Portal 2: Waxing Poetic

the test results are in. ‘you are a horrible person.’ that’s what it says… we weren’t even testing for that. — GLADOS

not unlike Animal Crossing; has it been so long?

This is rare. A sort of Citizen Kane for the next-gen, and leave it to the demigods at Valve to slap their opus on the table and show the rest exactly how it’s done.

I’ll admit, I’m still in that pubescent, euphoric phase. Circa 9:30PM Monday night my PC was dutifully displaying the Glados@Home site, while I sat across the apartment on the couch, churning through Killzone 3. My interest in tracking the pre-lease countdown had waned. And there it was:

Projected Launch — 00:00:00

Fuck.

It’s a moment I won’t soon forget, cheesy as that seems. Because the Portal 2 ARG wasn’t so much pre-release hype-machine as it was a cultural event (for a quaint subset of us, I’ll admit).

I didn’t follow the ARG too closely, until that final 72-hour span that had me firing up games I’d forgotten (Audiosurf, Defense Grid) and games I had no real interest in (Super Meat Boy, AAAaaaaAAAAaaaAAA [sp?]), “doing my part” as it were to see Valve’s latest released a few hours early (!).

Folks will camp out at midnight and wait in line for hours to snag a new iGadget, get their hands on Space Shooter Du Jour 3: The Reckoning or see… whatever the hell is in theaters these days. But Valve’s Portal 2 stunt was something special. It required something like a nerd hive-mind firing on all cylinders, devising mathematical theorems, tracking down BBSes, coding applications to cycle through your STEAM catalog to ensure you were optimizing your playtime-contribution.

But I’m not ready to dissect that.

Also, I don’t have much in the way of impressions of the game, as I’ve only tasted the first hour and a half or so. I’ll keep this brief.

the gist of Portal 1

If you haven’t played Portal the First, a summary: Chell (I don’t quite recall how we actually learn her name) is armed with a “Portal Device,” capable of creating “a visual and physical connection between two different locations in three-dimensional space” [Wikipedia]. Fire a blue portal, fire an orange portal, walk through one and pop out of the other.

Out of so little, so much; such is Portal. The game (prototype, really) was about 4 – 6 hours long, a plastic trinket packed inside the Happy Meal that was The Orange Box.

Here’s how you know you’re on to something special: a 4 hour brain-teaser leaves an indelible mark on your mind. Portal was the video game as I’d always envisioned it, as I’d always wanted it: Portal was a narrative that played back.

The puzzle mechanics were interesting — fun even — but the real draw was the writing, the artistry in the architectural design. The game could be enjoyed on a fundmental level, sure. But it was the world that sunk in with me. The oft-teased glimpses of an Aperture Science 9-to-5. Shout outs to Black Mesa (Half-Life), bemused graffiti left behind by manic employees. Brilliant stuff — go play it, it’s $10.

off the beaten path

That Portal 1 feeling? Eclipsed, within the first five minutes of the sequel.

No one — Bethesda, Epic, (fuck it) Blizzard — no one is operating on this level. This is how you tease out the existence of a place, a proper world. This is how you introduce the bumbling sidekick, the demented villain. This is how you develop a game that folks will talk about for years, without ever needing to toss in a Michael Bay-sian explosion, or Doom-inspired shooting gallery.

Hell, this is how you show me how to work the camera, how to walk around, how to jump.

This is how you make me fall in Love.

I’ve fallen off the deep end, and it’s only been 86 minutes. Much of this may be tempered by an actual run-through of the game, and the co-op campaign. We’ll see.

But you know what? I doubt it. It all boils down to perspectives on “good” game design (whatever the hell that means). And most everyone is following the iD ethos (see: Doom 3): mimic what sells, and polish the shit out of your graphics engine (see: Call of Duty, Killzone; try to spot the difference).

But proper storytelling? Proper attempts at moving this particular subset of interactive fiction / entertainment forward? Meh.

Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2 comes close, topping most anything I’ve seen in a theater in ages (granted, I’m not a film buff). Metal Gear Solid 4 seems to get the general idea but should probably ease up on the No Doz and cough syrup.

The last time I felt this infantile glee was Deus Ex. But I had to forgive that game’s ham-fisted presentation, because no one else was operating on that level yet. No longer.

Valve gets it. This’ll be good.


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