Fashionably Late: A Daring Critique of Portal 2

By: George Weidman

It took me about a year to start playing Portal 2, with a massively long stint of New Vegas and a frugal college budget holding me back. Ten months ago, it was a conversation with Nathan in a dingy bar that revealed the first hint of negativity that I heard pointed at the game.

“Have you played it yet?” he yelled over the too-loud music.
“Naw,” I said.
“Hmm. Well, I’ll let you decide what to think for yourself,” he replied with a tone of apprehension. “I’ll just say this: Portal 2 is like Wall-E, and Portal 1 is like 2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Both movies are pretty darn good movies, but Wall-E isn’t exactly the same kind of genre-redefining art house piece that was 2001.

There’s a noticeable lack of criticism for Portal 2 that contrasts with the more negative reactions of people I know in person (Nathan isn’t the only one), and that’s kind of unsettling. The anonymous Internet verdict is still singing hyperbolic honeymoon praises over the year-old game and its metacritic score is just barely inching ahead that of its predecessor. I’m here to challenge all that, and I just want to go ahead and say it: Portal 2 is (gasp!) an underwhelming sequel.

Those two words (“underwhelming” and “sequel”) seem to devalue Portal 2’s own qualities while overvaluing the original, but that’s what I felt happening while playing them. After re-playing both games a few times to take off the nostalgia goggles and check out the developer commentaries, it seems like Valve lost their way a bit while producing the sequel but masterfully crafted one of the most flawless and perfect gaming experiences with the original.

The Analogy

A year after hearing Nathan’s analogy I finally put 40 hours into the thing, and I couldn’t forget it during the entire playthrough. Besides considering the industry-wide impacts of Wall-E and 2001, the analogy rings true for the games’ aesthetics as well. Portal 1 had a quiet and creepy ambiance that is so minimalist that it is almost avant-garde, while Portal 2 was loud and bombastic in comparison, with a story told through celebrity voice actors and garrulous robot animation.

“We are just at the beginning of taking advantage of this type of gameplay.” – Gabe Newell, 2007

Back in 2007, making a puzzle FPS was a risky gamble. No one expected Portal to become the breakout success that it was. Packing it inside the Orange Box was more of a sales safety net than a bona fide release, and a stand-alone version of the game wasn’t released on consoles until a year later. It was a bold experiment in a new type of game design that thankfully paid off, and its ensuing success has arguably overshadowed the popularity of Valve’s other big franchises.

“I’ve never played a computer game before in my life, but I want to play this one”- Ellen McLaine, 2007

Portal became a pop-culture phenomenon, blasting phrases like “I’m doing science” and “The cake is a lie!” into the mainstream. It broke boundaries and appealed to non-gamers, and its success was completely the result of elegant game design. Its secret: Portal is a remarkably and explicitly a simple game, all the way down to its most basic and conceptual core.

The game’s one titular mechanic is immediately recognizable to anyone who understands how the third dimension works (which is hopefully all of us.) At first glance, portals communicate their purpose and their potential instantly, but remain a deceitfully abstract concept. It’s so elegant and accessible that even a 4-year-old can play it, but smart and engrossing enough to be discussed in college courses.

“Portal is effectively an extended player training exercise.” – Robin Walker, 2007

Similarly, Portal 1’s overarching narrative was a remarkably simple meta-gaming metaphor with a “testing” theme that flavored nearly every line of in-game dialogue (including the commentary.) However, all of its layered exposition was secondary to the novelty of its gameplay. Portal’s story didn’t need to be thought too hard about because it wasn’t there wasn’t much of it there. Even its subtle feminism angle, like all other non-interactive aspects of the game, wasn’t thrusting itself in your face in an effort to impress. That’s what the portals were for.

The aesthetics complemented the core gameplay mechanics beautifully, and never got in the way of playing the game. Portal was a game in the truest sense of the word, and it was one that was so accessible and well-designed that it could have snugly fit in the Start menu next to Minesweeper and Solitaire.

