Because it’s original.
I think the key element that makes a video-game more than something great, something that receives such a reaction from gamers that it earns the coveted “Overwhelmingly Positive” distinction from Steam reviews, is originality. You can create the greatest FPS or greatest strategy game ever, but if despite all its excellence its only sense of ‘newness’ is a refinement of the mechanics that came before, it will never gain the veneration from gamers it might otherwise deserve. Take a look at the games that are rated overwhelmingly positive on Steam, and you might notice that almost all of them are the type of games that people just didn’t get to play prior to their release. Arguably, the puzzle game Portal is the best example of this.
Portal’s existence began as a Narbacular Drop, a Digipen student proof-of-concept created in 2005. Narbacular Drop had the player progress by creating and travelling through portals in its environment, a concept that impressed the good folks at Valve enough to hire the entire team of students that created it. Portal shares a lot of similarities with Narbacular Drop. Both open with the player-character locked in a cage, an ingenious idea as in both cases it teaches the player to immediately rely on the game’s portal mechanics as their only means of escape. As this was a very different FPS mechanic that players had never before experienced, this opening brilliantly encouraged them right from the beginning to view this game as a new kind of shooter.
Despite the early sense of positivity within Valve regarding their newly acquired concept, the video-game that would eventually employ it was never a primary focus for the company. It was after all released as part of The Orange Box, a bundle of loosely connected titles that Valve gave us as an apology for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 taking so long (oh, how quant that seems now). The team that developed it was relatively small, and it was tied to the Half-Life universe partly as a way to save on recourses by reusing assets. It came as something of a surprise for Valve to see it became so popular it was arguably the reason to buy The Orange Box.
Portal’s limitations became something of a virtue for players. Its minimalistic design kept their focus on solving the game’s perfectly challenging puzzles. Likewise, its narrative was reduced to a single voice that guided players throughout the experience. This voice came in the form of the seemingly polite yet deeply malevolent AI character GLaDOS, the apparent supervisor of the Aperture Science testing arena. And through nuanced voice-acting and spectacular writing GLaDOS became another of the game’s many, many highlights.
Portal was an outstanding achievement. It was the product of a creative team that understood entirely the appeal of its concept, and then found a way to executed it perfectly. Its puzzles were challenging enough to be rewarding, without ever being overly frustrating. Its presentation reinforced the laboratory testing environment, teasing though never distracting the player with a deeper, unexplored lore. More importantly, however, it was fresh. Though there were no shortage of original and highly playable games in 2007 (Bioshock, Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy, to name a few), Portal stood out as something we hadn’t seen before.
Of course, this originality became something of a double edge when you decide that your game deserves a sequel. How do you make one of most innovative video-games ever played, again? Certainly, you can add more features and gameplay mechanics, and Valve indeed ticked this box with the inception of conversion, repulsion and propulsion gels, which react in differing ways to make the established gameplay deeper in the new game. However, for Portal 2 Valve’s primary focus was not on reinventing a formula they had already proven, but rather expanding that formula from bundle add-on to fully realised stand-alone game.
Though the writing in the first Portal was exemplary, the game didn’t have anything that could be reasonably referred to as a story. The narrative presented, despite hints at a deeper lore, served little purpose other than to give some context for the gameplay. When creating Portal 2, Valve realised the bare-bones setting and caricatures established in the first game would not be enough to occupy a full game. And so they set about developing the world and history of Aperture Science, as well as forming GLaDOS and the mute protagonist Chell into fleshed out, believable characters.
Portal 2 is very much the sequel we expected. Whereas the first game shocked us with its innovation, the second largely plays it safe in terms of gameplay. However, it does deserve credit for creating an environment that fully explores the contextual intricacies of the first game’s innovations. It should be stated, Portal 2’s story didn’t need to be great. It merely needed to offer more context of the Aperture Science world and offer the player a justifiable reason for returning to it. However, Portal 2’s story is great. Indeed, it stands among the best narratives offered to players in the 7th generation of video-games. A previously inexistent though wholly believable bond between Chell and GLaDOS is developed. The new characters, bumbling personality core Wheatly and the deceased founder of Aperture Science Cave Johnson (who we only interact with through pre-recorded tapes), offer a deeper understanding of the company’s history while possessing credible character-arcs in their own right. They’re also both ball-achingly funny. And then there’s the ending. I’m not going to spoil this, but I will say that it was my all-time favourite video-game ending (until The Last of Us came out).
Both Portal games are must-plays, not only for offering players a previously unseen gameplay idea, but for fully realising the world in which that idea is executed. You have no reason not to play them.
Overwhelmingly Justified: Make life take the lemons back