(I’m kinda working on a Portal 2 review, but in the meantime I’m just rambling. There will be spoilers at the bottom, mostly consisting of guesses about Portal 3. You’ll be warned.)
Portal 2 is a big deal. That it has become a big deal is kind of awesome, when you think about it; Portal began as a student project (Narbacular Drop), and now it is the first full-length, single-player first-person game Valve has released since Half Life 2. It also features no blood, (almost) no violence, and no other living characters. You don’t have an inventory – indeed, you don’t even have a voice. You have a gun, but you don’t kill anything with it – at least not directly, and the things you indirectly kill are robotic turrets. Indeed, for the most part you aren’t killing anything – you’re solving puzzles.
Even more fascinating – at least to me – is that while it’s true that you can only really “solve” the puzzles once (and thus only generate that genuine, exhilarating “a-ha!” moment once as well), the game never stops being entertaining upon multiple playthroughs. I’ve played the original Portal maybe a dozen times, and I’ve already beaten Portal 2 twice after only owning the game for 3 days. Some of the puzzle solutions are just awesome. They are fulfilling to solve, absolutely, but they’re also incredibly fulfilling just in the pure act of execution, and as you get better at the game you find more efficient ways of solving each puzzle, which is also fulfilling.
For example, there’s a puzzle in Portal 2 (I believe it’s the first puzzle in Chapter 3, the one that begins with repeated aerial faith plate malfunctions) that I solved without much difficultly on my first run, although I’d found it somewhat tedious to keep walking back and forth between portal openings. On my second playthrough, I suddenly realized that I could simply jump into one of the portals I’d just created, thus making everything move a lot quicker. So it’s not just the thrill of the initial solution to a problem; it’s the subsequent discovery of more efficient solutions that’s just as thrilling.
I think for me, though, the main reasons why I keep coming back to Portal and Portal 2 are:
- The world. Every game that’s out these days is either set in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or some variation on the standard platformer themes – forest, desert, lava, ice. The original Portal had a very simple and very distinctive look to it, and it was all the more thrilling when the curtain was pulled back in the final act. Portal 2’s environments are even more varied and diverse, as well as still being incredibly unique, and the fact that so much of it takes place “behind the scenes” makes it all the more special. Portal already has somewhat of a “meta” vibe in the first place but this notion of being off the beaten path is thrilling, especially when the settings are so epic in scope.
- The attention to detail. It’s easy to fly past a lot of the little things in Portal 2, and for the most part it’s not at all necessary to stop and inspect every single piece of litter you come across. And yet there’s actual writing on each coffee can and fuse box; it goes an incredibly long way towards making the world believable, even while you’re doing unbelievable things. Everything is in its right place, even when it’s out of place. The best games generally get this – Bioshock, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption certainly get it.
- The quality of the storytelling. They’re paced incredibly well, and Portal 2’s pace is among the best of all time. Puzzle concepts are introduced gradually, and eventually you’ll be doing some completely insane things in order to solve them, and as a reward there’ll be an exhilarating chase sequence or an extended, slow exploration sequence when you get to a new area. And it’s not just the Portal games are hilarious – it’s also that they’re smart enough to both tell you what’s happening, and also let you infer what’s happening indirectly. (And there’s quite a lot happening, and we’ll get to that in a bit. )
- The love. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say. But you can tell when a development team genuinely cares about the game they make, and it’s very, very clear that Valve cares. The original Portal is a game that people adore, and as such the expectations for a sequel were astronomically high – even though it would be impossible to guess just what, if anything, the sequel would look like. There’s not a single bum note in either of the two games, and that’s not because of luck – that’s because an enormous amount of time went into polishing everything, from the graphics to the dialogue to the puzzles themselves. In a recent interview with Gamespot, writer Erik Wolpaw (one of my personal heroes) said that it doesn’t matter to him whether games can exist as art – games need to be entertaining, first and foremost, or else what’s the point?
OK: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
Portal 3 speculation:
- We now know about Aperture’s origins, and somewhat about how GlaDOS came to be. But what of Chell? Where did she come from? Was she someone’s daughter in “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day? [EDIT: Yes, she is.] Was she Cave Johnson’s illegitimate daughter with Caroline? (Would that even make sense, time-line wise? Is it ever specified when the first game take place? Considering that Aperture was already messing around with pretty high-tech stuff in the 50s, the original Portal could conceivably take place in the 60s, right? They do have some old computers and rotary phones in the original Portal.) (Also – I never looked at the “Lab Rat” comic, and it’s possible this was explained there. I should probably look at it first before speculating any more.)
- At the end of the game, when Chell is standing in the field – does she have the Portal gun with her? I don’t think so – you see both of her hands grabbing on to Wheatley after your final portal hits home. By the same token, Chell didn’t have the Portal gun at the end of the first one, either. In any event – the Lab Rat comic’s final panel says that Chell has remarkable tenacity and stubbornness. We don’t know why, though. The point is: at the end of P2, she is free. The question remains: would she go back? And if so, why?
- Wheatley has to return, doesn’t he? You can’t make a character that wonderful and have it be lost forever, right?