If Steam’s timer is right–the internet tells me it’s fiddly but this amount of time seems right–it took me roughly 10 hours to beat Portal 2. That’s 5 days with an average session of 2 hours (see, I can do math!)–for a game of this type, I think that’s a perfect length. The original Portal featured really no fat at all, no padding or boring bits, and its sequel manages to up the playtime not by adding filler but adding more content. That’s amazing. The only time you’re not doing something is when you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what to do–par for the course in this sort of game. I found 10 hours to be the right amount of time–any longer and it would have been overwhelming. I puzzled my way through some progressively harder challenges, some towards the end which were really difficult, and around the time I was ready for the game to end, it ended.
I have not played multiplayer mode, but the fact that I’m looking forward to it–I have a half-dozen friends who want to play co-op, plus I really should do a few rounds with Eric for podcast purposes, so it’s less a question of finding someone to play with as it is deciding who gets first honors–is probably indicative of how much I liked the game. Want a more explicit indicator of my feelings? I want to play the game again with developer commentary on. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of those scenes and playing some rooms again.
I think I don’t need to tell you this will be very spoiler-heavy.
–The original game is strikingly minimalist in its puzzle elements–there’s boxes, levers, buttons, energy pellets, turrets, and not much else. The new game adds a lot of new pieces-three types of gel that have different effects, lasers, teleporter funnel things, light bridges. It doesn’t feel like any of them are gratuitous, and it’s actually really interesting how giving them such distinct and evocative names–Thermal Discouragement Beams, Aerial Faith Plates, Excursion Funnels–almost helps to characterize them. All of them seem like recognizable and important parts of the world in which they live, which helps it feel much more “alive”. We’re not just playing with abstract pieces–we’re testing out technologies.
However, while they try out a lot of what the different elements can do, because of the game’s length I don’t feel like they’ve explored every angle–clever level designers could figure out more. Given that they’re apparently going to release DLC challenge packs, that’s not a bad thing.
–Actually, depending on how the DLC goes, they might be doing something very interesting with the difficulty. See, every single puzzle made me feel smart after solving it–like I’d looked through the environment, tested out some theories, and ultimately come up with a solution all on my own–I didn’t use a guide at all because of how solvable the game was. Many chambers, I entered and found myself too overwhelmed to continue or just couldn’t figure it out, and I usually took that as a sign to take a break for a bit and do something else. Invariably, when I restarted the game, the solution jumped out at me within five minutes. That’s great.
While the game starts off pretty easy and gets harder as it goes along, I think, in the grand scheme of things, that the difficulty tops out somewhere around “medium/hard”. There’s a lot more difficult it could be. I approve of this decision–it means that beating the game is not just for a Chosen Elect, and they can save the really tough ones for the DLC. I hope, though, that they put in some huge puzzles with all of the different elements–I wanted to see more Chaos to make order out of.
–Portal is also very minimalist in its plot and characters. There’s obviously no dialogue–your character is mute–and the entirety of the script is GLaDOS talking to you. (There’s some incidental speech from the turrets and the cores, but they seem to take more of the form of sound effects than actual speaking.) The plot is very simple–you’re in a facility, there’s a rogue AI, go escape.
Portal 2 adds a few characters–Wheatley the endearingly dim core who goes on to take over the place, Cave Johnson the founder of Aperture Science, GLaDOS herself–some of whom interact with each other. I was worried this would change the paranoid, alone atmosphere, but they manage to avoid that pitfall. Since your character doesn’t speak, it largely stays characters monologuing at you, the bits with dialogue are not extended (and are all excellently written), and they help it feel like more of a world. Cave Johnson himself is dead–he’s only encountered through recordings–so that’s helpful.
