Thursday, March 7, 2013

Gaming Reflections: Portal 2

Everybody grab your Companion Cube and get ready to think with portals, because I’ve finally been able to play the game that lets you have your cake and eat it too.

All right, and now that it’s not 2007 anymore, I’m going to stop referencing Portal memes.  Really, I don’t even know what I mean when I say the game lets you have your cake and eat it too.  I’m just contractually obligated to make a cake reference when talking about Portal.  See?  It says so right here in my file.  “Test subject [insert subjects name here] must make at least one reference to that overused meme that nobody even thinks is funny anymore.”

So, Portal 2.  Basically, Portal was a short little wonderful game that could only be defined as a “first person puzzle game.”  You shoot little portals out of a portal gun.  You solve puzzles with these portals by moving through them to otherwise inaccessible locations and drop boxes onto buttons.  Short, simple, and intellectually stimulating (my goodness do you get a rush from correctly solving a particularly tricky puzzle).  That alone would have made it a “good” game.  However, the game also decided to have a wonderful and unique sense of humor, launching it into “great” and making it pretty much an instant classic.

Of course, the original Portal was just a small little side-game launched in a package with several other games.  Portal 2 was designed as its own standalone game.  It expanded upon some implied backstory in the original game, keeping the tone of the first game wonderfully and continuing some wonderful gameplay and story integration.

As is frequent, spoilers follow.

You play as Chell, a test subject with an ambiguous past, though it seems to be somehow connected to the Aperture Science Laboratories that the game seems to take place in.  She has been put into stasis for an unknown amount of time that is implied to be extremely lengthy, but is broken out by Wheatley, a spherical AI.  The two of you accidentally resurrect GLaDOS, the robotic, science-obsessed antagonist of the first game.  Then puzzles with limited plot resume, until you find GLaDOS and replace her with Wheatley.  Wheatley, who is revealed to be a memory core specifically designed to make GLaDOS dumber, goes mad with power, then dumps you and GLaDOS (whose AI has been transferred into a potato battery—yes, you read that right) off somewhere to get you out of the way.

It’s at this point that the game really starts to diverge from it’s predecessor.  It moves to an older, abandoned version of Aperture Laboratories, and PA announcements reveal some more about the founder, Cave Johnson.  Chell and GLaDOS return to the newer Aperture Laboratories, do more tests, and then try to defeat Wheatley and put GLaDOS back in charge because, while GLaDOS is psychotic, she’s at least psychotic and capable and is consequently the lesser of two evils.

The story is strong, the way it’s told is beautifully subtle, and like its predecessor, the real charm of the game is the witty dialogue (this time, coming from three colorful characters instead of just one!) that is often silly but always in an intelligent way.  The gameplay is solid and exciting, and if you were to ask me for my biggest complaint about the game, it’d be that the puzzle sections in the first third drag on too long (and potentially, the the puzzle sections in the final third as well, though not as much).

The part that stood out to me most, though, was the ending (and major spoilers obviously follow).  GLaDOS and Chell have always had an odd relationship that is somewhere between enmity and love, and in this game, the relationship is defined a bit more.  After some character development, it becomes clear that GLaDOS, at very least, respects Chell as an archnemesis.  The ending, though, cements that GLaDOS does care about her, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.  After saving Chell’s life when a portal almost sucks her into space (again, yes, you read that right).  But let me go into detail on the ending: after Chell is almost sucked into space, GLaDOS saves her, then expresses relief when Chell awakens.  She then reveals that she has created robots to do the testing and doesn’t need her anymore, before stating that “the easiest solution is often the best, and killing you?  Well, killing you is hard.”  She then proceeds to bid Chell farewell, sending her…to another floor of Aperture Laboratories, where there are turrets waiting directly outside.  All seems lost, until the turrets start singing a farewell to Chell, and as the elevator rises, it’s revealed that there is an entire choir of singing turrets (yes, you have again read that correctly).  That GLaDOS would bid you such an elaborate farewell is absolutely stunning—but still very believable with the character development she’s gone through.  It gives you a big “awww, she does care about Chell!” moment before the elevator reaches its destination and Chell is ejected from a small toolshed in the middle of nowhere.  However, there’s one more surprise left for both Chell and the players: a charred Companion Cube the same one that GLaDOS guilted Chell so much over for “killing” in the first game, is ejected behind her a moment later.

The ending absolutely stunned me.  Portal is not a particularly dark series.  Sure, there are a few dark elements that are mostly hinted at, but it’s largely silly and upbeat.  However, it’s still not the sort of series that you’d expect a happy ending from.  However, that’s exactly what you get for nearly everyone.  GLaDOS gets to continue testing, Chell gets a beautiful farewell, her freedom, and a reunion with the Companion Cube, and the Space Core (who is rapidly approaching cake levels of annoying meme) gets to go to space.  The only person who doesn’t get some happiness is Wheatley, and his story at least gets some closure and development.  It’s a fully satisfying ending with nothing bittersweet about it, and I’m amazed that Valve managed to pull that off.

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