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Portal, one of the best computer games ever created, is now available for the Mac, and for the PC, FREE.

Until May 24th. And you have to sign up for Steam to get it, but at least that's free, too.

(Steam is an online service from Valve, the makers of Portal, where you can pay for and download new games, instead of having to go to the store to get a box with a DVD in. I have signed up for it to get some extra downloadable content, but haven't used it much otherwise, because I like going to a store and buying a box with a DVD in and a manual and all that. I'm oldfashioned that way. But I didn't find Steam particularly hinky, and they don't ask for your credit card number upfront or anything like that.)

Anyway, this is an excellent incentive to play Portal for free. And Portal is hard to describe, but I am going to try, because I love it so much, with that fannish love that makes me want to grab people and sit them down in front of a computer and go "Here! Try this! You'll love it!!"

On a puzzle level, Portal has a unique concept: you are a test subject in the Aperture Science laboratories, and make your way through a series of tests by creating portals, or really holes, with the 'portal gun'. You can shoot entrance and exit holes in the walls, in the floors, in any available flat surface. You can jump down one hole on the floor and come out the other, on the ceiling. You can throw things down a hole and watch them fly out the other, because momentum carries over.

That basic principle gets more and more complicated -- just wait until you jump down into a hole and try to shoot another exit hole while you are falling -- but the game leads you through each step, so that it doesn't become overwhelming even though the puzzles get more and more complex. There are timed challenges, moving platforms, laser beams, guardian robots who try to stop you and must be outwitted, and one robot, GLaDOS, whose voice guides you through the maze -- or maybe guiding isn't all she is doing. You may know the song "I'm Still Alive", by Jonathan Coulton; that song was written for the ending of the game, and it is sung by GLaDOS.

On another level, Portal is one of the best-written games I've ever played. It is so beautifully staged and mordantly funny, with a story that unfolds as you make your way through the puzzles. Most of that story has to do with your character's discoveries about the environment she's in, and her developing relationship with GLaDOS, who seems quite pleasant and businesslike at first as she guides you through the initial challenges, where she says encouraging things like

"Unbelievable! You, SUBJECT NAME HERE, must be the pride of SUBJECT HOMETOWN HERE!"

Soon GLaDOS has more ominous messages:

"Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record. Followed by death. Good luck!"

and little asides like:

"Did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self Esteem Fund for Girls? It's true!"

And that bring me to another level of the game -- the feminist one. It's pretty exceptional in that aspect, too. Your point-of-view character, Chell, is female, wears a ponytail and a baggy orange jumpsuit, and looks like a real human being instead of Lara Croft. She is the only human in the game; all other characters are robots. GLaDOS is clearly female (and voiced by a soprano); the other robots' voices are high and metallic, ungendered, and they look like little egg-shaped iPods and say "I don't blame you" or "Nap time" when you knock them over.

Oh yeah, and there's an inanimate character called the Weighted Companion Cube. You carry this cube around on some levels, to solve puzzles; initially it was just plain grey, but the developers found that gamers didn't remember to hang on to it, and so they painted pink hearts on its sides. And then once the game turned out to be a hit, Valve made a plush version of the Weighted Companion Cube, pink fuzzy hearts and all, and it sold out in less than 24 hours. To gamer fanboys. I just find that there's something encouraging about that.

Install and signup page for Portal, plus screenshots and video

August 2015

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