Critical Play: Puzzles

Portal is a puzzle-solving platform game developed by Valve. It was released in 2007 on various PC and console platform, and more platform ports were later released. The game was developed using the Source engine, which is also used in a few other popular games developed by Valve, notably Half-Life and Counter Strike. The game targets a wide range of audience, including both players from other Source games (mostly first-person shooters), and younger audience as well because Portal doesn’t contain as much violence as other games in the same family.

In Portal, player controls an avatar to navigate in a 3D world. The player can perform regular movement such as walk and jump, pick up or interact with certain items, and most importantly, engage with pairs of “portals” that create shortcut in the game world physics. The player gains the ability to create portals on their own later in the game. The goal is to navigate through the map and clear the levels, usually impossible without a clever use of portals to alter the level’s physics.

The game primarily enables the player to enjoy challenge and submission. The way of arranging portals that solves a puzzle is usually highly specific, which gives a great sense of intellectual achievement to figure out. It also gives the player a satisfying feeling of tricking the physics or game system. The game also gives user unprecedented level of immersive experience of its time, thanks to the use of Source engine that provides a first-person 3D experience. While many other puzzle games of its time are in 2D format, the immersive experience of Portal makes it easier for the player to engage in the magic circle and temporarily forget about the real world.

One distinct feature (or maybe bug) of Portal is the possibility to exploit “skilled-based movement” because it relies on a physics engine to provide basic game mechanics. Physics engines are known to be a constant source of bugs and glitches, so do the one in Source engine, however the player has figured out way to controllably abuse such bugs for their gameplay, so called “skilled-based movement”. This adds another twist to the game, as the main concept was “trick the physics”, and it turns out players can trick the physics in totally unintended way to get “impossible” records! For this reason, Portal seems to have become a somewhat “open” puzzle game, in contrast to most puzzle games in which the designers have anticipated all solutions. The bugs and glitches have enabled the players to invent their own solutions.

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