“Smooth Jazz was funny to all ages, genders, and cultures.” – Mike Morasky, 2011

Warning: The following contains spoilers.

Call it a hunch, but I knew something was up within the first five minutes of Portal 2. The rail-ride intro scene, fueled by impressive physics effects and a Hollywood-quality voice performance, was not the kind of cinematic display that Portal 1 needed to impress us.

Suddenly, the game’s priorities flipped and the aesthetic elements became a beast of their own. Entire chapters were spent following Wheatley along on a rail, and one whole loading-screen laced segment was spent just watching a potato-bound GLaDOS deliver narration while we’re forced to uncontrollably fall in one direction.

It wouldn’t be a lie to say that these segments resemble the worst parts of a Call of Duty game. These non-interactive displays of visual effects and acting performances slide Portal 2 towards the “interactive movie” school of FPS design, and the first game’s subtlety and class was lost in the transition. GLaDOS’ manipulative double entendres became fat jokes, and the first game’s creepy ambiance bordered on light horror compared to Portal 2’s lively funhouse. The sheer spectacle of its story eerily felt like a decision to widen Portal’s marketing appeal, but Portal was already a game that appealed to everyone.

This change in tone turns into a legitimate problem when the story beind told is less complete than that of its predecessor. Despite reading the myriad of supporting comic book material, watching a litany of promotional videos and re-playing Portal 1’s retroactively altered ending, I still don’t understand why Wheatley (who remained questionably nameless for most of the game) wakes Chell up and begins the game in the first place.

“We hit upon the idea of economizing by using GLaDOS-actor Ellen McLain. Out of nowhere, we suddenly had an opportunity for a GLaDOS origin story” – Dario Casali, 2011

A few hours later, the game punts you into a dank brown cavern that is Portal’s equivalent to a boring FPS sewer level. Something happens while you’re down there. Instead of coming together, the game slowly begins to fall apart. Physics-defying gels introduce even more levels of secondary thought required to play the game. Portal-friendly surfaces are suddenly very scarce, very tiny, and very far apart from each other. During the first vital playthrough, the test chambers became a chore somewhere around Chapter 7. As they got increasingly difficult, they repeatedly screeched the finely-tuned pacing and flow of the game to a halt, reducing their place in the gameplay formula as elaborate obstacles.

“The challenge for us was to re-surprise people, which is pretty terrifying” – Eric Johnson, 2010

When comparing the puzzles of the two games, I noticed that Portal 2 more often wants you to carry things that aren’t you through portals. Things like lasers, gels and excursion funnels. Things that don’t visually communicate their purpose as elegantly as the portals themselves. By the end of the game, you’re using Portals as mere transportation devices for these other things, and due to a crippling pacing problem in the third act, this becomes problematic.

Towards the end of the game, you’re no longer thinking with portals. You’re thinking with repulsion gels, excursion funnels, and laser redirection cubes. You’re thinking with things that actually aren’t as fun to think with as portals.

“We found that playtesters were getting fatigued at solving so many complex test chambers in a row.” – Marcus Egan, 2011

“Oh no, another portal puzzle,” I said to myself as Chell entered test chamber 16. But honestly, what else could have been there? The climactic rumblings of a self-destructing base promised that a final boss battle would erupt any minute, but it didn’t for another few hours. I bumbled around in that test chamber like an idiot for 45 minutes, partly because I was mentally exhausted from solving several hours worth of Portal puzzles already and partly because I didn’t want to quit the game and pick it up again in the midst of an explosive climax. It was clear: the game was dragging. There was nothing left to do but portal puzzles, and the portal puzzles themselves were no longer fun. I wanted the game to end, but it wouldn’t.

I wasn’t the only one to fall into a rut at this point in the game. I witnessed the same thing happen to a friend who I watched play the game shortly after. The “fatiguing” effect at this point in the game is even acknowledged in the commentary! This late into the game, Valve had designed themselves into a hole.

