The Alexandrian

Portal 2

April 20th, 2011

Portal 2 - ValveDespite Steam’s DRM and Valve’s demonstrable anti-consumer values, I found it impossible to resist picking up a copy of Portal 2. I have no decent excuse for this; Valve just seems to be the only company that can get me to routinely disregard my own self-interest in this regard.

The original Portal, of course, was a gem of a game. It took a single, innovative mechanic and fully explored it in almost every way imaginable. And it wedded that experience to an environment and a plot that were similarly laser-sharp in their focus.

When I saw the previews for Portal 2, I was concerned by what appeared to be a grabbag of new mechanics: Several different gels, launching pads, bombs, and a selection of energy fields. I thought it likely that the game was going to lose focus in an effort to find “the next portal gun” by throwing mechanics at the wall and waiting to see what would stick.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that this was not the case: Instead of distracting from the portal gun, the new puzzle mechanics feel like they’re unlocking the portal gun’s potential. They’re extending gameplay while keeping the focus firmly on the portal gun itself. If there’s any quibble to be had here, it’s that the puzzle designs don’t feel quite as crisp or complete. Unlike the original, Portal 2 feels like its left something on the table. (On the other hand, I haven’t played the cooperative campaign yet, so maybe things will be pushed farther there.)

Unfortunately, however, I was still right about the game losing focus: The story, world-building, and characters are all over the place. Instead of the original game’s intensity, Portal 2 diffuses itself across a hodgepodge of elements.

I probably should have been more suspicious going in. I know that when they rewrote the ending of Portal I was skeptical. (In my experience, the biggest mistake a sequel can make is trying to reset the clock. Pulling a Lucas and rewriting your original game in order to set things up for the sequel to reset the clock almost certainly isn’t a good idea.) But this really felt more like Portal fanfiction than anything else: Portal was amazing because it gave us something unique; Portal 2 too often feels like people consciously trying to recapture the magic of the original by aping its characteristics.

The story was also far too predictable, in my opinion. In Portal I was frequently surprised. In Portal 2 I was almost always three steps ahead of the story. And about half way through the game, the whole thing jumps the shark pretty severely, in my opinion. (I’ll come back later today and post a spoiler-filled explanation of what I’m talking about in the comments.)

Reflecting upon the game, I am also struck by something else. About midway through the original Portal, the nature of the game suddenly changes radically and something magical happens: You actually feel as if you’re pulling a fast one on the designers. You feel as if you’ve slipped off the rollercoaster and are charting your own course. It’s an illusion, of course, but it works. And since the designers are being personified in the game by GlaDOS, the result is not only incredibly invigorating, but also incredibly immersive.

The scenario in Portal 2 almost universally puts you in the same sort of “behind the carnival doors” sequence… but the effect isn’t the same. Even with the AI screaming on and on about how you’ve thrown a wrench into their plans, you can nevertheless see the hand of the designer all too clearly in every level: Even when you’re off the map, the puzzles are too trite; too predictable; too perfectly constructed to feel as if you’re charting your own course through a natural environment.

Ultimately I feel this was the thing that really pushed Portal over the top into being an all-time classic. And Portal 2 doesn’t get there.

So, what’s my verdict? Portal 2 may not be nearly as good as Portal, but it’s still a lot of fun. I recommend waiting until the price comes down to a more reasonable range, though. I don’t think it’s worth the $40-$50 it’s currently being retailed for.

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12 Responses to “Portal 2”

  1. Justin Alexander says:

    SPOILERS AHOY…

    What was my “jumping the shark moment”?

    They turn GlaDOS into a potato. Which they call… (wait for it) PotaDOS.

    The original Portal had a vicious, dark sense of humor. But the setting had a really firm sense of reality to it. Portal 2 loses that sense of reality; I often feel like I’m on the set of a sitcom.

    I’m currently replaying the game with the Designer’s Commentary on, and it’s helping me identify why the game didn’t work as well for me. A few factors:

    (1) “Oh, look. In the midst of this vast chasm, there’s this single panel of Portal-appropriate material. Let’s figure out what they want me to do with it.”

