Monday, July 18, 2011

Some Thoughts on Portal 2

Portal 2 was released on my birthday and no one gifted me a copy of it. As a result, I discovered that I need to get some new friends. Friends who appreciate the cosmic significance involved with the sequel to one of the best games of all time being released on my birthday. More importantly, I need friends who can capitalize on that significance and give me a free video game. If you think you're qualified for that role, leave a comment on this webzone and we'll talk. Or just give me free games and you can automatically qualify.

But anyway, I finally got around to Portal 2 once Valve gave it a 50% discount during the latest Steam summer sale. And now that I've played through it, I'm ready to speak my mind about its strengths and weaknesses. Portal 2 is a mighty fine game that, in some ways, lives up to its expectations, but it ultimately doesn't deliver the same concentrated experience as the first Portal.

Click to continue reading about Portal 2.

The first Portal was a nice, pleasing little game. It took an interesting puzzle mechanic and implemented it into an immersing, atmospheric environment, and before you knew it something resembling a plot snuck up on you.  Suddenly it was no longer a testing tutorial, it was about survival and escape. Dramatic, tense, cathartic. GLaDOS provided amusing commentary along the way and added a nice element of subdued humor and charm to the experience, while the total game length was short enough not to outstay its welcome. Portal was a very tightly-knit game, and I really enjoyed the experience.

And then the internet turned it into a giant meme and ruined it. Weighted Companion Cubes all over the place, GLaDOS quotes all over the place, people line-dropping "The cake is a lie" left and right, "Still Alive" covered by live bands. Now, "The cake is a lie" was a cute little joke in the game but it wasn't that funny. And now it's just not funny at all because it's more of a meme than a contextual joke. Furthermore, the game itself was explosively popular, and by that I mean tons and tons of people who don't "game" were playing it and obsessing about it, and that just boggles my mind. It's like what was actually just a simple, poignant gaming experience became the holy grail of cult phenomenon.

A cute, amusing bit of script, ruined by the internet.

So that had me concerned that Portal 2 was going to "up the ante" with the style of subdued humor, memes, and gaming-culture references---that it was going to carry the spark of the community fascination and try too hard to appeal to the meme'ing fans instead of just striving to be a good game. It made me somewhat cautious about approaching Portal 2 because I didn't want it getting carried away with itself.

Then, Valve started an alternate-reality game called the "Potato Sack" to promote the release of Portal 2. Steam released a highly discounted bundle of 13 popular indie games on Steam (with titles like Braid, Killing Floor, Audiosurf, Amnesia, Super Meat Boy), and then GLaDOS started invading the games. Suddenly, Portal-themed levels and imagery started popping up in each game, with bonus Portal content like extra missions and side-quests with hidden potatoes to find. And apparently it was an effort by GLaDOS to reboot her CPU early, so people playing and finding potatoes in the Potato Sack would conceivably get Portal 2 released early.

It was kind of an interesting gimmick. I liked the idea that GLaDOS is so pervasive that she was getting into other games besides just Portal, and it was overall a very well-designed publicity stunt. It also brought a lot more income and attention to some nice indie games, but I wonder if it's going to have any major impact (ie, how many people bought and played the games just for the Portal 2 event and are never going to play them again or buy more of the developer's games). However, it was also kind of annoying to have all this weird stuff suddenly start happening in a game I was already playing before the event. Some people treated the Potato Sack like a second job and turned a fun hobby into work. Just to get Portal 2 released like 6 or 9 hours earlier.

Steam's banner for the Potato Sack.

Oh well, Portal 2 eventually got released and I eventually played it some time later. Now that the long-winded expository stuff is out of the way, here's what I think of Portal 2. There are of course plot spoilers in the following text, so don't bother reading any further if you haven't played the game yet. In fact, if you haven't played yet you should probably just go buy it and play it right now. Seriously. You don't need me or anyone else to explain why it's good, you already know it's good. Just go play it.

