Portal 2: Beyond the Puzzles

In between stints of exam-writing this weekend, I played through Portal 2. I was prepared for the brilliant writing. Some of the best lines, like the one about Aristotle, really only work in context, but others work on their own, such as “We’ve both said a lot of things you’re going to regret.” I was also prepared for the clever puzzles, which introduced multiple new gameplay elements and took good advantage of them. But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional resonance. Since it’s pretty much impossible to discuss these themes without massive spoilers, I’m just going to put them inside the extended entry. If you haven’t played through the game, you should probably stop here; what follows will barely even make sense.

The first thing that struck me was the profound feeling of sadness that hangs over the game’s long third act. Portal 1 was essentially a black comedy in the form of an interactive monologue. Portal 2 has that, to be sure, but the sequences set deep in the abandoned older Aperture facilities have more of a tragic tone. (At one point GLaDOS quotes the aphorism that comedy is tragedy plus time, and I don’t think it’s a throwaway gag.)

Chell’s upward journey through the decaying Enrichment Spheres also traces through the downward trajectory of Aperture and its founder, Cave Johnson. What starts as a brash company that hires astronauts and war heroes and brings them in limousines to an luxurious test center turns into a struggling one that pays winos $60 to take part (or twice that if they agree to be disassembled), and ultimately into a madhouse that forces its own employees to take part in Johnson’s “throwing science at the wall here to see what sticks” testing. Yes, there are great gags, like the mantis men bit and Johnson’s rant about lemons, but you ultimately can hear the defeat and desperation creeping into his voice as he sickens and the failure of his dream becomes more apparent.

The game echoes this powerfully in the design of these levels. The decay is a profoundly lonely decay. Other parts of the facility are empty and damaged, yes, but these sections are bleak and foreboding. The spaces are vast and eerie; the underground mood is misty and twilight. The sound design emphasizes the cavernous desolateness of these areas; the music is bleak and mournful.

Even the gameplay goes along. There are fewer timed puzzles and none that give a sense of urgent forward motion. In the context of the game’s pacing, this is a smart third act; it provides a slow movement, an adagio before the allegro finale. It gives the player a chance to rest and recover; it makes the chaos and confusion that will follow all the more interesting. The overall effect is to create a strong and lingering feeling of sadness, one that has stuck with me even more than the moments of antic comedy. In that respect, Portal 2’s light touch means it does a better job than many games that self-consciously try to be either weighty or emotionally resonant.

This same sense — that Portal 2 shows rather than tells — informs my second reaction to it. This is a game that does some very interesting things with gender. Like its predecessor, Portal 2 easily passes the Bechdel Test — or, at least, it does, insofar as one of the women is actually an artificial intelligence with a synthetic female voice and the other never speaks.

Chell didn’t have to be female. Indeed, an early teaser trailer for Portal featured a male character wearing the jumpsuit and toting the portal gun. But somewhere along the line, this first-person puzzler — a shooter in which you never shoot or kill anyone — picked up a female protagonist.

The game does little to call attention to this fact. There are none of the embarrassing stereotypes that too many games trade in when they try to feature female characters. Chell is almost always addressed as “you” by the other characters. And yet, at several moments, there are some fascinating bits in GLaDOS’s dialogue. One extended sequence consists of a series of insults about Chell’s weight and appearance:

Most people emerge from suspension terribly undernourished, I want to congratulate you on beating the odds and somehow managing to pack on a few pounds.

That jumpsuit you’re wearing looks stupid. That’s not me talking, it’s right here in your file. On other people it looks fine, but right here a scientist has noted that on you it looks “stupid”. Well, what does a neck-bearded old engineer know about fashion? He probably— Oh, wait. It’s a she. Still, what does she know? Oh wait, it says she has a medical degree. In fashion! From France!

Look at you. Soaring through the air majestically. Like an eagle … piloting a blimp.

This next test involves turrets. You remember them, right? They’re the pale, spherical things that are full of bullets. Oh wait, that’s you in five seconds,

As the player is presumably well aware, Chell is in fact slender and athletic. In context, it’s clear that these are insults that GLaDOS thinks will get under Chell’s skin. Here, as elsewhere in the game, the joke is that the AIs’ insults are miscalculated: even when they think they’re being subtle, their poor grasp of human nuance makes them hilariously transparent.

Later in the game, Wheatley starts calling Chell “fatty,” which leads GLaDOS to retort, “Look at her, you moron. She’s not fat.” This touches on Wheatley’s biggest insecurity — his intelligence — and leaves him spluttering with inarticulate anger. This beat is a fascinating moment in the three characters’ relationship. It’s the time that GLaDOS most truly takes Chell’s side; it also shows that GLaDOS’s barbs are well-aimed enough to push Wheatley’s buttons. Both of these, I think, put GLaDOS’s earlier insults in a new light.

All in all, then, a very clever game, on so many levels.

I’m not a big gamer myself, but your post makes me wonder your opinion about the debate at Roger Ebert’s blog (>4k comments long!), about whether games can be art (Ebert claims not).

I’m not much of a gamer—the last “big” game I played was, er, Portal 1. And I loved Portal 2. I felt about the same emotional comedown finishing it as I do when putting down a good book; I had gotten emotionally invested in the characters and the story, spent time lingering on small details that don’t sink in until you think about their implications.

I loved how you have to get much of the sense of Chell’s character through how others treat her and the knowledge of what she has to do. I do appreciate playing a female player whose femaleness is almost incidental, rather than shoved in your face as a decorative element. I feel a little spark of accomplishment when I’ve solved a chamber; knowing that my salient feature is determination heightens the feeling rather than detracts from it.

The dynamically-generated music was pretty great too—the dark music replaced by ethereal music walking into light funnels, the layers adding up as you aim multiple lasers.

(I may or may not have listened to “Want You Gone” on repeat many, many times afterward. You know, for science.)

@Ron: Can games be art? I know many that are. Most major commercial games are schlock, but so are most major commercial movies. They’re still art. It takes profound ignorance to believe otherwise with the conviction that Ebert displays.

@Kat: Hey, neat — I totally missed the dynamic music system. I noticed that the music would change as I put puzzle elements in place, but didn’t, you know, notice it.

I agree. A really clever, funny sequel that develops and broadens the story of the original Portal.