Closing thoughts

In truth, I don’t regret my time with Portal 2 and quite enjoyed the ending sequences that happened after test chamber 16. The depth and complexity that I was looking for finally returned halfway through the co-op campaign. But by that point, the love and inspiration that went into the first game was long gone. The co-op campaign, despite its heavy marketing and place on the game’s box, was secondary to the “real” canonical single-player story of Portal 2 that so disappointed. At least it was a good value at the $15 sale price I bought it on.

Amidst a ballooning team size and budget, it seems that the tight and unified artistic vision of Portal’s small staff and student project roots was lost. Its sequel is indeed bigger and longer, but it’s also confused and hardly better.

Many of these qualms are the unavoidable result of making a sequel to Portal 1. It was excellent because it was a concise and unified vision of a eight inspired and talented people who had access to Valve’s vast resources. It was a game stripped down to only its most flawless elements, and sacrificed length and complexity for the sake of design mastery.

With that kind of baggage weighing down its sequel, it would’ve been a near impossibility to live up to the predecessor. Even Valve may be unable to outdo itself.

“Fashionably Late” is a pseudo-monthly series where TPG columnist George Weidman shares his thoughts about games that are past their prime. Think of them as retrospective reviews written in an environment where prices are cheaper and hype is quieter, focusing on insightful analysis rather than consumer advice.

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42 thoughts on “Fashionably Late: A Daring Critique of Portal 2

  1. Wow.

    There is only one thing wrong with Portal 2: the consolitis that brought a sore lack of portal-enabled surfaces so it wouldn’t be so difficult to those console boys.

    Oh, and the co-op is magnificent, canon or not. Only problem, it can only be played once, and both players have to not know the levels.

    You, sir, have no soul. Portal 2 is one of the three best games of 2011 (the other ones being Bastion and SpaceChem).

    Because I say so. There.

    • Though praising the game, your comment also warns of two disclaimers severely hampering its polish. This is the kind of juxtaposition I wanted to write about, seeing as how the Internet is still in “honeymoon” mode over the game despite there being some very visible flaws that just aren’t in many of Valve’s other games.

      As for it being one of the three best games of 2011: I’ll give ya that.

    • Portal 1 also came out on consoles, soon after the PC release, so the lack of portal-enabled surfaces can’t be down to “consolitis”.

      • The problems with portable-enabled surfaces were unforeseen in Portal 1; it had never been done before. After Portal 1, Valve decided that indeed it was too difficult to pull off with a controller and they toned it down. You can read their commentary/interviews, they say so themselves.

  2. Well at least someone can critic it. To be honest I enjoyed the sequel more than the original, mostly because I finished it before it really gripped me. One thing that wasn’t good about the sequel was the loading screens.

  3. Pingback: Portal 2 : Curiouser & Curiouser

  4. I think part of the problem is that since Portal 2 was a major release (with the price tag of a major release game), they felt they had to give the player its money’s worth. That meant retconning the ending of Portal so we could have the same characters so we would already feel connected to them. There had to be more than portals; we already figured those out. The game also had to be longer so players weren’t complaining about how short their $60 game was. There was no way Portal 2 could have been as elegant a game as Portal. But was it as good? Maybe.

    • “The game also had to be longer so players weren’t complaining about how short their $60 game was.” That’s the main problem I had with it– large chunks of the campaign seemed only there to pad the game’s length. Coming from the sky-high expectations set by a predecessor that was mechanically unique and flawlessly paced (and consequently only two hours long,) there’s no way its sequel could have impressed in the same way.

      Did Portal 2 really need to be eight hours long? I don’t know. Did it really need to be a fully-budgeted AAA release with the entire team behind its production? Probably not. Is there any other way Valve could have pulled this off? Maybe.

    • And the worst thing is that people *did* complain about how short their $60 game was. The game’s stretched out about as far as it’s possible to do so and they still couldn’t please everyone.

