Review: Portal II

Portal was a challenging puzzle game with a tight and engaging storyline. Portal II is a storyline with a puzzle game attached. There are those who might prefer the latter. I would prefer not to be trapped on a desert island with them… or the games they’ve made.

This promises to be one o’ them fancy newfangled comparative reviews. Enjoy!

Portal The First introduced a fairly simple mechanic and then played with it rather substantively. It allowed the player to feel an unbelievable sense of agency. The majority of the game was about discovering A) what you were supposed to do, and B) how exactly to do it. The first part was fighting the logic of the world; the second, your physical abilities with the controls. So you had to not only think, but also actually get good at the game. The former is absent from most games of action or skill; the latter, absent from most games of puzzle-solving and adventure. Their marriage was made in Heaven.

There was not a substantive opportunity for emergent gameplay. The levels were closed enough to prevent any great departure from what was intended; this is because level design was supposed to assist in puzzle-solving. You were not trying to solve the world, as in Riven; nor solve situational puzzles, as in the excretory Cyberia. You were trying to do what was intended; what a very real and eventually tangible entity wanted you to do; you were a lab-rat in a maze; your agency was incredible for the situation, but On The Whole was rather slim. (This we call Doing Something Small And Doing It Well. More game developers might follow this example.)

What it lacked in overreaching it made up for in perfection, and I can think of few examples of praise more superlative. But I should also like to put in a good word for the sparse opportunities for world-breaking and gameplay emergence which existed therein. Some are run-of-the-mill: speed runs and whatnot. Some require outside interference: editor mods that let you build domino daisy-chains of turrets and the like. But some are quite substantive. And reward repeat gameplay – which, in the context of a puzzle game, is a rather impressive achievement.

Let me refer to Portal’s Level 18. The level contains several portions and puzzles within, but let’s focus on this one scenario. And I’m going to describe it out in words. Just to see if I motherfucking can.

You are in a very large room whose floor is made of radioactive waste; you touch it, you die. Along one wall, about halfway between death-floor and ceiling, is a platform. You are here. There is an opening in the far wall through which you need to get your bad self. There is a shuttle that you can summon to carry you from Point A to Point B.

The main difficulty lies in the fact that, between said Points, are four gun turrets. They are on top of small platforms which rise out of the toxic muck, one turret per platform. They are spaced at regular intervals. The turrets are stationary but their bullets are not. They have an approximately 120 degree arc of fire. And if you move into their field of vision, you will be turned into pate.

To get from one Point to the other requires, therefore, that the turrets be neutralized.

You are an individual of some stamina. Your only other particular advantage in the fight v. world is that you have a Portal Gun. If you were to point the gun at a wall and fire it, and then do so at a totally different wall, a wormhole would be created between the two points. You could walk right through one wall and out the other. Conversely you can walk through ceilings and onto floors, or jump down from a great height into a floor portal and be spit out with consistent velocity from a wall. The portals are bidirectional, though they can only ever have two constituent openings. And you can make as many such portals as you want – as soon as you make a new opening, one closes, leading to infinite creativity.

In this room with you there is also a device that summons balls of energy. They last about a minute before becoming unstable and discharging, whence a new ball is created. During that minute they float along a linear path, bouncing back and forth. Unless acted upon by an outside force. Such as your portal gun, which might have them, instead of hitting a wall and bouncing back, enter a portal and exit it going an entirely different direction.

The goal of this room, then, is pretty obvious: use the energy balls to destroy the turrets. When an energy ball gets launched, you place a portal at the wall where it is going, then another portal behind one of the turrets. Eventually you will zero in on it, and the energy ball will hit the turret and knock it into the fires which burn and also consume. Do this four times and your mechanical would-be murderers are no more. You can move about the level in relative peace and harmony.

This occurred to me about five seconds after seeing the situation described. It took me a few tries – including a few deaths – to actually make good on my strategy. But the strategy was apparent from the get-go. It was clearly what one was supposed to do – designed by the inseparable forces of GlADoS and the game designers.

But then I wondered: is there another way to go about this problem?

I will save you the suspense: I discovered four.

I am not sure if any of them have been popularly discovered by the game’s Legion fans. I do not believe that they were solutions to the puzzle that the game designers intended be so much as possible. But they solve the puzzle, and do it using only the mechanics presented. They are emergent gameplay. Long may it reign!

