“I think we can put our differences behind us… for science… you monster.”
Portal 2 is a game that gleefully flies against all the wrong-headed assumptions about games — both from within the gaming community and from its many critics in the world of politics and moral watchdogging. It is a bloodless, essentially non-violent video game with a female protagonist. And it was a massive hit with an appeal that made it popular with both committed and casual gamers alike. It’s a game that dismisses the notion that games have to cater to the baser human desires for blood and guts, and that games have to be designed for what the industry erroneously defines as its audience: white, heterosexual guys who actively dislike — or are at least extremely uncomfortable with — women, and by extension, female characters in games. The massive success of Portal 2 proves these time-honored conclusions are, if not totally incorrect and blind to a massive and largely unacknowledged diversity, at least increasingly creaky, old-fashioned, and out of touch with the industry’s shift into a mainstream form of entertainment. And hell, even if they were correct, those are not assumptions that should be played to anyway.
My life as a computer gamer is limited to a small handful of games — Wolfenstein (I shame my fist at you, Robot Hitler!), Doom and Doom 2, Blood, Half-Life (but none of its expansions), and Unreal. Eventually, the processing requirements of the games exceeded my willingness to pay for a computer that could handle them. And then I ended up with a Mac anyway, and it was all over after that. I missed Portal when it made its rounds through the PC gaming universe, but when Portal 2 was released and available for game consoles, there was enough about it (and, as always, the music — soundtracks really seem to be my gateway into most of the games I play) to pique my interest. When it went on sale for around $14 shortly after its release, it became the first game the tight-fisted miser me bought new instead of waiting around a year for the inevitable price drop or used copies.
Other than the fact that I hear it’s a pretty fun game, there’s no requirement that you be familiar with Portal in order to play Portal 2. Anything you need to know is summed up quickly and unobtrusively within the first few minutes as your character, a human woman by the name of Chell, wakes up in a one-room apartment with only the voice of a cheeky artificial intelligence named Wheatley (voiced by British comedic writer-actor Stephen Merchant, The Office (UK) and An Idiot Abroad) to explain things to you. In short order, your history as a lab rat for the Aperture Science Enrichment Center is disseminated to you along with the revelation that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. In fact, you’ve been in stasis for years, and the entire sprawling facility looks like a post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. Wheatley guides you through your reawakening, thus teaching you the game controls and equipping you with your only “weapon” — the portal gun, which can create two holes in solid surfaces through which you can travel. All seems well enough, if a bit destroyed, until your activity is noticed by GlaDOS.
GlaDOS (Ellen McLain, Portal, Half-Life) is the facility’s control intelligence, and there is some bad blood between the two of you. Partly because it is her programming, and partly because she wants to torment you for past transgressions against Aperture Science, GlaDOS plops you and your portal gun down in the facility’s testing ground — GlaDOS having been busy rebuilding the facility to the best of her ability. At this point, gameplay proper kicks in, and you must use your portals to solve an increasing difficult procession of puzzles while also avoiding the occasional overzealous robotic turret gun, laser field, or fall from a very great height. Your odyssey eventually takes you beyond the walls of the testing rooms and into a vast underground research center with looped commentary from Aperture’s long-dead founder, Cave Johnson (a brilliant turn by J.K. Simmons) ranting about science and incendiary lemons in the background, and eventually into the very guts of the facility, where GlaDOS becomes an unexpected, if acerbic, ally in your effort to escape the seemingly endless complex of tests, puzzles, and deadly singing turrets.
In the smattering video game articles I’ve done in the past, I’ve commented frequently about the quality of writing present in games and how it is stumbling in the direction of being better and more sophisticated while still making plenty of — admittedly understandable — mistakes. It’s hard enough for me to write a website article. It’s even harder to write a book or a movie script. Writing for a video game — especially modern video games, which are expansive and complicated and full of variables — is a task I can barely fathom. And it is still a very new medium, at least at the level demanded by current games. So mistakes will be made, clunkiness will be delivered, and those of us who love both video games and great writing will simply have to take a breath, accentuate the positive, and become active participants in constructive conversations about what can be improved in the next step. It’s actually pretty exciting, sort of like being around when motion pictures were still trying to find their legs and figure out what they could do and how to do it.
