I must admit I was a bit cynical about the early buzz about Portal 2. This so far has been kind of a rotten year for games with the number “2″ in them–Dead Space and Dragon Age’s sequels were so far behind the original games, were such disappointments, that I had to scoff at all of the chattering on Twitter about how awesome the game was. After all, Dragon Age 2 had its share of fans in the early days, had its share of good reviews. I myself liked it in the first few play sessions until it became clear that the game wasn’t going to live up to its potential.
So yes, while I realize there are different circumstances here, different developers and publishers–interesting to note that Dead Space and Dragon Age are both EA games–I was wary about playing Portal 2. I have really good memories of playing the first, which is outstanding as far as writing and gameplay are concerned, and didn’t want to ruin them. What swayed me was first that a few friends whose opinons I trust told me in no uncertain terms that I need to play the game as soon as I can, and that Gamestop did a very sudden price drop to $30. I’m trying to save some money, but $30 is a fine price.
I played for a little under two hours last night–I quit at the very beginning of Chapter 3–and I’m having a hell of a time so far. Here are some of my thoughts on what I’ve done.
–It’s great to notice the amount of care that was put into the writing. Again, it’s sad that most videogame writing is an afterthought and is unnoticeable. Portal (and its sequel) features so many quotable lines because nearly every line is a winner. Apparently, as is obvious, when you get a talented writer on staff, you’re going to have excellent dialogue. The writers obviously care about their setting and their characters, and while the new characters have some great lines, it’s clear that they’ve been spending the past few years gleefully coming up with some of the most sadistically passive-aggressive lines for GLaDOS to say. Meanwhile every character so far sounds different–different speech patterns, cadences, vocabulary. Other companies, let’s all get to this point, shall we?
–The entire introduction is one of the most well-done intros I’ve played in a while. The beginning tutorial is hilarious. When shit starts to go down, it’s terrifying. When they detach the room from the rest of the building and you get to see a tiny bit of the outside word, it places the room in space in a way that the original Portal never did. When the room starts to crash into the building, it’s nerve-wracking. The introduction, in short, manages to impart a sense of place, a sense of the place changing, and characterization while whiplashing you between several conflicting emotions and bringing up some questions all in the space of maybe ten minutes’ time.
–Portal has a very interesting way off treating its Place. For the most part, the game takes place in a series of sterile white rooms. While there’s a very specific atmosphere, it’s very unclear–it’s designed to be unclear–what the layout of the complex is. I’ve read theories which suggest that maybe there’s only a couple of actual rooms and they’re simply shifting around every time you enter a new test chamber. Because the setting is so featureless, you don’t pay much attention to it–you only start to realize the environment you’re in when you go through the underbelly, the unfinished areas of the complex. What originally starts off as bland, generic, and unnoticeable ends up turning very oppressive after that part. It helps the atmosphere of paranoia–because you’re torn between bright lights that are unsuitable for humans to live in, and an industrial atmosphere you feel you’re not really supposed to be exploring. That you have to squeeze behind things in order to see some of the side rooms helps to impart the sense that the developers didn’t even really intend for you to go there, that you’re actually tricking the game itself.
So Portal 2 begins in what looks like a generic hotel room, the kind of place you’ve stayed in a dozen times, down to the generic art on the wall. When you wake up and the room has decayed over assumedly hundreds of years, that’s pulling the rug of the familiar out from under you–again, an effect they accomplish in only a few minutes. When you go through the decaying, automatic test chambers, there’s the contrast between the antiseptic and the dangerous industral that’s embodied in the same room. And when GLADoS awakens…
…well it does bolster the theory that theres’ only a handful of test chambers because you see the chambers setting themselves up as you walk into them–platforms realign, walls form, lasers turn on. It makes the environments feel so much more dynamic than they did in the first, and helps the game feel more intense. You’re not going through a lazy course that’s been set up for years. GLADoS is thinking up this stuff and throwing it at you as fast as she can. You two are racing against each other.
–For that matter, going through the few chambers for the second time, especially GLADoS’s room–well I’m a sucker for when games repeat areas but change them somehow. Certainly movie and book sequels revisit locations, but since games have a much more inherent sense of exploration–since they’re literally worlds you inhabit–altering a location can have a much more dramatic effect. Going through GLADoS’s chamber, you have the opportunity to examine exactly how much damage you yourself caused.
–I’ve often said that I love videogames when they make me feel like I’m flying. In one level, one of the new pieces–the Aperture Science Aerial Faith Plate–is introduced; basically it’s a catapult. In this particular level, there are two set up at opposite ends of a large pool of water–each flings you to the other side. I spent literally five minutes jumping from one end to the other and repeating the process, and it was only because it was late and I wanted to get to a chapter break before stopping that I went to the next room. There’s a feeling of freedom and motion–the feeling of experiencing something which is impossible in real life–that the best videogames impart, and it’s definitely imparted here.
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