Tag Archives: Erik Wolpaw

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. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007)

For all its grimness and despair, for all the death and malice that finally creep past City 17’s anonymous citizenry and zero in on Gordon Freeman’s closest friends, Half-Life 2: Episode Two is attempting a celebration. It’s an insiders-only affair, a product created by and for those with such boundless affinity for the franchise that it is comfortable risking moments more brazenly comic and outright tragic than any found in the rest of the series. It’s “fan service” to its core, not just trotting out easy references and beloved characters expecting us to cheer in mere recognition, but also using its established toolkit and bond with the audience to strengthen and stretch its universe’s connective tissue. Simply, this is Half-Life at its most comfortable with just being Half-Life, and for every lateral step that entails, it also allows for some leaps forward and maybe even a little self-reflection. Even the original Half-Life‘s nuked microwave casserole returns as the crux of an antagonistic relationship.

Valve’s employment of this insular fan club shorthand is, for better and for worse, a result of its full embrace of the serialized storytelling required by the episode format. Continue reading

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Psychonauts (2005)

How should game developers rectify that players will forever exist in two universes at once, remaining in the real world while engaging with a virtual one? Even the most elaborate role-players still must sit on the couch with controller in hand; no matter how much you want to fully take the leap, one foot stays planted in reality. Many games acknowledge this problem by creating similarly dichotomous settings, from the terrifying secrets within the pristine walls of Aperture Science and Black Mesa to the Zelda series’ obsession with a “dark” world lurking beneath our own. Smart games embrace a disconnect within their universes, recognizing that true immersion is easier said than done. However, these games often cast us as soldiers of truth, the only ones who can see behind the curtain and expose the world’s falsities. Far fewer titles look inward, embracing that our own perception might be just as flawed as everyone else’s. Engaging with a game – wanting to explore the fictional space of another’s creation – expresses some desire, no matter how slight, to disassociate one’s point of view from the rules of reality. Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts takes place almost entirely in this space between “truth” and perception. Continue reading

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