The Portal series is home to Valve’s most deliberately uneven and deliriously uncomfortable of narratives. The seemingly innocent fun of cutting holes between dimensions and using them to pass tests or accomplish tasks is offset by their brutal after-effects and the havoc which they can wreak. Likewise the witty banter and amusing dialogue of characters like GLaDOS and Wheatley are immediately rendered moot by the homicidal and power-hungry psychological states that each AI shows when challenged or placed in a position of authority.
It’s a place where nothing makes sense really. In any of the situations from which the tormented protagonist, Chell, awakens, the players reaction can change from amused intrigue to existential terror in a blink.
As a dystopia, the setting of the Portal series is unique in that it tells us very little about the nature of the world we have been placed in. Instead of a series of explanations from a seasoned character or an establishing prologue sequence, Portal simply drops the player into the long abandoned testing laboratory of the now defunct Aperture Science Inc.
What also makes the series unique is its often twisted yet always effective use of humor. The amusing dialogue and recordings left lying around for players to discover create an absurdist contradiction between the hard reality of Chell’s existence, and the gruesome discoveries that she comes across. This knack for black comedy gives the series an extremely unsettling feeling at times, particularly when the game veers off full-stop into its long and varied network of hidden horrors, at times achieving a feeling reminiscent of the highest echelon of dystopian fiction akin to classic novels like Brave New World or 1984.
The whimsical nature and obvious lies of the GLaDOS character for example make up a particularly vast amount of the series more light-hearted moments, even with their often devious connotations. This only serves to make it more devastating when the player learns the nature of the AI in Portal 2, and the horrifying circumstances under which she was created. When one sifts through the clues and analyzes her implied connections to the protagonist, Chell, all kinds of uncomfortable themes come to light.
Through it’s tenuous connections to the Half-Life universe we can gradually draw conclusions as to the nature of the catastrophe which has set the world on its present trajectory, but the Portal narrative is only strengthened by the fact that the majority of this conflict and its history are left firmly in the background, with the foreground meant only as a stage to explore the ideas at hand.
The massive time-jump between the two titles cements these assertions with utter certainty, as if to suggest that even the very nature of time and space is irrelevant in the face of a more eternal truth of human ideas, and the universal questions of scientific progress versus moral ideology.
By eschewing the inherent self-seriousness of the majority of dystopian narratives, the Portal series has found a place amongst the highest pantheon of science fiction and fantasy scenarios. And while gamers continues to clamor tremulously for a third Half-Life title, it is the Portal series that is quietly, yet firmly, establishing itself as the way of the future.
Could it possibly be a future where Valve conquers its fear of the number 3? While we can only speculate on that topic, perhaps a third game in a Valve series would truly be the final piece which shatters our reality for good.