Rambling Review: Portal 2

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The Rambling Review is a new series where I review games, books, movies, and TV series, both new and old, in a rambling, disorganized style. It will contain scores, but they are absolutely and utterly meaningless. It is nominally inspired by Phil Sandifer’s Nintendo Project, but it is orders of magnitude less ambitious by design.

This post contains spoilers for Portal and Portal 2. Please do not read if you have not played these games and intend to.

Several years ago, a game called Portal came bundled with Valve’s Orange Box. It was, along with Team Fortress 2, bundled with Half Life 2: Episode 2 as a sort of apology for how long Episode 2 took to release (which makes you wonder exactly what is going to come bundled with Episode 3, a title that is quickly gaining Duke Nukem Forever-like mythic status as a delayed release).

At the time, Portal seemed to be all anyone could talk about, to the point that it eclipsed the main title of the Orange Box (HL2: Episode 2). And everyone told me that I just had to play it. “It’s a puzzle game, and it’s hilarious!” Eventually I scraped together enough money to spend $50 for a 6-hour game (to this day, I haven’t actually played Half Life 2… maybe some day. I did, at least, get some enjoyment out of TF2 after I’d had the Orange Box for over a year). I did not regret a single penny of that purchase. Portal remains, to this day, one of the absolute best games I have ever played. The pacing, the atmosphere (provided almost entirely by the sense of isolation and the slow realization that GLaDOS isn’t just a quirky and humorous gimmick there for comic relief, but rather actually wants to kill you), the gameplay itself - Portal gets every single thing it does right. And it was practically a throwaway game - a little side project of Valve’s that clearly wasn’t given anything like the funding that went into, say, the Half Life 2 series.

Of course, praising Portal is a lot like saying “hey, Democracy is pretty good!” in the US1. It would take some effort to find someone who disagrees with me on the point. So let’s move on to something a bit more controversial (at least among the people I know who have played both Portal and Portal 2):

Portal 2 is not as good as Portal.

Let’s start with the characters. The voice acting in Portal 2 is superb. You couldn’t ask for better. However, the inclusion of more characters lessens the psychological impact of the game. In this game we have the addition of the Emergency Testing AI, Wheatley, Cave Johnson, Caroline, several new turrent personalities. All of this makes this game feel positively vibrant with personalities; I rarely felt the sense of loneliness and isolation that crept in during the original game. The original Portal only had 5 characters, and 3 of them were silent (with one of them being entirely absent): GLaDOS, Chell, the turrets, the Companion Cube, and Rattman. Portal 2 more than doubles the number of characters. Sure, some of them are present only in pre-recorded messages (Emergency Testing AI, Cave, and Caroline), but they still feel more present than Rattman ever did, and they decrease the game’s sense of isolation where he increases it.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this inherently. Not every game is or should be about creating a sense of isolation, and if they had tried to just do more of the same, the result would probably have been far worse. However, atmosphere in general is important for any game, and the emotional context and atmosphere created in the original Portal is powerful, and it drives the game forward. Portal 2, by contrast, relies on the progression of the narrative to drive the game forward.

This is the point where anyone who knows me just did a double-take. Did I just criticize a game for being driven by its story? It’s true, I love a good story, and I’ve been vocal in my opinion that games need good stories to thrive. My criticism comes from a couple directions. One of them is has already been well-covered by Shamus Young the tendency for games to get bogged down in a gameplay-cutscene-gameplay-cutscene cycle. Portal allowed you to move at your own pace, and the narrative was woven into and around the game as  you progressed. Portal 2 still retains some of this (more than many games, certainly), but has significantly long sequences in which, while you still retain nominal freedom to move about, there is no gameplay accessible to you until you sit through some amount of dialogue or cutscene (the opening of the game is a good example, as is Wheatley’s “about to jump off the management rail” monologue). In the original Portal, the only ‘cutscene’ I can recall - that is, a moment where your ability to progress the game is interrupted - is the opening, where you wait to get out of the initial chamber. And that can be forgiven somewhat, as it serves as a chance to get used to the controls more than anything else.

Another reason I criticize Portal 2’s approach is that I’ve come to realize that obvious and overt narratives - that is, traditional narratives - are difficult to do well in video games. Games that focus on such narratives are usually not playing to the strengths of the medium. Video games thrive in immersion, in creating a sense of atmosphere. The more focus a game puts on that aspect, the more compelling I tend to find it. Video Games can be a fantastic mode of storytelling, and they can be really fun to play, but a compelling atmosphere gives both of these things a critical boost that makes video games capable of standing out from both traditional stories and traditional games. The best two games of the last decade - Portal and Braid - were light on actual story, leaving you to fill in gaps and speculate much of the time. The subsequent atmosphere that develops, and is sustained through several hours of gameplay, leads your mind into creating a memorable, branching, and somewhat fuzzily defined narrative experience. This forces the player to engage with the game in a way that books and films really can’t.

Of course, games can have both atmosphere and a more direct narrative - both of my examples above have a progressing narrative, and Braid even gives you medium-sized chunks of text that you must stop and read. The problem is that, without the first, the second will fall flat - you just end up with a story you could have told more effectively in a different medium. Video Games give us a unique opportunity to create a specific sort of immersion in our storytelling that other mediums are incapable of, and it is a shame to squander it. It doesn’t matter what the atmosphere that the game immerses you in is like, as long as it dips you into it as deeply as it can and keeps you there. That is what makes a gripping gaming experience, to my mind.

(As an aside, a game can even create a compelling atmosphere without telling a story. Games with very little story can use art direction, such as visual cues and music, to make the games much more immersive. Katamari Damashii is a good example - there’s no story worth mentioning, but the game’s consistently quirky and unique art and music make it a compelling experience.)

Portal 2 has moments that are still quite brilliant, though. The Different Turret is a particularly impressive bit of atmosphere-building, and there are a number of scenes, especially in Chapter 6, where the scale and the haunted feeling of the environment bring back that sense of bleak isolation from Portal. But it doesn’t deliver atmosphere as consistently, and that is the key thing that makes it less successful as a game.

Another thing I have to criticize about Portal 2 is the addition of bigotry to the humour. After playing Portal 2, I played back through Portal for comparison; there is no overtly bigoted dialogue in the game, or even any subtle bigotry as far as I could see. In fact, the game consists of two strong female characters in conflict, with nary a man in site. It blows the Bechdel Test out of the water.

On the other hand, Portal 2 resorts to ableism, sizeism, and sexism (by way of appearance/body shaming) for some of its humour. What’s more, there are subtly sexist assumptions underlying the jokes; GLaDOS plays the part of the stereotypical “woman betrayed by another woman”, and is thus written as needing to attack Chell in a way that will make her feel insecure about herself. And, obviously, the best way to make a woman feel insecure is to attack her appearance. “You’re fat, and your clothes look bad.” Because clearly (goes the sexist thought pattern), all women care about is their appearance, and thus such a jab would make any woman feel insecure.

Portal 2 is the multi-million dollar blockbuster sequel to a compelling, cerebral, and very weird independent film, and it shows. The thing is, it is still an absolutely fantastic game, with beautiful and well-designed visuals, great writing and acting (the line ‘Caroline Deleted’ was a pitch-perfect delivery, in particular), fun gameplay all around, and some pretty decent puzzles to solve. And it is the only sequel Portal could have had - it was this or nothing. Because you can’t do a compellingly weird independent sequel; it would diminish the original by attempting to imitate it.

Final Score: Potato

1Note that I am not actually claiming, here, that Democracy is good. It was just an example2

2Note that I am not actually claiming, here, that Democracy is bad. It was just a clarification.