Musing on Portal 2, with thoughts on Portal (Spoilers, of course)

Posted by Kierkegaard (604 posts) -

A little late, I realize, but I had to finish college before playing this amazing game. So, read as you will. 


I think that Portal 2's greatest adversary is Portal, or at least the perception of the first game.  Let me talk about that perception and what I think (hereafter considered "The Truth"). Portal and Portal 2 are great because they set expectations, reverse them, and are still true to themselves. 

Okay, heady analysis incoming. 

What Portal Did

In Portal, assuming you as a player have no knowledge of the game's nature before playing it, you are expecting a puzzle game with a nifty looking portal gun. GLaDOS slowly reveals herself, through her inability to hide her maliciousness in her warnings and mind games, as an antagonist. Valve's trademark pathing leads you to hidden recesses where the rat man and his foreboding artwork appears. 
 Rat Man's work is not so much hidden as it has the appearance of being hidden

And all this happens while you do what you expected (as you said): use portals, buttons, moving platforms, opening doors, disintegration fields, cubes, and energy orbs, slowly introduced and combined, to move through spaces. You, and Chell, move from willing test subject, to wary test subject, to revolutionary without a means to fight, to revolutionary ironically empowered as GLaDOS thinks she has won, to vanquisher of evil. No one tells you how to feel, but you do feel. 

However, the puzzles are only minorly dynamic with the story. Think about it. If we consider the escape sequence to be Chell acting of her own accord with her own goal (destroy GLaDOS and/or escape), then only the most rudimentary of the skills in the test chambers themselves are useful in this sequence. Most prominent in the escape is the new "rocket" tool. Otherwise, you are simply placing portals where the walls allow you to (see escape sequences in Portal 2), timing mechanical crushers, and occasionally using the "momentum fling" move.  
"We'll help you here" - Valve

The tests, then, are complicated in a way the escape never is, and that is exactly the point. GLaDOS, as shown more clearly in Portal 2, is frustrated by your continued success at her tests, so she tries to throw you off. But, in all honesty, playing Portal again recently, the final puzzles are not all that difficult, no matter the crazy solutions people have devised. I think this is somewhere people look back on Portal with rose-tinted glasses. It was not and is not a difficult game. Its most challenging puzzles were outside the narrative as DLC. The game itself is remarkable for its teaching rather than its difficulty.   Portal can be conquered by basically anyone because the game so acutely teaches the player how to think with portals. You conquer GLaDOS because Valve helps you to do so. Your only adversary is your own intuition about what to do next, an obstacle which Valve helps you overcome. Great players can do what Valve does not expect. But non-geniuses like me can play the game as Valve expected, and the enjoy the hell out of it. 


The genius of Portal is twofold. It has mechanical genius. The portal concept is cool. It's new, it's fun, it feels free but is actually astutely restrained. The traditional placing things on button and platforming across moving platforms mechanic become invigorated with the addition of portals. It also has storytelling genius, adding a malevolent air to the tests and the AI, an absurdism to kind turrets, and a fascination to behind the scenes details. Portal 2 is better.

What makes Portal 2 better (here there be spoilers)

As Valve says in one of the commentary nodes, Portal 2 could not rest on the laurels of Portal. It could not be a game steeped in purely inferential storytelling or be lost in meme rehashing. Portal gave us established characters and character relationships with GLaDOS and Chell, as well as an established setting and organization in Aperture. 

In part, Portal 2 adds to these established bits by giving GLaDOS a character journey with Chell, revealing Aperture's history, and showing more of just what the testing facility is. 
GLaDOS gains humanity as a potato, uses it, then rejects it. Brilliant. 

GLaDOS learns of her origin as Caroline, softens, then erases her softened spot. Her vitriol at the beginning, fall to Potato form, vague assistance, and calculated expulsion of you from the facility, work in tandem to reveal her capacity to care, but choice to revert to testing without complication (robots instead of a human). I love that character arc. She learns to appreciate you, at the very least, as a complication, which is cold praise, but still praise. 

The slow rebuilding of the center, with the mechanical arms making new what was overgrown and decrepit, is both invigorating and frustrating. I saw the machinations behind the test rooms, which gave me understanding of my environment. And I was happily frustrated as the test rooms returned to their immaculate state, erasing time and difference and any evidence of change. That imagery worked brilliantly with the story's regressive themes as Chell is forced to test over and over again. 