With that said, I have nothing bad to say about the writing in Portal 2. It’s spot on. While the plot is simple enough, the writing that inhabits that plot is fantastic. Heavy on wit and humor, but not without moments of menace and pathos, the script by the team of Erik Wolpaw (also a writer on Portal), Jay Pinkerton (a former Cracked and Cracked online editor), and Chet Faliszek (who also wrote for Half-Life and Portal) is a pretty endless and endlessly quotable joy. I would say it’s easily as good as any film comedy, but most film comedy is terrible, so I would not wish such an insult on their work. I would, however, pit it without hesitation against more respectable comedy from guys like Eddie Izzard, Ricky Gervais, or game co-star Stephen Merchant. There are frequent laugh-out-loud moments and lines fantastically delivered by a cast that is not taking their job lightly. Of course, Merchant’s involvement and the overall tone of the writing makes me wonder what would have happened if we’d had a Karl Pilkington Core in the game.
I always hate it when a dub job or video game voice over job with movie stars involved is referred to as having a “real” cast. Voice actors are a real cast, and film actors often make dreadful voice actors — either because they feel it is beneath them to try hard or because it is a totally different experience from those with which they are familiar. What we have in Portal 2 is a nice mix of voice talent and film talent that understands how to do voice work. J.K. Simmons’ Cave Johnson is fantastic, as is the endlessly enthusiastic and eventually batshit insane Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant. Cave Johnson in particular offers up an embarrassment of quotable riches. Ellen McLain’s GlaDOS (returning from the first game) drips with sarcasm as she taunts (and sometimes helps) you navigate the strange world in which you find yourself trapped. But while sneering condescension delivered with the feigned dispassion of a logical construct is the defining element of her performance, it’s not the sole dimension. There is a world-weary melancholy and, occasionally, genuinely sinister element that makes GlaDOS a much more complex character than just “taunting villain.”
Of course, the prize for voice acting goes to Nolan North’s Space Core, but you’re just going to have to experience that for yourself.
The game also does a fantastic job of gradually expanding its scope, starting in the confines of the testing facility but soon including a series of sweeping locations that also introduce you to increasingly more complicated puzzles to solve so that you might progress. The initial escape from the testing rooms and into the mammoth cavern that houses the rest of Aperture Science is a breathtaking reveal easily the match of even the best science fiction or fantasy cinema has to offer. Nothing gets old. Just as you are starting to get overly familiar with a setting, you are propelled into a new and totally unexpected location — from the testing rooms to the cave to a series of adventures across dizzying towers and catwalks that had me afraid of heights in a way I never am in real life. It’s a perfect storm of great writing, great acting, great visuals, and fantastic gameplay.
And music. Since I mentioned yet again this is a soundtrack (which contains three volumes and can be downloaded for free from Valve’s official Portal 2 website) that led me to a game, it would be silly not to mention it. Composed by Mike Morasky, it’s a wonderful blend of 8-bit throwback, 90s electronica, and more traditional cinematic score. Jonathan Coulton, who wrote the wonderful end theme for the first Portal game (“Still Alive”) returns to pen another great end theme, “Want You Gone.” There are moments of menace, as befits certain scenes, but most of it is playful and peppy, sometimes even cute.
Ah, almost forgot about actually playing the game. Well, no worries there either. It’s a blast. The spacial issues that confound me on many first-person games (“How close am I to the edge again? Oops, too close.”) didn’t really afflict me here, despite the fact that Portal 2 is all about messing around with spacial relationships. I guess when that aspect of gameplay is so central to the overall plot, you have to get it right (which unfortunately was not the case with Mirror’s Edge). The single player adventure is a lot of fun (I am usually flying solo when I play a game), but the game also offers an equally entertaining two-player option that puts you and a friend in charge of two goofball robots being run through a series of different puzzles and adventures by GlaDOS
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a perfect game, but Portal 2 gets really damn close. I absolutely loved playing it. After finishing it, I was anxious to play again, both with a friend and just for another romp through the single-player adventure (my aging memory renders most of the puzzles brand new again almost immediately after I solve them). On the surface, Portal 2 seems an unlikely poster child for the much-needed artistic and attitude shift in gaming that moves us away from exclusion, hate, and dull repetition and toward a more involved and involving next generation. But under all the jokes and good-natured fun is a game that challenges and defeats so many of the self-destructive and vile assumptions about games and gamers. When the final moment plays out and GlaDOS and Jonathan Coulton start up with “Want You Gone” (to say nothing of the turrets’ rendition of “Cara Mia Addio”), I was left with a big, dumb, satisfied grin on my face.
“Those of you who volunteered to be injected with praying mantis DNA, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Bad news is we’re postponing those tests indefinitely. Good news is we’ve got a much better test for you: fighting an army of mantis men. Pick up a rifle and follow the yellow line. You’ll know when the test starts.”