  5. Completely disagree; it makes me wonder if you actually played Portal 2 or just watched someone else play!

    Portal 2 was the perfect sequel for me:
    * New puzzles that require new solutions besides portalling: Check.
    * Interesting new areas to explore: Check.
    * Insight into what happened after GlaDOS was taken out: Check.
    * Additional history and background about Aperture Science: Check.
    * Humorous dialogue: Check.

    After all is said and done, Portal 2 is a hugely better game than Portal 1. (Just like Wall-E is a hugely better movie than the dull snore-fest that is 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

    Your review was good for one thing though: Now I want to go play Portal 2 again. Thanks!

    • I’m with you on this. I found the review less a critique on the merits of the game and more of a particular experience from a person who didn’t find it to their taste. I loved Portal 1, but it was a series of puzzles and a mysterious antagonist for most of the game. And the second half was walking around rusty corridors trying to find portal surfaces.

      Portal 2 was a story, and a game. I found myself amazed by the environment, as it went from broken, to fixed, and back to broken again. The interplay between the three main characters was awesome, as an actual dialogue took place. It wasn’t a lone voice in the sky any more, there was actual interaction. The story tended to happen outside of the puzzles, but it stopped it from getting in the way of the puzzles. If you played it all the way through in one sitting, and you weren’t used to such critical thinking, I can see how it would get weary. The best part though is that you could go away and come back later, and you wouldn’t miss out on anything.

      A lot of people will agree with this review, but compared to my experience of the game, I feel the author just wanted another Portal 1, and Portal 2 wasn’t the game he was expecting. This review struck me as a statement of “They did it wrong!” rather than a proper review.

    • Kubrick is my favorite director, but Wall-E is my favorite animated movie and possibly my favorite movie of the last 10 years. Don’t discount it because it’s animated…

  6. Wonderful. So glad to hear someone else put it so eloquently. It’s a fine game, but nothing at all like the original and not deserving of the high praise it’s universally recieved.

  7. I love that I actually found a website where authors actually think about the games they play. Portal 2 was a really awesome experience, and your points are valid as hell. We need critics like this in the industry. Desperately.

    My hat off to you good sir. You have my axe.

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  9. Its refreshing to read alternative views on Portal 2. I must admit I loved the game, and found it gripping, fun and emotional in equal measure. The on-rails bits for me served as a bit of a rest, and so personally I would see them as examples of Valve’s pacing. The “falling down a lift shaft with a speaking potato scene” was one that stuck with me for a long time, and GlaDOS becoming more outright rude felt like a progression in our relationship – she knew me better now, so was less subtle. Familiarity and contempt and all that. I also loved the shift to the 1950’s underground, which brought about a sense of excitement and nostalgia. I liked the idea of seeing where Aperture had come from and developed to, and I appreciated the shift in scale of those maps. Far flung portal surfaces were a nice change of gear, rather than being a frustrating barrier, and I loved the apparent low-tech nature of everything. Figuring out how to funnel gels etc through portals gave me a number of “Eureka” moments which I still remember now, many months on.
    Anyways, good to hear differing views in a well-written piece 🙂

  10. Interesting review; I do think that it was completely impossible for Valve to make a sequel that had the same effect that Portal did in the first place. Part of Portal’s success was the way it snuck up on everyone, and Portal 2 could never do that. I’d be interested to hear what you would have liked from Portal 2- it seems clear what you don’t like, but just more of Portal 1 would have been equally unsatisfactory, and I can’t really see much of a middle ground for the games. It seems like we either get feature creep or stagnation; personally, I prefer the former.

    • Thanks for reading!
      And though I’m tearing apart the game’s design in this article, I still really loved Portal 2’s production– particularly in the areas of writing and voice work which, as always with Valve, were top-notch. Stephen Merchant’s voice work with Wheatley was a little bit amazing, and hearing him juggle around his fast-paced Brtistolian wit was one of the most refreshing and entertaining voice performances I think I’ve heard in a game.
      But then again, if I only wrote about the things I liked in the game it wouldn’t be “A Daring Critique,” would it?

