When your choice of gaming platforms is the PC, you wind up amassing games very quickly – there are the several-times-per-year Steam sales, Humble Bundle’s “pay what you want” offerings, and countless other deep discounts for games online. Many of us acquire games much faster than we can play them. On The Learning Channel they call this “hoarding,” but PC gamers like to refer to this unplayed backlog as…
The Pile of Shame.
I had no excuse to have Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) sitting around in my Steam library, neglected as a freezer fruitcake. It’s loved by players and critics universally, with a Metacritic score of 95. I had played the original Portal years before and loved it, and every time I saw it sitting there in my Steam browser, I felt a little guilty.
As it turns out, the praise heaped upon Portal 2 is well-deserved. The original Portal debuted in 2007 and was a marvelously innovative take on the first-person shooter: Instead of a gun, you’re given “The Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device,” which you use to create connecting portals on surfaces around each room, solving puzzles in lab rat fashion. The “lab rat” comparison is reinforced by the auto-tuned voice of GLaDOS (“Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System”), an increasingly psychotic AI. You might think of GLaDOS as the snarkier, female version of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000.
But it’s Portal’s core mechanics, coupled with its careful pacing, that made it work so well. Jenn Frank discussed the game’s first “big reveal” (partly, that you’ve been playing as a woman this whole time!), made possible by being able to see through the portals you’ve created, very eloquently here:
[A] long, long time after Portal establishes you as you, you run past yourself. You see yourself in your own periphery, in an orange jumpsuit, darting past. It’s terrifying, real uncanny doppelgaenger stuff here.
And you’re so startled, and then you say, “Oh, my God! That was me!” And after a moment or two, you arrive at the very next moment, a tiny revelation where you become totally self-aware, like a baby in the sensorimotor stage, discovering its own hands. Until this moment, maybe you didn’t realize you looked like anything in particular.
If you’ve played the first game, Portal 2 can’t really offer that gasp-inducing moment over again. But it does manage to improve on Portal in every other way. This time around there’s more of a story – as you’re awakened from some kind of hibernation by a chattering ball-shaped robot named Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant), it appears that things at the Aperture Science testing facility have gone a bit pear-shaped. He pledges to help you escape, but thanks to his bumbling instructions, you manage to reawaken the fearsome GLaDOS.
As events unfold, you’re introduced to new game mechanics that each present new kinds of puzzles to solve. Some of my favorites were the gels that can be spread onto surfaces to change their properties – the blue gel, for instance, makes anything it’s applied to into a super bouncy surface. There are tractor beams and energy bridges, both of which you can redirect using your portal gun.
Portal 2’s learning curve is a work of art in itself. The designs of each individual puzzle chamber are clever, but the gradual and yet meaningful increase in challenge to the player is really breathtaking. As each new mechanic is introduced, you’re given a chance to try it out a little, step on it, experiment, and try to get your head around it. In subsequent rooms, the puzzles will prod you into thinking about this new gizmo in new ways, getting you to combine the new concept with ones you’ve already mastered. Each time, though, the increased difficulty was enough to have me scratching my head for a while, but never so great that I wasn’t able to eventually figure it out. The feeling of eureka! when that happens is among the best in gaming. There were rooms that looked impossible as I walked in, and I felt like a goddamn genius walking out, sometimes just ten minutes later.
In another advancement over the original, Portal 2 also introduces gigantic environments. Many of the puzzles in the middle act take place over vast spaces, as you struggle to ascend through Aperture Science’s somewhat shady history in their ruined subterranean research facility. Often, these puzzles also break one of Portal’s unwritten rules — you’ll have to go back into a “completed” room in certain places in order to solve a puzzle in the next area. There is never extended backtracking, however; this happens only enough to push your brain just a bit more.
And despite the absence of any human characters (other than yourself, the mute Chell), Portal 2 actually tells an engaging story, liberally peppered with deadpan humor. This success is in a large part due to the command voice acting performances turned in by Merchant, Ellen McLain (as GLaDOS), and Juno’s J.K. Simmons (as Aperture Science founder/industrialist Cave Johnson).
The game also introduces a full cooperative mode with its own levels designed to be solved by two players. Given how tight the single-player campaign is, I’m excited to try it out.
It’s ridiculous how long I ignored Portal 2. It’s the kind of game that’s so good, I want to show it to people who don’t understand why I love games and say, THIS is why. It’s a masterpiece of innovation, thoughtful design, and love of the medium. It is full of heart and has a wicked sense of humor. It’s the kind of game that wins converts.
Portal 2 normally lists on Steam for $19.99, but it’s very often on sale for less than half that. It’s compatible with Windows, OS X, and Linux, and is also available on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.