Spoiler Alert ought to come with no qualifying remarks. The title itself is, one would hope, sufficient to frighten off anyone who has yet to experience a game and wishes to do so untainted. But in just this one special case, it is worth noting particularly that the less you know about Portal before you begin the better your experience will be. It is precisely this revelation that has made the wonder of Portal so maddening: Once you’ve been pulled into its wonderful, twisted little world it can be all you want to talk about and yet you feel inclined to refrain, out of deference to those who have yet to dive into the Enrichment Center.
Swooping to the rescue is Spoiler Alert, here to provide a safe haven for the Portal initiates to discuss what has become the buzz of the gaming community.
By the time you reach the final ride toward your doom in Portal, you’re either already in love with the game and its quirky, dark sense of humor or you’re an android bound for android Hell (which is a very real place). You will note at this point that the game has barely begun: You’ve only recently had to master the advanced techniques required to progress through some very challenging obstacles and it feels almost like you’ve been let down. It’s not the same kind of letdown as Halo 2, where the end was abrupt and jarring but it’s a letdown like when you unwrap the last Christmas present. You know it has been special but you can’t help wishing for it to last just a little longer.
And then you notice the balcony just above the incinerator. And the portal-friendly wall just off to the side. And you think, “well, you know, maybe.” Because worst case scenario is that you’ll die anyway, right? So you lob a portal up there and turn and fire the other into the wall and jump.
That’s when the game truly begins.
As you wander through the industrial mechanisms that power the sterile white vistas of the Enrichment Center, which are perhaps not entirely unfamiliar if you got a little bit curious during your run through of the tests, you notice that you’re not the first test subject to make this journey. At times you feel guided by an unseen, unknown benefactor who made some mistakes before you so that you might avoid those same pitfalls. This voiceless, faceless individual serves as a silent counterpoint to the chatty and now abrasive Enrichment Center voice, encouraging you forward while the EC goads you to stop and give up.
It seems curious for a while as you struggle through the spaces behind the curtains that your testing would have perfectly served to facilitate your escape. And then you remember those helpful messages scrawled around the dim, rusted metal corridors that tell you when to look up and where you ought to be going. That person was trained, too. They made it here as well but the Enrichment Center lives on. You can hear it and that synthesized voice it drones on with. What does that mean? Did your predecessor make it free? Will you stumble across a pile of bones (or worse) around the next curve, where the useful hand-drawn hints will cease?
By the time you stop noticing the notes, it hardly matters. It’s the Portal way: There isn’t enough time to get attached or concerned about anything very much (unless you count the Weighted Companion Cube…. sigh) because there’s always something else out there that requires attention. Concentration. Reaction.
Before you realize how far you’ve come, there she is: Your nemesis in physical form. The battle at the end of Portal is brief and somewhat disappointing from a raw gameplay perspective: You hardly use some of the more advanced techniques you’ve been mastering on your ascent to this final confrontation. And yet it’s wonderful at the same time because the real star of the show (knowing full well how unapologetically awesome the Portal gun itself is) has to be your computerized antagonist and her/its casual callousness. Her in her chamber you get a five-minute timed dose of her taunting, goading, preening and catch some uproarious insights into her digitized psyche as you methodically decimate her.
As far as final boss battles go, it’s less rote than, say, BioShock’s but has a familair feel to it: Figure out the pattern, execute a few times before the clock counts down to zero, and watch the literal fireworks.
That the final seconds of the game have you staring, for the first time, at an exterior vista following the explosion and then fades into a scene of a cake (of course) surrounded by personality-balls which light up predictably speaks to the way Portal insists on treating the player: With confidence. There is no need for a post-game text scroll that explains what you just experienced, the sinister way in which it all leaves you feeling as if you could not have asked for a better conclusion yet threatens to rupture your sanity with the need to revisit the world it created again, right away. Portal’s designers capture the same essence of the original Half-Life where you don’t feel so much like you’ve participated in a story (which is typically what even the best narrative games accomplish) but that you’ve experienced something as an individual. You have become the story, and it sticks with you.
It’s masterful, and its satisfying.
But it’s not over. The song that plays alongside the credits, “Still Alive,” is one of those touches that feels like it could only have come from a game that doesn’t make mistakes such as Portal. I fully expect to see other games, especially ostensibly comedic ones, including original songs during the credits in the years to come based on this inclusion. But while those “me too” tributes or rip-offs may have some intrinsic value on their own accord, none will match the raw delight of laughing along with the credits of all things as you decompress from the concentrated experience of the game with a pitch-perfect and utterly suitable companion to help lock the whole thing into your mind.
When I started Spoiler Alert, I didn’t really expect to find much to rave about when it comes to discussing game endings: For the most part I’ve found the good ones to be cases of me saying, “Hm. That’s cool,” and the bad ones to be plentiful examples of me rolling my eyes thinking, “That’s my reward for finishing your game?” I’m as shocked as anyone to find myself saying in my second column, “I’m not sure anyone could have asked for more, and hope other games take heed.” Of course, Portal also benefits from expert craftsmanship throughout the game, so perhaps it is less surprising that the ending was also terrific, but I’ve seem plenty of fantastic media from books to films to games that held me entranced until the closing scene or moments when it all fell apart. Portal hit it all right on the head.
So kudos, Valve. You’ve set the new standard. We need some cake.