Punctuation wrangler and orthographic enforcer, feminist, atheist, glutton, geek, scatterbrain, and Seattlite.
Presentation image
  • Recent Posts

  • Portal 2: I LIKE THIS GAME

    Sunday, April 24, 2011

    Portals are orange
    Portals are blue
    Pew pew pew pew pew pew pew

    I like this game so much I just had to write some poetry about it.

    As far as being a followup to one of the strongest contenders for Most Perfectest Game Ever, Portal 2 did really well. Superbly in fact. It managed to take what was good about Portal and turn everything on its head while keeping the gameplay fresh. I’ve finished my first playthrough of the single-player portion of the game, so this seems like a good time to stop and write down my impressions. No doubt there is much more in store with another playthrough and the coop mode. Spoilers below.

    Portal 2: The starting area of Portal 1 is now overgrown with vegetation and filthy.

    First off, the use of space in this game, like in the first one, is amazing. It’s a perfect example of taking the game’s unique idea—bending space with the portals—and making the entire game about it. The space bending goes beyond the portals’ defiance of physics by letting the character move in and out of the game’s levels, crawling behind walls and through the employees-only sections of Aperture’s facility. Portal 2 adds fluidity to its space as Wheatley and GLaDOS constantly redefine it. They morph walls, clear debris, and move rooms to combine them with others right before your eyes. Then there’s the ending, where space becomes even more literal.

    The characters are by far the most memorable part of the game. It’s not often a game makes my face hurt from grinning so much, thanks to the humor and the awe of seeing the Aperture labs again. I loved Stephen Merchant’s voice work as Wheatley. Although, why was Wheatley the only robot whose voice wasn’t modulated? To preserve the integrity of Merchant’s voice? Perhaps in Wheatley’s creation as an annoyance to GLaDOS, his makers specifically gave him the most human-sounding voice they could, to distract GLaDOS even more. Whatever. Oh another thing— Why was Wheatley in charge of maintaining the relaxation vaults at the beginning of the game, if he’s designed to be an idiot? I’m thinking either (a) there’s nothing odd here, idiots are put in charge of stuff all the time, or (b) he’s the last computer still poking around the labs, and he happened to notice Chell still alive, and appointed himself caretaker. Whatever.

    Portal 2 had quite a challenge following up on Portal’s iconic relationship between Chell and GLaDOS. I’m happy with what Portal 2 offered: two histories of GLaDOS, one pre-AI as Caroline, and one showing how she became everyone’s most beloved maniacal overlord. The former was hard to miss during GLaDOS’s whole potato episode, and the latter was shown through her role reversal with Wheatley and his corruption. Just think, so many authors have put so much effort into bringing the reader into the character’s mind, when all one really has to do is put them in a potato. The potato, for its role in distorting our perspective of a character, is on par with Gatsby’s green light as far as iconic characterization symbols go. This might sound like sarcasm but it’s not.

    Portal 2: A scene from the middle of a puzzle. Red goo travels through a tunnel that passes through portals in the wall.

    On a sadder note, the running joke with GLaDOS calling Chell fat got me pretty upset. Granted, it was hilarious when Wheatley tried to do it and sweet when GLaDOS stood up for Chell, but the whole gag was problematic. Obviously, the fact that Chell is anything but overweight is part of the joke, but it should go without saying that one’s weight has little to do with whether they can feel insecure about it, and jokes like this just encourage our culture of body policing. And its effect on the game itself was detrimental, both to GLaDOS’s and Chell’s relationship and to the gameplay. First, it cheapened their relationship. Does GLaDOS really have to resort to that? Clearly her intentions are to harass Chell, but it makes me wonder if Chell is even conditioned to that (I’m not sure if she grew up in Aperture’s labs or had a life outside; Cave Johnson’s recordings indicated that most test subjects come from outside and need money). And did GLaDOS inherit that conditioning from Caroline, or did she just google “how to harass human women” and read “making her feel insecure about her weight is a good one”? Whatever. The previous game was so effective because the relationship between the two was a dysfunctional mother-daughter thing, and while the roles GLaDOS and Chell played in it were feminine in some ways, their roles weren’t derivative of their perceived genders. In Portal 2, the message seems to be that when two women are pitted against each other, they’re going to resort to fat jokes. Given that in Portal 2 we have an entirely new character with a male voice mixed into this relationship, it comes across to me as a male-centered viewpoint of their triangle. Like I said, it’s cheap.

    The fat jokes played a part in something else the sequel lost from the first. There’s a clear effort in the advertising and the game itself to emphasize Chell’s body. I think the lack of emphasis on her in the first game was one of the things that made the game so effective. This argument was made well, I think, in Moving Pixels’s podcast devoted to Portal, so go listen to that. Basically, the game is so immersive and the relationship so personal because Chell is, you know, a shell for the player and there’s hardly any line drawn between her as a character and as the player’s avatar. Portal has both: a memorable player character and a deeply personal experience. Portal 2, whether it’s by drawing attention to her body in the game or in ads, makes those character/avatar experiences more mutually exclusive.

    Portal 2: An ad seen on Steam. Chell, in a running pose, wears a white sleeveless shirt with her overalls open and tied around her waist. GLaDOS extends herself through a portal in the wall behind Chell.

    Maybe I missed it in the first game, but I’d always wondered why GLaDOS kept Chell alive so long. I found it hard to believe that she hadn’t gone a little easy on her, until she had no choice but to try to kill her. Portal 2 gave an answer: Chell is valuable to GLaDOS—and to Wheatley—as a test subject who just won’t die. That’s just another way that the story of GLaDOS’s and Wheatley’s role reversal was so simple and effective. Easily the strongest part of the game, in my opinion. The actual gameplay was still as fun as ever, but without the learning curve. I only got stuck a couple times and for the most part found the game to be on the easy side. I expect coop mode is where I’ll really be amazed with Portal 2’s gameplay. Still, the single-player mode itself was an amazing enough experience on its own.

     *  *