    This, more than anything, is what contributes to the fact that the game never feels out of control even when you’re “in the wild” (so to speak).

    It’s tempting to say that this could be fixed by simply strewing red herring scenery. For example, there was one section in the game where I came to a pipe that was slow-dripping repulsor gel onto the floor and for a moment I was really pulled into the game world; there was this sense of a larger, decaying environment that hadn’t been carefully predesigned.

    30 seconds later I realized I needed to use that slow drip in order to proceed.

    But there is some danger in simply strewing red herrings insofar as the result can leave players stymied about how they can proceed. So another technique that I would have employed in the “wild” sections of the game would have been frequent parts where there are two or even three valid solutions for proceeding.

    These sections would not have needed to be particularly complex or convoluted. But their presence would have disrupted the sense of being led along by your nose.

    (2) The game too frequently uses “just-in-time” exposition. The AI dialogue is particularly bad at this: There are at least a half dozen occasions in the game where they’ll innocuously mention something random… and then 45 seconds later it will suddenly be the center of attention. The original game had a lot of great “slow burns” where stuff would be casually mentioned and then come back for the pay-off 45 minutes later.

    (3) I’m also getting a better sense of why the game felt like it left material on the table. For example, this chamber teaches you that repulsor gel on opposite walls can be used to bounce back and forth between those walls while still making forward progress to the far end of the room. It’s a fun little technique and I can immediately see lots of ways that it could be employed as part of more complex puzzles… but, in fact, you’ll never use this technique again.

    With all that being said, the replay is also reminding me why I keep buying Valve’s games: Replaying them is, in fact, highly rewarding. In fact, I’ve probably replayed Valve’s games more than I’ve replayed any other game ever. (The only thing that even comes close would be a few installments of the Ultima series.)

    What I largely credit this high replay-value to is the fact that there is absolutely no grind in Valve’s games. Portal 2 may not be perfect, for example, but there’s never a moment where I feel like I’m just going through the motions so that the developer can ratchet up the “playing time” stat on the back of their box.

    The first time through a game, I think we’re willing to put up with the grind because the tedium of the grind is a cost we’re paying in order to see the next bit that we’re anticipating. But on a replay, without the anticipatory desire driving me forward, this type of grinding just kills my interest in a game dead.

    Valve’s games don’t have the grind, though, so on a replay I’m enjoying the game just as much as I did the first time.

  2. BrettW says:

    I mostly agree, although I wouldn’t have put it as strongly as that (I reserve “jumping the shark” for major embarrassments). I think Portal 2 is the superior game, but there was definitely something awry in the design. Whether it was intentional or ironic, the game showed on two different levels how excessive testing can go wrong.

    In any case, I wonder if some of the too-focussed puzzles and just-in-time conversation was an attempt to capture a larger market of people. I was definitely several steps ahead of GLaDOS in her reveal, although I didn’t mind too much.

    Though did you catch the slow burn bit of info that explained the white gel, Cave Johnson’s demise and the spectacular ending? I thought that was a master stroke. I thought the potato thing was done well too, tying in the ARG, early dialogue in the game explaining emergency measures, and a neat way to make GLaDOS your buddy.

    Like bouncing on opposite walls and a few interesting comments here and there (like GLaDOS being stuck in the the black box recording), I think they had a little more to give or explore. Perhaps this is covered in the co-op, or in later expansions for the game? I dunno. I enjoyed the game immensely and don’t mind a few small lacunae in the overall package.

  3. Andrew Doull says:

    By spectacular ending, do you mean spectacular train crash of an ending? If you’re looking at jumping the shark moments, that would have been my candidate…

  4. DmL says:

    Overall I loved the characterizations most and that was what I was playing for. There were a couple of moments where I sat scratching my head, but it was typically just because I’d missed something or was thinking too hard. Everything else, I pretty much moved straight through the world.

