Portal: Less is More

Portal: Less is More

Once you get your mind around that one, tricky bend, that hard-to-grasp concept that, no matter where they exist in the world, the two portals act as a single doorway, the universe melts beneath your feet. And then, several levels later, the game really pulls out the rug.


Really good review Russ. Less is More is right. Instead of trying to make a game have some sort of X hours of game play they made one that was just fun. I to could not stop playing till I was done. It really was one of the best games I have ever played. Oh yea the ending song is on my Mp3 playlist.

I agree with most points like the different atmospheres of HL1 and HL2 and while i wouldnt use the same words (acid as tag?) i agree that Portal is the best game released in a long time, not despite it being so short but rather because it was so short.

Strangely it wasnt so much the concept of portals that kept me hooked to complete the thing in less than an hour, but it was the unique feeling of loneliness and confusion that very carefully was cleared and the blurry picture of the situation was only drawn by vague hints and gracefully done indirect characterization.

I played it for the story.

I didnt care about its ties with the HL canon. Im impressed how well this game fits the definition of a modern short story (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_story ): A short excerpt of a single interesting situation, without any expostition or epilog, usually with only a small cast. A story whose whole purpose is the presentation of a single unique trick or effect. And it worked because it was executed perfectly.

I think thats the reason why despite its (lack of) length, alot of people really did feel satisfied and content, even more than after playing games that tried to tell epic tales of huge universes and dozens of characters. Portal to HalfLife 2 is what "Lamb to the Slaughter" is to "Lord of the Rings". Like Russ said: sometimes, less is more simply because it creates something new and unexpected.

I cant be the only one who made the link to different literary genres, can i?

Fascinating article. While I don't personally share your negative (for want of a better word) opinions on Half-Life 2, your points are all astute ones. I will say, though, that's got to be the first time I've ever heard HL2 accused of "blatant exposition". :p It's less sparse than its predecessor's, certainly, but it's exactly the amount I like. I guess my tastes are just more Bioshock-esque than yours when it comes to storylines. I really, really love digging into rich fiction like that of Rapture or City 17, feeling like a tiny cog in a much larger machine, whether its hunting down every last log of long-dead characters, or sitting staring into space trying to assemble a timeline of just what happened to the earth in my absence from it.

I've been finding myself in a weird position this last few weeks, reading reviews and articles like this one. I love Portal like crazy, I adore it, but I feel like I still don't love it with the intense, feverish passion that many commentators do. It's an utterly phenomenal game, but so is Half-Life Episode 2, in my mind. I don't really have any point to make there, it's just that I'm usually the one brimming with hyperbole for games like this, and perhaps I feel a little left out in the cold here. I love Portal, but do I love it ENOUGH?

I guess I'm just a bad person, huh? :p

I really hope they don't make a sequel to Portal. IT WAS THE BEST ENDING EVER. Let's leave it that way.

I loved Half-Life 2, not so much episode 1 but episode 2 was enjoyable.

Interesting article with some interesting points.

I have to say, I've never played Half-Life, and most likely never will, so the game Portal reminded me most of was Super Metriod.

It's just you and one big map to explore, dozens of puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and bosses to bring down before you can get to the shocking and exquisite showdown that, to me, not even Portal could match, though Portal does have the better end credits.

I could pretty much retype your article and replace every mention of "Half-Life" and "Half-Life 2" with "Metriod III" and "Metriod IV" to best express my feelings on the subject, but that's a bit too much work, and my point has been made already, anyway. (I hope)

Also, for the most part, in the gaming world, less is rarely more, and it's only a very few extremely well crafted master works that could ever hope to get away with that motto.

Let's face it, if Portal was 6 hours instead of 3, we would love it even more, but only if those extra 3 hours were as well done as the first 3, which is a horrendously difficult task, which makes me wonder what they plan to do to top it in the sequel.

And though you may feel that knowing more about what happened, why it happened, and what will happen next isn't worth knowing and will spoil your memories of this great game, I say ,"tell me, I want to know!" because you just know that, even if it's disappointing and ruins the dystopia world feel you like so much, you still want to know more.

What will happen next, what's the next part of the story, how's it all gonna end?

Cause you know, a test subject with a very expensive, rare and near priceless piece of technology escaped her maze, Aperture, whoever they are, isn't just gonna stand there and let her go, they're gonna try to catch her, with force, and I can't wait to see how they plan to make puzzles around avoiding mercenaries out to hunt you down, possibly in that forest we all saw before the blackout....

Yeah, it won't be the same game, but you know what?

If you want the same game, than play the first game, while I can't wait to play the squeal.

"But I hope I don't ever learn more about the protagonist or Aperture. If the price of more time with Valve's excellent creations is the death of what makes them so uniquely wonderful to begin with, I'll take the memories and you can keep the sequels."

Someone clearly didn't play with the rest of the orange box before writing up a review.

Random Frequency:
Someone clearly didn't play with the rest of the orange box before writing up a review.