Which brings me to what makes Portal 2 special: its self-aware disregard for the player and his or her expectations. This is embodied in:
 Evil Wheatley

Wheatley: Stupid, rambling, hilarious British AI is actually designed to be a moron. The major antagonist in a puzzle game is an idiot. A bumbling side kick is actually your soon to be tormentor. The tests that Wheately designs are gorgeously inept and easy. I could tell Wheatley was going to go maniacal when I gave him power, that he was an unreliable narrator, pretty soon. But I did not anticipate his brand of evil--monotony. And his attempts to berate you like GLaDOS did or to prove his intelligence through reading Machiavelli are especially inspired.

The progression: Portal 2's structure is that of an elaborate test. You begin testing to get the portal gun. Then you awake GLaDos and she forces you to test for her. Then Wheatley helps you escape and you complete puzzles to get to GLaDOS. Then you are alone in the old testing facility, testing to escape the facility, to ascend the shaft. Then you meet up with GLaDOS and are trapped by Wheatley, and you are testing to please HIM. And finally you are testing to beat Wheatley and escape. 

I lay it all out like that because, I think, the reversal of expectations becomes clearer this way. You could, conceivably, think the game is over three times: When you plug in Wheatley, when you get to the elevator in the old testing facility, and at the actual end. Meanwhile, the shifting reason for your testing is fascinating. Chell goes from serving others to serving herself over and over again. She serves Wheatley, GLaDOS, and even the long dead Cave Johnson, in hopes of finding her way out of this damn place. 

Testing as Tedium: This is a dangerous bit. I do want to enjoy games. But I also like it when games make me think about something in a new way. In Portal, the testing quickly became a means to an end. For GLaDOS, that means became killing you. For Chell, that means became revenge and escape. Solving the tests was not the point at around the 2/3rds mark. In Portal 2, testing is never the point. It is always a tool for some other purpose. When it is explicitly stated that Wheatley is just going to force you to test forever so he can get his fix, each test feels like a chore. 

Feeling a chore is not what most games want to do. But, in Portal 2, it's perfect. The excitement of Portal 2 quickly becomes the meta discovery and story progression rather than the new testing apparati. As it should. Portal's story is the progression of the player from a robotic tester to a freed human, and if the tests did not begin to feel monotonous and like wastes of time, Chell, and the player, would be no better than a robot. Chell is free because she endured tests, completing them to find a time to escape to freedom. 

Chell

Chell subverts the system. She uses broken walls and peaking-portalable surfaces to do the unexpected. At the end, she shoots the moon, an act so outlandish and yet perfectly fitting that it MUST be the finale to the boss battle and the game. Chell is a rebel. It's fun to beat the system. 





#1 Posted by Kierkegaard (604 posts) -

A little late, I realize, but I had to finish college before playing this amazing game. So, read as you will. 


I think that Portal 2's greatest adversary is Portal, or at least the perception of the first game.  Let me talk about that perception and what I think (hereafter considered "The Truth"). Portal and Portal 2 are great because they set expectations, reverse them, and are still true to themselves. 

Okay, heady analysis incoming. 

What Portal Did

In Portal, assuming you as a player have no knowledge of the game's nature before playing it, you are expecting a puzzle game with a nifty looking portal gun. GLaDOS slowly reveals herself, through her inability to hide her maliciousness in her warnings and mind games, as an antagonist. Valve's trademark pathing leads you to hidden recesses where the rat man and his foreboding artwork appears. 
 Rat Man's work is not so much hidden as it has the appearance of being hidden

And all this happens while you do what you expected (as you said): use portals, buttons, moving platforms, opening doors, disintegration fields, cubes, and energy orbs, slowly introduced and combined, to move through spaces. You, and Chell, move from willing test subject, to wary test subject, to revolutionary without a means to fight, to revolutionary ironically empowered as GLaDOS thinks she has won, to vanquisher of evil. No one tells you how to feel, but you do feel. 

However, the puzzles are only minorly dynamic with the story. Think about it. If we consider the escape sequence to be Chell acting of her own accord with her own goal (destroy GLaDOS and/or escape), then only the most rudimentary of the skills in the test chambers themselves are useful in this sequence. Most prominent in the escape is the new "rocket" tool. Otherwise, you are simply placing portals where the walls allow you to (see escape sequences in Portal 2), timing mechanical crushers, and occasionally using the "momentum fling" move.  
"We'll help you here" - Valve

The tests, then, are complicated in a way the escape never is, and that is exactly the point. GLaDOS, as shown more clearly in Portal 2, is frustrated by your continued success at her tests, so she tries to throw you off. But, in all honesty, playing Portal again recently, the final puzzles are not all that difficult, no matter the crazy solutions people have devised. I think this is somewhere people look back on Portal with rose-tinted glasses. It was not and is not a difficult game. Its most challenging puzzles were outside the narrative as DLC. The game itself is remarkable for its teaching rather than its difficulty.   Portal can be conquered by basically anyone because the game so acutely teaches the player how to think with portals. You conquer GLaDOS because Valve helps you to do so. Your only adversary is your own intuition about what to do next, an obstacle which Valve helps you overcome. Great players can do what Valve does not expect. But non-geniuses like me can play the game as Valve expected, and the enjoy the hell out of it. 


