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The Games Of Christmas ’11: Day Ten

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“Feed the world. Let them know it’s Christmas time.” But I’ve only got six dining room chairs, Bob. “I don’t care. I’m too busy thanking God it’s them instead of my friend.” I hate you, Bob.

Ah, the Christmas classics. Not talking of which, what’s the tenth game in our NOT IN ANY ORDER list of the best games of spaceyear 2011?

It’s… Portal 2!

John: Portal 2 was this year? Blimey – it feels like forever ago! So long since the joy of an utterly exquisite game, and the ensuing misery of dealing with the utter idiots who made so much tedious noise instead of waving their arms in the air with happiness.

I had fears for Portal 2. Portal was such a perfect morsel of a game, such a perfect length and so very, very smart and funny. Its puzzles were remarkable, the most refined learning curve I’d ever experienced, a smooth, clean ride with that wonderful surprise twist two-thirds through. But Portal 2, missing the first game’s lead, Kim Swift, looked like it was going to get cluttered. Gels and beams and bridges, at least twice as long, multiple off-screen characters, potatoes… I feared feeling bombarded, overwhelmed by a desire to be more complicated than the original, to ramp things up. I didn’t want clutter. And I didn’t get it.

I originally played the game at Valve’s new offices in Seattle. I’m not a big fan of review trips, because you can feel hurried, or worse, surrounded by the people who made the game. That’s never an issue at Valve – they let you in, show you the route to the snack room and toilet, take a lunch order and put you in a dark office with a PC. There’s no fussing, no PRing. After chatting with Erik Wolpaw about why he thinks I should have kids as soon as possible, I was uninterrupted for two days (beyond being joined by a barely speaking chap to play the co-op with on the second afternoon). It’s pretty much how I’d have wanted to play the game if I were at home. Except without the inevitable distractions. And with a snack room. That had peanut butter M&Ms.

But it meant I could just sit, focus, and play. I recommend that next time Valve releases a game, go play it at their offices. I’m sure they won’t mind. And the relief that this wasn’t anything like I’d feared the game might be, and the delight that it wasn’t anything like I’d hoped it would be, was exhilarating. It was far more of a story than I’d expected, with puzzles that definitely were more complicated than the original, but introduced to me in such a way that it only ever felt logical. I wasn’t expecting so many songs. So many astonishing moments. GLaDOS in a potato. I wasn’t expecting such a ridiculously, wonderfully eccentric ending. In fact, I never did get around to writing an article on why that final boss fight was such a wonderful moment, so defying every expectation, putting the gags and the joy ahead of any boring repetition.

And another thing that has been talked about a great deal, but I don’t think properly appreciated, is that Portal 2 was a comedy game. There are almost no comedy games. There are games that are sometimes funny, and there are games that are horrible at trying to be funny. But Portal 2 was, by genre, as much a comedy as it was a puzzle game. That’s a painful rarity in this immature industry, but ho-boy was it proof that it can work when you have the world’s best writers and animators putting the effort in.

It’s easy to forget to remember Portal 2, weirdly. Its lack of bombast, its calmly brilliant nature, and the fact that they didn’t start talking about Portal 3 the moment it was released, allows it to become a moment in time, rather than a constant presence. Thinking about it to write this makes me want to go back, revisit that time.

Adam: Aperture Science, under GlaDOS’ demented stewardship, was cold, clinical and focused. Portal’s test chambers alluded to the world outside, which itself was contained, in some oblique way, within the already established world that also contained Black Mesa, but most of what the player knew about the company and its facilities was based on suggestion and expectation. The portal gun itself is an incredible piece of tech, but GlaDOS’ takeover and the mundanely sinister pointlessness of many of the tests suggested there had always been something rotten at the heart of Aperture.

Even if it wasn’t mad science, it was certainly bad science.

Portal 2 is the story of Aperture science, and all that was bad and mad about it. There are tests to solve and daring escapes to survive, but it’s the memory of the company’s dubious and eventually disastrous history that has stuck with me. When I remember the first Portal, I think as much of the confused glee of falling triumphantly through a hole in the floor as I do of cakes, companion cubes and that outro.

The sequel, despite the addition of faith plates, gels, lasers and light bridges, doesn’t have a brain-bending moment equal to the first interactions with the portals themselves. Well, maybe the final portal but that’s brain-bending of a different sort.

