Saturday, July 5, 2014

Portal and Portal 2 - 6/20 hours

Having finished Portal and played a bit of Portal 2, I'm finding that I'm feeling less abstracted in the second one. It may just be a matter of mood - perhaps I was especially pensive the day I played Portal.

That sounds reasonable, but honestly, I think it comes down to something in the games themselves. Portal 2 is a bigger game than Portal, and I don't mean just in size. Portal barely had a plot, and there were only two characters, one of whom didn't actually have any lines. And yet its spareness is also its greatest strength - Chell starts off as a lab rat, and everything about the game, from the sort of obstacles you face, to the simple design of the environment puts you in her shoes - you become a lab rat. Then, there's a plot twist halfway through, and you escape the maze and become an avenging badass, and aside from the changing tenor of GLaDOS' taunting, the entire story is told through the things you do.

Chell doesn't need dialogue declaiming her motives, because those are also your motives. You are driven to confront GLaDOS, to find a way out of the facility, to end the game, because the game has trained you to go forward no matter what. It's masterful.

In fact, I'd go farther than that, and say that playing Portal is one of life's perfect experiences, like listening to Beethoven's 9th or seeing the Grand Canyon. It's just something everyone should do at least once.

And therein lies the trouble. It's possible to go into it already aware of the reaction you're expected to have, and that can blunt the edge of the experience. In my more neurotic moments, I worry that might happen to me if I ever get the chance to visit the Grand Canyon - that I'll get so hung up on how I'm supposed to feel awe at its majestic beauty that I'll miss out on the grandeur of the actual thing.

I also worry that I might be doing some damage in going on this way about Portal. I mean, it absolutely lives up to the hype, but it's also true that there's no reason to think the hype will enhance the game (then, I remember that I'm writing an obscure blog that's read by, like, 20 people, none of whom are likely to be waiting on my recommendation to play the most celebrated game of the last decade).

Which is to say, that Portal made such a strong impression on me, that there was no way a second playthrough could escape the shadow of the first.

Portal 2 does not have that problem.

Don't get me wrong, Portal 2 is a great game in its own right. I have nothing bad to say about it. It's just that in terms of flustering internet commentators who are trying to compose blog posts as part of a hastily conceived personal resolution to play more video games, its bigness works against it.

Portal 2 is a sequel to Portal, and like many sequels, it aims to give its audience more of what they loved about the original. And Portal 2 delivers. GLaDOS is more hilariously cutting than ever. Aperture Science is even more bizarrely and selectively incompetent. The pitch-perfect learning curve that leads gradually yet inevitably into puzzles of devious complexity is everything you could hope it might be. Cave Johnson and Wheatly are brilliant comic inventions, perfectly keeping with the humor of the first game, while taking it to the next level.

Yet for all of the great additions (and to be clear, there is nothing in this game that I'd want to cut), Portal 2 feels crowded in a way that Portal did not. Portal 2 has spectacle. It has lush post-apocalyptic environments and thrilling chase sequences. It's crammed with things to watch or to listen to. And that blunts the nostalgia a bit. Playing through a second time, I'm noticing things I missed the first time, and being reminded of things I forgot over the years. I have to say, because of this, I'm finding it more immersive than the original Portal.

Does that mean Portal 2 holds up better than its predecessor? That's a difficult question, and probably not an entirely fair one. Replaying the first Portal felt like walking through a memory because my first time through left an intense and indelible impression, and it did that because it was a masterpiece. Replaying Portal 2 is a bit more engaging and directly satisfying because it is a very, very good game.

Conclusion: playing both is worth my time.

1 comment:

  1. The creators of Portal were Game Design students who got hired by Valve based off their Portal-esque game "Narbacular Drop." It is likely they originally had little support and thus they made a bare bones game. Portal 2 gained more support due to Portal's popularity. What you are seeing is the evolution of what happens to a game when it receives more/less support, as both games are essentially the same idea.