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  • Fintan Davies

The Beginning of Portal: Game Design Analysis Part 1

Updated: Nov 9

Welcome to part 1 of my Game Design analysis of the beginning of Portal! In this blog I will be analysing the introduction and the game environment.


The screenshots are from my own playthrough of the beginning of Portal (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020).

Fig. 01: Main Menu

My screenshot (Main Menu, 2020)...


Introduction (Hoppe, Andreas, 2020)


· The game’s main menu (Fig. 01) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 00:00-04:33) gives the player a glimpse of the first test chamber with foreboding music, a track called 'Procedural Jiggle Bone' (Bailey, 2012)...which sets the tone for the game. The music signals to the player that something is not right with the game environment.

Fig. 02: Countdown

My screenshot (Countdown, 2020)...

· One of the first things we see without even touching the controller is a countdown (Fig. 02) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 04:59-05:09). We’re in a confined space (which GlaDOS coins as the relaxation vault) which encourages us to explore it before quickly moving forward.

Fig. 03: Oxygen Tank

My screenshot (Oxygen Tank, 2020)...


· There is an oxygen tank at the back of the pod you just exited (Fig. 03) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 05:14-05:22) which tells the player that the main character Chell has been hibernated for a long period of time.

· GLaDOS introduces the player to Aperture Science. Take note that she says “Hello and, again, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer Aided Enrichment Centre.” (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 05:18-05:24)

This line tells up three things. First, GLaDOS doesn’t sound human, her voice is electronic which communicates to the player that we’re listening to a computer/voice interface.

The second is that GLaDOS points out that she is introducing Aperture Science to Chell again which confirms that she has been to Aperture Science before and was conscious at that time.

The third is that GLaDOS says the enrichment centre is Computer Aided which tells the player that Aperture Science is run primarily by computers.

· GLaDOS also says “We hope your brief detention in the relaxation vault has been a pleasant one”. (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 05:24-05:29) This line of dialogue says that Chell was a rebel in the past which informs her actions after escaping from Test Chamber 19.

· GLaDOS’s dialogue does get glitched out at one point (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 05:44-05:53), suggesting that something isn’t quite right and that the player is missing vital information.

Fig. 04: Portal Test Sequence Hazard Identification Card

My screenshot (Portal Test Sequence Hazard Identification Card, 2020)...

· You can also interact with environmental objects. One of these is the Portal Test Sequence Hazard Identification Card (Fig. 04) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 05:41-05:52) which show the pictograms displaying how mechanics work and what can hurt/kill the player.

· You hear the instrumental version of Still Alive (Fintan Davies Sound, 04:52-08:40) on the Radio. This helps the player be aware of their surroundings when entering/exiting the portals. No matter where you are in the room, you can still hear the song which tells the player that the main function of portals is to transport you to different parts of the same room.

· We are aware of Portals almost immediately in the game. We don’t have the Portal gun yet, so the portals are, for now, pre-made for the player.

Fig. 05: Seeing the Player Character

My screenshot (Seeing the Player Character, 2020)...


. Whenever you aim the camera at either of the two portals, you always see the player character (Fig. 05) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 05:58-06:28) which further communicates that portals can only exist in the same room as you.

. You also see braces supporting Chell’s legs and feet which explains later on in the game how she is able to fly so high and yet land safely in later test chambers.

Fig. 06: Massive Electronic Board

My screenshot (Massive Electronic Board, 2020)...

· A design feature that underlines the game objectives is the massive electronic board (Fig. 06) (Fintan Davies Sound, 05:51-06:08, 06:38-06:44) which contains three vital pieces of information. It gives you a test chamber number, how many test chambers there are in the game and pictograms.

· The tutorial test chamber number is 00, communicating to the player that this is the first test chamber.

The full amount of test chambers is shown (00/19) which communicates that there are 19 test chambers in total and that you have 19 test chambers left to complete.

The Pictograms display both the game mechanic (The Cube) and the hazard it poses for the player (Hit you on the head but won’t kill you).

These three pieces of information will change in every test chamber.

Game Environment (Hoppe, Andreas, 2020)

Fig. 07: Scratched and dirty walls and ceiling + cameras and monitoring room

My screenshot (Scratched and dirty walls and ceiling + cameras and monitoring room, 2020)...

Fig. 08: Scratched and dirty floor and toilet

My screenshot (Scratched and dirty floor and toilet, 2020)...

Fig. 09: Scratched and dirty relaxation pod

My screenshot (Scratched and dirty relaxation pod, 2020)...


· The floor, walls, elevators and objects in the environment are scratched and dirty (Fig. 07, 08 and 09). (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 07:06-07:25, 05:28-05:34, 05:15-05:27) This test chamber has been around for a long time and you’re not the first test subject here which is later confirmed by the writing on the walls shown in hidden rooms at later test chambers.

· The environment is sterile. The walls and floor are grey. The player feels like they’re being watched. In every test chamber, the player can see a window into a room with monitors bringing into focus that you are a test subject. There are cameras that watch your every move in all the test chambers.

Fig. 10: Underneath the relaxation vault

My screenshot (Underneath the relaxation vault, 2020)...


· When you leave the first portal, you get to see underneath the relaxation vault (Fig. 10) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 06:29-06:35) where you see cables and a support beam holding the Vault up. This provides a glimpse of Aperture Science behind the scenes and becomes the main setting for the final act.

· The reason for the grey textures is so that players know that the only textures you can place a portal on is a grey texture. This is a deliberate design decision so that the player doesn’t break the game by making a portal in any texture.

Fig. 11: The door

My screenshot (The door, 2020)...


· At the end of every test chamber, the is a door (Fig. 11) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 07:54-08:01) that can only be opened in a specific way. The player knows that it is the exit because above the door is a fire exit pictogram which they are familiar with in real life.

Fig. 12: The sixth chamber walls

My screenshot (The sixth chamber walls, 2020)...


· In the sixth chamber, dying is now a possibility. The walls (Fig. 12) (Fintan Davies Sound, 2020, 18:54- 18:58) are now a dark brown texture which emphasises the danger. The chamber doesn’t feel as safe to traverse in as the previous chambers.


This concludes Part 1 of this blog! Click here to go to Part 2 where I will analyse Portal's Game Mechanics and Decision Making.


Reference List:


Headings:


Heading structure by Hoppe, Andreas from an unpublished offline education workshop document, Game Analysis Workshop: Portal (14 October 2020).


Music track:


Bailey, K. (2012) 'Procedural Jiggle Bone', Portal 2: Songs to Test by [CD, IPC134]. California: Ipecac Recordings.


Screenshots:


Main Menu (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Countdown (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Oxygen Tank (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Portal Test Sequence Hazard Identification Card (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Seeing the Player Character (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Massive Electronic Board (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Scratched and dirty walls and ceiling + cameras and monitoring room (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Scratched and dirty floor and toilet (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Scratched and dirty relaxation pod (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Underneath the relaxation vault (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


The door (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


The sixth chamber walls (2020) [My screenshot] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


Youtube video:


Fintan Davies Sound (2020) Great Game Design: The Beginning of Portal. 19 October. Available at: https://youtu.be/pLI0M03Ulps (Accessed: 19 October 2020).


© 2020 by FINTAN DAVIES.