Skip to main content

Thinking with Portals — An Introduction to Valve’s Physics Puzzler

November brings with it the next Game of the Month: Portal.

Valve’s 2007 release and its 2011 sequel, Portal 2, place the player in control of protagonist Chell; a mysterious and silent test subject at Aperture Laboratories who wakes from a state of stasis at the start of the original Portal game. Made to complete difficult and often deadly puzzles by the overseeing artificial intelligence system, GLaDOS, players must rely on the use of only one object– the enigmatic Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or the portal gun, which allows the creation of two portals which can be used to manipulate the world around the player. Confronting dangerous obstacles, enemy turrets, and rogue, manipulative GLaDOS, players put their knowledge of physics to the test in order to survive and uncover the secrets hidden in the depths of Aperture Science.

A typical test chamber. Meeting GLaDOS.

For more information about Portal, including links to resources and content, visit our Portal page!

The Portal Gun

The Portal series is named for the main mechanic that ties it all together: portals. Early on in both Portal and Portal 2, players are given access to the portal gun– the only real tool they are able to use in the space of the game. In its most simplest of uses, the portal gun creates two connected, but open-ended portals, which allow the player to reach different areas within each test chamber.  The portal gun and its portals can be used to manipulate objects around the player, helping them to move blocks, redirect lasers, and turn over enemy turrets among hundreds of other uses. Puzzles often challenge the player to effectively ‘think with portals,’ as the series’ tagline suggests, combining elements of physics, such as velocity to gravity, in time with their well placed portals.

Interested in seeing some of Portal’s mechanics at work? Check out this flash version of the original game!

Portal Puzzlers

  • Test Chamber Add-ons: The Portal experience comprises far more than the use of the portal gun. Test chambers are littered with dangers, such as toxic water, enemy turrets, and spike plates, as much as they feature innovative tools of science. Portal brings with it puzzles to solve using weighted cubes, Companion Cubes, and energy balls that can be redirected with well placed portals to power stairs, platforms, and exit doors. Portal 2 offers a vastly more dynamic experience, offering engineered gels to allow for speed and bounce, Hard Light Bridges that allow for the ability to reach new places, Aerial Faith Plates, which launch Chell higher than ever before. Each new test chamber challenges the player to use not only their portals but to combine and manipulate physics in all new ways, creating near infinite ways to solve each puzzle.
  • Creative World-Building: PC users of Portal 2 have access to Valve’s Perpetual Testing Initiative, which includes the free and easy-to-use puzzle maker. Creative players all over the world are able to design their own test chambers with complete access to all of the traps and tools available in the single and cooperative play storylines. When they’re finished with their work, they are able to share their chambers with the community, creating a constant stream of new and difficult content to test and complete. For the first time, players of the Portal series become true designers, needing to think creatively, logically, and scientifically in order to create meaningful puzzles that both challenge and excite the people who play them.
  • Co-operative Play: Portal 2 boasts a stunning co-operative mode where players take on the role of either Atlas or P-Body–robots used as replacements for human testing at Aperture Science. Offering an entirely new campaign, the Portal 2 Co-Operative Testing Initiative, combines skills players have picked up though the course of the single player experience, along with familiar mechanics, objects, and dangers, in entirely new test-chambers. The co-operative mode brings fresh challenges to the game; voice chat–a common mode of communication in multiplayer scenarios–has been disabled for the co-op experience and players are only able to communicate by using a pointing mechanic through which they can suggest places to put portals or highlight important objects. Players are rewarded for working collaboratively and for their willingness to make sacrifices for the completion of the test chambers, which allow them to unlock harder, if not more fun, challenges to explore with their fellow players.
Portal 2 Test Chamber Builder. Playing co-op in Portal 2.

The Portal Series is a favorite at The Center for Games and impact for its innovative gameplay, compelling narrative, and the engaging additional content. Portal offers players the ability to play with physics, testing the limits of gravity and velocity while challenging themselves to think creatively in the Map Maker, cooperatively with a friend, and scientifically in their race to escape Aperture Science and wrath of GLaDOS.

Stay tuned! All month long we will be talking Portals, sharing all the go-to content and the impact the series captures.

Have you played any games in the Portal series? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!