Portal 2 (2011)

If you want the clearest summation of how Portal 2 differs from its predecessor, simply look at the cores. Portal 2‘s final battle – almost structurally identical to the original game’s – finds Chell attaching “personality cores” to bumbling companion-turned-adversary Wheatley, attempting to corrupt his programming and return Aperture Science to its rightful (if still slightly skewed) order. “Wacky” doesn’t even begin to sum up these eccentric, chatty spheres, each offering up so many lightning-fast quips that one is tempted to ignore the boss fight’s time limit and simply enjoy these characters’ ramblings until the facility explodes.

If nothing else, the cores are the purest expression of writer Erik Wolpaw’s gift for deadpan insanity since Psychonauts’ “Milkman Conspiracy” level. Yet for all the left-field absurdity of the rough-and-tumble Adventure Core (voiced by Nathan Drake himself) and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foreshadowing of Portal 2‘s lunar resolution by the so-called Space Core, the conclusion lacks the thematic and emotional depth of the first game’s encounter with GLaDOS. That confrontation saw Chell disassembling her AI tormentor’s personality cores and stripping her of her most basic emotions. The result was a villain equally harrowing and hilarious, and a final battle that perfectly captured the dichotomous relationship between well-intentioned scientific objectivity and the petty, cold-hearted hubris often lurking behind it that defines the Portal universe. The fight with Wheatley offers no such metaphor, sacrificing it for one-liners and distracting action. I still enjoyed every second of it, but that’s Portal 2 in a nutshell: Bigger and more crammed with (usually wonderful) ideas, more audaciously willing to follow its bliss for laughs and entertainment, but less interested in the thoughtful, dark-edged cohesiveness that rendered the original one of gaming’s most indelible narratives.

Perhaps this is an unfair judgment; one of my key beliefs as a critic is that one must judge a work for what is there and not for what isn’t, and the Portal 2 team clearly intended to create a screwball comedy. What’s more, while the first Portal is a story of ideas and discovery, Portal 2 is a more character-driven tale, and at this, it succeeds handily. For the first time, Valve experiments with granting the story’s arc not to the player character but to the supporting cast; yes, Chell still wants to escape, but the narrative’s momentum relies on GLaDOS and Wheatley’s mood swings, constantly shifting allegiances, and – in GLaDOS’ case – a moment of actual self-revelation. It’s a more daring choice than it sounds; less emphasis on the player runs the risk of exposing the game’s “rails” in scripted moments. But since Portal is all about cycles of entrapment and escape anyway, it makes perfect sense that, much to her frustration, Chell’s fate rests on the whims of these too-human machines.

While the game sometimes meanders and loses focus, I was surprised by what a solid center GLaDOS’ arc provides for the rest of Portal 2‘s lunacy to revolve around. At first, things appear to be business as usual; after Wheatley and Chell accidentally reawaken GLaDOS from a multi-year slumber (the entirety of which she spent reliving Chell “murdering” her, so you can guess what kind of mood she’s in), the hunted and her intellectually superior hunter return to a dynamic as cartoonishly familiar as the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. At first, it’s such a delight to be back inside the Aperture lab and in the presence of a character as strong as GLaDOS that you’d be forgiven for wondering what else Valve possibly has up its sleeve. (And yes, even in a game that consistently ups the ante, there’s a special joy in that old formula of GLaDOS insulting Chell that is difficult to top.) But then Portal 2 does the one thing you’d never expect it to and strips GLaDOS of her power and very identity as the game’s antagonist. The idea of a cold-hearted artificial intelligence suffering an identity crisis is funny enough on its own; that GLaDOS finally accesses her conscience while inside a potato is icing on the absurdist cake. (Also, has there ever been a game that’s taken this much care with narrative foreshadowing? Wheatley’s crack about all the science fair kids making potato batteries leading into GLaDOS’ eventual fate is perfect. It’s enough of a throwaway joke that it doesn’t feel like telegraphing, but makes perfect sense when it reemerges at the big twist.) Yet the best thing about GLaDOS literally remembering her humanity is that it never invalidates anything about her character. She’s still GLaDOS: constantly annoyed, passive aggressive, and only amused by her own wit and others’ misfortune. Her journey in Portal 2 changes her but never softens her, and only furthers the series’ question of what it means to be a conscious entity. She learns a lesson, but in a way only GLaDOS can.

