Blog needs content. So, here’s what I thought of Portal 2.
Portal 2 could easily have fallen failed, story-wise, but it didn’t.
Portal was always going to be a tough game to follow. Every aspect of that game is pretty near perfect, from the writing to the puzzle design to how it all works together so that you can’t even draw a firm line between the writing and the puzzle design. When I first played it I played all the way through in one evening, and it was the purest of video-game joy I have ever experienced.
The quality of the first game and the expectations that that raises weren’t the only reason that Portal would be tough to follow, though. One of the reasons that Portal worked was that the story was simple. You’re in a maze of puzzles, and there’s a voice talking to you, and you don’t know why. Over the course of the game you learn the name of the voice and some of the reason why you’re there, but it does it without adding many new elements. It’s just you, and the maze, and the gun, and the voice, and there’s a feeling that not only is the world beyond the maze mysterious, but that for the purposes of the story there is no outside world.
Then comes Portal 2. There was no way that its story could do same thing. If it had had a minimalist story like the first game’s it would have seemed like a rehash, a mission pack sequel. Portal 2 tackled this by becoming much more story-heavy than the first game. It’s not an ontological mystery any more: you know basically where you are and what’s happening from the start, and and rather than hinting at the backstory, the game takes you on a guided tour through it. The plot twists and turns, allegiances change, characters develop over the course of the game. (If anything the gameplay takes a back seat to the story: sometimes the game felt more like a rollercoaster, rushing me from scripted sequence to scripted sequence, than a puzzle game. This isn’t a weakness, just an observation; and I’m aware that a lot of the meatier puzzles were put in the co-op game.)
Portal and Portal 2 reminded me of the movie Cube and its two sequels–except that I think Portal 2 succeeded where the Cube sequels failed. The first instalment of each series was an ontological mystery, set in an enclosed environment with a very limited cast, and almost no information about the outside world. The sequel(s) in both cases tried to provide the backstory for the first one, but the Cube movies did it clumsily whereas Portal 2 did it well. (It has only just occurred to me that I could make a Companion Cube joke here. Puns normally come naturally to me; I must be slipping.)
I’m wondering now about the direction that Portal 3 could possibly take. It’s hard to see where they could go that would be satisfying; but then it was hard to see where they could go after the first game.