[Videogames are about the instances when player, machine, and code meld together in a formless dance and produce something meaningful. Something memorable. An experience. A moment.]
It was not meant to end like this.
Maybe you played Valve’s previous games. Half-Life. Opposing Force. Half-Life 2. Maybe you know that Valve are no stranger to ending their games on a bitter note, either with the player-character’s death or estrangement in otherwise unfortunate circumstances. Still, immolation to end a puzzle game all seems a bit much.
Things started simply enough. You awoke in a glass cell. You moved through a series of test chambers under the instructions of a friendly, automated female voice. The kind of voice that would probably go to the bar on a Friday afternoon with the Telstra and Centrelink answering machines. The kind of voice that would assure you she is a real person and of course you should say your password over the telephone. That voice taught you how to jump. How to move crates. How to use buttons to open doors. Most importantly, it taught you how to use the portal gun.
It’s a simple device. A gun. You play videogames. You know how to use a gun. But this gun doesn’t shoot bullets. It shoots portals: elliptic wormholes that open up on whichever surface you fire at. Left-click shoots the blue portal; right-click shoots the orange. The two can be traversed with a single step, folding the space between them. Want to go over there? Simply put one portal there, one portal here, and step through.
You had to dramatically change your conception of space, of how space is traversed. But that is okay. That was the point of the whole game. You did what the voice said. You solved puzzles in the “test chambers”. You sensed a story, sure, but one that was there for decoration. Like the castle in the background of Tetris. A story to justify your actions, not a story to engage with. Devices gotta be tested, right? That’s a good enough excuse to play. So you played. You tested.
But then things got weird. You wondered where all the other people were. What was that off-hand comment the voice made about cake? Did she just suggest you might be killed? What are those scribbles on the wall?
And then it is the final test chamber. There is a sign right there on the wall telling you as such. You jump onto the sliding platform on its monorail track. You use some portals to get around a wall blocking your path. You don’t even have to think about it anymore. Folding space to your whim has become second nature.
But then you round the corner. You see the flames. You see the rail descending into them along with the final seconds of your life. The woman’s voice assures you the portal device will be undamaged by the flames.
Portal’s slogan is “Now you’re thinking with portals”. You don’t think. If you think you will die. Instead you act. You shoot the blue portal on the wall, just above the licking tongues of the flames. You shoot the orange one on the far side of a maintenance walkway beyond the flames. You leap. You miss the flames and fall through the portal, landing of the platform, just in time to watch the platform sink into the fire.
Imagine you are playing Tetris and all of a sudden you figured how to walk away from the endlessly falling shapes and go to the castle. That just happened.
The voice tries to hide its alarm. It tells you to stay calm. That someone will come and “collect” you. You aren’t really listening anymore. You did something that simultaneously was the only thing you could do and exactly what you weren’t meant to. This isn’t a puzzle game anymore. Testing ended; play continues.
Above you, way above you, you spy a maintenance shaft and a small hole in the mesh. You see where portals might be placed so to propel yourself into the shaft, into the area between the test chambers. You place the portals and jump through. This isn’t a puzzle game. Oh no. Not anymore. This isn’t how it ends. This is how it begins.