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.
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.
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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