That's a little unfair, although I mean so only very gently. Russ did spend two thirds of his review discussing the other bits of the HL games before launching into Portal. I think he's aware of the rest of the orange box.

For my opinion, Portal succeeded first because it had new and completely awesome gameplay. Second, because it offered an excellent narrative that wasn't sparse and wasn't overbearing. Third, because it was short.

My motto is "short is better". I'm sick and tired of games that last five hours too long only to give you a crappy ending and badly rehashed gameplay.

And in terms of story? I think Valve has been steadily increasing their narrative elements from the get go. HL? Good, but still sparse. HL2, good gameplay, but the story was still too sparse. EP1, EP2, and Portal get it right, and give you an NPC companion for the duration of the game. The companion helps tie you into the story, and take away the lonely bad ass feeling that most games have in over-abundance.

In that regard, Russ, I cannot agree with your sentiments about Valve's storytelling abilities.

I just realized that I cared more about my weighted companion cube than I did for Alex.

I just remembered the game Portal most reminds me of. I can't believe I forgot to mention it in the review, but Portal strikes a lot of the same chords Epyx's wonderful C64 game, Impossible Mission, struck for me when I was a child. I understand Impossible Mission is soon to be released for the Wii virtual console. I recommend trying it if you have the chance.

As for weighted companion cubes, I'll be first in line to pay money for one. I only hope they come packaged with a book of matches.

Cause you know, a test subject with a very expensive, rare and near priceless piece of technology escaped her maze, Aperture, whoever they are, isn't just gonna stand there and let her go, they're gonna try to catch her, with force, and I can't wait to see how they plan to make puzzles around avoiding mercenaries out to hunt you down, possibly in that forest we all saw before the blackout....

I wouldn't have thought so.

Also, I do agree that less is more - Portal's story is stronger. But I had more fun with Ep2's plot, precisely because of its density and characterisation.

I really think that you underestimate gordons importance in half-life 2 after all who storms the suppresion device, who infiltrates the combines perimeter and destroys their antlion defense grid, also gordon breaks into the citadel and destroys (or appears to anyway) Breen.

I think I've missed out on the whole companion cube love :)

I mean, it's a cube with a heart on that you use to help you solve a few puzzles!

Erm... having said that my current desktop on my work PC is (yes, you've guessed it!) none other than a lone Companion Cube. I'm a litany of contradictions.

I just realized that I cared more about my weighted companion cube than I did for Alex.

Agreed. Even when she doesn't mind you running around trying to stack rocks on top of each other, you still have that nagging feeling in your head that SHE'S STILL THERE. SHE STILL WANTS TO GET TO WHITE FOREST.
I honestly had enough of her in Episode One. I was so happy when the trailer showed her dying...not because I hate her; because it would've added so much more depth to the characters (afterwards I would imagine Eli fighting down Hunters with a shotgun) and Gordon would once again be alone like in HL2.

On its own merits I personally feel Portal is small packet of perfection. It could have been longer yes, but that was un-neccessary. No other game for many years has put as many little smiles on my face as it did.

I myself would like to see a large collection of extra challenges/advanced challenges in the bonus levels slot coming out regularly, some of which could possibly advance the story a little further. If there was a sequel I would rather it is set in a different Aperture science lab, possibly after the events of Portal 1 but with about as much initial explanation as to why you are there as there was in the first one. It would be cool if the computer was trying to punish you for your escape from the first lab.

Though I also feel it would be fun if someone gave Gordon a stolen Portal gun for his arsenal in HL 2:Ep 3. I wonder how long it will be before the Gary`s mod team manages to add the portal gun to their mod?

Hmm, amusing that there should be a strident ho-hum look at HL2 this week, when next week arrives my 1800-word tome on its significance to gaming and W.B. Yeats. I'm amused.

Though I also feel it would be fun if someone gave Gordon a stolen Portal gun for his arsenal in HL 2:Ep 3. I wonder how long it will be before the Gary`s mod team manages to add the portal gun to their mod?

Oh, haven't seen it in Half-Life yet?


It's true that as Gordon, you don't really accomplish anything in Half Life 2, Doctor Breen even explicitly brings this as your make your way to the top of the Citadel: "Tell me Dr. Freeman, if you can, you have destroyed so much, what is it, exactly, that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not."

Throughout Half Life 2, you are referred to alternately as "The One Freeman" (by the Resistance) or "Anti-Citizen One" (by the Combine). At this point, years after Black Mesa, Gordon Freeman is a mythical figure, a fulcrum, a locus around which the fate of the world revolves.

Your somewhat messianic position is interesting given that once again you have no choice in the matter. In Half Life you escape Black Mesa because you are unable to do anything else, you often can't go backward so the only choice is to stay where you are forever, or move forward to the inevitable conclusion. Your journey in Half Life 2 is the same, you progress because you have no choice. There's a core dichotomy between why you believe you are doing something and the motives those around you (In the game world) assign to your actions.

