The first Portal seemed so undeserving of its success. It was essentially a Half-Life 2 mod similar to Research And Development only with a new gameplay gimmick. The story was only added later in the playtesting phase because players were getting bored with room after room of puzzles. Since the developers didn’t have time to model and animate characters a disembodied voice was created from the same disembodied voice that appears in both Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. The end result was barely marketed at all and distributed merely as a small bonus bundled with other “real” games. By all rights, Portal should have been enjoyed for what it was and forgotten afterwards, along with every other short puzzle game. But it wasn’t. Everyone loved the final product, puzzles, storyline, dialog, and all. Even though it lacked any of the budget, violence, sex, and marketing every other game had it did have some kind of magic that other videogames seem to have forgotten.
Two things made Portal great. First was its immense creativity coupled with a high standard of polish. Second was the fact that all of the creativity revolved around the gameplay. The best in-game stories acknowledge the basic premise that you are playing a game. War games thrive because war fits so well into our traditional idea of what a game is; it’s easy to create a narrative from combat. In Portal you were playing a game, or running a “test” rather. The story was all about the test you were part of, and of course your psychotic tester. Every element of the short and shallow story had a direct correlation in the gameplay. There was you, a gun, a series of rooms, turrets, buttons, clues, and a mastermind director. The game’s creators took advantage of everything, milked every in-game object for all of the fun story-based stuff it could be worth.
Portal 2, despite sharing the same gameplay premise, is much different than its predecessor. The entire element of mystery is gone. You know from the beginning who GLaDOS is, where you are, and what you’re doing. It’s also much more based on the art and story. The first several minutes of Portal was a tutorial. The first several minutes of Portal 2 is a cut-scene. Portal had no characters outside of what was needed for the sake of the gameplay. Portal 2 adds characters for the sake of having new characters. Nothing happened in the Portal story that wasn’t directly related to playing the game. Story in Portal 2 develops primarily through dialog independent (or mostly independent) of the main game, and certain in-game objectives are only there because of the story. Portal looked like a Half-Life 2 mod. Portal 2 looks like a wholly original game.
Gameplay-wise, Portal 2 feels less like a sequel and more like a reboot. After the opening cinematic you’re placed in a few of the original test chambers, redone of course with the new graphics and art design. Even after the tutorial bits however, the game never goes far beyond the level of difficulty or complexity of the first. What it does have however, is a lot of new tricks to keep mixing up the formula. Bridges, “excursion funnels” (tractor beam type things), gels, and other gimmicks keep the game fresh. The end result feels trim with an implication that Valve cut a lot of content out, but that’s because this isn’t just a series of puzzles, it’s a AAA series of puzzles. Everything is calculated to deliver the maximum amount of entertainment. There are climaxes and lulls. Sometimes your scheduled test-chamber experience is interrupted for a surprise detour. Nothing gets a chance to become boring.
Puzzles have always been a hallmark of Valve single player games (in other words, the Half-Life series). They served as a way to pace the game. They gave players a break from the action and a chance to use the rest of their brain to analyze the world. The first Portal didn’t have this pattern, and it didn’t need to. Portal 2 does, and it’s impressive and refreshing to play a puzzle game with this action and combat flavor of presentation and pacing.
Which brings me to why Portal 2 is not just a good game but a great game.
Once upon a time I liked to play games like Resident Evil, puzzle games with a few combat elements. Most of the combat was still a puzzle though, and there were other cool things like inventory management. Then Resident Evil 4 decided to be an action game with a few non-puzzling puzzle elements. The result was a huge success, and not a single original Resident Evil-branded puzzle game has been released in the six years since 4’s arrival. Resident Evil 4 is a prominent symbol for the industry’s executives that decided that violence and action was what was in, and puzzles, or anything that required actual thinking, was out. For years it looked like the trend was here to stay.
Then in the year 2011 Valve, a developer known for its award-winning violent action videogames, decided the time had come to release a full length game void of violence, rated E10+, and based entirely on puzzles. On top of that, the game has been astoundingly successful both commercially and critically. And if that wasn’t enough, the game has great cut-scenes, entertaining dialog, and even refreshingly female main characters (and male main characters!). It’s like a game from an alternate universe where everything is the opposite of what games are here, in all of the best ways. Maybe our two universes can work together to combine the best of both worlds.
Assuming that Portal 2’s success isn’t simply an anomaly then gaming as a whole can only move forward. If consumers experience a game like Portal 2 and demand a similar quality from future games, then developers and publishers will react. If developers are inspired by Portal 2’s success then their future games will be only more fun.
In the end, Portal 2 feels like a complete game but full of incomplete possibilities. Just as when I played the original, I was left with the feeling that there could be so many more puzzles to be made. While future DLC may satisfy that desire, I really hope that Portal 2 isn’t the only game, and that Valve isn’t the only company that taps into that demand.