–The characterization, particularly of Wheatley and GLaDOS, is extremely complex, and I’m impressed with how deftly it was handled. Wheatley is designed to be an intelligence dampener–he’s literally created to be dumb–and in his initial stages he comes off as clumsy, silly, hilarious, and well-meaning. He may not be able to do anything well, but he’s trying his best. When he’s plugged into GLaDOS’s mainframe, he turns evil and takes over the facility. But rather than a complete personality overhaul, he’s the same ditz as before–he’s just turned murderous. God love ‘im, he attempts evil quips and dangerous deathtraps, but he’s still not very good at it, he’s not smart enough to be. At one point, when you’re faced with an easily-avoidable trap, he resorts to begging you to step into it, reasoning that he’s totally going to kill you later and it’s somehow better for you and will spoil his careful preparations if you voluntarily kill yourself. GLaDOS’s big plan to destroy him is to confront him with a logical paradox–he’s too stupid to understand and it doesn’t work on him.
It’s interesting, because when he starts to take over, that scene is pretty chilling. That he’s a total incompetent does not change the fact that he’s very, very murderous and is trying desperately to make you dead. In a way, it actually adds to his scariness. The facility is actually in more danger due to his inaction and obliviousness–he hasn’t tended to the reactor and it’s about to blow in the last stages of the game–than to anything he actively does. That makes for a fearsome antagonist indeed.
–But GLaDOS’s characterization is much more interesting. In the first game, she was a mad AI who went even further mad and attempted to kill you for standard homicidal AI reasons. In this game, she’s been reliving her death at your hands thousands of times, which has unhinged you further. The section where she’s testing you, she’s making it very clear that she’s using the tests as a form of torture, and she’s speculating on the ways she’s going to hurt you. Her techniques are hilariously wide-ranging and bizarre: At one point she resorts to making fun of your weight, as if that’s the lowest blow she can strike. In another section, she keeps talking up a “surprise” she’s going to show you, giving broader and broader hints that you’re finally going to meet your parents, only to have her simply throw confetti at you and admit she was just trying to mess with your head. (It worked in my case.) She started off insane–your death finally sent her over the edge.
B ut the characterization doesn’t stop there; after Wheatley takes over, she’s attached to a potato battery and you end up carrying her around for most of the latter half of the game. She starts off accompanying you reluctantly–you’ve both got a common enemy and you’re each others’ only hope–but as the game continues, she begins to…soften towards you. It’s revealed–or at least VERY broadly hinted–that her personality comes from Cave Johnson’s assistant (and assumed lover) Caroline. When GLaDOS starts to figure this out, she screams out, “What the hell is going on?!” Given that this is the only instance of anything resembling profanity in the game (other than Wheatley describing certain defective turrets as “crap”), it’s actually one of the most disturbing parts–coupled with an amazing voice performance that embodies absolute terror. (Do I need to mention that the game features the best voice acting I’ve ever heard?) A very interesting thing is happening–GLaDOS is being humanized. We begin to pity her, to feel bad for her–some of her speeches even indicate that she’s starting to feel feelings of affections towards Chell, that the two women are starting to become friends.
This is a very interesting direction for the game to take.
–The end also manages to straddle a line that could have faltered miserably–they hit it precisely. See, there are a lot of factors which should affect GLaDOS’s ultimate fate. We don’t want her to get away scot-free–this is GLaDOS we’re talking about, a homicidal AI who released a deadly neurotoxin for no particular reason, who puts you through torturous tests, who wants you to die and is doing everything in her power to do so. But, her backstory reveals that she was originally a human woman who was likely turned into an AI against her will, she’s been subjected to a series of dampeners and restrictions, she genuinely believes in the value of science and does what she does for that cause, and in-game she’s tortured, placed onto a potato, pecked apart by birds–we pity her, and rightly so. When Wheatley takes over the facility, she’s alone and scared, and her growing feelings of warmth towards Chell aren’t undeserved–Chell quite literally saves her greatest enemy’s life. GLaDOS can’t get away with killing Chell because of that. Chell can’t kill GLaDOS after we’ve seen her hit bottom. We can’t necessarily allow GLaDOS to completely win because she has to atone for her crimes. More importantly, we do like GLaDOS’s “psychotic AI” personality–she wouldn’t be considered one of gaming’s greatest villains if she weren’t such a strongly-defined character. Frankly, we don’t want her changing too much.
