I was 14 years old. Freshman year was on the horizon, and I was still quite a nerd. I don’t think there was anyone else in my class who loved video games quite as much as I did. At the time, I would play lots of action games (which typically involved shooting stuff) on my PlayStation 3. While I was quite content playing games with the likes of Call of Duty and Uncharted, part of me wanted something different from the tried and true run n’ gun formula, something more non-traditional.
Needless to say, when I heard Valve was making Portal 2, I was pretty excited. I would watch all the promotional material showing off the new mechanics, including these cool new gels that let you solve puzzles and traverse obstacles by speeding up and bouncing high, and the cute animated trailers that portrayed what it was like to work at Aperture Science. I was emotionally shaken by Portal 2: Lab Rat, the comic that ties together the stories of Portal and Portal 2, as I attempted to analyze the motives and psyche of this new character, Rattman. I even tried to keep up with the Potato Sack ARG about Portal 2 which took place closer to release. Fast-forward to April 2011, a month before my time in middle school was indefinitely over, and the time Portal 2 was to be released. I watched the ominous countdown on the Portal 2 website, which was spurred on closer and closer to zero by the ARG players. The game ended up being released 10 hours ahead of schedule thanks to the players of the ARG. After all of the hype, the question remained in my mind: would Portal 2 be as good as the first one? The answer is yes, and it was better than I ever could have imagined.
Portal 2 is an unconventional and original game that is designed and paced very cleverly, and at times it is even intellectually stimulating. Portal 2 introduces a ton of new puzzle elements, from lasers and light bridges to tractor beams and the aforementioned gels, all of which can go through the portals to allow even deeper puzzles than the first Portal. When all of these elements come together in one test chamber, it makes for some of the most intricate puzzles in any video game.
Portal 2’s fantastic story parodies the human fear of an artificial intelligence that matches or exceeds the intelligence of humans. Thanks to the witty dialogue penned by the writers at Valve (and the fantastic work of voice actors Ellen McLain and Stephen Merchant), the sentient robots or "Personality Cores" of Portal 2, Wheatley and GLaDOS, have more personality than most characters from other game narratives. I also admire how Valve develops the world of Portal 2 using the environment, a great example of which are the hilarious posters Valve created and hung on the walls throughout Old Aperture. Because of its dark humor, interesting characters, and phenomenal writing, Portal 2 manages to be both funny and disturbing.
The Portal franchise’s basis of solving puzzles by oneself evokes a feeling of solitude. Portal 2’s ingenious introduction of a co-op mode adds a completely new layer of sophistication. Including another player into the formula creates an attachment to the other person which turns into a friendly rivalry. In the co-op mode, each player controls one of the two Personality Cores who make up a double act, Atlas and P-body. Both players have a portal gun that shoots two portals, which leads to even crazier puzzles because of the possibility for four portals at the same time. These puzzles can be some of the hardest ones in the game and require a lot of collaboration.
Some of my fondest memories of Portal 2 involved going through the entire co-op campaign with my friend David. While we hardly ever saw each other outside of tech camp, we were able to connect digitally through online gaming and Steam chat. The collaborative mechanics in Portal 2’s co-op mode led to some very interesting interactions between us. Because David and I relied on each other to solve the puzzles, much unintentional (and intentional) sabotaging was done. If someone was walking on a light bridge over a pit of deadly goo, it was almost guaranteed that one of us would "accidentally" place a portal somewhere else so that the bridge disappeared out from under the poor guy, leading him to fall to his untimely, gooey doom. The developers added even more depth to the co-op mode using a gesture system. The gesture system, the best feature (or most annoying, depending on how you look at it), gave the players more ways to interact with each other. Since many of the gestures that involved both of the robots automatically activated when one of the players did the gesture within a general vicinity of the other player, David and I would use the gestures to mess with each other, such as giving unwanted high fives, challenging each other to unwanted duels of rock-paper-scissors, playfully decapitating each other, and waving to each other at random intervals.
Portal 2 literally has an unlimited replay value. Even after beating both campaigns, I was able to further enjoy Portal 2 by playing dozens of user-created test chambers and campaigns from the Steam Workshop, where creators are to this day uploading test chambers for anyone to play. I also dabbled with the in-game Puzzle Maker, which makes creating test chambers extremely accessible. Though the Puzzle Maker has a lot more limitations than the Hammer Editor, I still had a great time using it to think up and design my own test chambers for other test subjects to puzzle through, and it got me even more interested in the realm of level design.
Though plenty of people come up with good ideas, only a few can implement them as well as the developers of the Portal series did. After playing Portal and Portal 2, I became driven to learn programming and delve deeper into level design and game creation in general, and I haven’t looked back since. The Portal series has both changed the way I look at playing games and making them.
About the Growth of a Gamer Series
"Growth of a Gamer" is a series of articles exploring the profound way games and gaming can impact our lives, as told by students of the Interactive Media program at the University of Southern California. Each one tells a personal story of how a particular game or franchise molded us into the people we are today, and through our experiences we hope to shed light on the ways that these games have affected all of you as well. We invite you all to share your own stories in the comments below, or by writing your very own series entries through Gamnesia's Journals feature. We love coming together to share in the joys that make gaming so memorable for us all, and we hope that you'll join us!
You can find more information about these stories and their authors at the hub page for the Growth of a Gamer series, or find a particular game from the list below to jump right in!
- Pikmin, by Kevin Shi
- Portal, by Drew Perlman
- Mass Effect, by Justin Camden
- World of Warcraft, by James Collins
- Pokémon series, by Abhishek Biswas
- Pokémon Gold Version, by Colin McIsaac
- Spider-Man 2: The Game, by Cristian Guzman