You know how Bret Easton Ellis got Less Than Zero published when he was 21? His was a new voice, and the novel was a startling, iconoclastic breakthrough, a kick in the teeth for the writing world. It was unexpected, shocking, and earnest as hell.
Well that’s Portal.
The sequel, then, is an established author — a John Updike, say — midway through his career. Less exciting, maybe, but possessing the confidence and experience to craft a sprawling, elaborate work.
The first Portal bowled the industry over by being a puzzle game with a stronger sense of place than most RPGs, by apparently reinventing every convention of videogame storytelling before revealing it had been abiding by the rules all along, and by introducing us to arguably the greatest villain in gaming — the psychotic supercomputer and deadpan comedienne GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). It was short, original, and the funniest game I’d ever played.
Portal 2 does everything equally well. It isn’t the first though, and it isn’t as fresh or as pure as its predecessor. It couldn’t be. Instead, it has to fall back on just being an astounding videogame.
The story picks up years after the events of the first game, though according to one character the intervening period was, conveniently, “a long chunk of time when absolutely nothing happened.” You once again play Chell, unwitting rat trapped within the maze-like testing chambers of Aperture Laboratories, watched over by the omnipresent GLaDOS. The monstrous AI is powered down and ostensibly destroyed as the game begins, though it doesn’t take long for a few circuit breakers to get flipped and the situation to become … advantageous to testing.
Again, you are presented with a series of spatial puzzles, the only tool at your disposal the inimitable portal gun, a device that fires glowing warp holes linking separate spaces. The uses of these portals vary from room to room, though they are always key to solving the puzzles. You travel through them, use them to drop blocks onto switches, redirect laser beams, raise and lower platforms and extend bridges.
There’s still the same feeling of being overwhelmed when you step into a room and behold the myriad variables you’ll have to manipulate, the same cursing under your breath as you come up against dead ends and confusion, the same elation that courses through you as your brain unlocks the puzzle and the solution presents itself.
The world of Aperture Science is still, for a sterile testing facility, one of the most inviting in all of gaming. More so this time around, in fact. In the years since GLaDOS’s apparent demise the labs have crumbled and decayed, vines sprouting through walls, broken glass and debris littering floors, stagnant water pooling in lower areas.
The Source engine may be getting a little long in the tooth, but here it is used to excellent effect. Lighting is dramatic, spaces are large and varied, the art direction eye catching and affecting. Going back to the first game the environments feel dry and claustrophobic in comparison.
Animation, too, is wonderful. Once GLaDOS awakes she sets to work rebuilding the labs around you, robotic arms protruding from walls to sweep litter away, panels reassembling themselves, dilapidated tiling being cast down to make room for new casing.
Aperture Science is alive, its very structure an extension of the artificial queen sitting at its heart. It bends to her will, obeys her commands, throbs and pulses with her digital fury. It’s a great idea, both a continual reminder of GLaDOS’s power, and a method of ensuring the levels feel dynamic and fluid.
And this is only talking of the initial test labs, saying nothing for the later sections where — well, I can’t tell you. It wouldn’t be fair. Portal 2 presents a narrative that should be experienced first-hand, not read about in reviews or on fan Wiki pages.
And what a narrative it is. Perhaps you could call it predictable, and you’ll certainly see the twists coming, but this is because it adheres to all the traditions of classical storytelling. There’s a satisfaction, a sense of meaning, in each narrative beat. In the same way that it somehow “fits” to discover Darth Vader is Luke’s father in Star Wars, when you find out that GLaDOS is really [SOMETHING I WON'T RUIN WITH SPOILERS], there’s a feeling of glimpsing the hidden pattern behind the apparent randomness of the world, a feeling of events making sense. This is the power of stories, and it’s a power that Portal 2 draws on with skill.
As with all great stories, it is the characters who bring the proceedings to life. GLaDOS is again the star, at turns malevolent, beguiling, terrifying and, of course, hilarious (look out for the bit when she slow claps!). Having spent the first game working towards the reveal of her full identity, Valve use the sequel to go back and explain her, justify her, maybe even (almost) humanise her.
