Important Note, before you read: This review is separated into two parts, because I can’t stop writing about it. The first part is the “Why You Should Care” structural review of the game, the second is the “OK What Does It Mean” philosophical/social deconstruction of the game. I know most probably won’t care about the second half as much, so I saved it for the end. Peruse it at your leisure.
The purist definition of entertainment art is that which defies our expectations utterly yet is still utterly pleasing. The ideal movie, song, book or video game should surprise at every turn, while still providing exactly what we expect and want. Avatar gave you everything you could ask for in a movie: The best special effects ever seen, mind-blowing action sequences and an identifiable love story, among other things, but never once surprised anyone. You always knew what was coming next. And that’s why no one ever truly fell in love with it. I could delve into the huge log of indie movies that do everything you never expected to see in a movie, but never once strike a chord on an emotional/visual level because they’re too afraid to bow to mainstream expectations. And they’ll all (most of them) be forgotten in short order.
All that is to say that, when these two unfitting halves are somehow mashed together into one piece of art, the results are truly outstanding. Not to mention profitable, if you can make the art snobs and the laymen-who-could-care-less happy. And unless you’re the type that hates being happy and is only truly satisfied when you feel smart, the best entertainment experience is when you find that perfect medium of challenge and gratification. When you have to think just enough to feel your ego stroked while still having your inner child entertained, that’s when the proverbial magic happens.
So what is Portal 2? It’s simple, really. You’re a recently-awoken test subject who is given a gun that creates a temporal portal from point A to point B. Fire a yellow portal at one wall and a red portal at another, and you can travel in one and out the other in short order. Talk about a dull concept for a game, right? Not when you put the idea in the hands of Valve Software, the game’s developer. Seriously. These people are insanely talented and making gameplay varied, complex and surprising. They go beyond the base concept, throwing in physics-altering gels, propulsion platforms and transportation beams to change things a bit. But they don’t overload the game with new items, abilities and characters just to keep gamers busy. Rather, the mind-blowing thing about this game is that the few resources and game mechanics presented are exercised to their maximum capacity. The game is designed so that every possible (and fun) application of the mechanics is exhausted, and by the time the game ends, the player has experienced the full manifestation of the basic concept and nothing more. Which is how every game should be.
So how does Portal 2 qualify as the perfect manifestation of entertainment art? Well, go back to the basic game mechanic discussion above. Assuming you’ve never played Portal or Portal 2 (if so, I’ll have this review loaded with spoiler warnings), it would be impossible to fathom how this basic concept could thoroughly alter one’s perception of reality. First of all, I want to point out that plenty of cute little browser-based games and puzzle games use concepts such as this to allow the gamer to solve puzzles and kill baddies. I’m not arguing that Valve has come across some brilliant, earth-shattering concept that no one could possibly have ever thought of before. Rather, it is the application of the idea that is more than a little bit notable. For instance, while the portal concept is used to solve every one of the game’s dozens of puzzle challenges, it is also used between puzzles for simple world traversing. While using it during puzzles seems contrived/fabricated (in a good way), players end up using portals during simple travel in a way that disturbingly messes with perception of time/space in a way that feels gratifying and mind-bending at the same time. It shouldn’t come naturally to the player, but it does. By the time the game is over, your mind feels so exhausted from being blown every five minutes. It’s this that makes Portal 2 surprising at every turn.
Then how does Portal 2 give us everything we want from a game? Well, what makes a perfect game? In essence, it’s the perfect translation of thought into action. When you want to move your thumb in real life, you think “thumb, move” and your thumb moves. You think, “eighteenth stanza of Moonlight Sonata, just a little louder, building to the next sequence” and bam, your fingers play the part perfectly, exactly how you want it to be. A game should be perfectly streamlined so that your thoughts translate into action without hiccup. And anyone who’s played a game from Valve Software (Half-Life 1&2, Left 4 Dead, Counter-Strike Source) knows that they excel at programming. The game developer should do everything to perfect the transition from thought into action so that the gamer can be fully immersed in the world. So, needless to say, Valve has this covered, and Portal 2 controls like a dream. Movement, jumps, portal shots and fluid dynamics are perfectly constructed so that, even if it didn’t blow your mind every five minutes, Portal 2 would still be fun and engrossing to play.