And Wheatley is a revelation. While not nearly as complex a character as GLaDOS, he’s so convincingly conceived, rendered with such quirks and attention to craftmanship that I can think of no equally believable presence in a video game I’ve played. Wheatley doesn’t just seemed rigged with a few key movements and left to communicate his emotions vaguely and haphazardly. He’s actually animated, easily as expressive as the robots in Wall-E while most developers’ characters can barely emote to the degree of the CGI husks in those Brazilian Pixar knock-offs. (Credit Karen Prell, a real deal Pixar animator and old school Henson puppeteer who designed a complex web of expressions for Wheatley’s beady, nervous cyclops eye.) Stephen Merchant’s naturalistic vocal performance is also a high water mark for the medium, his bumbling and stuttering completely selling that the game’s action is unfolding before the player’s very eyes. Wheatley is a character securely in Merchant’s wheelhouse, his rambling circular logic placing him neatly alongside the other great Gervais/Merchant imbeciles like David Brent and the agent character from Extras. Like those figures, Merchant manages to keep Wheatley endearing even when he’s stubbornly out of his depth, and the actor’s doofusy, improvisational charms can wring a few laughs even from script’s lesser material. And the twist halfway through that changes Wheatley from hapless sidekick to a vengeful, insecure villain has a lot of fun creating a bad guy more dangerous because he’s incompetent than truly threatening.

Despite Wheatley and GLaDOS imbuing Portal 2 with plenty of charm and countless truly funny bits, there are moments on this ride where the momentum sputters, as if some of the content sprung from the need to make a significantly longer, “full-length” Portal title and not vice-versa. The second act in particular grinds to a halt, as Chell must make her way through old Aperture labs from decades past and return to the modern facility. While this section features some of the most fun art direction in the series and its open spaces provide a different set of challenges from the test chambers, it goes on for too long and loses some of the first half’s charm. (Having to actually locate portal-able surfaces on the old facilities’ far away grey structures is an interesting change of pace at first, but quickly becomes more frustrating than any of the game’s actual puzzles.) And while most of Portal has a sense of loneliness, stripping Chell of both GLaDOS and Wheatley loses any sense of narrative besides the constant drive forward. J.K. Simmons is characteristically game as blowhard Aperture founder Cave Johnson, but he’s a one-joke character you never truly interact with trying to replace two significantly more interesting ones.

I was similarly never completely sold on the host of new items Portal 2 introduces to combat repetition and test fatigue. The blue tractor beams and so-called “light bridges” have an ethereal alien mystique in their appearance, and the gels that allow Chell to bounce and dash around the test chambers are not without their charms. And often, these new elements are used brilliantly; while the straightforwardness of Portal 2‘s playgrounds might irk players looking for a less linear challenge, Valve’s ability to keep so many elements in play and never create a room that feels overstuffed is commendable. But as fun as it is to use a new gel to literally bounce off the walls, none of these elements ever truly change what Portal is. And there’s nothing wrong with that; Valve was right to think there was more to be mined from the first game’s simple premise.  Still, I wanted at least one of these new toys to truly be an evolution for the franchise, to reappropriate how I viewed a test chamber or significantly alter my goals within the game world. I wanted something that made me start thinking with portals all over again.

Where these new elements come closest to achieving something extraordinary is in the surprisingly nuanced cooperative mode. Frankly, Portal multiplayer is something that shouldn’t work. I was convinced too much of my connection to its world came from its darkly funny sense of isolation; how could a game so obsessed with loneliness that its most famous companion character is an inanimate cube transfer that sensibility to the camaraderie of cooperative play? Yet here were the puzzles that truly turned all the game’s elements into a coherent whole, the extra set of portals altering the landscape as the gels and light bridges only attempted to. The two-player maps are among my favorites in the franchise, all whirring blades and mashy spike plates (Wheatley’s term) that yield even more fantastic eureka moments because they are solved with a cohort. These chambers also reflect Portal 2‘s embrace of physical comedy, a natural fit for a game so enamored with the possibility of movement. Accidentally miscalculating the placement of a bridge and dropping my girlfriend’s robot into a vat of acid is the kind of hilarious spontaneity unique to video games that Valve sometimes sacrifices in its tightly written single player games. Of course, these stages are still masterfully themed; the two robot avatars are endearing and perfectly goofy, and GLaDOS is in top form as she insults their performances, quickly grows bored with her new playthings, and tries to turn them against each other. (I was lucky enough to play co-op in the same room as my girlfriend, so I had the pleasure of hearing the very different words of encouragement GLaDOS was telling her.)

