Portal 2: A game about game design

There are spoilers below, so if you haven’t played Portal 2 yet and don’t want to know the details of the storyline, I suggest you go elsewhere in 3… 2…

Following up one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time is no small feat, and given the relatively limited universe that the original Portal functions in–the confines of Aperture Science–making a sequel within those constraints only further complicates the task. But leave it to Valve to find every explorable nook and cranny in what becomes a mile-deep wonderland of freakish experiments and death traps.

On the surface, Portal 2 is not unlike its forebearer: once again, you become the faceless protagonist Chell attempting to escape Aperture’s puzzling science factory with the use of the company’s prototype portal weapon. Unlike the original, you now have the assistance of various robots within the facility, namely the British-accented Wheatley and eventually, Portal‘s antagonist GLaDOS.

Where the original gained notoriety for its twisting storyline and closing scene, the story in Portal 2 is basically secondary to the goal: escape Aperture Science. You’re not trying to figure out what’s going on, how you got where you are, or why there’s a Big Brother-like robot trying to kill you; the game assumes you know all of that already (or have at least come to terms with not knowing the answers) and sends you through the puzzles and mazes of Aperture. This shift in focus allows for the game to introduce its biggest plot twist: the takeover of Aperture by the genial and previously helpful programmed Aperture core, Wheatley. When he takes over the facility and insists on testing much the way GLaDOS always had, the game really takes off.

The most captivating part of Portal 2 is the third act when, after being sent to the very basement of the now-decrepit Aperture facility, you encounter the omnipotent Wheatley and his series of puzzles. Throughout the game, GLaDOS refers to Wheatley as an idiot, which, given GLaDOS’s passive aggressiveness, doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. But once you start traversing Wheatley’s tests, it becomes clear what she means.

The dichotomy between GLaDOS’s and Wheatley’s tests is striking: Though the former’s are neatly constructed environments, the latter designs tests like an idiot would, that is, with brute strength. There’s no poetry to Wheatley’s tests despite them being the hardest in the series. He rips apart infrastructure and doesn’t spend nearly as much time with the intricacies of GLaDOS’s tests. For example, in one of his latter tests, he doesn’t supply an exit so he tears apart a neighboring test chamber to create one.

One reason for this barbaric structure is that he’s openly trying to kill you, which is different from GLaDOS’s more subtle mockery and aggression. But Wheatley is also unconcerned with you following any sort of predetermined path: as long as you die, he’s happy. And making you stumble through Aperture Science’s infrastructure, rather than neatly crafted test chambers seems the most immediate way to kill you.

This thematic level shift manifests itself, primarily, by necessitating larger levels that are more concerned with big jumps, gaining speed, and uncovering the select few places in each level where portals can actually be placed. The addition of white, portal-harboring gel that can be spread around levels adds complexity to the game. Rather than determining where you need to go and what the best path is, this gel allows you to create that path yourself, not unlike Wheatley tearing apart the facility’s finely crafted insides.

While the level design is clearly the game’s greatest achievement, not far behind it is the game’s real storyline: that of former (now dead) Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson. After Wheatley mercilessly tosses you to the basement of the facility, you spend most of your time in what was once the Aperture main offices and entrance. As you walk through abandoned cubicles, automated messages from Johnson blare overhead about tests, compensation, and general safety memos. But on the walls are murals of Johnson that chronicle his descent into madness and destruction from mercury poisoning, caught from his own experiments. The game’s introduction of these characters–Johnson’s assistant is also included–and narration of their stories is eloquent and subtle in a way that, if Portal players weren’t so concerned with investigating every detail, would go unnoticed.

All of which is to say that, though it clocks in at only about eight hours, Portal 2 is easily the most ambitious release in recent memory. Valve isn’t worried about trying to trick you or confuse you, and they’re only tangentially concerned with innovative gameplay–the original Portal‘s gameplay was successful, so there are very few new additions to the successful model. They’re concerned with an interpretable, real life situation that you can relate to despite the game’s sci-fi roots and mechanics.

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