So the gameplay is perfect. Game over, review done. I mean, what else is there to videogaming? Turns out, plenty. It is, in essence, the most encompassing of art forms. While cinema requires writing, cinematography (shot composition), acting, music and architecture, gaming goes beyond this and adds in immersion. So needless to say, a perfect video game has to nail almost every entertainment art form and somehow incorporate immersion. Discussing this could take a while, so buckle in, if you haven’t already.
Let’s start with visuals. Prescient detail: Portal 2 was made using (mostly) graphics technology from 2004. If that thought conjures up images of blocky Halo 2 faces and low-resolution textures, you would be justified in assuming that Portal 2 would be lacking in the visuals department. But, as in cinema and theater, the best artists can achieve astounding results with limited resources. Pan’s Labyrinth may not have had the budget of Revenge of the Sith, but using astounding art design, far greater results are achieved. In all cases, art design trumps technology. Compare a screenshot of Limbo to an image from Homefront to see what I mean, if you are so inclined. So, given a slightly and updated graphics engine and stellar art design, Portal 2 soars. The basis of the visual palette is a once-sterile testing environment, constructed of smooth, white surfaces that show no sign of the underlying structure, that is slowly dissolving into a gaping pile of underground wreckage. *SPOILERS* The game begins with a hotel room-like stasis chamber, which is suddenly shattered and revealed to be nothing more than a metal box in a sprawling, factory-like chasm, unfathomably far below the surface of the earth. The walls are broken to reveal a raw, mechanical structure that is intimidating and massive. Massive hallways are walled by sheer metal surfaces that stretch upwards beyond the character’s field of view, covered with countless mechanical arms capable of reshaping the entire facility at the whim of the robot controller. Players eventually descend into the post-war era facility buried even deeper in the earth, filled with rusted metal walkways and Bioshock-esque retro imagery. The testing area consists of dozens of geometric spheres about the size of a mall reinforced by a vast array of titanic steel pipes, wedged between two cliff walls at what seems to be the very center of the earth. Ascend once again through these spheres two the facility above, and you will find that Aperture’s new robot controller is threatening to condemn the entire laboratory to the state of the condemned sector below. Walls crumble and smash into each other, entire levels are haphazardly transported through massive passages and the tests themselves are constructed in a much less polished fashion. The bottom line is that the sheer size of the structure is communicated to the player through such well-conceived vistas that you will quickly forget the old technology and simply gape at the images presented by the developers. And unlike in film and photography, the artists are unable to control the viewer’s vantage point. This means that even more care must be taken in set design, so that no matter what angle from which the player views the imagery, the quality of the visuals is consistent.
Next, the writing. Oh man, the writing. This is another field in which Portal 2 surprises at every turn. Arguably, the unexpected is the essence of humor, and Portal 2 is up there with the funniest pieces of art ever created. Even the best of comedies mix in some serious with the humorous, but the first three quarters of Portal 2 is non-stop humorous writing. Somehow, the writers managed to make literally every line hilarious. And I mean literally in the most literal sense. Chell, the game’s silent protagonist, is mocked all the way from the beginning of her hopeless plight to the very end. Essentially a rat trapped in a series of lab tests, at the mercy of merciless robots for whom the idea of testing itself is the sole directive, she is utterly doomed to either a life of endless experimentation or an early demise. But don’t let that get you down, because the in-game humor won’t let you think about it. *SPOILERS* Character progression is also conveyed through humorous lines. At her lowest point, GLADOS, the evil robot overlord, expresses her anguish at allowing humanity into her actions through one of the funniest, saddest and expressive lines in the game. Valve successfully married deep and nuanced characterization, non-stop humorous writing and emotional expression in Portal 2′s masterpiece of a script.
Part 2 (SPOILERS)
So. You have all the elements of a perfect game. 10/10 right there, review done. You can really stop reading now. But I, unfortunately, can’t stop writing about it. Because when the most brilliant minds in a field come together to work on a piece of art, when all the perfect pieces come together, you get something more than a perfect game. Like Inglorious Basterds, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Requiem for a Dream and 28 Days Later, there’s more than just a great story inside. There’s something that challenges the way we look at the world in a way that a mere philosophical discourse couldn’t.
