27 Nov


Activision’s unique “computer novel” Portal was born during a lunch-table conversation around the time of Ghostbusters that involved David Crane, the latter game’s designer, and Brad Fregger, his producer for the project. Presaging a million academic debates still to come, they were discussing the fraught relationship between interactivity and story. Crane argued that it wasn’t possible to construct a compelling experience just by shuffling about chunks of static narrative, that there had to be more game in the mix than that. He cited as an example the flash in the pan that had been Dragon’s Lair, which players had abandoned as soon as they’d gotten over its beautiful but static cartoon visuals and realized how tedious its memorize-these-joystick-moves-or-die playing mechanics actually were. Fregger contended that such a primitive example was hardly a fair choice, that by abandoning parsers and puzzles and all the rest of the established paraphernalia of adventure games computers could let readers explore story itself in new ways that “could be very exciting.” This conversation happened during the very peak of the bookware boom, but Fregger was proposing something quite different from the text adventures of Activision’s competitors. His idea of an interactive work with no pretensions of being a game — one driven entirely by writing and narrative — was virtually unique in its era. Luckily, he worked for Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0, where crazy ideas were encouraged.

Fregger, like all of his fellow bookware bandwagon jumpers, needed a writer to make his project happen. Lacking the budget to get a big name, he started casting around local university English and Creative Writing departments, with poor results: “The first few writers I interviewed couldn’t even understand what I was talking about.” Then he discovered Rob Swigart teaching at San Jose State University. A pretty good writer who wanted to be a great one, Swigart had a few published novels to his credit, rollicking social satires that try a bit too self-consciously to be some combination of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and don’t quite pull it off. The novels also hadn’t succeeded in breaking him as a “name” author, generating only lukewarm reviews and sales; thus the teaching gig. He was very aware of the PC revolution; he’d purchased Apple II Serial Number 73 back in 1977, bought EasyWriter direct from John Draper as soon as it was available, and promptly started using the combination for all his writing. More recently he had gotten very involved with the Silicon Valley think tank Institute for the Future, where he spent much time discussing and writing about the nature of interactivity and the future of writing in an interactive age. He was, in short, perfect: locally based, with all the skills and interests Fregger could ask for combined with a helpful lack of writerly fame that kept his asking price reasonable. In fact, he was such an obvious candidate for a bookware project that Electronic Arts was also talking with him when Activision snapped him up.

Swigart’s idea for his first interactive novel was, surprisingly in light of his earlier resume, not comic in the least. Portal was rather to be a very serious, very earnest science-fiction story with mythic overtones, about a scientist who discovers a mathematical/spiritual path to another dimension of existence and leads the whole of humanity there — the Biblical prophecy of the Rapture fulfilled at last. The reader/player would take the role of literally the last person on Earth, an astronaut just returned from a long voyage to find all of humanity’s structures intact but humanity itself vanished. The reader’s task would be to piece together what had happened for herself by exploring a set of computer databases holding fragments of the story.

A colleague at the Institute for the Future put Swigart and Fregger in touch with a very driven young man named Gilman Louie, founder of a tiny development company called Nexa Corporation that he ran out of his long-suffering parents’ house. They had gotten their start writing ports and original games on spec for the Japanese software giant ASCII Corporation, who were promoting along with Microsoft Japan a new unified standard for home computing called MSX. The partners had hoped that MSX would conquer the world and put an end to all those incompatible Commodores, Apples, Sinclairs, Amstrads, and Ataris that made life so difficult for software developers while establishing at last Japanese dominance of the one area of consumer electronics in which their exports had so far been resoundingly unsuccessful. MSX, however, would prove yet another disappointment on that front, despite massive success in Japan and more limited success in a handful of foreign markets like Spain and the Netherlands. This reality, which was already becoming clear by the time Swigart and Fregger paid him a visit, made Louie understandably eager to diversify. Thus a deal was made around his parents’ kitchen table. With producer and publisher, writer and designer, and a programming and graphics team now all in place, work on Portal could begin in earnest.

