Portal 2 (2011)

When I recently wrote up my experience of playing through a number of Valve games, I mentioned that I had thought Portal 2 had overdone it and wasn’t as good as its predecessor, the clean and slim Portal.

Having just completed Portal 2 on a second playthrough – commenced, weirdly, a year to the day that I first played it – I have to say that past me is a dick. Or, maybe I just needed to play it close on the sprung heels of the first to figure out how great it is.

Because the game is great. Narratively, it does a lot more than the first in the series, but it also manages to introduce a couple of new technologies to the game and does so without them feeling shoehorned in or token. Partially, their introduction is explained in the set-up of the game: the tutorial level is pretty much played in a set-piece where you’ve awoken from stasis and are checked to see if everything works properly. Then, you’re put back to sleep, and when you reawaken for the game proper, we’re told (through the decrepitude of the facility and the general dysfunction of the place) that a very long time has passed – so changes on the playing field are less jarring.

Less pristine.

From the opening room-destroying sequence to the spacious ending of the game, there’s a lot of effort put into the appearance of space. The original game took place in reasonably-sized yet self-contained testing chambers – there was always the corralling tidiness of science to provide a reference point. But here, everything is size. The decrepitude of the center since your first-game defeat of Aperture Science’s mainframe has removed the hard limits the player is familiar with and presented a much broader canvas. Yes, the same tricks for moving about still work, but there’s a much more intense sense of scale – we see that the center is absolutely enormous, that it’s the work of thousands of independent panels which can reshape themselves into various combinations for testing ground purposes. The organic nature of this is accentuated through the abandoned places vibe of the opening levels, where plant life has threaded through the technology – its original shininess is tainted with rust, broken glass and fucked equipment.

This state of decay is a major part of the story, which will see Chell (your character) befriended by a smaller globular robot, Wheatley (Stephen Merchant playing Stephen Merchant), and ultimately have to form alliances previously unthinkable. A large part of the story also takes part in older Aperture Science areas, dating from the 1950s onwards. The loading screens for these segments set the pace – they’re dated versions of the logo we’re familiar with, and through the stentorian loudspeaker recordings of company boss Cave Johnson (with excellent voice acting from J.K. Simmons), we’re told the story of the company’s rise from shower equipment sales through its acquisition of abandoned salt mines, its use of labour for testing (first astronauts, then bums) and the decline of the health of its management.

Lots of this story is told indirectly. There’s stuff in cases and juxtapositions of equipment and signs that will reveal the truth, but only if you look for them. It’s not crammed down your throat, and one of the most telling parts of the story – the part which involves GLaDOS – is very easy to pass over if you don’t pay attention. It’s a tribute to Ellen McLain’s voice acting in the game, too, that lines that have to be somewhat one-note yet contain a kernel of direct emotion. It’s a great facet of a mostly-unstated storyline about the ghost in the machine.

(There’s a great interview with a designer from the game here which has a lot of interesting comments on how the designs work. I liked it.)

Of course, aside from such obvious things, the nature of the setting gives plenty of opportunity to show, not tell. The site of abandoned, flooded test chambers, of sealed doors, of enormous shock-absorbing springs on the floor of an abandoned mine, of large towers in huge black caverns – all of these speak to the inherent wrongness of the company, of their aims – almost as much as the bum-recruitment voiceovers do. We’re presented with a company making breakthroughs in science, but at what cost? It’s this querulous nature that provides the character depth necessary to make GLaDOS more of an important, layered character than she could’ve been in the first game.

Gameplay is the same as the first game, with the exception of the addition of light bridges and various gels to aid your movement. There’s a satisfying ramp of difficulty, but even more than the first, there’s a common sense approach to solving the puzzles which makes itself clear with only a little consideration. I flew through the game this time around, but didn’t actively remember the solutions from my previous run; I think it’s just that what’s expected is flagged very clearly, though I suspect my recent play of the first game may have assisted here.

Basically, if you like the cartoon idea of the portable hole from any Looney Tunes cartoon you’d care to name, AND you’re keen on the idea of abandoned places AND you like a bad guy with a little more depth than MUST KILL HUMAN, then this is the game for you. It’s remarkably affecting, and resolves with an integrity and intelligence I enjoyed. And you might too.

(It also has another good song at the end, so there’s that.)

This piece was written as part of my daily 750words practice, so it may be a bit less taut than others.

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