You're probably here to read about Portal, Valve's first-person puzzle game about opening rifts in space to cross uncrossable obstacle courses. It's designed around one simple but mind-expanding idea: you can shoot a hole in any wall, and then another one somewhere else, and if you walk into one you'll come out of the other. Fire them side by side and you'll walk straight back into the room you just left. Fire them on the floor and ceiling and you'll fall through the same room at terminal velocity forever.
The game grips you by the wrist and leads you briskly past the befuddling basics of these rifts, straight to the good stuff. Within a few short levels you're using orthogonal portals to translate your gravitational potential into lateral velocity and flinging yourself exhilaratingly over turrets and lethal slime. By nudging you gently through rooms that cleverly lead your eye to the correct - yet patently impossible - solution, it swiftly teaches you a dazzling roster of lunatic tricks.
Portal is a magnificent puzzle game. The titillating wrongness of every solution and the wonky thinking required to get there make you feel like a space-folding genius, and yet you'll almost never get stuck. Soon you've learnt so many weird ways of perverting the forces and spaces in any room that you can throw yourself through them, like a futuristic Prince of Persia with abilities more improbable and wondrous by far.
The solutions eventually become more gymnastic - opening new portals mid-fling and plummeting back through those you've previously opened with pinpoint precision. But by then you're ready, and performing deliciously counter-logical mental inversions at breakneck speed is something to be relished.
The atmosphere, meanwhile, grows thickly sinister. Your sing-song robot guide GLaDOS (you'll find out what it stands for) doesn't seem unduly invested in keeping you alive. Soon her own delusions creep into her instructions to you. "The weighted companion cube," she announces as you snatch up a box, "will not threaten to stab you and cannot, in fact, talk. If the weighted companion cube does talk, the Enrichment Centre urges you to disregard its advice."
But as her coldly voiced lines become more murderous and surreal, they also get funnier. The writing is effortlessly sharp throughout, and with its single inhuman character Portal taps a thick vein of black, absurdist humour that becomes the game's propulsive force. You'll play faster just to hear the next beautifully unhinged line. The game escalates magnificently. The puzzles change nature, requiring you to beat the system with the tricks it taught you rather than jumping through hoops. And at the same time, the humour reaches fever pitch - GLaDOS becomes so brilliantly deranged that at times it's hard to stop yourself from laughing.
Sadly, Portal is as short as it is sweet. It took us a little under two and a half hours. That's long enough for the story it tells, and it tells it well, but it's so damnably good that the craving sets in as soon as the satisfaction fades.
Depending on gamer demand, Valve say they'll opt next for a straight sequel, a closer tie-in to the Half-Life games or some form of multiplayer. We just want more GLaDOS. Her lilting, darkly comic words of lethally unhelpful advice deserve a place in the annals of scary robo-speak, right beside "I can't do that, Dave" and "L-look at you, hacker."
"If you begin to feel light-headed from thirst," GLaDOS chirps, "feel free to pass out."
Oct 9, 2007