Valve’s Portal has been reviewed to death. It’s time to stop talking about the past and looking to the future. Is Portal a seminal game in our field? If so, how can we apply its ideas going forward?
Step one is to stop thinking that portals (the warpy things themselves) are things that can be used only in Portal (proper, the game). In the same way that ketchup can make a burger, or fries, or scrambled eggs taste better, portals can increase the delectability of our current genres. Portal showed us how the gun can be used in a puzzle or action genre, but there are many genres that make up our industry.
Let’s start with racing. Imagine your car coming to a 90 degree right turn. You shoot one portal at the building in front of you, and another at the far end of a building to your left. You’ve transformed that 90 degree turn into a straight line and didn’t have to sacrifice any speed to get around it. Now you shoot your second portal at a billboard sign, so if any opponent racers decide to take your shortcut they end up launching their car into the side of the freeway.
What of stealth action games? The next innovation for spies around the world is clearly a pocket-sized portal gun. Sam Fischer, Snake, and Hitman would all have a much easier time sneaking toward their targets with portal technology. For example, your target is making an appearance at a convention. He goes over to the snack table to get something to eat. While there, you knock his fork out of his hands and under the table. When he goes under to get it, you shoot a portal underneath him and he falls into the very janitor closet you placed a portal in 15 minutes ago. Now without any suspicion you’ve removed your target from a highly visible location and can interrogate him back at the closet.
James Bond is an exception. If he had portal technology he might use it to save the world or to look up skirts. It’s a toss-up. I feel that, to teach good portal habits, Bond’s first portal assignment should be in Scotland.
The next genre is the first person shooter. Unreal Tournament has had something approximating the portal device for a long time. It’s called the translocator. You would shoot this disk from your gun that remains attached to you via a ribbon, similar to a taser. At any point you could right click and transport to wherever that disk is. This device continues to suffice for personal transportation. A portal gun used in a team game, however, can become a tactical weapon. If your enemies are holed up in a bunker and you see no way of getting them out, fire a portal through their window and walk right in! This kind of portal gun would run out of charges and controlling it would give your team a potentially big advantage until those charges were gone.
Games have been approaching realism rapidly. We’re at the point where we start to see diminishing returns on our efforts to look realistic. Now that we’re able to create virtual worlds that mimick our real world, what will the future of gaming turn to? Portal offers one answer to this question. Games can be used to explore technology that doesn’t yet or can’t exist in our world. Will we continue to play with the same technologies or constantly invent new ones?