Cake, Lies and Heart-Decked Cubes: the Portal Experience


The Portal video game duology is one of the most successful series of all time. When it was released as a part of The Orange Box along with Half-Life 2, one of the most important things in video game history, and Team Fortress 2, one of the first class-based first person shooters to ever hit the mainstream, Valve expected it to just be a side act. Fortunately for them [Ed. Note—and unfortunately for those of us who get tired of gamer jokes very quickly], Portal ended up being the main show, spawning one of the greatest games ever, with one of the greatest stories ever, with some of the greatest gameplay ever, with one of the best sequels ever. Unfortunately, Valve can’t really count past two, so it’s not like the series will be continued further. Unless . . .

The original Portal had everything you could want in an indie puzzle game. The puzzles were difficult, but not to the point that Googling was necessary. There was a concrete story, but not everything was directly pointed out, so any player could decide to dig deeper and learn more if they so pleased. The mechanic of portals was something never-ever-before-seen, outside of science fiction novels or comic books. They were so simple, yet so complex; on the surface, it’s just point at surface, click, point at other surface, click, walk through one to go to the other. But if you look beyond the surface level, the possibilities are nearly endless. On top of that, Valve created one of the best villains ever, period: GLaDOS. GLaDOS had (and still has) everything you could possibly want in a villain: humor, drive, malice, constant menace to the player, and most importantly to most players, an entertaining boss battle. It wasn’t too difficult, but not too easy. It was somewhat complex, but not so difficult that it was impossible without being told exactly what to do. And of course, the climactic ending was packed with emotion and intensity. The best part of it, though, is the fact that it led perfectly into the best sequel in video game history. Unfortunately for the player, no cake is received. [Ed. Note—there it is.] If you know, you know.

Portal 2 starts off more or less the same way, but with a joke for the ages: press ‘A’ to speak. Again, if you know, you know. The sequel also introduces Wheatley, a character written as beautifully as he is voice-acted. Of course, GLaDOS wasn’t going to be forgotten completely, but the writers had a problem: how do you resurrect a dead robot? Through the shenaniganry that follows listening to a robot specifically designed to be a moron, of course! This leads into a plethora of new test chambers with periodic interruptions from Wheatley, updating you on the status of his plan to help you escape, building up to the “final” battle, leading to perfect execution of a twist villain (take notes, Disney), leading to the greatest character Valve has ever created:



After falling into a particular group of test chambers, voice recordings play after each one is completed. These are from Cave Johnson, who himself is voiced by the amazing J.K. Simmons, whom you may recognize as J. Jonah Jameson from Tobey MacGuire’s (and now Tom Holland’s) Spider-Man films. Every recording is pure comedy, and it adds even more incentive to finish a chamber; now, you don’t just get sweet, sweet game progression, but also sweet, sweet laughs. It’s near impossible to describe these recordings in words, so here’s a short, inspiring, life-changing quote:

“When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons, what the hell am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the lemons! I’m gonna get my engineers to invent a combustible lemon that burns your house down!”
— Cave Johnson, late Aperture Science CEO

On top of this, Portal 2 especially has a lot of the same kind of dark comedy present in the first game, now mixed with comedy you might find in a Mel Brooks film: things like a giant vault door the size of a house opening to reveal a small, normal-sized door that doesn’t even have a lock, or the “The Part Where He Kills You” section.

When they decided to release Portal, Valve wasn’t aware of how players would react to the far-from-conventional gameplay, so the other parts of The Orange Box were used as attempts to give Portal more players, because if you have a game, might as well try it, right? As it turned out, a lot of people had this thought process, and the community response was overwhelmingly positive, an opinion also shared by numerous review websites and organizations. Portal, even though it was purposefully kept at a short length in case players didn’t react well, won the Game Developers Choice Award for Game of the Year for 2007, beating out gaming titans like God of War II, Crysis (to be fair, the judges probably didn’t have a computer that could run it), Resident Evil 4, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and even BioShock and Super Mario Galaxy. It was so good that it won the IGN award for Best Sidekick—FOR AN INANIMATE BOX.

When the sequel came out, the Spike Video Game Awards—the previous iteration of the Game Awards we know and disagree with today (God of War: Ragnarok > Elden Ring all day every day)—took quite a bit of notice. Those were full of Portal 2 in 2011. Portal 2 was nominated for Game of the Year, Best XBox 360 Game, Best Song in a Video Game, Best Song in a Video Game (again), Best Original Score, and Character of the Year. You thought that was it? You sad, poor fool. Portal 2 was also nominated—and won—Best PC Game, Best Multiplayer (for the co-op game mode), Best Performance by a Human Male (Wheatley) and Best Performance by a Human Female (GLaDOS), and, finally, Best DLC. On top of all of that, Portal and Portal 2 have some of the best ratings of all time, with a perfect 10/10 on Steam, which doesn’t actually mean all that much, as both Steam and the Portal franchise are owned by Valve, but cut them some slack, okay? They don’t know what comes after two.