If I seem a bit harsh on Portal 2, or let down that it’s not the revolutionary sequel its sister series Half-Life received in 2004, let me assure you that I think this is as close as we’ve gotten to an “instant classic” in the past two years. While it might seem a little new to include among the “beloved and influential video games” promised in this project’s description, I not only wanted to complete my chronicle of the Portal/Half-Life universe (for now), but I genuinely believe this is a game people will be talking about years from now. My problems with it are not even real problems; rather, they are slightly lesser elements in a package stuffed with so much wit, inventiveness, and personality that I cannot help but hold it to a higher standard. I’m not sure if the Portal games are the “best” I’ve ever played, but they are certainly the ones I feel the most kinship with, the ones that most reflect my need for humor and heart in my entertainment. I still revisit moments from them on a pretty regular basis, and as silly as it is, I find Chell’s final ascent to freedom in Portal 2 strangely moving, singing turrets and all. I’m sure every video game fan has her favorite fictional world, the one she would be happy inhabiting far beyond the game’s expiration. The smart money would be on somewhere sweeping and grand, a Hyrule or Azeroth. But give me the halls of Aperture Science – killer robots and all – and I’ll be happy.

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7 thoughts on “Portal 2 (2011)

  1. Another great write-up. Portal 2 felt so relevant to me when it came out; it was a game-changer (despite miniscule shortcomings) and it showed how far the games industry can go in such little time. In the past decade or so of gaming, there has been about 20-30 instant classics (maybe). Portal 2 is definitely one of them.

    • I agree, there are definitely things this game does better than almost any other I’ve experienced (again, the animation/voice-work on Wheatley is just on another level) and its best scripted moments might be the most exciting and genuinely surprsing examples of Valve’s “thrill ride” aesthetic.

      And yeah, I’m trying really hard to balance these newer write-ups with more classic games, but there’s definitely a shiny new toy element (I’ve only had a PS3 for the past year) that makes me want to focus on the last few generations. I would probably say from my limited experience that the past generation has been the most interesting time to be a gamer.

  2. looprider says:

    I really missed some of the quieter parts of Portal, like when you first find one of the Ratman’s dens, or explore an empty suite of offices with projectors running slides about Black Mesa. They were easily my favourite parts of the original, so to see them much less in the sequel was kind of a bummer. I mean, you get to go to the old Aperture labs and stuff, but they’re kind of played more for laughs than atmosphere.

    • Totally agree, there’s an acute sense of unease in the original Portal that contrasts nicely with all the humor. I respect that the Portal 2 team wanted to make a full tilt comedy game, but I definitely prefer to have a few of those quiet moments, too.

  3. rainmaker97 says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that Portal 2 is the better game, in the “bigger is better” sense. The puzzles are harder and the addition of light bridges, gels, etc. adds complexity without letting the gameplay become too gimmicky. As you pointed out, the story is more mature and character-driven and less about getting to hear the next one-liner. But despite all this, I’ve only played through the game once since its release, while I’ve played through Portal 1 over five times since I got it in 2007.

    This has a LOT to do with the length of the game. Portal was almost a throwaway pack-in with the Orange Box, and it was designed to be little more than a test run of a single gameplay gimmick. As such, you can really play the whole thing to completion in less than 3 hours, which leaves little room for any sudden dips in the quality of storytelling or gameplay. By comparison, Portal 2 probably took me somewhere between 25 to 30 hours to complete and had to be spread out over the better part of two weeks, and I think for that reason, the slower parts of the game were much more noticeable. The Aperture catacombs part seemed incredibly vacuous and achingly slow-paced, and my interest didn’t perk up again until I got back to the facility proper and began going through Wheatley’s “tests” (which included some of my favourite writing of the game). I can probably say the main reason why I’m not tempted to play through Portal 2 again is the length of that underground portion.

    • I’m glad you agree about the old Aperture section. I love the idea of visiting those old school labs, but they just never quite found a way to satisfyingly tie it into the narrative. I agree that the Wheatley chambers were incredibly well written, and I’m just generally a sucker for level designs that reflect character.

      I’ve only played Portal 2 once in its entirety, too, but I watched my girlfriend play the entire single player a few weeks ago to refresh my memory for this review. It was surprisingly enjoyable just to watch someone else experience it for the first time.

  4. […] to finish an entire game in a reasonable amount of time. The most recent example of this is Portal 2, which I completed late last year in a record 10 […]

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