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Portal 2

(Valve Corporation; US: 19 Apr 2011)

Well, it is a bit of a triumph.  Four years following the release of the original game, Portal is back with still more tightly crafted puzzles, more sharp, dark humor, and, of course, more GLaDOS (though a little less than you might think).


Like the first game, Portal 2 takes a moment to settle in.  While it opens with more fanfare than the original with some backgrounding of Chell’s long nap underground and the introduction of a few new voices, notably a robotic core named Wheatley that takes a major role in the plot, the game begins by getting you familiarized once again with serving as Aperture Science’s guinea pig by teaching you the basic functionality of a portal gun.


While at once familiar in terms of playing around with portal physics, by displacing GLaDOS initially with the voice of Wheatley the game’s tone seems a little strange at first, guiding you a bit more sweetly than GLaDOS might through the earliest tutorial segments.  Aperture Science has fallen into ruins in the years following Chell’s failed attempted escape from the lab and GLaDOS’s “death.”  Stephen Merchant’s banter as Wheatley is good, but its timing is a bit different than the at times coldly objective, at times passive-aggressive crazy of GLaDOS’s taunts and “assurances.”  Again, though, this only slightly altered tone from the original game simply requires some acclimation, and as puzzles progressively steepen in difficulty and particularly after GLaDOS (who is, of course, “still alive”) awakens, the player feels right at “home.”  After all, while Chell might be serving as a guinea pig, it isn’t as if she doesn’t understand the authoritarian tone of her “mother” or the motivation for her cruelty.  As GLaDOS begins putting the pieces of the laboratory back together again in order to exact revenge on Chell, she sweetly declares why she does what she must because: “Everyone likes revenge.”


Given the centrality of the antagonism between Chell and GLaDOS in the first game, it is unsurprising that the game once again returns to some of the interests of that game, playing with the idea of the voice of the game designer authoritatively pressing the player into service by putting her through her paces.  The voice of GLaDOS takes a particularly personal tone with Chell this time (which may seem odd given the already intimate nature of these two characters in enacting games that have life and death as their stakes in the first place), acknowledging the largely faceless and completely mute female protagonist in much more deliberate terms this time. 


While GLaDOS may have taken on the role of the passive-aggressive mother especially during the closing moments of Portal,  the nature of the antagonism present in feminine interpersonal conflict is heightened here in some more traditionally cruel ways.  Moving away from merely suggesting that Chell is not so bright or maybe that she lacks empathy or friends as she used to, now GLaDOS frequently attacks Chell’s physical appearance, goading her with comments about her weight and her choice of dress. 


One exchange in particular cuts to the quick of female rivalry as GLaDOS declares that not only does she find that Chell “looks stupid” in her orange jumpsuit but that a scientist noted that Chell “looks stupid” as well in notes on a previous test.  Following a pause, GLaDOS announces that it was a “female scientist” that made the note whose credentials were a degree in fashion . . . from France.  GLaDOS’s battleground with Chell has moved from the clinically cruel evaluation of Chell as a test subject to the personally cruel schoolyard where peers of your own gender determine and evaluate your worth.  GLaDOS’s rage in some way reduces her own rhetoric to that of “mean girl.”


The escalation in cruelty is reflected also in the new elements introduced in the tests themselves.  Alongside portal navigation, portal flinging, and the effective use of weighted cubes and buttons to unlock portions of a test chamber at the appropriate times, Portal 2 also adds some new elements that require reconsideration of how to effectively manipulate portal physics in order to reach the exit.  The light bridges, for example, which can be used to traverse dangerous ares and also as shields, lead to a number of especially clever puzzle solutions. 


However, my favorite new addition by far to the apparatus of Aperture Science technology is repulsion gel, a substance that allows the test subject to bounce much higher than a standard jump (especially if you can gain a great deal of momentum by falling on to a surface coated with the goo).  Figuring out how to transport gels (and there are a few others, one that makes you slide very fast along the ground and one that “paints” darkened walls so that they can now be used to make portals) around a level using portals is essential to many of the best chambers, making the whole enterprise of testing that much more challenging.  It is no longer solely about getting you around the chamber to reach an exit, the player now needs to affect the environment, essentially “redesigning” it to better solve its puzzle.  Cubes that now move around on their own, transport beams, as well as lasers that need to be refracted through cubes are other additions that add some very good elements to puzzles, and which all require clever portal placement to use most effectively.


Like the first game, there is a plot twist that is a game changer that I won’t spoil here (though I would be surprised if you don’t see it coming).  Much like the “behind the scenes” shift in the first game though, this is where the game really starts to get interesting in terms of evolving the plot and universe of Portal.  It is in the exploration of the earliest laboratories of the Aperture facility in which both the origins of Aperture Science and GLaDOS become clearer.  Additional “voices of authority” become a part of the game at this point and how they relate to and have directed the kind of clinical gamesmanship of research that GLaDOS attends to in this and the previous game is both smartly presented and interesting.  I am being a bit vague here quite purposefully though, as this segment of the game is probably where the level design and writing is at its best, and it really needs to be experienced first hand to see its full effectiveness.


I did feel some minor dissatisfaction with the ending of the game, especially given the rather unique final boss battle of the first game, which transformed “combat” into a gigantic portal puzzle.  Unfortunately, Portal 2 rehashes here rather than innovates.  The inevitable finale represented by a new song from GLaDOS is also nowhere near as effective as the first time that you heard the haunting, charming, but twisted refrain of “Still Alive.”  Nevertheless, despite some of my disappointment with its occasional shortcomings (which may be based more on heightened expectation than anything else), the single player campaign of Portal 2 is still an amazing experience (with a preview copy arriving only a few days before release, I have not had the opportunity to dive into co-op yet, so a multiplayer review may still be forthcoming). 


Unlike the first game, Portal 2 is not a revelation in game design and plotting.  However, it is an example of really strong storytelling in games and most particularly of extremely elegant level design.  The game is pure craftsmanship and, again, very elegant craftsmanship.


I’m glad that she is still alive.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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