Portal 2 covers two main concepts through its narrative arch: Science as a cultural construct and humanity divorced from scientific pursuit. The astounding part is that it presents these topics through a simple narrative consisting of only three settings and four characters. They are as follows: Chell, the silent protagonist, a (supposed) orphan with an unknown past who has spent an unknown amount of time in cryostasis. Wheatley, an initially endearingly bumbling personality core who is your only guide through the labyrinth of test chambers. GLADOS, a not-quite-evil but still inhumane robot overlord obsessed with testing human cognitive capacity through portal exercises, and who you happened to have killed at the end of the last game. Finally, Cave Johnson, Aperture’s founder, a similarly single-minded scientist who isn’t quite evil, but is still quite flippant when it comes to scientific progress at the cost of human life. It is revealed about half-way through the game that Johnson died because he applied the substance that facilitates Portal transportation to his skin, which caused his early death. He put his secretary’s personality core in charge of the testing facility, who is revealed to be GLADOS herself.
So the set up for Science vs. Humanity is obvious. Robots and scientists warring against the rest of humanity always ends up creating these kinds of issues, and is usually handled in a less-than-capable fashion, with a few exceptions such as Battlestar Galactica and so on.’
As I discussed in the art analysis above, the style is one of decay fighting against sterility. Once upon a time, the Aperture science lab was a place of testing, constant testing, incessant testing, pure testing and testing that never stopped. Test subjects were awoken, equipped with the necessary equipment, and run through tests. In the first game, the testing facility is pristine and white and polished, with no flaws until the latter portions of the experience. In Portal 2, the enrichment chambers have suffered at the loss of GLADOS. Plants even appear in the facility, and walls crash down in the face of nature’s advances. In the battle of humanity, as represented by nature in this case, against science, science is losing. It appears that science, in all its pompousness and claims to rigid perfection, cannot hold up its own. It seems that the creators are arguing against the purity of science itself.
At about the 2/3 mark, give or take an hour or two, the player descends into the condemned, WW2-era sector of the game. Here, where there is nothing left but rusted frameworks and metal skeletons of what existed before, there are no more robotic monologues as there were above. Before, one robot or another, be it Wheatley or GLADOS, was the voice booming on the loudspeakers, guiding you through the game. In the section, your narrator is Cave Johnson, in a series of recordings left by the company’s long-dead founder. We now have a human guide rather than a robot guide, something even more telling since we have just descended deeper. GLADOS herself is now powered by an organic rather than fabricated source, having been plugged into a science-fair potato (a fact that works perfect on both a humorous and philosophical level, I might add). The depth metaphor represents digging deeper: While you are descending physically into a deeper section of a given space, you also reach into the more repressed part of humanity.
To explain, let me discuss the personality cores that guide you through the first part of the game. They are condensed versions of individuals, with the less desirable parts pared away, leaving only the most presentable/polished aspects. Just as the super-ego separates itself from the id to be more acceptable, a personality core is the most perfected form of a human, well, personality. Before she found herself reduced to a personality core by her boss, GLADOS, once known as Catherine, Cave Johnson’s secretary, was bumbling, ditzy and probably not too interested in testing. As a robot, she is the perfect scientist: Brilliant, unconcerned about human safety, and uncontrollably fascinated by the process of testing itself. She repeats throughout the game that she is specifically programmed to find pleasure in the act of testing.
As we descend into the lower reaches of the Aperture facility, we also reach GLADOS humanity itself. We don’t discover she was once a human being until we take the plunge. So, in essence, the entire flow of the game works on a ton of levels. From gameplay, as it develops from simple portal usage exercises to complex challenges requiring multiple fluid usages and gravity-defying jumps and turret combat, to plot and character development, as we discover the true natures of the few characters, to symbolism, breaking down human nature and science as a social construct, Portal 2 is a masterwork. It takes everything that the original Portal did in a microcosm and blows it up into a huge portrait that flows just as well. On so many levels, Portal 2 is unprecedented. And that’s why I give it my Perhaps the Best Anything, Ever award.