The first solution is to use yourself, rather than the energy ball, as a projectile for destroying the turrets. There is a place in the level where you can put a portal on the ground and then jump into it from a great height. This generates momentum which the wormhole does not dissipate. What one then does is aim the corresponding portal at one of the turrets. Your momentum will then be transferred to the turret, knocking it into a watery/trans-uranic grave. Puzzle solved. Advantage: player.

The second solution is to use your own two hands as the projectile. Instead of going flying at the turrets, you aim in such a way that you land on the platform next to the turret, coming to a perfect landing (too far and you fall to your death! Not good!). Then you reach over and push the turret over manually. It takes a lot more skill than the way outlined above to plot such a trajectory; instead of needing to exceed a minimum momentum, one must exactly hit the right momentum and combine it with the perfect angle. It’s tough. But it solves the puzzle. Advantage: player.

The third solution is to use one of the turrets as the projectile. You make a flying jump through a portal and land, as in strategy #2, next to a turret. You then make a nearby portal, grab the turret, and jump into it. The turret comes with you. You then use the turret like a quantum basketball, throwing it through a portal so that it goes flying out and smacks another turret over. If you get your angles right, and are VERY quick with the right mouse button, you can have that second turret knocked into a portal… which will send it through another portal and into the third turret… yea unto the end of their threat. Puzzle solved. Advantage: player.

The fourth solution is to use the bullets that the turrets fire as the means of their destruction. The turrets fire at you. They cannot help themselves; it’s how they was raised! They will fire at you any time they see you. Even if they see you through space that you have bent, bent to your will; even if they see you through a portal. So you throw up a portal near you and another in front of them, and they open fire. Then with quick timing and careful geometry, you move the portal near to you be near another turret. That turret takes a few rounds to its face, and is no more. You repeat this maneuver until one turret has destroyed its three brethren. Then you place a portal right behind it, and use the turret’s own bullets to destroy itself. Suicidal? Cannibalistic? Unsportsmanlike – oh sure! But the puzzle has been solved using only the tools at hand. Advantage: player.

In a Mechanical Puzzle game, whereby you are meant to solve a series of puzzles using a set of given mechanics – be they physical/spatial or whatnot – that is the sort of emergent gameplay which hooks my neocortex up directly to my nucleus accumbens, unifying logical reasoning and pleasure into the kind of nerd-driven orgasm factory that I demand from the games that I torrent for free!

The simple question, then, in judging Portal II, is to ask whether these gameplay elements, these opportunities, were available.

The answer is No.

There’s nothing else to say. They just weren’t there. I can go through every single moment of Portal and point out how they’re not there. But they’re just not. They are wholly absent. They do not for a moment exist.

They were not meant to. It is clear from Portal II’s design that such things were considered specifically anathema to the game’s overarching design philosophy. Portal II’s puzzles are broken up into the same two sections as those of Portal Primum: figuring out what was intended, and figuring out how to accomplish it. The first part is always easier in Portal II. There’s never a moment of head-scratching. No thought is needed at all. It is a triumph of demonstration through design; in an instruction manual it would be worthy of the highest praise. In a game whose very purpose is to require you to have difficulty figuring out what to do – wherein half the fun comes from the task of overcoming your confusion to reach sparkling comprehension – a removal of that difficulty is a removal of fun. There were times when Portal was too easy, there were times when it was pretty hard. There are no times when Portal II is anything but lobotomized. It is, frankly, pathetic.

The second part, that of doing, is also considerably easier in Portal II than in its predocessor. The game is just easier. Flat. Out. Easier. A person with no particular experience with, skill in, or interest in video gaming can play through Portal; they’re just going to have to spend a bit longer mastering the mechanics than a gamer blessed with reservoirs of twitchy l33t. Conversely, your gamer-ass young cousin and your bedridden grandmother would have about the same ease playing Portal II. There are no skills to master. There is no practice required. You can’t be Better or Worse than other people at Portal II. You are just going through the motions. You are just doing what obviously needs to be done, like getting 400 points on your SATs because you wrote your name.

The old mechanics of Portal are not built upon. They are not used for harder puzzles, either those that require more thought to determine a solution or those that require more twitchy skill to actually solve. They are not used for emergent gameplay, wherein several possible solutions present themselves per puzzle. The game is not increased. If anything it is decreased. The sequel is not more; it is less. And that is sad. That is just… sad.