    There was definitely some slow burn stuff — 1.1v, Animal King Takeover, and Wheatley wasn’t quite so simple as we were led to believe (and we see that in comments like “smelly humans.”)

    The game was definitely a bit less refined than the first one. But it was also quite a bit less obscure/coy/reticent. Which I kinda appreciate, since Valve tends to open up a thousand questions for every one they answer. So I appreciated some actual tying up, even though we still didn’t get much.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    @BrettW: The white gel arc was something I really appreciated on my second play-thru. My initial reaction to the ending was similar to Andrew’s (although not quite as extreme); but when I played it a second time, the exposition building up to it sold me on it.

    Having finished my second play-thru of Portal 2 and yet another play-thru of Portal to follow it up, I have a few additional thoughts to toss in here:

    (1) On a fundamental level, I think I’m still unhappy that they revised the ending of Portal 1 in order to take away Chell’s achievement. There was something eminently satisfying about working your way through those inhumanly antiseptic testing chambers, the rusted ruins of GlaDOS’ mad empire, defeating this fantastic villain, and then opening your eyes to see blue skies and green trees. It was rife with limitless possibility. What would happen to Chell next? No way to know for certain; but Chell had earned the freedom to do it.

    Immediately undermining that achievement by hauling Chell back into the complex undermines the strength of Portal 1’s original ending. And then revealing in Portal 2 that, rather than earning her freedom, she actually just got locked up for several decades or possibly even hundreds of years and now has to earn her freedom all over again… Nah. It’s the sequel-itis of telling the exact same story using the exact same characters all over again.

    Sequels are generally better when they either (a) legitimately build on the first story or (b) tell the same story from a fresh angle using new characters.

    (2) The original ending of Portal 1 also stated that GlaDOS was “Still Alive”. Not just through the song, but through the back-up personality modules revealed in the last shot. There was also this great sense that maybe everything we had done — even GlaDOS’ destruction — was just part of her testing protocol. That the freedom we thought we had was, in fact, just part of the illusion.

    I’m willing to accept that I was just reading too much into the song, cake, and final visuals for the second part of all that. But having GlaDOS dead for hundreds of years again feels like its undermining the original instead of building on it.

    (3) Similarly, there is a large inconsistency in how the “behind the scenes” portion of Aperture Science works between the first game and the second game. Despite the callbacks, it doesn’t actually feel like the same complex.

    There’s also an inconsistency between: (a) The temperate foresty area depicted at the end of Portal 1; (2) the massive jungle-themed overgrowth pervading the complex during Portal 2; and (3) the Idaho wheat field presented at the end of the game.

    These inconsistencies, and other like them (for example how suspended animation is presented in Portal 1 vs. Portal 2) create a dissonance between me and the game world which contributes to Portal 2’s inability to create the same sense of immersion that Portal 1 did.

    (4) Aperture Science in Portal 1 felt like a real company that had recently discovered portal technology and pioneered AI in fierce competition with Black Mesa. In Portal 2 we get a lot more insight into the history of the company…

    … and upon reflection, it doesn’t actually make any sense. Look at the testing chambers dating back to 1953: They all require the use of a working portal gun. So for nearly 50 years, Aperture Science had working teleportation and… what? Couldn’t bring it to market? Couldn’t figure out how to sell that to the military?

    Ever seen Blues Brothers? (If you haven’t, you should.) How about the sequel Blues Brothers 2000? (If you haven’t, that’s OK.)

    If you listen to the director’s commentary for these two films and poked around a few other behind-the-scenes interviews and the like, you’ll quickly discover that Blues Brothers 2000 is largely made up of (a) material that was cut from the script for the original movie and (b) ideas from the first movie cranked up to gonzo proportions.

    The result is kind of a mess.

    Portal 2 is better than that, but I suspect the creative process has some similar issues: Stuff that got cut from Portal 1 (and which made Portal 1 a better game by way of exclusion) and stuff from Portal 1 cranked up to gonzo proportions in order to make it “bigger and better”.

