|a game by||Valve Corporation|
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An Update To Portal arrived recently, the patch notes of which read: "Changed radio transmission frequency to comply with federal and state spectrum management regulations."
The jargon-heavy sentence was easily overlooked, just another note atop a list of previous updates whose changes are too banal to even register: "Updated the particle rendering code and particle data files to make them compatible with the particle editor included in the Source SDK", says one, "Updated the engine to report SteamIDs using the Steam_0 format instead of Steam 1," another.
You'd be forgiven for not noticing that Valve had just added a string of 26 new puzzles to their space-bending cult classic, kick-starting a breadcrumbchasing mystery hunt leading straight to the doorstep of a sequel announcement. The Steam forums noticed, obviously, and set about dissecting every new audio file, dialling into BBS boards and phoning up Gabe Newell's mum. They'd pretty much cracked it within 24 hours.
Hole In The Sky
Watching that mystery unfold was entertaining enough, but what of Portal itself? Is the update - an achievement requiring you to find 26 radios dotted about the levels, and bring them to a location, guided only by static audio, to tune into some morse code - an interesting addition in itself? Or is it essentially just a carrier for an interesting press release? Should you actually bother going back to do all this stuff, now that the enigma's been drained away?
Well, this is no lazy update. Each radio is very deliberately placed, either in plain sight or obscured by test chamber furniture. In the latter case, you'll have to listen out for the jazzy reprise of Still Alive, tracking it carefully in stereo as you gently spin around the test chamber like an echolocating dolphin or personsized bat. GlaDOS does not afford you the simple luxury of an ear-trumpet.
Once you've found the radio you need to take it to an unmarked location inside (or later on, often outside) the chamber. This is the most difficult part of the job, as your aural compass - a static noise as you approach the required location - only comes into effect once you're relatively close to your goal.
This is also the time when you'll appreciate just how finely honed Valve's otherwise meticulous design process is, by virtue of this achievement not having had the typical Valve sheen applied to it. Signal locations are often cruelly placed in odd locations, serving only to frustrate as you blunder backwards through levels in search of that static buzz.
What's far more important than a few errant hotspots is the broader nature of this update, a sequel announcement delivered via the original game. Seeing all of Valve's systems come together to serve as an announcement vehicle shows a frightening degree of co-ordination, and hints at a fascinating new means of interacting with a captive audience.
At no other time could this have been done: it needed a single platform to which Valve could deliver an update that would be applied simultaneously to all of the game's users, it needed an achievement engine to drive players towards solving the riddle, and it needed a forum to allow a thousand people to write a million words about exactly what the hell was going on. Two days later, another update: "Added valuable asset retrieval." With this Valve change the game's epilogue, effectively placing a question mark-after "The End".
With that, Valve have announced Portal 2, stoked their gaming community into a state of hysteria, and they've got everybody chasing stale cake again. Genius.
Portal Is The first Steam-powered game to grace my system in four years. Until very recently Steam had been completely banished from my computer - cast out as annoying, intrusive and a liability.
A couple of weeks ago, when I purchased Portal (for the princely sum of $10), I knew I had to bite the bullet and re-install Steam to get the thing working. I needn't have worried. As I discovered: Steam has come on a long way since I last used it. And Portal turned out to be one of those games that re-affirmed my love of gaming: a beautifully simple idea, given absolute credence with a great script and an interesting backstory.
I took no more than half a day to complete the game, but the ending alone made me want to play the game through immediately once again. I'm humming Still Alive in my head right now. It won't go away. It's so infectious.
I've been permanently permeated by Portal, but I'm happy. I'm now in on the cake jokes, and know what all the fuss is about. Steve was right. It gets in your head. Portal sticks like shit to a blanket And I love it for that reason.