Portal Logo

My Mom Plays Portal

by Katrel
Features, Games and Gaming

My 53-year-old mother was recently in town visiting me, and while she was here, I decided to have her play lots and lots of video games. Even though she’s not really a gamer, she played Pong and Ms. Pac Man from time to time when she was younger, and when I was growing up, she would play the occasional game of Tetris on my NES. Currently, she enjoys playing Peggle, Wii Fit, and Katamari Damacy (or as she calls it: “The rolly-up game,”) but that’s pretty much the extent of her gaming experience. Because I am not above exploiting my own family for entertainment purposes, I decided to take notes while she played and write about the experience.

Portal – Day 1

The first game that I decided to have her play was Portal. I knew that she had never played any first-person games, and I figured that Portal would be a good introduction to the genre, so that she could get acclimated to the movement controls in an environment where reflexes wouldn’t be important for quite a while. I also knew that Portal had a fairly shallow learning curve, and I hoped that it would be a good way to ease her into the gameplay.

So, I started up Portal for her, and showed her how the controls worked. She really struggled with the controls, and had a hard time getting the hang of them. I suggested that until she was more comfortable with them, she could just use W to move forward and the mouse to look around. This was a little better for her, but she was still having trouble with moving and looking at the same time.

Portal ElevatorShe exited the starting chamber and was able to pick up the block, place it on the button, and proceed to the elevator to test chamber 1. It was a slow process, but it was fairly straightforward. She boarded the elevator, and observed, “Oh, it has padded walls. That’s discouraging.”

In the first test chamber, she was still having trouble with the controls. “This is the very first game I’ve ever played where I had to use buttons. I’m not sure I like it.” Her frustration continued as she picked up the block, and it was held up in front of her face. She complained that it was blocking her view and making it hard to see where she was going. Making matters worse, the portal mechanics were still confusing her a bit, especially with the blue portal moving around on its own. “That’s totally confusing to me. But as I learned in algebra, if I keep doing it enough, I’ll understand it eventually.” After several minutes of struggling to carry the block back through the portal, she finally saw the button through the orange portal, and realized that if she timed it right she could get into the button room. Once she got the block there, it was a breakthrough, and she finally understood that the blue portal had been moving around. She activated the button and made her way to the elevator.

Test chamber 2 was fairly uneventful, and she proceeded on to test chamber 3, where she walked too far forward and fell down into the pit that divides the sections. “Oh no, I fell in the hole, and I didn’t wanna fall in the hole. Shit.” She realized that she could shoot a portal down where she was, and come out up top, where the orange one was. However, the next pit was a bit trickier for her. She tried shooting the blue portal next to her, but this didn’t help, as the orange portal was also next to her. Eventually, she shot one across the pit, and realized that she could go back through the orange portal that she’d just come out of. “I told you if I kept doing it, it’d come to me, like algebra — oh, shoot, I fell in the hole again. Dammit!” In her excitement at figuring out the portals, she had accidentally walked off the edge of the second pit. She made her way back up, went through the portal again, and traveled to the next test chamber.

Once she entered test chamber 4, GlaDOS informed my mother that she was doing quite well. My mom just laughed at that. However, this chamber was easy for her, aside from some momentary confusion when she didn’t realize that she could carry the portal gun and a block at the same time. “Once I get the hang of it, it’s kind of fun.” Test chamber 5 went similarly well, aside from when she shot a portal onto a platform support to try and make it collapse.

She proceeded on to the sixth test chamber, and listened to GlaDOS warn about the dangers of vaporization. “I can get vaporized? Or is that just for humans?” I informed her that she was a human, and she responded, “Oh. I feel invincible with my hole-cutter.” She noticed the reddish glow on the ceiling from the receptacle, and she shot a portal there. The energy ball traveled through the portal and activated the receptacle, turning on the elevator to the exit. Mom was excited by how quickly she solved that one. “Gosh, and I did that with one shot! One-shot wonder, that’s me — the hole-puncher of the world!”

[pullquote]Gosh, and I did that with one shot! One-shot wonder, that’s me — the hole-puncher of the world![/pullquote]

Test chamber 7 took a little bit longer, but she eventually figured it out, despite falling off the lift on her first try. In test chamber 8, Mom got a kick out of GlaDOS’s comment that falling into the water would result in an unsatisfactory mark on her test record, followed by death. She turned around and tried to go back into the elevator that she just came from. “I want to go back this way; I don’t want to die.” She solved the puzzle fairly easily, and moved towards the lift. She moved very slowly and carefully so as not to fall off, and made it to the elevator. She said that it was fun using angles like that. “This’d be good for a math teacher.”

The main stumbling block in test chamber 9 was that she didn’t realize that the window that you shoot the portal through went into the same room as the doorway beneath it. To someone who plays a lot of games, this seems like it’d be common sense, but it took a while for my mom to figure that out. Once she did, the puzzle was easy to solve, and she exited the chamber, laughing at GlaDOS’s comments about “succeeding, despite an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.”

Test chamber 10 is the one where you’re supposed to learn about how jumping into a portal on the ground can build up speed for exiting it. She literally stumbled across the solution to this one when she mis-clicked and shot a portal at her feet. She went flying out of the orange portal, and landed across the gap. When I asked her if she had any idea how she’d solved the puzzle, she responded that she didn’t, so I tried to explain the momentum trick to her. At this point, we decided to call it quits for the night, because she’d been playing for a couple of hours.