The new mechanics of Portal II are poorly used. You get two kinds of wall-paint: one lets your bounce, the other lets you run fast. But they are round and square pegs, respectively, and the game does nothing with them but present you with round and square holes to put them in. What happens if you try to put a square peg in the round hole? Nothing. Rarely do you even have the opportunity. When you do, you just have to repaint a wall. Which is the sort of activity for which one is usually compensated with money, as fun is a property which it has a great enthusiasm for lacking.

In Portal II there is no third portal. There is no increased opportunity for placing portals. There is no mechanic for timing portal opening and closure. There is no playing with angles, with lines of sight, with mirrors or reflections, with gravity. There is only jumping higher and running faster – which at the end of the day aren’t really new mechanics, just the ability to change the values of existing mechanics. In Portal I the character can run and jump; in Portal II they can sometimes run faster or jump higher. In Portal I the character can also crouch. In Portal III I can only imagine that the character will unlock a special mauve paint that will let them lay down and take a nap.

What Portal gave us was promise, was opportunity – opportunities which could have been made good upon in a sequel. Portal II should have been, for any audience (not just the fucking-around audience like Yours Ever Truly), a new and exciting experience, building upon Portal a as a foundation, reaching ever for the sky.

Portal II did not so make good. Portal II is, played as it was meant to be, not nearly as good. And there is no way to play it otherwise. The level design is not tight, it is castrated; you are railroaded into your actions, your “puzzle solving,” that you have about as much agency as a reader of a book turning a page. The opportunities for emergent gameplay in Portal II, for taking the mechanics present and fucking about, were to Portal 1 what checkers is to chess.

It’s just sad. It’s really just plain sad.

This brings up the interesting tangent: what genre is Portal?

It is, quite clearly, a game about solving puzzles. You do this by employing movement/spatial mechanics. A Mechanics Puzzler is the term I would use. But there is also a story element, and your actions move you to the next stage of the story. This has led people to label Portal an adventure game. Doubly so in Portal II, where you are not just moving towards the conclusion of a overarching scenario, but are actually moving along the linear progression of an explicated narrative.

I would not call Portal an adventure game. The actions of the character move along a story in the same way a reader moves a story by turning the page. The two are not related. To be more specific: the character’s employ of the game’s mechanics do not drive the story; the character’s employ of the game’s mechanics complete challenges whose completion arbitrarily triggers the story’s advancement. The fact that many soi-disant Adventure Games are guilty of this does not mean the genre should be expanded to encourage those who share such tendencies. The behavior should not be encouraged. In a discreet-scenario puzzle game, a little story is lovely (viz Portal); in a story-driven game, arbitrary puzzles are a hot mug of strychnine and spunk – viz Portal II.

Which brings us to a comparison of the stories told by the two games. The first, a test subject for a new type of technology must run through a series of increasingly lethal tests as masterminded by a distant presence, represented only by her voice. As the game progresses it is slowly implied that the facility in which they reside is empty, the mastermind having killed everybody else. Thus the protagonist, out of sheer self-defense, must escape the maze and kill its meta-minotaur. This being accomplished, the game is at an end.

The second game is some meandering self-celebratory mishmash of corporate history, in which new characters are introduced, analyzed, and dispensed with, all without having had any bearing upon the story nor having been encountered en corpore. If you were to remove this extrania from Portal II, one would be left with, in essence, Portal. And the game would have been much stronger therefore.

Portal II’s story is, though considerably wider, not anywhere near as tight. In giving more, it allows for less. Portal’s linearity allowed for subtle departures therefrom (those little rooms with reference to the illegitimacy of certain baked goods) to carry stupendous weight; Portal II’s desperate pretensions towards illinearity, such as the near-Biblical amount of walking required to get from You Are Here to You, For Some Reason, Clearly Need To Be There (at which points you actually get to play a game), only serve to illustrate that it is in fact as linear as a rail-shooter. In Portal there was a sense of discovery, of mystery; in Portal II there is just a sense of completion, of moving towards an extant and inevitable end. It is the difference between being in a story, and reading one – and having to wait for someone else to turn the page.

Games are about AGENCY. In Portal – within its constraints – you have as much as in any game ever made, and more than most. In Portal II you have as much as in Super Mario – a game not noted, shall we say, for the depth of its storyline.

(When your great challenge as a reviewer is to choose between comparing your “nonlinear puzzle epic” to a rail-shooter or a side-scroller… it’s possibly time you sucked off a shotgun and died.)

Also… Wheatley.

Portal II sucked.


~ by davekov on 14 October 2012.

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