This article first appeared in the December 2022 issue of PC Gamer Magazine Issue 364 as part of our “Reinstall” series.Every month we load a beloved classic—And find out if it matches the sensibilities of our modern games.
Portal has a place in the gaming classic, so it’s hard to argue why it’s replayed. Either you’ve played it and liked it, or you know what it’s all about. It’s like recommending the original Star Wars trilogy to someone for the first time: we all know who Luke’s father is. Its iconic moments are part of gaming culture — the mate cube is almost outdated, not retro enough as a symbol of nerd culture, but it’s outdated — and “cake is a lie” is remembered more thoroughly than “to the An arrow in the knee” for Skyrim.Meanwhile, many other games are built on Portal’s “think with portals” mechanic, from puzzle games like Bridge Constructor to shooters like Splitgate
That was before Portal 2 was mentioned, and it significantly expanded on what the original Portal introduced. About four times as long plus additional puzzle-solving mechanics and a co-op campaign, Portal 2 gives us both the backstory of Aperture Science and GlaDOS, as well as the introduction of new, much-cited characters from Wheatley and Cave Johnson. Johnson’s speech on “When Life Gives You Lemons, Don’t Make Lemonade, Let Life Get Your Lemons Back” may not have surpassed “Cakes Are Lies,” but it’s printed on many, many tea towels.
So why play now if Portal’s mechanics are already based on the new game, and its most famous lines have been stripped away for hilarity and printed on players’ T-shirts for years ? Because, I think, what Portal’s place in the gaming canon overshadows is not its effectiveness as a puzzler or a comedy, but its effectiveness in telling a horror story about powerlessness.
Portals are constantly juggling control—and how much or how little control you have at any one time. When the game starts, you wake up in a small glass case with no exit. All you can do is pick up the things around you: a radio, a clipboard, a mug you can smash. (Of course, I always do. Resistance may be futile, but I feel it is necessary.) All the while, a camera is watching you from outside your glass-case prison—the timer is ticking, and The voice of the robot welcomes you to the facility, explaining that “your sample has been processed” and testing can now begin.
It’s easy to forget, but the first test doesn’t even allow you to use the portal gun, instead forcing you to navigate around preset portals. Even if you end up taking full control of the blue and orange portals and it feels like the level should be open to you, the level design still feels grim and hostile.
You have to wait for the platform to come to you, wait for the timer to align, and wait for the energy ball to reach its destination. Sure, it’s possible to play the game fast — both “fastest time” and “least portal” have fast runs — but there are only fixed ways in which you can act in the world. You can press the button and you can shoot the portal. Trying to run partial tests prematurely will fail at best and kill you at worst.
The feeling of being just a cog in the machine is oppressive—although the information is a bit off, the early existence of GlaDOS suggests a set of pre-recorded messages representing Aperture Science only. She’s the bot you talk to on the phone while trying to find the real agent, and if that bot has the ability to snipe you, like you want to snipe it. You are functionally alone.
Increasingly, it’s not just the design of test chambers that is hostile, but the tests themselves. Flooring in one will kill you, so you are warned to try to avoid it. Exposure to the regularly emitted energy balls will also kill you. Turrets with laser sights are sure to kill you – or at least blood splashes on the pristine white walls as you figure out how to disarm them.
All the while, GlaDOS offers useless advice but promises cake rewards on the other end. Cake, in one case, grief counseling.
Even the gaps between floors are hostile, liberating the grill will dissolve anything you try to carry with you (and potentially liberating your fillings, crowns, enamel or teeth), and elevators, especially liners Padded walls. Calling a mental ward isn’t my favorite horror visual shorthand, especially when some of Aperture’s canon background is clumsy in describing mental illness. In any case, the image is known in too many media to understand its effect: it is medicalized and isolated.
But of course, you’re not completely isolated because someone lives inside the walls, behind the test chamber. Compared to sterile, monitored test rooms, when you find maintenance areas, they’re rusted and falling apart — not to mention covered in panicked graffiti. “Cake is a lie”, yes, but also obviously “help” if you don’t pick it up from all the cameras – and GlaDOS doesn’t like the sound of having them destroyed – “she’s watching you”.
The meaning of this mysterious figure contributes to a sense of threat. What happens when the test ends? Why would anyone hide from “her” if there is a way out of this situation? Just how vicious is Aperture and what should you do about it? Every handprint on the wall, every scribbled “help”, is a disruption to the controlled environment of the testing room and a reminder that indefinite testing is not normal or sustainable.
We remember GlaDOS as funny and mean, but she exists in Portal as a controlling ghost. Many of her most ridiculous quotes (“That thing you burned doesn’t matter to me…it makes shoes for orphans”) only came when she was desperately trying to get it back. Until then, she has the upper hand in every situation, her lines about the creepy distance of someone who has total power over your life, but little interest in it. “The next test could take a very, very long time. If you’re dizzy with thirst, feel free to pass out.” They wouldn’t be the same without the context that made them sinister. That’s why, taken out of context, many of the widely cited parts of Portal are just part of what feels like a tiresome hashtag random internet culture.
While GlaDOS’ jab gradually becomes meaner at the start of the game from her phone tree character, the progression from “this is an agency that doesn’t care about me” to “this is a specific AI that personally hates me” is marked. Only The transition from “We, Aperture” to “I, GlaDOS” occurs when GlaDOS lets go of her ego and her narrative becomes completely unhinged. Even so, despite her insistence on parties and cakes, there are still some chilling lines when you look beyond the view of her all-around camera. “I know you’re there, I can feel you’re here.”
The battle for testing, surveillance, and control has established not only a general sense of fear, but an institutional terror. Aperture can be a hospital or a prison, and the decorations hardly change. But in their eyes, Chell started out as a powerless man, at the whim of someone who had the power to say, “The difference between us is that I feel the pain.”
The atmosphere that Portal creates, and the shifting of weight between the first and second parts, wouldn’t have worked without well-crafted puzzles. Each test room gradually teaches you how to intuit various skills. When you might need to use momentum conservation to throw yourself to a great height or distance, or how to time a portal to get around deadly obstacles, or even simple training to find light bricks.
When you find yourself outside the testing chamber, you will no longer be required to be tested and these abilities will become survival skills. Of course, it’s still a puzzle design, but without the visual cues of the test room — step markings, clearly marked entrances and exits — you have to stand up and think. If the first half of the game is hostile because the room feels like it was designed for you, the rest of Aperture isn’t designed for you at all.
Portals are fun. GlaDOS is ridiculous, the terms “cubes” and “buttons” are overkill and they make a “wow” sound when you knock the turret down. But it’s funny because it goes to such a dark place. Portal 2 sets this darkness aside for more hilarious-based comedy and ditched dynamics with GlaDOS — which I can appreciate on its own — but it also solidifies the Portal franchise, because It is known for its comedy. In the years since its release, the details that led to its repressive discomfort have been flattened.
In less than three hours, Portal will not only use the time it has to teach you exactly how to play it, but it will also boost the tension until it breaks down when necessary. It works on both horror and punchline, with no room for emotional fatigue. It’s worth reinstalling for the experience: a short, creepy game that’s clever without being bloated, and that draws the line between sinister and absurd.
The last time I played Portal was two years ago before launching again for this piece. From my gallery of screenshots – and the memories of who I was bullied by – I play it every two to three years because it’s new to me. The puzzle is now burning in muscle memory, but the interval is just enough to wipe out any inoculation of my creepy. “Cake is a lie” may be a clichéd joke, but the help drawn on the floor in the same area is disturbing every time.