Day 20: Portal


They say you can never go home again.

I don’t quite remember who “they” was. Ella Winter maybe? If not, I still want points for being the first person to make an Ella Winter reference on a video game blog.

Regardless, the sentiment generally holds true in life, difficult as it can often be for me to accept. That’s why escapism is so important to us. It allows us to relive mistakes and often correct them, something we can never do in the real world. Even acknowledging that, some games are harder to go back to, not because they don’t hold up as well as I remember, necessarily, but due to the singular nature of the experience. I’m never going to play Emily is Away again, for example. It’s because I define that game with the first and only engagement I had; the one story that I created.

I couldn’t shake that same feeling coming back to Portal. I think that’s typical whenever you try to revisit an influential work; so many have emulated or straight up copied from the design palette that it becomes difficult to parse what’s earned anymore. But it feels strange to even think of it in that context, considering that we’re talking about a game less than ten years old, here. Video games have that luxury over other mediums by still being such a relatively young, kinetic thing. When we think of influential music, we tend not to look within our own generation or often even our own lifetimes, lest we be drowned out by the cries of “they don’t make them like they used to” and “music sucks now”. Even if we want to ignore whether or not that’s true (it’s not), it’s something you intrinsically see less often in newer art-forms, especially when, realistically, the average quality of video games has never been higher.

For someone that’s now beaten it multiple times, Portal works better as a study in design than as an actual game at this point. The way it paces its challenges, teaching you new skills before requiring you to apply them, then subtly deviating from that to make you complete the rest of the puzzle is masterful. The objective of a well-designed puzzle game isn’t to stump the player, but to make them feel smart for figuring it out, which is something Portal does with an almost transparent proficiency.

But it can also be hard to return to that world, getting another firsthand account of the writing that has since become memetic legend. That’s easily the most unfortunate takeaway, for me. Portal was the first game I felt was truly damaged by internet zeitgeist, whether it be the overabundance of salable companion cubes or the troves of people repeating “the cake is a lie” ad nauseum, having never booted up the game a single time. Part of that is a selfish disdain for seeing any misappropriation of the things I enjoy, but it’s more my desire to have works recognized beyond their swift exit point from the public consciousness. It’s the same reason I probably won’t write anything about Undertale until the summer. To give a slight spoiler, I think that it’s another fantastic game with a lot of cool ideas, but I want to be in a place distanced from the hype and fever when I formulate more nuanced thoughts on it.

Sitting firmly in that place with Portal, it feels hollow, but through no fault of its own. Similar to listening to a Beatles album and recognizing the proficiency of individual instruments but still having no desire to give another full listen, I find myself either looking forward to new variations on the same idea, or even better, a completely new creation that’s equally influential.

I can’t help but wonder if someone’s making that right now.

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