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Best of the Decade: Portal


Platforms: Windows, Mac, Playstation 3, Xbox 360

Release Date: October 9, 2007 (PC and 360 versions of The Orange Box)

Publisher: Valve Corporation

Developer: Valve Corporation

The phrase “short but sweet” isn’t often applied to video games. Most of the time there’s a perfectly good reason for this. Retail games tend to be expensive investments and most gamers expect a certain amount of length for their money. This doesn’t leave much room for those that wish to experiment with conciseness, but it’s an understandable concern. Spending $60 on a game that lasts two hours is rarely fun.

Portal slightly predates the downloadable game revolution that has made it possible for games such as Limbo and Costume Quest to experiment with providing less length for less money, but perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the movement.

Originally debuting as part of The Orange Box, Valve threw Portal into the mix as an experiment. Valve knew they had something good on their hands but didn’t know what to do with it. Downloadable games certainly existed at the time, but hadn’t quite proven themselves like they have in the last couple of years. They decided to stuff it into a compilation of proven successes as an added bonus and see what happened.

What happened was it turned into a verifiable phenomenon and solidified its place in the hearts of gamers everywhere.

Portal is a game that you could easily finish in a sitting, albeit perhaps a long one if you haven’t played it before and aren’t terrific at solving puzzles. What’s revolutionary about it is that this isn’t a shortcoming. Portal represents one of the first, and certainly one of the most prominant, major game releases to embrace conciseness as a virtue. It provides a thrilling, memorable, and often hilarious journey while being no longer than absolutely necessary to say what it wanted without wearing out its welcome. 

You won’t find any repetition, any needless filler, or any dull moments here. What you’ll find is a game that’s consistently fun from end to end and that lends itself tremendously well to multiple plays. These are two qualities not often said of lengthier traditional games. Much like a favorite movie, it’s easy to pop in Portal for a quick evening’s entertainment and relive the fun without too much investment. Certainly not every game could or should adopt this philosophy, but Valve’s brief masterpiece makes the case that it’s a design philosophy that should pop up more often.

It’s not simply the lack of length that makes Portal notable, of course. That would be unimportant were it not for the brilliant puzzles, clever writing, and superb game design that make it a pleasure to play, whether for the first time or the fifteenth. GlaDOS may be little more than a large pile of circuits, but her unique personality and humorous dialog are what truly turn Portal from simply a good puzzle game to a top-shelf title of the highest order. 

For stealing yet another quality from the “cinematic” playbook and making it work effortlessly in an interactive setting, for providing plenty of memorable puzzles and quotable lines, and for giving us “Still Alive”, what is surely one of the greatest musical achievements any game has ever produced, Portal is one of my Best of the Decade.

And I made it through this entire article without using an easy Portal-related joke. Now that’s a triumph.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

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