Anyway, I really liked the way Portal 2 starts out. Waking up in the hibernation chamber, or whatever it's called, and going through the ropes of the tutorial was fluid and engaging. Then, waking up 999 days later (if that's genuine or just a computing malfunction, I'm still not certain--either way, it's been a long time) and seeing the room in complete ruin was a very jarring and effective way to set the tone for the rest of the game. The nuance of a completely obvious change in scenery, while not actively drawing attention to itself, triggered something deep in my brain that told me things just got serious, and I was appreciative of that subtle storytelling design.

Crashing through the Aperture infrastructure, as Wheatley rips the room out of the wall to escort you towards your destination, was also very effective at mounting the excitement. That sequence got the game rolling at an exciting pace without having high demands on the player. Some games like to drop the player into an intense action sequence to start things off with a bang. But in these situations, the player often doesn't know enough about the mechanics to succeed, and the pacing ultimately falters as they fail and start over. But in typical Valve fashion, the scripted "on rails" intro was thrilling without overstimulating the player with demands.

One of the first test chambers from the original Portal.

And then we're back into good old fashioned test chambers, except they've crumbled into ruins with vegetation growing wild. Clean Aperture walls riddled with cracks; broken glass, scattered all over the floors; tiled panels hanging loose; ceilings caving in and walls crumbling down. It was really quite dramatic and stirring to see familiar test chambers in this condition. The natural element of the vines creeping into the facility also added a pleasing juxtaposition to the once crisp, clean environment of the Aperture testing facilities, and I really really liked this aesthetic design.

So then we're going through test chambers again, and it's kind of fun in a slightly nostalgic sort of way. The thrill was almost simply because there was more Portal to enjoy, but the new aesthetic touches also helped to make it feel fresh and new again (an interesting contrast to everything looking old and decrepit).

Regarding Wheatley: at first I really enjoyed him. His personality was upbeat and enjoyable, and it was engaging and entertaining to follow his train of thought. The voice acting by Stephen Merchant is of course top notch, and the writing is clever and creative. I liked his role in the story, trying to help you escape from the facility while encountering his own limitations of being naught but a ball with an eye. But after a while I started to get almost annoyed by his personality. Eventually, it gets to be a bit like a small dog constantly yapping for attention, and I really wanted him to take a chill pill.

I also became a little disgruntled after reviving GLaDOS, because at that point the game loses some of its unique spark and falls back into routine. It was fun going through dilapidated chambers and sneaking through the infrastructure with Wheatley, but going back to plain old portal-testing with GLaDOS providing voice-over commentary just felt a little bit bland to me, just because this was what we did for the entirety of the first game.

Some of the new puzzle mechanics save the experience from feeling too underwhelming, at least. The aerial faith plates, while themselves a fairly simply concept, are fun because they put you in motion. But even this grace feels a little hollow because you have no input on their function, they just fling you or your box on a predetermined flight path. The light bridges, however, are a little more creative and give you more room to play around with the mechanics. I like that the bridge was multifunctional, serving to defend against turret onslaughts, crossing chasms, stopping mid-air vaults, and so forth. Those energy-balls from the first Portal, that you had to get into a receptor, have been replaced with lasers, which also get new functionality via a lens that you can use to redirect the beam at any angle.

Excursion beam going through a portal, catching and transporting Propulsion gel.

Later on we get access to "gels" and something resembling a tractor beam that pulls or pushes you along a set trajectory. The gels are ultimately far more interesting than the excursion beam since they're more original to the style of puzzle mechanics. The white "moon dust" gel was probably the most fun to play with---it was so much fun plastering entire levels with that stuff, and was a clever way to hint at the final solution to beating Wheatley.  But, ultimately, the gels don't really mesh as effectively with some of the other puzzle mechanics, except for the excursion beam; they're mostly used to get the player from one spot to another. Sort of like the aerial faith plates, but at least you get to place the gels yourself.

