Regular reader of my output will know that this year I’ve forsaken playing games from the ever-shifting Quicksand of Currency in favour of reducing my teetering, vertiginous Pile of Shame. Within the Threepaper household I refer to this project as my Pilgrimage to Yesterday, and then Mrs Threepaper rolls her eyes and mimes the wanky-wanky motion.
Anyway, there’s this little puzzle game called Portal 2.
It came out in April 2011, so you all probably missed it while you were tweeting about the Arab Spring and listening to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep or (though no one admits it nowadays) LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem. Back then Snoop Lion was still Snoop Dogg. In many ways it was a simpler time.
Portal 2 is like Terminator 2, in that it is a sequel to something that didn’t strictly need a sequel, but manages to expand and improve on the original instalment.
It starts out in a manner a little too similar to Portal. You wake up at the Aperture Science test facilities with a portal gun and test rooms to complete at the behest of GLaDOS, the governing computer that says snarky things to you between levels. The first few test rooms are like a “previously on…” clip to bring rookies and veterans alike up to speed with how the portal gun works.
At least this time we have the bot Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant. He does a great job here. I found the opening levels to be slow going, and the Wheatley bits dragged me through it, providing a nice foil to GLaDOS’ passive aggressive banter. Merchant’s stellar voicework aside, had that been all there was to the game I still would have said “ho hum”. Although the test rooms introduced new elements to each puzzle, it all feels a bit like a Portal remake.
Thankfully, Portal 2 really cranks up for its middle and end, and it does so in a surprising way — by delving into backstory. It’s surprising because “more backstory” was not what I felt a hankering for after Portal.* Portal 2 gives it to you though, getting into the origins of Aperture Science and GLaDOS herself. It even ties in to the lore of that other venerable Valve series, Half-Life.
During this segment of the game we are treated with more awesome voice work, this time from JK “That Guy From” Simmons as the founder of Aperture Science.
The game reveals Aperture’s history in a manner reminiscent of exploring a ruined Vault in Fallout 3. You’re exploring a rundown area while listening to audio logs* recorded at a time before everything went to poo. It shares that doomed “Yay Science” motif that Fallout has too, where you derive some sort of dramatic irony from the juxtaposition of a voiceover talking about the exciting future of science while you walk among the devastation that such thinking wrought.
The puzzles are more interesting during the mid to late game too. For this we can thank coloured goo. First there’s bouncy blue goo, then speedy red goo and finally white goo that allows you to spray portals on to them. Then — gasp — you may have to use a combination of goos! These puzzles are where Portal 2 hits its straps. Once the straps are hit, they stay hit for the rest of the game. Some of the more fiendish puzzles are between test rooms, moving around behind Aperture’s creaking facade.
I adapted the game’s advertising slogan for use as my personal puzzle-solving catchphrase. Each time I solved a puzzle, I turned to Mrs Threepaper and said: “Now THAT’s thinking with Portals”. As a result, Mrs Threepaper has developed RSI in both of her wrists.
Portal 2 is a superbly crafted game. It feels honed like a katana blade. Unlike Portal, it’s been optimised for consoles. It’s not just the mechanics — every aspect of Portal 2 subtly compels you to keep playing, in the same way a sunbeam beckons you to go outside. The menu screen and UI are crisp and uncluttered, making it easy to jump right into the game. The short load times and generous checkpointing within levels mean you can take up pretty much right where you left off. These sound like minor things, but they are done so well it makes you wonder why others find it so difficult — like when you go to a restaurant and get truly good table service, or when you sit in a chair that feels so much more comfortable than other, punier, chairs.
The levels themselves contain almost subliminal visual cues to hint where you need to go, through lighting and framing. The size of the environments and the partitioning of levels ensure that there’s no tedious trekking or backtracking. You can never get stuck. The controls and the physics are so smooth that when you hit the sweet spot in a level, it lands you right where you need to be without any cheap “missed by that much” moments. If you progress, it’s because you figured out what to do rather than by fluke or exploit.
Portal 2 doesn’t have moments of heart-thumping tension, teeth-grinding frustration or fist-pumping elation, but it gives you frequent doses of “A-Ha!” moments (no, not those A-Ha moments!) doled out like bits of neural cheese to a lab mouse getting through the maze. Which is kind of what you are in this game. Think about that.
It has co-op multiplayer and a level editor too, so … yup. Those things.
* Strangely, “more test chambers” was what I wanted, and that’s the bit I found to be ho-hum … shows that I would probably not enjoy a game designed by me.
** Currently my 5th favourite videogame narrative device, sitting above “Message scrawled in blood on wall” but below “Fake emails from Brucie”.