Critical Play: Puzzles

Over the past few days, I played Valve’s classic first-person puzzle game Portal. The game is probably one of the most well-known of its time and widely regarded as a successful video game, and it’s clear from Portal’s seamless combination of narrative adventure and interesting puzzles that the game is deserving of its many accolades.

Set in a mysterious and futuristic science facility known as Aperture Science Laboratories, Portal appears at first glance similar to a first-person shooter game: you control the unseen protagonist, who wields a gun, as the camera follows your gaze around the steel-plated interior of lab chambers. As you play the game, it quickly becomes clear that the levels are designed around intricate puzzles that rely on the portal gun you wield to create “portals” — doors that allow you to teleport from one point in the level to another. The puzzle solutions start out simple, where you merely have to transport yourself through walls and rooms, but they quickly build up to require complex maneuvers, where you find yourself creating portals as you jump from one platform to another or end up falling through a series of interconnected portals to land in impossible places.

The game’s ingenious puzzles are based on a simple mechanic, but they are aided by a superb physics-simulating engine. The in-game gravity feel both real and fantastical, and as you solve each level the game makes you feel like you are really bending the physical space with each blast of your portal gun. Additionally, the narrative brings cohesion to the disjoint puzzles in each level: you’re notified of your status as a test-subject by the voice of an AI named GLaDOS. As you navigate through the endless test chambers, the voice is at once soothing and snarky even as GLaDOS grows more and more hostile. I’m excited about finishing Portal 1 and finding out the protagonist’s fate, and I may even try out Portal 2 in the future.

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