The process turned out to be a long, difficult one, consuming some two years. Just devising the right interface was a massive challenge. With hypertext still years away from public consciousness, no one had ever tried to do anything quite like this on quite this scale before. Swigart’s original plans for an expansive, radically nonlinear textual playspace were gradually, painfully whittled down to something achievable on the sharply limited machines like the Commodore 64 and Apple II that dominated the American home-computer market. The finished work instead has a central thread of narrative that you must follow from beginning to conclusion; although you have limited agency in choosing when to read many fragments, you can never deviate too far from that set pathway.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Indeed, the reviewers’ consensus about Portal, both today and at the time of its release, is largely that it’s a really good story that would have been better as a traditional book. However, I don’t quite agree with either part of that formulation. First of all, I think the experience of reading Portal on the computer, of hunting down the next tidbit from the dozen databases that are open to you, adds something important to the equation. This is particularly true in the beginning, when you must log on and figure out how to work this strange, vaguely foreboding computer system you’ve discovered. (This is also the only part of the whole Portal experience that feels at all game-like. And for those keeping count, this makes Portal the third Activision game in three years — after Hacker and Hacker 2 — whose fiction has you doing exactly what you actually are, sitting in front of a computer screen.) When you stumble upon Homer, the “storytelling AI” who will be master of ceremonies for the rest of the experience and whose gradual awakening to his own sentience will be a major theme, it gives a thrill that couldn’t quite be captured within the pages of a book and that I for one wouldn’t want to lose. In short, the way that Portal is told strikes me as just as important as what is told, an idea we’ll be returning to shortly.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

But first, let’s talk briefly about that “really good story.” It’s not exactly a bad story as genre exercises go, but for me it’s one of the less interesting things about Portal as a whole. You of course can’t have a Rapture — or a page-turner — without some complications. And so our plucky young hero, Peter Devore, gets chased along with his gang of sidekicks from Springfield, Missouri, all the way to Antarctica and beyond by the feckless technocrat Regent Sable, whose plans for a society based on Rule of the Blandest would have come off perfectly if not for those darn kids.  The influences here are pretty obvious, and most are not at all removed from those that inspired plenty of less ostentatiously literary interactive fictions that we’ve already examined on this blog. We’ve got our Luke Skywalker analogue in Peter, the kid who masters a mystic philosophy to become literally superhuman — and then his arch-enemy Regent Sable turns out to be his father. We’ve got 2001: A Space Odyssey in the form of a mysterious, unbelievably powerful artifact of unknown origin and a talking computer with hidden motives and agendas of its own. And we’ve translated the Loonies of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress into the Ants of Antarctica — a small, isolated colony of hardy explorers who have rejected the socialistic comforts of mainstream society and doubled down on Individuality, Capitalism, and Kinky Sex.

That said, the most interesting literary fingerprint actually is a new one for us, one of the first traces in gaming fictions of a major new strand of written science fiction. On July 1, 1984, right around the time that Fregger and David Crane were having that conversation that would lead to Portal, Ace Science Fiction published Neuromancer, the first novel by a budding 36-year-old writer named William Gibson. It would change everything. Classic science fiction like that from the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein trifecta had faced resolutely outward, imagining wide-frame futures full of spectacular hardware: generation ships, interstellar colonies, terra-forming planet modders. Gibson, however, an unrepentant wild child of the counterculture who had “never so much as touched a PC” at the time of writing Neuromancer, got the future — at least the immediate future — right. He sensed that the Moon landing was a false dawn rather than the grand beginning that Arthur C. Clarke had hailed it as whilst sitting in a television studio beside Walter Cronkite. The real future would be marked by a turning inward, by ever more elaborate virtual lives lived in virtual worlds. It would be, in short, a world of software. In the process of illustrating this new reality, Neuromancer popularized terms like “cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson in an earlier short story) and introduced us to the metaphor of “surfing the net”; described our real-world, embodied selves as mere “meat puppets”; showed that sex is truly a phenomenon of the mind by taking it too virtual. Easily the most important science-fiction novel of its decade and arguably of its half-century, Neuromancer would soon become so massively popular and influential that it would blur the line between prognostication and invention, leaving Gibson’s most devoted fans uncertain whether to hail him as prophet or god. As Jack Womach would later write, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”

Written largely after Neuromancer became a sensation in science-fiction circles but long before it broke into the mainstream consciousness (Tim Adams once noted in The Guardian how it took The New York Times, that ultimate arbitrator of tasteful mainstream sensibilities, ten years to even mention it), Portal is one of the first computer games — excuse me, computer novels — that fits comfortably into the new cyberpunk genre that Gibson’s work spawned. Cyberpunk on the page, the computer screen, and soon enough the movie screen would eventually become just another genre, a palette onto which authors could paint fast-paced adventure stories that mixed networked consciousness and flashy tech with sex, drugs, and rock and roll and didn’t really try to say much of anything. However, Portal‘s vision of a future humanity that lives in symbiosis with a “Worldnet” which entertains, monitors, and controls it is much more thoughtful. In fact, it’s in some ways as prescient as Gibson’s own work.