  11. You were absolutely right about no longer “thinking with portals” by the end of the game. I remember at one point, I was trying to figure out how to get across a gap to the other side of a room so I started looking towards the excursion funnel and repulsion gel. I tried maneuvering in every direction, and I STILL couldn’t figure out how to cross. 15 minutes later, it hit me: I just had to shoot a portal to the other end. The part I was stuck at wasn’t even the puzzle. Once I did that, I was quickly able to finish the test chamber, since I was well-trained in the use of excursion funnels and repulsion gel.

  12. For me Portal 2 was fun from start to finish, with very welcome added layers of complexity and I never felt it was dragging. Calling the Tartarus a “boring sewer level” and that “towards the end of the game you’re no longer thinking with portals”, shows a lack of interest in playing the game even before writing this “review”. That of course leads to a lack of interest in truly appreciating what the game has to offer. So here’s what you missed:

    Wheatley wakes up Chell because he want to leave Aperture and he can’t do it alone. He implies that himself at various points in the game. Playing Portal 2 requires the player to listen to what the NPCs say and to read the various hints scattered all over the game world.

    Most puzzles, if not all, require portals. The player only stops thinking about portals if he has no clue on how to use them. Which shows an underlying lack of Portal knowledge.

    Portal 2 single player focuses more on telling a story than on puzzles and every chamber has a story to tell to those who see more than random placed textures and a well placed exit. This is brilliantly done by having complex puzzles woven with storytelling in a way not many developers can even dare to achieve.

    Halfway through the “review” I knew how it was going to end: Saying that portal 2 wasn’t a better game than its predecessor. Its predecessor was a game experiment bundled together with HL2:ep2 and TF2.

    Had Portal 2 been a simply bigger Portal 1 and reviews would complain about the lack of storytelling and the lack of character development and the potential Aperture labs had.

    Portal 2 is a much better game in many ways, however, when the reviewer misses the point of the game entirely and goes to play it (or bits of it) expecting a different thing, bad reviews pop to existence. It makes me wonder if you actually played the game from start to finish or just jumped between random bits and pieces. I don’t see how else such a “review” could come to life.

    Not a big surprise but a very poor way to review a great game. I’m glad this is after the hype and not consumer advice. Nevertheless, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

    Those who wish to focus solely on complex puzzles and avoid story all together, please download custom maps which are being crafted by the dozens by countless mappers and modders out there. Or wait for the official map creator which should be released soon (in Valve Time). It will make use of the Steam Workshop so it will be a 1 click map install.

    • Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting! While I appreciate your response, at least know that I played through both Portal games twice before writing. The first time being for entertainment purposes, the second time being for research purposes (complete with a notebook in lap and the commentary turned on.) I try to adhere to this methodology for all written reviews, and though I admittedly missed much of the appeal of Portal 2, know that there’s a big difference between missing the appeal of a game and missing its point. My critique of this game didn’t come about for any lack of trying.

  13. Very interesting read.
    I think one of the problems with Portal 2 was the expectations of the audience. I encourage everyone to read “Portal 2 – The Final Hours” (available on Steam for 1,99€) and listen to the dev commentaries. If I recall correctly, at one point one of the Valve devs mentions that their first iteration of Portal 2 had no portals, no chell and no GlaDOS in it. When they gave it to the playtesters the first reaction was: “That’s a nice game, but where are the portals and GlaDOS?”

    Valve might have been aware themselves that making a true, good sequel to Portal is nigh impossible while using the same setting and mechanics as the original. But ultimately they decided to go with what the customers/the audience wanted: More portals, more GlaDOS, more Aperture Science.

  14. Mirrors my feelings as well. Whilst it was good it just wasnt good enough, trying to repeat the past too much. It did drag on and much of it came across as forced, a put on show for entertainment instead of letting the gameplay entertain.

    They should have had a new main character, theirs lots of different directions they could’ve gone. I wanted it to step above its test chamber conceit, or at least make you believe it had.