Portal has some fun with this concept, as you are very explicitly a "rat in a maze", backward motion is prohibited, if you are to go anywhere it's forward and within preset boundaries. During those early stages experimenting with the Portal gun is entertaining and you gladly progress to see what else you can do with it. Your motivations and those assigned to you by the characters within the world, specifically GLaDOS, are in sync. Even at the end when you break free of the experiments and turn the tables on GLaDOS your actions are still in sync with the perception of the characters within the world.

Without something like the Portal device, it's difficult to achieve the same feeling of earning your freedom that Half Life did, so I think it was a wise decision to take Half Life 2 in a different direction. All three games are essentially a journey from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge. With Portal and Half Life it's both a physical and metaphorical, and is largely a solitary one. In Half Life 2 it's again a metaphorical journey, you learn a little about the fate of the world post-Black Mesa, but it is a very physical journey for those around you. In the former you are the seeker, in the latter you are the guide.

See, I enjoyed Portal, but it did feel like I knew almost everything there was to know about it from that first trailer: the concept, the aesthetics, the black humour, it was all there. So when I did finish Portal I was impressed but not blown away, I feel like I missed something somehow.

I think having more characters in Half-Life 2, as well as forcing Gordon to rely on others was merely the evolution of the story. As Gordon, you have never really had a choice but to do what you have done. A man of science forced to become a solider and regarded as some kind of mystical/messianic figure. It has likely always been the same for others regarded in such a manner, people acting and achieving because they have no other choice.

Having other characters interacting with Gordon makes him more human, more attached to the greater scheme of what is occurring around him. In this way he is less a victim of circumstance and more of a participant in the events of the story. Human ties give Gordon a reason to fight, a reason to rescue people and a reason to win. Otherwise he might as well have joined forces with Breen and begun using his scientific knowledge to actually create something instead of constantly fighting, killing and destroying the people/things around him.

I liked portal. The subtle details and simple story made it nice.

Nice review Russ. Actually it was more like 4 reviews. Half Life, Half Life 2, Bioshock and Portal. I agree with what you said about knowing less in HL was better, but it goes the same in HL2. For ages I didn't understand why people were calling the Combine aliens? I thought they were just some totalitarian government figure (well, human ones anyway). HL2 threw you into the mix of things without giving you a single piece of info. You only knew that this Breen character was evil and you had to stop him. I do agree that Episode 1 felt like a cakewalk. The only thing you do is back up Alyx by unlocking doors for her. While this is so it was to build up a relationship with her. Thankfully HL2 and Episode 2 weren't as confind and felt that you were back into control of things.

I enjoyed Portal as a little note of technology pinned too the rest of The Orange box, but I think you are giving it a bit too much credit for the story.

I did believe I was special for doing so well in the game, until I got to the first Alcove in the wall. I had believed I had real talent at the obstacle course, but it turned out that I was truly powerless. As opposed to my ability to jump around corners, someone, probably only a scientist, had carved a small location for himself through the course, he had truly broken the rules, and won, if only for a matter of days.

The glass frosted over gave me the assurance that every miniscule triumpth was only done to be watched, and the messages with "Subject name" and the such showed me the truth: I was not the first, and for all I knew then, not the last.

The final blow they were able to land against me was the fire room, which I was meant to meet my end in. That is where I knew I was not the first to come so far, the gun in my hands had seen the course through and through already in other hands, and better people than me had failed. Of course, you make it out, but you still see scrawlings on the walls insinuating that you were second. The game would have had more of an immpact should you have found your predescessor's bullet ridden corpse, and gone beyond, so the you would know you had won.

In the end, you are not sure what had happened to him. Had he made it out alive? Had he found a way to the surface that didn't call for billions of dollars in property damage? We will never truly know.

I'm a little late to the commenting party, seeing as how this just showed up in the Related section of an article.

Maybe it's just because I'm of a newer generation of gamers, but I rather prefer Half-Life 2's storyline. Half-Life was impressive in its time, but it lacks the emotional connection that the HL2 story has forged. Everybody in HL is just a face, but HL2 and its sequels have made me care about characters. When the Episode 2 credits rolled, Alyx wasn't the only one who felt like crying.

I guess what it comes down to is that HL felt generic to me. Aliens invade, military comes to clean up the mess. But I really enjoyed Portal's storytelling. The little hints behind the walls and messages left for you are wonderful to find.

Maybe that's what the crux is. Portal feels more personal than Half-Life did. I can appreciate sparse storytelling, but it needs to seem personal, which is something Half-Life didn't.

On a side note, I really don't see how Gordon was more important in HL versus HL2. In both games he just wanders around in the only path available to him. In the first, he's pretty much just trying to survive. I guess that's the ultimate limitation of the Valve-style FPS. When there's only one path available to you, the actions you take carry less weight.

Bioshock does not have any cut-scenes... It has moments where control is taken from the player, but so does Half Life, you are still in a first person perspective, and the world is still moving about as normal, it's like the part in Skyrim where you are sitting in the back of the wagon, it's not s cut-scene.


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