And this time round, she’s not alone. GLaDOS’s caustic wit is offset beautifully by Wheatley, a hapless little robotic eye who acts as guide and narrative instigator for the game’s opening sections. Wheatley is voiced by Stephen Merchant, who, riffing off Erik Wolpaw’s tight script, delivers one of the best voice performances yet heard in videogames.
Wheatley’s bumbling, well-intentioned (at least until … no, shh! Shh!) yet calamitous nature makes him the perfect counterpoint to GLaDOS, a companion to add light comedy and relatable fallibility to the clinical laboratory environment. An excellent running joke sees him incapable of hacking any of the facility’s computer systems. “AAAAAA,” he types in as his first attempt to crack a vital password. His next guess: AAAAAC. “Did I do B?” he asks. “Start writing these down!”
There’s nice work, as well, from J.K. Simmons, as Aperture’s founder and CEO Cave Johnson, and those peculiarly conflicted turrets return from the first game, this time providing tragi-comic moments of poignancy as they tumble into incinerators and vapourise in particle fields. It scarcely needs to be said that Ellen McLain, who once again voices both the turrets and GLaDOS, contributes a wonderful performance.
And my gosh, I’ve said nothing yet about the game’s co-op. The robotic avatars Atlas and P-Body are the perfect double-act for co-operative shenanigans, Valve aware that the only thing more enjoyable than solving a puzzle with a friend is pretending to solve a puzzle with a friend, before firing a portal beneath their feet and dropping them into a pit of lava.
The ability to travel through your partner’s portals as well as your own effectively doubles the complexity of puzzles, tests rapidly becoming multi-faceted, dizzying affairs, making you feel either a genius or a worthless moron, depending which of you figured out a solution first. I blazed through the content with a friend in one night, and I’ll remember it as one of the most rewarding evenings of gaming I’ve had.
The puzzles themselves, in both single player and co-op, are elegantly constructed wonders. An initial worry that they’ll be overly similar to those in the first game proves unfounded, a quick reintroduction of core concepts soon making way for sprawling test chambers that are fresh yet familiar. New elements are introduced carefully, merging naturally with the central portal dynamics to add variety without feeling like gimmicks. Light bridges, launch pads, laser cubes and floaty transport funnels require new methods of thinking, but integrate into the wider scheme seamlessly.
And then there are the much publicised gels: globulous, splattering wads of coloured paint, at turns springing you into the air, speeding you up or providing new surfaces to fire portals upon. I feel ambivalent towards the gels. On the one hand, it’s true that the puzzles involving them are more restricted than other tests, solutions generally requiring stumbling upon a preset configuration, rather than emerging from playful experimentation.
Yet above the functionality of the gels, their aesthetic value gives them reason for existing. Flinging splodges of colour through portals and across rooms is entertaining in and of itself, the resultant free-form mess bringing vibrancy to the metallic underground chambers.
And it is this contrast, I think, that lies at the heart of the Portal experience. Both games are, above all, about life — about the tension between the artistic and the scientific, between childlike wonder and calculated reasoning — and about the joy that harmonising the two can bring.
The tension is manifest in GLaDOS, a computer program who becomes a sadistic megalomaniac only when she is made self aware. But this tension is turned to joy through the humour we find in listening to a rogue AI who can be so monstrous precisely because she is so human.
Likewise, the disparity between our assumptions of the capability of computer intelligence, and the reality of Wheatley’s feckless buffoonery, is the root of much comedy. The inept robotic drone is just as lost hacking terminals and forming escape plans as we ourselves would be.
Most of all though, this tension, and ultimate transcendence of tension, is given voice through our very act of playing the game. What is narratively a quest for Chell to break free from her physical imprisonment, for the player becomes an opportunity to utilise the power of the portal gun to instantaneously escape — not from the labs, but within them. The environment becomes not a dull, clinical facility, but a wild and organic playground. Portal is, essentially, a game about play itself.
And Portal 2? It will never surprise as the original did. But Valve are master storytellers, and Portal 2 sees them at the height of their powers. It might not knock the wind out of you, but it is the best game you’ll have played this year. I can’t praise it enough.