  15. I’ve been trying to verbalize why Portal 2 didn’t quite hit all the right buttons for me ever since it came out, and I think you nailed it. Thanks. I enjoyed the story and I liked going back to 1950’s Aperture, but it went on too long and and I found myself thinking “Oh god not another puzzle”, which is really sad considering that’s the entire point.

  16. Sounds like a big part of your problem is that you tried to play Portal 2 in one or two sessions as if it were the same length as Portal 1. It’s a bigger game so of course it can’t be paced the same as the first one. I played it in chunks over several sessions and found the pacing was great. I never got tired of the puzzles.

    I don’t understand your comment about Portal 2 changing the game to require moving things through portals. Most of the puzzles in Portal 1 involved carrying cubes through portals.

    • I played all of Portal 2 in one sitting which isn’t uncommon for Valve games and me. Though I understand for some people it is a godsend (though I wish I knew why), I think Portal 2 regardless of being a bigger game took the formula of the first game and repeated it. So maybe it wasn’t how the game was played by the player but instead how the formula was not fitting to the longevity of the game.

  17. Well put. I can say two decisive things about Portal 2’s reception: I don’t know a single person in real life who didn’t like it and I don’t know a single person in real life who finished it.

    Portal’s story just isn’t interesting enough to merit indulgence. Its triumphant game mechanic and single devious and dunnerving character are what gave it its universal appeal, not the Valve enthusiasts gushing on about canon and drawing fan-art of Chelle. Really though, given the prevailing theories of game design, it’s a triumph for Valve that they didn’t blow it as badly as I thought they would.

  18. p2 was more of a non game than p1, but it was non a nongame, the parts where you just watch rarely last longer than 15 seconds

    I also feel some classic loving here too, repulsion gell and all that was a fine addition to the game I only think you would hate, more portals, maybe a bit more but this is a supertiny thing to argue about

    as for the headache you will get, I never really got one in both games, nor did I do more than 10 chambers at a time, I did find from my friends that they seemed to be more annoyed if they played the first one before, idk why, I personally got stuck twice in the parts that were more open then they should of been

    so although you were brave enough to say the negatives, I feel like you exaggerated them, that or I’m just good at puzzle games

  19. Pingback: Critique of Portal 2 | BENDIDISK

  20. The original Portal ran short of tricks by the end. Novelty was introduced into the last few test chambers simply by stringing together very long chains of previously learned skills, and adding more and more manoeuvres requiring fast reflexes, what you might call twitch portalling.

    The criticism commonly applied to Portal 2’s intermediary sections, that they became a game of ‘find the portalable surface’ (a criticism to which I would respond by observing that they were inserted for the sake of pacing, for giving the player a sense of exploration and scope for relaxation, and specifically not to challenge them in the mode of the test chambers), could equally be applied to the original Portal’s ‘behind the curtain’ sequence, which was almost entirely composed of this sort of stuff.

    These problems didn’t harm the game excessively, in large part because the game nevertheless remained very tight and precise in its overall pacing, but they were there.

    In Portal 2 Valve took the decision to add novelty with new mechanics rather than with length or degree of difficulty alone, and very deliberately avoided the twitchy stuff wherever possible (it is, after all, a puzzle game, not Counter Strike). To my mind that’s a well-reasoned design decision, and one that I agree with entirely.

  21. Nice article!
    First I have to say that I didn´t really enjoy Portal 2, mostly because of the same reasons named above.
    The beginning was great in my opinion, though dragged down again by the following levels.
    To make things short: It was really too long for me, there wasn´t simply enough story to make me enjoy it.
    What I do like are the things from the past, the recordings, the design and the recordings of an old pre-Glados Era.
    But for me, that just wasn´t enough, the levels surrounding these great Items are mostly boring and I found myself thinking: 197X, or 198X, do have to go through all these years to finish this?

    I guess I really expected something else.
    Nevertheless, Im still looking forward to the Co-Op Levels.

    WHishful thinking: Next Portal with 4 dimensions or Space Portal

  22. Pingback: Размышления: Portal против Portal 2 | Critical Hit

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