The game deals with this dillemma in the best way possible. GLaDOS acknowledges her newly-found humanity (atonement)…and then promptly deletes that part of her personality (reverting back to the “psychotic AI”). She then tells Chell she’s going to let her go (absolving both from the burden of having to kill each other)…because it’s too much work. She tells Chell that she’s not going to bother trying to kill her any more, not because she doesn’t want to kill Chell any more, but because Chell is too stubborn and killing her is simply not worth GLaDOS’s time. Her tone at the end–even though she’s giving Chell what she wants, it feels like a rejection. We can’t wholly say that Chell wins because GLaDOS concedes defeat so sarcastically that it’s meaningless. There’s one final trick–the elevators open up on an array of turrets, which instead of shooting begin singing a little song–and then Chell is outside. After a moment, the Companion Cube from the first game is tossed out the door–a parting gift?–and we have the inevitable JoCo song. There’s a touch of regret and bittersweetness to the lyrics–it’s sung from the perspective of gloating over having gotten rid of her enemy while missing her at the same time. Essentially, all of this allows GLaDOS to publically retain her dignity of being a cold, evil machine who only concedes defeat on her own terms while privately acknowledging her rediscovered humanity, even if she isn’t ready to come to terms with it yet.
The relationship between enemies is always an extremely complex one–as an examinatino of that dynamic, Portal 2 is excellent.
–While the script is hilarious, I also appreciate that there’s a lot of comedy that comes from the controls themselves. The beginning tutorial section, which casts looking up and looking down as “gymnastics”, is great, as are the sections where Wheatly asks you to speak. The game flashes a message telling you to hit SPACE in order to answer him–SPACE is, of course, the jump button–because Chell is a mute protagonist, there literally is no button for speech. The verb does not exist. He repeats his request again, and the game insists that hitting the spacebar will let you say “apple”, but again, you jump.
Or Wheatley’s first test, which literally consists of pushing a button as the only required action. (Apparently this is a commentary on bad community level designers.) After all the buildup he gives, after all of the buildup the game gives, to see a puzzle that’s even easier than the beginning puzzles of the first game, that’s really funny–this is the hardest puzzle he can think of and it’s insultingly simple. As a hat trick, Wheatley decides he doesn’t have it in him to design any other puzzles, and you have to solve it again. The thought that the rest of the game might consist of repeating this one level over and over and over again–I cracked up.
The funniest thing? Wheatley dramatically announces, “This is the part where I kill you!”, a chapter heading called “The Part Where He Kills You” flashes on screen, and you get an achievement labeled “The Part Where He Kills You” (description: “This is that part.”) The comedy is achieved through several levels, most only viewable to the player. It’s a lot deeper than simply having robots throwing witty banter back and forth–although that’s certainly there–the script considers every angle that they could pour comedy into.
I guess, at the end of the day, I’m having a hard time finding a fault with the game. There could stand to be more, and different levels–but it’s a sound principle of entertainment that you always leave ‘em laughing, always leave ‘em wanting more, because if you give them too much, they’ll get bored eventually and they won’t come back for the sequel. Its puzzles are challenging and fun to solve, and the difficult is neither so easy that they’re insulting nor too difficult that they’re impossible. Its plot is entertaining but not so complex that you have to take notes. Its script and voice acting are masterpieces, and it also knows to shut up during most of the puzzles as to avoid annoying the player. In short, it’s a game which had high expectations and which had to balance very carefully to avoid failure. I find many games aren’t very good at that sort of balance–Dead Space 2 and Dragon Age 2 definitely weren’t–and I am in awe at how well they managed it.
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