In Game Origins, we look back at how some of our favourite videogames became classics of the industry. This time, we’re looking at seminal physics puzzler Portal, and the story of how a group of students landed one the best gigs in gaming.
Valve’s Portal has been making us think with portals for a decade now, but things weren’t always so scientific. The portal mechanic originates from a team of students from DigiPen and their final year project, Narbacular Drop. Also featuring a female protagonist who is immune to falling damage, Drop is a six level proof-of-concept that leans more into magic than the science of the game it would later inspire. Princess No-Knees - named because she cannot jump - is gifted the ability to create doorways through reality by the spirit of a mountain annoyed at a demon who had made the mountain his home.
It’s 2005, and the Narbacular Drop team are showing off their game at a careers fair, hoping to get some advice from the industry experts from a variety of prestigious game developers. They catch the attention of Valve developer Robin Walker, who began to give them more than they’d hoped for. Listing everything they had done wrong, Walker commented that the game was far too brown, and that it looked like Quake gone horribly wrong. He left them his business card, and moved on to look at other games.
Despite having a development team of no more than ten people, and being the first commercial release for many of the team, Portal received almost universal acclaim, and is often regarded as the best of the new games in The Orange Box. The popularity of the game spawned a much more ambitious sequel, and Portal 2 released in 2011 to critical acclaim. Personally, I will always prefer Portal to its sequel though both have affected the industry immeasurably.
Environmental puzzle games have become a constant fixture in the indie developer scene, with developers inspired by Portal to create their own spin. The primary antagonist, GLaDOS, has her own special place in popular culture and any gamer can tell you that the cake is a lie - all thanks to Portal and Narbacular Drop. You can still play Drop, as it is available to download from the DigiPen website and it is amazing to see how far the concept went in the two years at Valve.
Happy Birthday Portal, thank you from all the games and gamers you’ve inspired - it wouldn’t have been the same without you