The genius of Portal is twofold. It has mechanical genius. The portal concept is cool. It's new, it's fun, it feels free but is actually astutely restrained. The traditional placing things on button and platforming across moving platforms mechanic become invigorated with the addition of portals. It also has storytelling genius, adding a malevolent air to the tests and the AI, an absurdism to kind turrets, and a fascination to behind the scenes details. Portal 2 is better.

What makes Portal 2 better (here there be spoilers)

As Valve says in one of the commentary nodes, Portal 2 could not rest on the laurels of Portal. It could not be a game steeped in purely inferential storytelling or be lost in meme rehashing. Portal gave us established characters and character relationships with GLaDOS and Chell, as well as an established setting and organization in Aperture. 

In part, Portal 2 adds to these established bits by giving GLaDOS a character journey with Chell, revealing Aperture's history, and showing more of just what the testing facility is. 
GLaDOS gains humanity as a potato, uses it, then rejects it. Brilliant. 

GLaDOS learns of her origin as Caroline, softens, then erases her softened spot. Her vitriol at the beginning, fall to Potato form, vague assistance, and calculated expulsion of you from the facility, work in tandem to reveal her capacity to care, but choice to revert to testing without complication (robots instead of a human). I love that character arc. She learns to appreciate you, at the very least, as a complication, which is cold praise, but still praise. 

The slow rebuilding of the center, with the mechanical arms making new what was overgrown and decrepit, is both invigorating and frustrating. I saw the machinations behind the test rooms, which gave me understanding of my environment. And I was happily frustrated as the test rooms returned to their immaculate state, erasing time and difference and any evidence of change. That imagery worked brilliantly with the story's regressive themes as Chell is forced to test over and over again. 



Which brings me to what makes Portal 2 special: its self-aware disregard for the player and his or her expectations. This is embodied in:
 Evil Wheatley

Wheatley: Stupid, rambling, hilarious British AI is actually designed to be a moron. The major antagonist in a puzzle game is an idiot. A bumbling side kick is actually your soon to be tormentor. The tests that Wheately designs are gorgeously inept and easy. I could tell Wheatley was going to go maniacal when I gave him power, that he was an unreliable narrator, pretty soon. But I did not anticipate his brand of evil--monotony. And his attempts to berate you like GLaDOS did or to prove his intelligence through reading Machiavelli are especially inspired.

The progression: Portal 2's structure is that of an elaborate test. You begin testing to get the portal gun. Then you awake GLaDos and she forces you to test for her. Then Wheatley helps you escape and you complete puzzles to get to GLaDOS. Then you are alone in the old testing facility, testing to escape the facility, to ascend the shaft. Then you meet up with GLaDOS and are trapped by Wheatley, and you are testing to please HIM. And finally you are testing to beat Wheatley and escape. 

I lay it all out like that because, I think, the reversal of expectations becomes clearer this way. You could, conceivably, think the game is over three times: When you plug in Wheatley, when you get to the elevator in the old testing facility, and at the actual end. Meanwhile, the shifting reason for your testing is fascinating. Chell goes from serving others to serving herself over and over again. She serves Wheatley, GLaDOS, and even the long dead Cave Johnson, in hopes of finding her way out of this damn place. 

Testing as Tedium: This is a dangerous bit. I do want to enjoy games. But I also like it when games make me think about something in a new way. In Portal, the testing quickly became a means to an end. For GLaDOS, that means became killing you. For Chell, that means became revenge and escape. Solving the tests was not the point at around the 2/3rds mark. In Portal 2, testing is never the point. It is always a tool for some other purpose. When it is explicitly stated that Wheatley is just going to force you to test forever so he can get his fix, each test feels like a chore. 

Feeling a chore is not what most games want to do. But, in Portal 2, it's perfect. The excitement of Portal 2 quickly becomes the meta discovery and story progression rather than the new testing apparati. As it should. Portal's story is the progression of the player from a robotic tester to a freed human, and if the tests did not begin to feel monotonous and like wastes of time, Chell, and the player, would be no better than a robot. Chell is free because she endured tests, completing them to find a time to escape to freedom. 

Chell

Chell subverts the system. She uses broken walls and peaking-portalable surfaces to do the unexpected. At the end, she shoots the moon, an act so outlandish and yet perfectly fitting that it MUST be the finale to the boss battle and the game. Chell is a rebel. It's fun to beat the system. 





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