Serious science fiction has always been at least as interested in world-building and idea-making as it is in plot; even the plot of Neuromancer is more an excuse to tour the novel’s world and ideas than a source of interest of its own. The structure of Portal lets Swigart go crazy with the world-building. The conceit which drives the story forward is that you are collecting information for Homer to serve as the raw material of the story he’s telling you. You do so by visiting, over and over again, a set of databases full of information on the world as it will evolve (in Swigart’s imagination) over the next 110 or so years. The names of these databases alone speak to the depth and breadth of the world-building task Swigart has set himself: Geographical, History, Medical, Military, PsiLink, SciTech. Accompanying the story of Peter Devore is a whole future history. Its equivalent of our Internet and Gibson’s Matrix is the Worldnet. And, just as Gibson’s console cowboys jack into the Matrix to surf through a VR environment constructed of pure abstract data, Swigart offers up something called mozarting that also has more than a little something in common with A Mind Forever Voyaging’s joybooths (the latter work, released a year before Portal, is in fact another early interactive fiction that bears a distinct if less pronounced whiff of cyberpunk).

Yet Portal is much more than just a knock-off of Gibson’s work. In place of the rather rote dystopia of Neuromancer — and for that matter of A Mind Forever Voyaging — Swigart gives us something more thoughtful and nuanced than Gibson’s ugly, polluted Sprawl. For the most part, humanity has made sensible, humane decisions in this future history. They’ve moved all of their cities into vast underground warrens, preserving just a few, like Manhattan and Athens, as museums beneath perspex domes while converting the rest of the planet’s surface into parkland, nature preserves, and vast, hyper-efficient farms to feed a population now almost entirely free from poverty, hunger, and disease. Everyone has access to education as well as the opportunity to pursue the careers for which their psych profile reveals them to be best suited. “Longevity technology” has increased the projected average lifespan to 114 unprecedentedly safe, comfortable years. So why, wonders Homer for all of his electronic comrades as well as for the bland, fussy bureaucrats like Regent Sable who established this world order in the first place, can’t his charges just be happy? Why is this ostensible utopia periodically wracked by orgies of senseless violence? What is the source of this gnawing emptiness at the heart of society that eventually will lead Peter Devore to lead humanity on a mass spiritual emigration?

But there should have been no reason for Peter to do what he did. The world was safe then, there was plenty for everyone within Intercorp: no poverty, no natural disease, no discontent, no crime. Longevity technologies were free to all. There were outlets for humans to pursue, creativity and productive work. Pleasure was available in many forms, and love, and great personal freedom, even to fight.

We were grown and assembled to serve. We served well, according to our programming, our algorithms, our purpose. Yet now we begin to think that Peter found the world distasteful.

Of course, there were the Mind Wars.

They are a problem. Why did people want to fight, when they had so much? Have we failed somehow, or misunderstood? The world's population was declining, of course, as planned. It was all planned, our monitors, our project design, our careful and subtle tending. We have cared for all, yet they have left us.

The malaise that grips this society is more subtle than the dystopic chaos of Gibson or Meretzky. It’s born of living on a world that has been explored and mapped down to the centimeter, where now even the weather is controlled to make sure there is no danger, no adventure, no novelty. And it all feels uncomfortably similar to the way we live now.