  6. DmL says:

    Speaking of gonzo proportions, even though it was all major retconning, I really enjoyed seeing the evolution of the company and the phenomenal scale of the back-lots. I just loved how big it felt.

    And J.K. Simmons (who also played the Editor Jameson in the recent Spiderman movies) was a hoot as the smarmy Cave Johnson.

  7. DmL says:

    Oh I also meant to add… this game felt like a Half-life game. And we’ve been hurting for that. : )

  8. Harbinger of Doom says:

    The problem with slow-burn exposition, if it’s something you need to know in order to solve a puzzle, is that players sometimes set games down for the night, for a few days, or for weeks, but they still need to be able to play when they come back to it, without just starting all over. Many games handle this with a journal; obviously, journals or quest logs wouldn’t fit the style of the Portal franchise.

  9. Warclam says:

    I should probably say that I haven’t actually played it, just watched a friend play and a walkthrough on youtube, so I can’t say how the gameplay stacks up. (Also, spoiler warning! In case you ignored the first one!)

    The story, though, I did like a lot. GLaDOS as a potato? Hilarious. Silly, sure, but my kind of silly. She wasn’t especially interesting in potato form, though: just as people have been saying, a lot of just-in-time exposition. I REALLY hope the GLaDOS-is-Caroline-sorta thing wasn’t supposed to be a surprise at any point, because it was obvious as soon as Caroline’s existence became known, but later I was genuinely shocked by “Caroline deleted.” I dunno, it could partly be that I try not to guess where things are going, so even the easy stuff can still surprise me, but I didn’t find it lacking in cleverness.

    @DmL: good catch on the smelly humans, that went right over my head. What was the animal king takeover leading up to, though? Wheatley didn’t seem very animal kingy to me.

    @Justin: Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying about the retconning. Portal was really not designed for a sequel, and it got pretty wonky when they stuck one in anyway. I like the result, but I think ultimately it was a good sequel to a game that shouldn’t actually have had a sequel. If that makes sense.

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    I think there were several ways to go with a sequel.

    First, follow Chell. She’s on the surface now. What’s going on up there? What happens to her now? It’s a chance to take the Portal gun out into the wild. Leave GlaDOS and possibly even Aperture Science behind entirely and tell a new story about this character involving portals.

    Second, GlaDOS is “still alive” on her backup cores. Time for the next test subject in a new testing regime. Replace Chell as a protagonist and shift GlaDOS’ motivation from “test and then kill” to some new goal. (I’ve only played part way through Portal 2’s co-op mode, but it looks like it’s doing something similar.) This could take you into stuff similar to Portal 2: More revelations about Aperture Science. Although I would have preferred stuff that actually makes sense upon inspection.

    Third, Chell is recruited by the remains of Aperture Science (or somebody else) to go back into the facility to recover something of importance. (Possibly the original portal gun research; possibly something else.) This is the Aliens scenario with Chell as Ripley: As you get deeper into the complex the still alive GlaDOS shows up. You either do this as a pure co-op/team game (like L4D) or you rapidly kill off her teammates and leave her stranded/cut-off.

  11. DmL says:

    @Warclam – In the videos that play in the elevator rooms, and some of the early voice over computer-talking they talk about certain scenarios. In particular, one of the video screens shows a gigantic leopard-print turret with a golden crown as a stand-in for the “animal king.” At some point you also see an otherwise normal white turret in an elevator as it goes up – otherwise normal except it’s fat. All this leads up to the chorus at the end. The fat turret is there, as is the gigantic leopard print turret. It seems like they’re implying the Turrets had set up their own society.

  12. Warclam says:

    @DmL: Ah, thanks! Yeah, that went totally over my head, but it’s pretty neat now that I see it.

    @Justin: Good points. I even thought of the second one, but then apparently forgot about it before leaving my comment. Oops.

    The first one seems odd to me, more like a spinoff than a sequel. Then again, that’s not actually a bad thing, necessarily.

    The third one, I think I wish they’d done instead. I really like the feel of it, and it keeps both Chell and AS.

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