“Any motion picture–such as 2001:A Space Odyssey; Demon Seed; Silent Running or Forbidden Planet–or Star Wars–in which the most identifiable, likeable characters are robots, is a film without people. And that is a film that’s shallow, that cannot uplift or enrich in any genuine sense, because it is a film without soul, without a core. It is merely a diversion, a cheap entertainment, a quick fix with sugar-water, intended to distract, divert and keep an audience from coming to grips with itself.” — Harlan Ellison
It is probably safe to say at this point that everyone loves Portal 2. Just look at Metacritic, just look at the sales charts, just look at what anyone, anywhere is saying about it. So what’s even the point of different publications hiring different reviewers anymore? If every single review is glowing and adores the game for all the exact same reasons, then it seems not only natural but efficient to squash them into a giant aggregate number anyway. Nothing gets lost in translation. No one either seems to have the guts or the intelligence to offer a dissenting opinion, or to even suggest that there’s anything wrong with this game beyond superficial aspects such as its length.
So is Portal 2 a bad game? That’s just the thing, on the ascending line graphing production costs there’s a threshold where a game simply is unable to be a bad game. As more and more money and talent gets poured into project then the final product converges closer and closer to guaranteed entertainment. Likewise, the game loses any chance it has of ever being a good game as well. It becomes lukewarm, mediocre. Any idiot can tell you that Portal 2 is a fun game, just as any idiot can tell you tell you that McDonald’s burgers are delicious. That doesn’t make either one good.
“But,” a casual fan may respond, “the game is all about puzzles. Aren’t puzzles good, and make you smart?” No, puzzles don’t make you smart. Much less the puzzles featured in Portal 2. In the words of Valve’s own project manager, Erik Johnson, the game’s puzzles are carefully designed to make you “feel really smart,” which is a completely different thing than actually being really smart. Being smart would be solving a puzzle that makes you feel stupid. After play-testing each puzzle a million times and carefully trimming out any element which could possibly be confusing (who would ever want a confusing puzzle anyway?) Valve wound up with a series of lowest-common-denominator chambers that eventually devolve into simply recognizing visual cues. I see a huge wall and one portal-shaped square of portal-conductive material. I wonder where I should put a portal? The mental requirement lowers from thinking well to simply thinking at all.
“But what about the dialog and the story? The writing is the best I’ve seen in a videogame! Just check out that dark humor!”
Simply being lumped into an overarching “funny” category is not enough to validate a game. And the idea that a game rated E10+, ages ten and up, is being lauded as a milestone for “dark humor” only further demonstrates how hopeless this generation of videogames is. Each one of Portal 2’s characters, or voices rather, simply recites a series of jokes. This achievement ranks Portal 2 up there with Airplane, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” or Steven Colbert’s Twitter feed. Every plot twist or character development is as artificial as the robots themselves. Suddenly [good guy] transforms into [bad guy]! Why? Because it’s funny. Such twists exist solely for convenience of the joke writers who, growing tired of gags about one situation, just make a new situation materialize out of nowhere. This is sci-fi after all, so anything can be explained. Nothing needs to be consistent. None of the plot adds up to a story. It’s just the typical videogame bullshit excuse for a story that every single other game gets docked points for.
Ultimately, the fundamental problem with Portal 2 is one that it shares with so many “AAA” style games. When you play Portal 2 you are constantly being reminded that the world revolves around you. You are the one human who survived the apocalypse, you are the one person destined to conquer the villain. Other characters exist for your sake and your sake only. Everything they say, everything they do, is for your entertainment. Every puzzle you solve, every door you walk through, every step you make through the game comes with a dog treat, a little reward to remind you how smart you are, and there’s nothing that a middle class young adult, Portal 2’s target audience, loves more than being told how special and wonderful it is.
With this in mind, all of the absurdities of the game suddenly make sense. Why doesn’t GLaDOS, or Wheatley for that matter, ever do anything of importance when you’re not present? Or more noticeably ridiculous, why is every generation of Aperture Science preserved at the bottom of a salt mine? Why does Cave Johnson get so personal and emotional in his instructional messages? The answer is the same to each question: The robots aren’t characters, they’re objects made to entertain you. Aperture wasn’t ever a real laboratory even within the in-game universe, it was designed for the entertainment of one person: you. And Cave Johnson isn’t really talking to any other test subjects because they don’t exist and never did. He’s talking to you, for your entertainment.
Immediately it’s obvious why such a problematic game is so astoundingly popular. Its audience, financially privileged 10 to 30 year olds, falls in love with any idiot who acknowledges that they are the center of the universe. They’re so accustomed to believing this that they don’t even notice it anymore. Any game that affirms this belief is universally regarded as “good” for reasons that reviewers never actually define in concrete terms. Each review makes cookie cutter claims such as “the gameplay is good” or “the graphics are good” or “the dialog is funny” when the exact same statements can be said about other games that receive much lowers Metacritic scores. It’s the reason why Portal 2, or any similar AAA game, always blasts its way to the top of Metacritic, the sales charts, and GOTY awards. The developers and publishers are gaming their audience more than the audience does to their games.