Reaping the delights of PC-centric developers such as Valve and Blizzard often requires a special kind of patience, one rooted in zealous devotion and a judicious application of pure faith. In the yawning chasm that separates the release of new titles it can be easy to forget why you ever fell in love with the likes of Diablo and StarCraft; Half Life and Portal. In this instance absence may not breed contempt, but one can be left briefly stumbling and struggling to remember why such and such a series has been so firmly engrained in the collective consciousness. Then a new title is finally let loose and flames—both old and new—are ignited as the cycle repeats itself once more. But while many beg and plead for Half Life 2: Episode Three, it was perhaps Valve’s short-but-sweet puzzle game Portal which truly deserved an immediate sequel. Yet, over half a year since release and with the Portal-related buzz having subsided to a distant hum, is Portal 2 everything it could (and should) have been?
The biggest challenge that Valve faced with a sequel to Portal was re-engaging with a franchise which underwent nothing short of a cultural explosion. As a franchise whose fanatical culture has far outgrown the subject of its affection, Portal has, in essence, become larger than life, spawning its own zany brand of irreverent humour along with its affectionate fanbase. This growth—having taken place in the three year interim between games—is reflected clearly in the sheer size of the game’s sequel. At over three times the length of the original (not including the excellent co-op mode), Portal 2 is as ambitious as it is unwaveringly clever. Opening with a stomach-lurching set piece, Valve quickly establishes their ambition of creating a being bigger, better, and—perhaps most importantly—funnier experience. Almost every joke hits the right note as the game delights in fooling the player on every level; make no mistake, Portal 2 is more intelligent than you; a fact it never ceases to delight in.
This aim of ludic and narrative sophistication finds its clearest expression through the game’s more ambitious approach towards puzzle design, its arc of complexity peaking once the new visually pleasing gels are introduced as you bounce and slip your way through every room with childlike glee. Yet some truly outstanding signposting keeps both narrative pacing and puzzling smooth as seemingly impossible tasks soon make perfect sense, prompting a curiousl feeling that you are simultaneously clever and dumb. Experimentation becomes just as important as logic, yet the scarcity of accidentally stumbling upon—rather than actively discovering—solutions means that the satisfaction associated with finally placing that Edgeless Safety Cube in its receptacle is never subject to diminishing returns.
While the first Portal was visually and environmentally restrained by virtue of its innovative mechanics, the ludic dialogue that Portal established is now culturally autonomous, existing free of the restrictive test chambers. Portal 2 is anarchic; tearing down the walls of its own mise-en-scène to reveal the artifice beneath—an act reflected in the postmodern aesthetics which underly every facet of the franchise. Environments open up in scope as the game progresses, resulting in a liberating variety of areas removed from the clean white perfection of GLaDos’ domain.
But what would Portal be without its story? And what a story it is too. Relating any plot detail is revealing too much, but suffice it to say that characters new and old all hit the right note; from Stephen Merchant’s annoying Wheatly, to the exercise in perfect characterisation that is the heart and soul of the franchise; GlaDos. Paced perfectly and told with a care and affection that is almost alien to the games industry, the twists and turns of the plot eventually culminate in one of the best climaxes we’ve seen for many years. With Portal 2 Valve prove themselves as masters of a particular type of storytelling, one whose pace and delivery teases out the unique narrative power exclusive to the videogame medium.
Over half a year after release, Portal 2 has not culturally exploded in the way that its predecessor did; but, in many ways, that’s a good thing. Far be it for us to suggest that the first Portal represented a false start, but its sequel nonetheless makes it feel like more of a prologue. Free from the bonds of jokes made insipid by overuse (‘the cake is a lie’ is thankfully nowhere to be seen here), Portal 2 feels like Portal born anew; not a reinvention, but a rejuvenation—and expansion—of everything that made its predecessor so loved. Thus, while we may indignantly assume that Valve is merely twiddling its thumbs in the agonising years between releases, Portal 2 serves to legitimise their chronic procrastination by refiguring it as the unpredictable ebb and flow of a collective genius mind at work.