Portal – Day 2

Mom playing PortalThe next day, we resumed where we left off, at the start of test chamber 11. She saw the gun rotating and shooting the orange portals around. She was worried that she’d die if the gun shot her, but I told her that she didn’t need to worry about that. She was initially confused about where she could go, because the only places that she could shoot portals would cause her to fall into the water. “I don’t want to fall in the river of toxic waste. We saw what that does to you, in Robocop.”

This room was the hardest one for her yet, as she didn’t think to push the button and shoot one through it. Eventually, she figured it out, and obtained the orange portal gun. She was excited at the prospect of using it… and somehow managed to fall off the gun platform, for her first death of the game. Fortunately, the game had just auto-saved, so she didn’t lose any progress, and she made her way to the elevator.

Test chamber 12 was tricky for her, because she didn’t remember the momentum trick about jumping down through a portal to get more speed when you exit. She struggled with this for quite a while, before I reminded her about that trick. She managed to climb up quite a ways, but had a hard time remembering that she could place the orange portal up high, then fall back down to the ledge where she could jump down into the blue one. Throughout this whole chamber, she kept getting lost and turned around. Eventually, she climbed to the top and made it out. “The problem I had with the vertical-horizontal thing was that I thought I had to make a running leap. I didn’t know I could fall; I hadn’t made that connection.”

Test chamber 13 was fairly uneventful, and she solved it fairly easily, aside from her usual struggles with the controls. When she arrived in test chamber 14, she headed left. She saw the receptacle for an energy ball and said, “I found this, but I don’t see where the balls are.” Because she is my mother, I did not crack any jokes about this statement. She easily obtained a block and put it on the button, cheering at her success. “I’m gettin’ better at this!”

[pullquote]I found this, but I don’t see where the balls are.[/pullquote]

She made it to the energy ball, but her portals caused it to start ricocheting around the room at random angles. “Oh, it’s like Pong!” she observed, as she miraculously avoided the energy ball bouncing off the walls around her. Eventually, her luck ran out, and she was vaporized. However, she knew what she needed to do, and cleared the level after only a couple more vaporizations. At this point we decide to call it a night.

Portal – Day 3

The next day, we resumed play in test chamber 15. After quite a bit of trial and error, she figured out where on the floor to put the portal so that she would go in a loop and shoot over the wall. The second section gave her a lot more trouble, because she couldn’t figure out how to get the energy ball to the receptacle without crossing the field that closed her portals. Once I pointed out that the energy ball didn’t disappear when the portals closed, she was finally able to find the solution. “So, what I need to do is immediately come through here, and then put one portal here, and one portal there, and it’ll go in! See, I thought that the ball left when the portals did.”

The next room was the area that teaches you about shooting a portal at the ground as you’re falling out of another portal. She recognized that it was similar to the first room, and kept trying to do it, but always fell short of the wall. When she asked me why it wasn’t working, I pointed out the hint icons on the floor, and explained that it meant to shoot a portal at the ground while falling. Armed with this knowledge, she began trying a new tactic. After dozens of tries and mistakes, she finally manages to shoot a portal where she’s going to land, and gain enough momentum to make it over the wall. “I did it? I did it! Wow!”

She surveys the new area. “Now I’ve got to get the ball into the receiver. Oh, isn’t this fun… they’re angled,” she sarcastically observes. She made it over the wall and solved the puzzle fairly easily, but getting back across was more difficult for her. She was trying to use the angled platforms for the portal, rather than putting one higher up on the wall, until I pointed out that she could use the higher part of the wall too. “I took those extended ones as being like trampolines. So, it doesn’t have anything to do with that?” I explained that it doesn’t, and she made it back across.

[pullquote]Boy, I don’t work well under pressure.[/pullquote]

The next objective was for her to move down a corridor with a series of platforms that were moving the wrong way. This bit gave her more trouble than any of the other parts so far had. To make it through this part, she needed to move carefully and react quickly, and she died several times in the acid. After one death, she laughed and said, “Boy, I don’t work well under pressure” Another half-dozen deaths later, she was ready to just give up, but decided to give it one final try. She died again, but said, “This gives me an idea,” and tried one more time. And then another. And then yet another. She was still dying, but she had completely forgotten that she was about ready to give up.

I think that her main problems with this section were that she was slow to aim, as well as the fact that she couldn’t really “feel” where her character’s body was. When I play an FPS, I know where my character is. She didn’t seem to have that skill down yet, which is why she kept catching the side of her body on the wall when entering portals. It’s also why she kept falling off the platforms; she didn’t realize how close she was to the edge. Throughout this whole experience, she was commenting on how much trouble she always has with spatial orientation and that problem was finally coming to a head at this part. But despite this, she kept trying, because she didn’t want these lifts to beat her. Finally, she made it across the lifts and into the next room, and she cheered herself on.

After that whole ordeal, we decided to call it quits here. We didn’t wind up playing Portal again, because she was busy playing so many other games. All in all, she played for seven hours over three days. I asked her what she thought of the game overall, and she said, “The hard part for me was thinking in 3 dimensions — being able to see in 3 dimensions. But the fun part was figuring out the puzzles for each level.” All in all, she did have fun while she was playing the game, even though she didn’t feel like playing it again.

This is part 1 of an ongoing series. Part 2 in this series can be found here.


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3 thoughts on “My Mom Plays Portal

  1. Go Katrel’s mom!

    I remember trying when Doom came out trying to explain to my grandmother the sheer wonderment of it, since she’d been sympathetic to my computer-love since the late 70s or so. She nodded and smiled at the right times, but I’m pretty sure she was just hearing the Charlie-Brown-adults-speaking sound.

  2. That’s really awesome, Katrel. I’d like to get my Dad to play Portal and some racing games sometime. Nice to get some encouragement that parents can be taught!

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