Of course, everybody knows the story to Portal by now, joining the ranks of gaming myth and legend along with a plucky plumber rescuing a princess and a certain elf boy lighting three torches on the wall to open the door. But if we imagine sitting down and playing Portal with no knowledge whatsoever of the events that unfold over its short playtime, we are treated to a masterclass in storytelling and a textbook example of less being more.
Look at how little Portal presents to its audience. Two characters – Chell, the character you play as, who is utterly silent, and GLaDOS, the guide and ultimately the antagonist.
And that’s the genius of Portal, because at the beginning of the game it really does seem that you are doing nothing more than completing puzzles in the name of science, jumping through literal hoops as instructed by the disembodied voice: GLaDOS. In each room you see frosted windows, supposedly populated on the other side by scientists observing you, yet all you can see are the hazy silhouettes of chairs and filing cabinets. Fair enough, you think: this is just a game saving on the processing power of rending other walking and talking humans. All seems well. GLaDOS even promises you cake at the end. It really does feel like you’re playing a clever but shallow puzzle game.
And then the mask of GLaDOS begins to slip. She begins sending you into test rooms of increasing danger, including pools of toxic sludge and live turrets. You begin to question these tests. Perhaps they’re just upping the perceived danger? They surely wouldn’t put a real test subject like Chell in actual peril, surely…
And then it happens. Mid-test room, you come across a hole in the wall of a test chamber (which up to this point have been as pristine and clinical as a hospital). You are not forced to go in here: you can just continue straight on with the test as GLaDOS wants you to. So you choose to enter. It's the first real choice you have as a player in this game up until this point. And it is at this point, when the tiniest modicum of power is handed over to you, does the truth begin to reveal itself. Upon entering the den you’re confronted with a messy hideout and the fevered scrawling of a madman. Including the infamous line: “The cake is a lie.”
This phrase hasn’t become famous for no reason. What it represents is that moment when unquestionable authority becomes questionable. That moment when the perfect reality peels back ever so slightly to reveal just a tiny hint of the horror beneath. The cake is a lie. You’re being lied to. And GLaDOS is the only other figure in this game. Who or what can you trust?
And so, as you play through the next few test chambers you witness increasing evidence of GLaDOS' deranged personality. You question more. Why is GLaDOS like this? Why are the scientists behind the window not stopping her?
And eventually you come to the point of betrayal, the point of no return, when GLaDOS attempts to burn you alive. You escape, break free from authority completely and slip through the cracks of the test facility, where the ugly truth is revealed in masterful fashion. There comes a moment when you walk through an abandoned research facility, smashed to pieces with furniture thrown violently around. You step through a door, and you find yourself looking through a window looking down at a test chamber you were in earlier.
There never were any scientists. Nobody was looking out for you. GLaDOS killed them.
This all ties into what Portal has been doing so well: slowly revealing the story and backstory of Aperture Science by not telling you, but showing you. The ringing silence of the facility speaks volumes. The only 'telling' we get comes from GLaDOS, and she never really tells you anything (at least not until the final confrontation), but rather she tries to obfuscate the truth with lies, encouraging you as the player to read between the lines and draw your own conclusion. Even then the full story of what happened isn't really clear, nor does it need to be. A bit of imagination can fill in the blanks and tell exactly how GLaDOS murdured everybody. Which is why those with a particularly vivid imagination find Portal to be particularly creepy. The devil is in the details, as they say.
Portal’s short running length gives the narrative a tightness akin to a movie, meaning the game is able to effectively sustain the pace and the development of the plot without long stretches where nothing happens. Sure, the main spine of Portal is and always will be the mind-bending puzzles courtesy of the portal gun, but Portal would not be a fraction as famous as it is today if it simply played out as a puzzle game. The slow-burn, carefully orchestrated reveal of the story that wraps around it is a masterclass in 'show don't tell', one that we can all learn from - regardless of what industry we work in.