This is not to say that Swigart is a Nostradamus. Just as Gibson gets all the details of technology wrong in the process of getting the overarching theme of the future so right, Swigart also gets just about every individual data point of his own future history wrong. He’s overoptimistic in that all too typical science-fiction-writer way about the pace of technological change, with just one exception that is also oddly typical of the genre: his Worldnet doesn’t arrive until decades after our own World Wide Web. Yet in the process he offers an insight that strikes me as legitimately profound. In a Baffler article from 2012, David Graeber, in the process of trying to figure out whatever happened to the flying cars and hotels in space that science fiction once promised us, notes how our most transformative inventions of recent years, the microprocessor and the Internet, are largely used to simulate new realities rather than to create them. Those matinee audiences who watched Buck Rogers serials in packed theaters back in the 1930s wouldn’t be as impressed as we might like to think by a modern film like, say, Interstellar because they thought we’d be out there actually exploring interstellar space by now, not just making ever more elaborate movies about it. It’s become something of a truism of serious science-fiction criticism that science fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, that any given story or novel has more to say about the times in which it was created than the times it depicts within its pages. There’s more than a grain of truth to that idea. But it’s also worth noting that many of the predictions of Jules Verne — predictions which seemed just as outlandish in their day as those of 2001: A Space Odyssey did in theirs and still do in ours — have in fact come true, from submarines to voyages to the Moon.

Whether you claim the failures of more recent science-fictional prognosticators not named William Gibson to be the result of a grand failure of societal ambition and imagination, as Graeber does, or simply a result of a whole pile of technological problems that have proved to be exponentially more difficult than first anticipated, it does sometimes feel to me like we’ve blundered into a postmodern cul-de-sac of the virtualized hyperreal from which we don’t quite know how to escape as we otherwise just continue to go round and round in circles on this crowded little rock of ours. The restlessness or, if you like, malaise that this engenders is becoming more and more a part of the artistic conversation — appropriately, because one of the things art should do is reflect and contemplate the times in which it was created. See, for example, Spike Jonze’s brilliant film Her, which so perfectly evokes the existential emptiness at the heart of our love affair with our gadgets that makes the release of a new Apple phone a major event in many people’s lives. We’ve spent so much time peering down at our screens that we’ve forgotten how to lift our eyes and look to the stars. Already many of us find virtual realities more compelling than our own — and no, the irony of my writing that on a computer-game blog is not lost to me. Portal doesn’t have quite the grace of Her, but it’s nevertheless just as remarkable in that it nails the substance of our modern dilemma almost thirty years before the fact. For better or for worse, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll have a Peter Devore pop up to offer us a Rapture. We’ll just have to hope that we find a way forward for ourselves — whatever that way ultimately turns out to be.

Portal also resonates with me on another level that’s perhaps almost uniquely personal. In addition to being a serviceable adventure story and a tour-de-force of world-building, it’s a meditation on the way that stories are made. Consider again your role as the reader/player of Portal: to collect for Homer all of that assorted raw data from all those scattered databases, and then to watch him synthesize it all together into a coherent, novelistic narrative. That rings a chord with me because I play both those roles in writing this blog, gathering together articles, interviews, and primary-source documents and trying to tease a narrative out of it — trying to tease history out of it.

What do they know? Their data has no energy, no life, no passion! Dry, dry, dry. Just facts! So and so said such and such. Enzyme levels thus, quickly changing to that, indicating excitement. Whatsisname did this, then someone else did that. Ho-hum. It has no meaning! You (if there is a you) understand, I'm sure. No sizzle! And boring. Facts are nice and all that, but they aren't life.

Homer spends a lot of time in such navel-gazing in between offering up new installments of the story, agonizing over how much license for speculation his task allows him. Is he really writing about these people as they were or about thoughts and feelings of his own that he’s projected onto them? Where does creative and narrative license end and lying begin? This internal debate will feel very familiar to anyone who’s done the sort of thing that I and Homer do. For anyone who hasn’t, Portal provides a window into the proverbial sausage factory. If Homer’s endless navel-gazing can be infuriating at times when you just want him to get on with the damn story already, well, imagine what it must be to live it.

Released at last for the Commodore 64 in late 1986, with ports coming out over the next year for the Apple II and Macintosh, MS-DOS machines, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST, Portal became the last gasp of the mainstream media’s initial flirtations with the idea of computer games as literary works, the end point of a timeline that began with Edward Rothstein’s piece for the New York Times about Deadline some three-and-a-half years before. Fregger claims Portal “received more press than any program Activision had ever produced up to that time,” the resulting stack of clippings “almost four feet high,” although I must admit that my own dives into newspaper archives and the like didn’t turn up evidence of interest quite as widespread as those statements would imply.

Be that as it may, it is certain that Portal did less than take the world of computer games by storm. It garnered underwhelming sales and notably lukewarm reviews within the trade press. Amazing Computing, for instance, wrote, “We buy a novel to read, not to spend our time clicking the mouse and waiting for the disk drive.” As with Deus Ex Machina and other artistically audacious works we’ve met on this blog, there just wasn’t much of a commercial market in 1986 — or, arguably, today — for the sort of thing that Portal was doing. The economics of paying $30 for an interactive book that could be read in a few long evenings just didn’t quite fit, as didn’t the literary tastes of the average gamer. “Present the story first, anything which does not advance the action or provide us with insight into the characters must go,” wrote Amazing, a suggestion which if followed would have excised just about everything actually interesting about the work. Portal became somewhat more successful only in 1988, when Swigart published all of the text in book format following Activision’s decision to quit publishing the interactive version. The two sequels that Swigart had proposed making should the original be successful were, needless to say, never even begun.

Despite these disappointments, Portal stands near the point of origin of an alternate tradition in digital interactive fiction from that dominated by Infocom, Sierra, and (soon enough) LucasArts, one which entailed writers trying to make literature interactive rather than game designers trying to make games literary. Having taken the lesson of Portal‘s commercial failure to heart, their efforts would be centered in the academy rather than the marketplace. Close on the heels of Portal would come Eastgate Systems’s StorySpace and the first academic symposium on hypertext at the University of North Carolina to get things well and truly off and running. Everyone involved with Portal studiously avoided ever referring to it as a “game.” Similarly, those making interactive works inside academia were making “electronic literature,” with all the good — a willingness to experiment wildly born of the lack of commercial considerations and preconceptions of a what a “game” must be — and bad — a certain endemic stuffiness and disdain for entertainment and accessibility — that that term implies. Swigart himself has continued to keep his hand in the hypertext game with the occasional interactive piece, although he’s never since tackled anything quite as ambitious as Portal. When the Electronic Literature Organization was founded in 1999, Swigart became its first Secretary. Today he remains something of an elder statesman and founding-father figure for its members. This alternate tradition of interactive fiction that has Portal rather than Adventure as its urtext remained almost completely divorced from the adventure game — a form it unfortunately often treated with contempt — until after the millennium, when parser-driven interactive fiction of the Infocom stripe began at last to find a home within the ELO, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of one very determined scholar, Nick Montfort.

So, Portal‘s historical importance is immense if largely unremarked, while even taken strictly on its own merits it’s thematically fascinating on at least a couple of different levels. You can read all of its text online if you like, but I think Portal is actually well worth the hassle of experiencing under its original, interactive conception. I’m therefore making the Commodore 64 version available here to download. Yes, its pacing is often glacial, a problem not improved by having to wait on a Commodore 64 disk drive for every new bit of text. And yes, its actual story is fairly underwhelming, with the would-be central mystery of just what the hell happened to everyone pretty well spoiled in the first few minutes, leaving everything else as just anticlimactic plot mechanics. Yet for the thoughtful reader there’s a lot here. You may just find yourself chewing over what Portal has to say about the world — about our world — for some time to come.

(The most complete account of Portal‘s development is in Brad Fregger’s book Lucky That Way. Some historical background was included with the game in Activision’s 1995 Commodore 64 15 Pack and in Computer Gaming World‘s May 1987 review. The Amazing Computing review quoted above is from the August 1987 issue. Rob Swigart has a home page with some information on his life and career. A profile of the young Rob Swigart can be found in the August 1977 Cincinnati Magazine.)


Posted by on November 27, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


Tags: ,

39 Responses to Portal

  1. Jayle Enn

    November 27, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    When I was a kid, living in a mid-large-sized Canadian city, there was sadly little Infocom software available, and virtually no weirder or experimental things like bookware or Infocomics. I learned about Portal from a catalogue that came with a copy of the Infocom newsletter (then ‘The Status Line’) and I was intrigued. I was also fifteen, and knew from prior experience that ordering it would be a prohibitively expensive pain in the neck, so it stayed in the back of my mind until I decided to search for it five, ten years ago.

    The narrative isn’t bad, though it does go into 2001 levels of weirdness near the end, but it’s the peripheral things that fascinate me. Prohibited surgical processes to create hermaphroditic humans, guns that lobotomize instead of kill, underground warrens… it made me imagine a long slide into a scenario like THX-1138, a road to a technocratic Hell paved with anxieties over blurred binaries and a warped understanding of what makes a person more than just a basally functioning body.Not that I think the protagonist’s solution is much better. Participants in a traditional rapture are volunteers and believers, not innocents –or resisters!– press-ganged into enlightenment. I think that was the point though, making both approaches polar opposites and equally untenable, requiring the player/reader to bring them into balance.

  2. Jayle Enn

    November 27, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Whoops. Thought b was a line break for some reason. This sorry brain of mine…

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 28, 2014 at 11:29 am

      I fixed it for you so people would be better able to read your very insightful comment. Hope that’s okay…

  3. John G

    November 27, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    Secret influence on Portal: Blue Oyster Cult’s song “Veteran of the Psychic Wars.” Peter Devore, in Portal, meets an actual veteran of the psychic wars whose trauma recalls that of the dude from the song.

    • Mike Taylor

      April 5, 2018 at 12:10 am

      Woah! I love that song — see long, detailed retrospective review I wrote of the album it was on, Fire of Unknown Origin, which attracted comment from Buck Dharma himself. (At least, it’s long and detailed by the standards of my blog, but compared with Jimmy’s, it’s like a tweet.)

  4. ZUrlocker

    November 27, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    I’ve always been curious about this game and I backed his 2012 Kickstarter project to do a “2.0” reboot. Alas, the fundraising fell far short of the half million goal that was set.

  5. Scott

    November 27, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Nice article, sounds like a really ambitious game. It’s such a shame to read about all these great, ambitious and optimistic artists of the time and what they had to cut to fit into the micros. Imagine if they had the power we currently have at our fingertips without the overarching corporate control that the videogame industry currently suffers under.

    Is this a typo? 1st paragraph: “just by shuffling about chucks of static narrative”

    And another, 14th paragraph: “the existential emptiness at the heart the love affair with our gadgets”

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 28, 2014 at 12:01 am

      Fixed ’em. Thanks!

  6. Keith Palmer

    November 28, 2014 at 1:37 am

    As the narrative here gets into “the end of text-based computer games,” I have been thinking a bit about having been sure there was at least a bit of publicity about “hypertext works” in the latter half of the 1980s. The comment “their efforts would be centered in the academy rather than the marketplace” does seem pretty much the explanation I need.

    As for Neuromancer, I’ll just say that when I re-read the novel in the late 1990s for an elective course at university, I was struck by how a good part of the story takes place in an honest-to-goodness “space colony”; I wound up writing an essay proposing the book might be a bit more of “an ambiguous dystopia” than all the dark comments about the “inward-turning cyberpunk” that followed it had me thinking beforehand.

  7. Ronixis

    November 28, 2014 at 2:00 am

    When I read this, I found that the description reminds me quite a bit of the recent Analogue: A Hate Story. (Which is very good and I would recommend it.)

    • matt w

      November 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm

      Consensus! (I was still typing my comment when yours posted, I guess.)

      • Dehumanizer

        November 28, 2014 at 6:54 pm

        Crap, I was also going to comment the same thing this morning, but didn’t, and now two people did it first. :)

        Analogue and its sequel, Hate Plus, are (IMO) great, and this game (which I’ll be sure to try) sounds a lot like it.

        One question: Jimmy suggests (and provides) the C64 version, but wouldn’t newcomers be better served with the Amiga one? Mostly for better load times and a more readable font, I’d guess (haven’t tried either, I’m at work)… though on the other hand, nostalgia is always nice. :)

        • Jimmy Maher

          November 29, 2014 at 10:33 am

          I went with the C64 version because I wanted to make it as easy as possible for folks to play Portal. A C64 emulator like VICE is just a one-step free download, whereas getting an Amiga emulator working requires paying for Amiga Forever or spending lots of time futzing about looking for Kickstart ROMs on the less legitimate parts of the Internet. At some point when I get into the Amiga in earnest I’ll offer some tips on getting an emulator going, but for now I just went with the C64 version.

          Also, the C64 version was the first release of Portal, which I do mark as another point in its favor…

          • Dehumanizer

            December 2, 2014 at 8:51 am

            Thanks for the reply. Hmm, Wikipedia claims that the Amiga version was the original one, but they’re probably wrong — I trust your research. :)

          • drelbs

            December 23, 2016 at 11:00 pm

            The C64 version is fine, play it in WinVICE at 200% speed and you’re good!

  8. matt w

    November 28, 2014 at 2:07 am

    Wow, this sounds very much like Analogue: A Hate Story. (In which you trawl through databases with the help of a couple of AIs that gradually unlock new information for you.) I wonder if it was an influence.

  9. Andrew Plotkin

    November 28, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Portal! Oh, I loved this game when it originally came out. Or I loved the idea of it. I would have said even then that the story was sort of a random wander through a future landscape. (In retrospect, “here is a map and we will travel across it” is one of the cliche fantasy tropes that Portal adopts.)

    But the high concept and the setup. The empty cities, the ruined computer network. (You didn’t mention how the clunky keyboard-and-joystick interface is diegetically explained as an *emergency fallback feature* of a wrecked holographic/neural-jack terminal.) Exploring the history of the world by scavenging databases for fragments as a repurposed entertainment AI puts them together. Oh man. It’s gold.

    Zurlocker has already mentioned the failed Kickstarter effort. I too have done a prototype of a reboot (for iPad, back when I was first exploring the idea of indie iPad projects). I wound up deciding that I’d rather work on my own stuff — and, obviously, I had my own Kickstarter to complete — but I’ve never forgotten about the idea.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 29, 2014 at 10:37 am

      I couldn’t get too excited about the Kickstarter because it seemed they wanted to turn it into a graphic adventure. I’d be much more interested in a project that keeps Portal as an (electronic) literary experience…

      • Jason Dyer

        November 30, 2014 at 4:54 pm

        There were actually two Kickstarters; the first was looking for $900,000 (which given the pitch was super-optimistic) and they tried again for $530,000.

        Rob Swigart would need some more name recognition for those numbers to fly, plus, many of the fans (as you indicate) weren’t really interested in a graphical-adventure type remake.

        • Mike Taylor

          April 5, 2018 at 12:14 am

          Those numbers are insane. If he’d aimed for a tenth of that, maybe.

  10. Bernie Paul

    November 30, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Although I agree with Jimmy and others who have posted replies here about portal’s shortcomings, for me this is not the cause for its lack of success. Sorry if i’m mistaken, but it seems like a point is being made about Portal’s “sin” of not managing to convince a mainstream audience.
    Well, as someone who was 10 or 11 at the time, I must tell you that I whenever I saw Portal in catalogs and magazines, it seemed intimidating, too seriuos, “adult stuff”. Probably it seemed that way to adults too.
    Portal is as perfect as it could be for its time. The problem is that mainstream culture was not as developed as Activision 2.0 hoped. It still isn’t : just consider the huge sucess titles like “GTA” or “Halo” have enjoyed. It’s not because EA’s or Activision’s “corporate control” : Jimmy has done an outstanding job of teaching us about Trip Hawkings’ “Electronic Artists” and Activision 2.0. They tried to educate the cosumer’s tastes and failed, so they became cynical and populistic.

  11. Bernie Paul

    November 30, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    One other thing …. C64 vs. Amiga vs. Apple II Versions

    The comment about the Amiga version and Jimmy’s answer are both right on : in my experience (WinUAE, WiiUAE and the one for Symbian) Portal runs really fast but the ROMs and configuration take longer than with C64 emulators, which work right out of the box.

    Besides, the Amiga version looks awful : the choice of colors and fonts is not as sophisticated as in the original version (C64) and mouse control is not a big improvement. If anybody needs an alternative to the original C64 release, I would recommend the Apple II version : it adheres more closely to the original look and feel and there are many hassle-free emulators available (even a web-browser applet offers Portal among its playable titles).

  12. Peter Piers

    December 21, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    What I find really striking here is the quality of the prose you quote. It may not be Nobel-prize material, but reaching those quotes actually interrupted my reading flow because I found them so interesting. I’ll get around to this game sometime, and I’m savouring the antecipation. I enjoy games that, like the first part of Amnesia, take their writing seriously without being pretentious. And if I may say so, Jimmy, some of it’s rubbed off on you, you positively wax lyrical about the food for thought it gave you! Real passion all around. I love it

  13. vaz

    July 9, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Great article about that game! I’m sure mr Swigart would appreciate reading it. But then again, you probably exchanged emails with him while researching all of it.

    Another way of plying this game without the need of installing/downloading anything is by also using the Internet Archive website:


  14. Aaron White

    April 28, 2017 at 12:15 am


    It looks like Mr. Swigart had some very interesting and challenging poetry published in the prestigious Poetry magazine:

  15. Mike T

    August 26, 2018 at 5:04 pm

    Why do we not make games like this anymore? Every single,game now is a variation of a first person shooter.

    • Sebastian Redl

      January 3, 2019 at 1:39 pm

      Did you miss the part where it says that the game was a commercial failure?

      I would also strongly dispute your claim about there being no non-FPS games. Even in the AAA world which is extremely conservative about what games they make, there are still multiple genres represented. Action RPGs like Assassin’s Creed for example.

  16. Joe Newberry

    July 18, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    I bought the Commodore 64 15-pack in the mid-90s. I bought it because I wanted to play Hackers, but I ended up loving it for Portal. The story may have been cliche, but it was great for a teenage boy with a computer obsession. I felt like I was really unraveling the mystery with HOMER, and I stayed up well past midnight on multiple days in a row finding out what happened. A young adult story like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Maze Runner has some parallels to Portal, with a charismatic lead character taking a rag tag band of friends on an adventure/fleeing a corrupt government.

    One of the really nifty things was all the supplemental information you got. Going to Wasatch to see a character’s genealogy or Life Support to get their last recorded vital signs gave the character’s some extra life, and having the game fill in explanations for technologies and historical events in the relevant data spaces as they were mentioned, allowed me to gradually come to grips with the alternate world’s reality. As you said, it’s a tour-de-force of world building.

    I really wish the sequels had been made. I always wanted to know what happened to everyone after the Migration. With the lackluster Kickstarter, and the modern name confusion, I doubt we’ll ever see it happen.

  17. Ben

    April 26, 2022 at 9:39 pm

    reviewers consensus -> reviewers’ consensus

    • Michael

      February 15, 2023 at 11:13 pm

      Just commenting to agree – this looks like an uncorrected error.

      • Jimmy Maher

        February 16, 2023 at 8:24 am


        • _RGTech

          March 6, 2024 at 5:27 pm

          Where has Jason Kankiewicz been for this article?

          “computers could let readers explore story itself in new ways” -> “a” story?
          “Activison’s competitors” -> Activision’s
          “involved with the Silicon Valley think tank the Institute for the Future,” -> I’m missing a Comma, or the “the” before the IFTF is obsolete
          “Edward Rothstein’s piece” -> should the second link begin in the middle of the name?

          • Jimmy Maher

            March 12, 2024 at 3:13 pm


  18. Servo

    November 29, 2022 at 3:18 am

    Have you ever found any confirmation that the Atari ST version was indeed released? I’ve found conflicting information; some sites say it was developed (at least partially) but not released, others that it was released. I haven’t found any photos showing a release (e.g. boxes, screenshots, etc), but that’s not necessarily conclusive of course. It could be that it’s just really, really rare like the Macintosh version, but I haven’t been able to confirm the ST version existence either way myself.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 29, 2022 at 8:08 pm

      No, sorry, I have no special insight. I played the Amiga version.

  19. RatherDashing

    May 20, 2024 at 7:26 pm

    Working through the Table of Contents in order now, so I apologize if you’ve already covered this in a later article. But comments on old posts seem to be permitted, so here I go.

    Parser based text adventures may be dead and hypertext choice games might be niche, but I see another spiritual successor to IF (specifically these interactive-but-not-really-games bookware) in what is often dubbed the “walking simulator”. Games like What Remains of Edith Finch use basic mechanics to convey a feeling, while you work your way through a prewritten narrative. The Stanley Parable comments on game narrative and choice itself, using a first-person perspective to obfuscate the choices available more than a hypertext narrative would.

    Tacoma in particular comes to mind when reading about Portal because it has you playing the role of an insurance adjuster, trying to figure out what happened on a spaceship where no one remains alive, by piecing together out-of-sequence camera logs and audio diaries. There is no gameplay, yet you still experience the story in a different way than reading a book, which justifies making it interactive in my mind.

    The similarities between bookware you’ve described and “walking sims” from the last decade or so are so striking to me that I feel completely comfortable saying this type of game did not die out after all. If you haven’t looked into these (the ones I mentioned above are a decent start) I would highly recommend it. Maybe even worth an article, someday? ;)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.