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Special is an overused word, but for me Portal was the special experience that ignited my return to gaming, and one I couldn't be more thrilled to share.
Valve released The Orange Box bundle right around the time I was getting back into gaming. I'd missed out on Half-Life 2: Episode One, a feat that signified just how detached I was from gaming at university given my undying love of the vividly oppressive nightmare that was Half-Life 2. The Orange Box offered a chance at some familiar terrain before taking on newer, steeper climbs.
Unlike early adopters, however, I picked up The Orange Box when there was a buzz around its least known inclusion, a first-person puzzle game called Portal. Mine was a passing awareness; I was still finding my way back into gaming as well as reacclimatizing to the enthusiast press.
I think I had the perfect run-in to Portal. I had an understanding that it wasn't to be snobbishly neglected as a bundled extra, but I didn't have the pressure to experience this super important, must-play, generation-defining video game that Portal has now become. When I eventually booted it up (ed: showing your age there Sinan) I was excited to play, sure, but I wasn't really expecting anything that special.
Portal is special. No matter what way you look at it, no matter how you try to rationalize or criticize it, Portal is a special game. There are some people out there who don't like it, but chances are they played it when Portal was buckling under the weight of the widespread acclaim and stratospheric expectations that come with being so vaunted.
It's that acclaim that makes me defensive about Portal. The game is so popular that it's all too easy to give it too much praise. Special in particular is one of those glowing words that can be tossed around carelessly. So let's be clear: even though the people who dislike Portal are clearly very wrong, the following is why Portal was and is special to me.
It still weirds me out and makes me smile.
I've played it endlessly and not got even remotely bored. It's not just that the game is short, although that attribute helps to make it a quick, serviceable distraction from the typical day-long treks to get to the credits. It's more that I'm always eager to experience it again.
I don't even get bored of what should be the game's novelties. Every time I look through a portal and see myself at angles I shouldn't be able to it still weirds me out and makes me smile. No how matter how many times I complete the physics-based puzzles I still come out feeling smart.
Portal has an environment I feel comfortable in, although it's more a comfortable sort of discomfort. Being inside the constricting off-white corridors of the Aperture Science facility as the prisoner of a warped, psychopathic supercomputer which is watching my every move shouldn't make for an appealing sojourn, but it does.
Even though Portal is primarily a puzzle game with funny writing, there are so many little, deeper touches at work. There's the strange scrawling on the wall, the fleeting glimpses behind the curtain of the tests, and the intermittent, isolated dabs of desperate music that all work in tandem and all come together. Portal is far more than the sum of its parts.
A special moment in my returning gamer search for games.
It's these touches that mean I've formed my own connections to what is going on in this twisted, otherworldly space. I've developed this unspoken (at least on my part) relationship with my oppressor, GLaDOS. It has become a Stockholm Syndrome scenario where I complete the tests and she rewards me with a heartbreaking but hilarious putdown. She's cruel, twisted, and deeply disturbed, but I want to hear her speak and not just because it's funny but because it's something to latch onto in this hopeless penitentiary. It's like Pavlov's video game, a cruel experiment in which GLaDOS gets off on the bleakness and I get off on her getting off on it.
Then there's my standout memory of Portal, a special moment in my returning gamer search for games that stretch beyond the medium's self-imposed horizons. Upon completing the game I got my non-gamer girlfriend and non-gamer housemate to sit around my monitor and listen to an unedited clip of all the things GLaDOS says in the game.
We just sat for half an hour listening to a loosely chronological procession of baits, insults, and taunts, only one of us having even heard of the game let alone played it. Yet we were all in hysterics the whole way through.
So much of the game is in GLaDOS' speech.
My girlfriend and housemate didn't need an explanation of what was going on, they just enjoyed what was a funny piece of writing. For me, it was like reliving the game with them and, in a weird way, watching someone experience it for the first time. So much of the game is in GLaDOS' speech, and yet so much of it isn't.
When the clip finished they wanted to know more about Portal, how they could play, what was going on behind what GLaDOS was saying. So I told them about all the things I've mentioned here, and they were soon playing it too.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: