Spoiler-free thoughts on Portal 2
It took me about five minutes into Portal 2 before I really grasped what I was playing: a feature-length, big-budget, flawlessly produced comedy game. Valve has proven several times over that they’re capable of making genuinely funny games, but it’s always been where they had nothing to lose. People don’t necessarily play puzzle games or team-based multiplayer games for the narrative, so Valve’s making them funny just seemed like them proving they could do it. Showing off, in other words.
But playing a game on the scale of Half-Life 2 and seeing an equal number of brilliantly funny moments and exceptionally well-made action moments: that’s new. It reminded me a little bit of the first time I saw Ghostbusters and realized that this wasn’t another Stripes or Meatballs as I’d been expecting; it could hold its own against any summer blockbuster.
Or to put it another way: the beginning of Portal 2 was so good it made me angry.
Did the rest of the game live up to that level? Of course not. Nothing could. The biggest problem with Portal 2 is that it has to exist: when you’ve got some of the best writers, artists, and level designers working on the successor to a revolutionary game based on a mind-bending game mechanic, the potential of any new story moment, device, or puzzle is greater than anybody would ever be able to actually deliver. So in the end, we’ve just got to make do with a game that delivers one outstanding moment after the next.
In the end, I liked it better than Portal, and I liked Portal an awful lot. The stuff I disliked in the first game is the stuff I liked in the sequel: I preferred Portal’s test chambers to the Half-Life 2 sequences, while in Portal 2 I kept looking forward to getting the chance to break out and explore. I really disliked the “boss fight” in the first game, while Portal 2 ends perfectly.
And I believe they made the right choices at every step of the way. Every time a section starts to overstay its welcome, they changed things up. The addition of co-op mode was perfectly done; the co-op game feels like a continuation of Portal, while the single-player game feels like a full-on feature-length sequel; Half-Life 2 with a portal gun. (And lots of other inventions). And they didn’t just try to rehash the moments that made the first game brilliant, but still experimented with what you can do with videogame storytelling.
Throughout the game, I had several moments where I’d spend 30-45 minutes on a puzzle whose answer was staring me right in the face — sometimes literally. Remarkably, none of the puzzles felt like a cheat; even when I got stuck and frustrated, the solution was always clearly hinted at in retrospect. And there are extremely clever puzzle moments throughout. More in the co-op game than the single-player game, but that’s probably out of necessity: making a puzzle too obscure would’ve destroyed the pacing.
For any game designers furiously studying Portal 2 to try to copy what makes it great, I believe that the pacing is the thing to pay the most attention to. It shows just how important timing is to comedy, and how the types of comedy we’re used to seeing and writing works completely differently in a game. I said that I got stuck at several points for 30 minutes or more; Jake and some of the other guys I talked to had no problem with those sections, but got stuck in other places. That means that those scenes played out completely differently for each of us.
It’s enough of a hit-or-miss proposition to be delivering jokes to an audience, even when they’re not concentrated on solving puzzles. (Or in Valve’s case, staying on the lookout for the next meme to quote incessantly on message boards). Now imagine giving every member of the audience individual time machine controls, with the power to pause, speed up, or slow down your entire delivery. Plus some of them are really dim-witted, and it takes them four times as long as it should to get the joke, while others can see the punchline coming from a mile away. And then in a minute or two, those two groups will swap, and the same people who were way ahead of you last time are just plain not getting it now.
Still, Portal 2 has some exceptional moments — nothing on the scale of the “cake is a lie” bit from the first game, because this just isn’t that type of game — moments which show how to deliver a story through the game, not in spite of the game. In particular, there’s a bit where Wheatley the Stephen Merchant-voiced robot makes a reappearance after being gone for a while, and it’s just about perfect. I’ve heard there are a few other bits that sound great, but I’d completely missed them because I wasn’t forced to watch them.
Downloadable content is coming in the summer, supposedly, so I’ll have plenty of excuses to play through it again and figure out how it all works. Until then, congratulations to everybody on the team for once again following up a favorite with something that’s way better than it needs to be.