There is still brilliance in the design of many areas but what can at first seem to be designs of enormous scale and imagination often become a case of looking for the correct angled surface to emerge from. Generally at high speed. The solutions feel more signposted, less reliant on the mad potential of the portals and more on the specific uses of the other inventions, as well as the crumbling yet perfectly positioned architecture of the lower levels.

That’s as planned though. This time around, the puzzles are subservient to mood and character. The tale of Aperture, hinted at so suggestively in the first game, is not only told in great detail, it’s relayed in rare style. The journey through the company’s various eras is spatial but the effect is of a temporal trip. Valve, in a game about fringe science, give us time travel without actually giving us time travel. Cave Johnson, as entertaining a creation as GlaDOS, even mentions that there is a chance of disturbances in time. A self-referential murmur that is also a gesture toward other possibilities.

Blah blah blah. Enough of that. I haven’t even mentioned how goddamn funny it all is. Think of a film released this year that was funnier than Portal 2. I can’t. The writing and acting serves every character well, from the three big players to the busted turrets, and it’s all done outside the stop-and-start structure of a traditional adventure game. That allows the timing to feel more natural and it’s impressive, given the sheer amount of speech, that it’s almost always spot on.

While Portal 2 doesn’t have the momentum of a traditional adventure, it feels more like an adventure game than a puzzle game. The emphasis on story and dialogue, the use of puzzles to punctuate narrative discovery and as aids to the writer rather than distractions – these are all things I associate with the increasingly broad church that is ‘adventure games’. John has said before that such things are “like an inevitability, an unavoidable direction for things to head toward”.

Perhaps Portal 2, with its playful intelligence and serious comedic intent, can be seen as joyous evidence of that tendency.

Alec: It’s rare, in this grimdark age of SHOOTING MEN SHOOTING MEN SHOOTING MEN to find a blockbuster videogame whose primary tone is ‘charming’, but the Portal games seem to exist in a bubble universe where cheer, not violence, became the playing public’s chief thirst. Portal 2 wasn’t short on homicidal AIs, but at least they all wanted you to like and respect them before they murdered you.

The part I most remember is near the start, where you’re jumping fruitlessly on a bouncepad and Wheatley’s in the ceiling jabbering cheerfully away but you only catch every other line he’s saying. It’s straight out of a Carry On or Inspector Clueso movie. Everyone’s in mortal danger, but at the same time it’s all jolly hockey sticks.

Portal 2’s full of mini-gags like: scripted up the wazoo of course, but done in such a way that you feel you’ve stumbled into them rather than had someone roughly grab your chin and make you stare at something. I’m not quite so convinced it’s the puzzle game it could/should have been (so much seemed so signposted and inflexible), but it was an excellent journey into mystery and back again in the company of memorable, likeable characters. Even if they were all bastards to a tee.

Plus it made me see Stephen Merchant as something other than a growth on the side of Ricky Gervais’ ego. Best Bristolian accent in a videogame ever?


Jim: Perhaps unsurprisingly, what excited me most about Portal 2 was the architecture and the environments. At a time in the history of games when we seem to be faced with slightly shinier versions of the same old corridors or cityscapes, it was fascinating to be able to see a game in which the enclosed environment could, while basically using technology only incrementally pushed along from Half-Life 2, nevertheless be so cleverly constructed, so threatening and at the same time jocular. It seems unlikely that any game released in 2011 will match Portal 2 for architectural inventiveness. The subterranean facility in which the game is set is a Lebbeus Woods drawing given satirical life. Its test chambers, constructed from mechanical arms ending in blank panels, can be seen rebuilding themselves, breaking and folding, and even tidying away debris before settling down to become just another featureless floor or wall. It’s is an absurd extrapolation of the functionality found in purpose-build facilities, to the point where it becomes surreal.

It is not the conceptual gymnastics of Portal 2’s architecture that makes it so special, however, but rather the way it normalises the impossible idea of connecting two points in space via portals. The idea of connecting two points in space goes almost unnoticed after the first few moments of the game, and with the light bridges, the lasers, and the gels, we soon become lost in the long silent spaces of thought and experimentation that sat between the GLADoS and Wheatley’s sinister sci-fi pantomime. It’s so well explained, and so comprehensible, that the puzzles become natural, instinctual explorations of the environments. That such an astonishing game mechanic is now just another trick in videogaming vocabulary is sort of humbling. Not just because it means games are gradually earning the kind of repertoire of mechanics they deserve, but also because of how rapidly we accept and internalise physics-defying imaginative leaps. What was once impossible is now just another tickbox in game design. Only Valve makes these kinds of changes look easy.

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