Portal 2 also suffers a little from content-padding. Whereas the first Portal only presented the cream of its crop, Portal 2 provides more of that cream but spaces it out with filler. You go through three large puzzle sequences, represented as the testing chambers administered by different people; once with GLaDOS, once with Cave Johnson, and once with  Wheatley. In-between each section you go on long walks through dilapidated infrastructures solving very minimal puzzles. Typically, the puzzles are just a matter of "find the two isolated patches of Portal-walls and go through them." But these long walks in-between chambers end up being extremely linear and scripted. Wheatley subtly points this out early on when he's excited about finally getting off of his management rail:
Look at this! No rails to tell us where to go! Oh, this is brilliant! We can go wherever we want! Hold on though, where are we going? Let me just get my bearings. Hmm.... just follow the rail, actually.
At least in the test chambers you get some freedom to move about the level and to decide how you want to try to solve the puzzle. In the long walks between each larger, themed section of chambers, you're really just following the rail. And this becomes a little disheartening for me, because there's plenty of interesting scenery that would be fun to explore, but almost all of the time you're stuck following catwalks or hallways looking for two single patches of Portal-walls. It might have been nice if there'd been more opportunities to let the player explore off the beaten track and find "secret" areas, or if there'd been multiple different ways to get from point A to point B instead of just one, single solution.

After the first extended testing sequence with GLaDOS, we're treated to an older Aperture testing facility from the 50s, once administrated by Cave Johnson. This is yet another contrast that helps to vary the game experience; instead of running through clean, technologically-rich science facilities (or broken-down, dilapidated versions thereof) we're now running through underground caves with a more retro aesthetic. The chambers themselves look far more crude and minimalistic--they don't always have walls or ceilings, and when they do they're made of plywood or corrugated steel.

Sure looks like Hell to me.

Except for the wonderful introduction sequence, I probably liked these chambers the best. Falling down that really long pit after Wheatley takes control of GLaDOS' position, and being exposed to large, dank caverns with the toxic waste everywhere, fires blazing, wrecked steel, and monolithic structures kind of symbolizes Hell for me. The environments accentuate the feeling of lonely helplessness and, for the most part, you are alone the entire time. 

Not to mention, it was surprisingly refreshing to have the elevators going UP instead of DOWN. (Yet more symbolism of escaping from Hell on the way to vengeance/redemption.) Cave Johnson's voice plays over a PA system as you go through the chambers, similarly to how GLaDOS talks to you during chambers, as pre-recorded messages. The pre-recorded nature allows the writers to add different types of humor to the lines that you couldn't get from a live feed. Cave Johnson himself is a pleasing introduction to the lineup of characters, but it's looking like "lemons" are going to be the new "cake." How fun.

During these "Cave Johnson" chambers we learn more about the history of Aperture, such as how it got started and how traditions of the past have carried over into the present. We also get to learn more about GLaDOS; she is apparently the consciousness of Cave's assistant Caroline, uploaded into a computer. This approach helps to add even more humanity to GLaDOS' character, which I think was a great way to develop her even further.

But it's also nice to be working with GLaDOS for the last half of the game. It's an interesting dynamic to leave her powerless in a potato battery ("Oh. Hi. So. How are you holding up? BECAUSE I'M A POTATO!") and watch how she tries to handle the situation. We see her indignation at being overpowered by a mere human and a moron-of-a-robot. She's been utterly humiliated and now has to swallow her pride and work with the very person who killed her before. Such a mechanism as "the bad guy" working with "the good guy" has a lot of potential to come off as really contrived, but Valve pulled it off quite well here. By giving both characters a common enemy and plight, while stripping GLaDOS of her power, but still having her mouth off about how much she hates you and justifying her trying to kill you in the first game, Valve was able to add rich, genuine character to this relationship.

Overall, Portal 2 is a fine game, possibly the best of 2011. Valve put a lot of deliberate, precise effort into crafting this game and it shows. Most of the complaints I have really amount to nitpicking. In some regards, it was inevitable that Portal 2 wouldn't quite outshine its predecessor, but I'm pleased with the outcome. It's also a little disappointing that there are no advanced chambers or challenge modes this time around, but I suppose that's what co-op is for.  I'm in a bit of a pickle, though, since I just got rid of all of my friends. Anyone interested in playing a little co-op?

1 comment:

  1. Overall I agree.
    But even thought I really enjoyed the game, I just cannot forgive this supposedly puzzle game not really having any puzzles.

    It is basically a linear, easy, slightly interactive movie and totally different from the original.

    Oh and I think that more then 999 days passed and 999 was just the biggest number that the display could show (but that is just my interpretation).
    If the dilapidation is any judge then it seems like over 5 years.