(This essay, needless to say, is going to spoil Portal 2 like the recent tornado and subsequent power outage did to the food in my refrigerator. Don’t read if you haven’t played the game.)
Almost four years ago, Valve released Portal, a little game stuck in The Orange Box alongside much more eagerly awaited games like the new episode of Half-Life 2. It became a surprise success, and I fell in love with it. Portal 2 isn’t the astounding surprise package of awesome that Portal was, but it’s still a triumph in its own right. The single-player campaign is wonderful and a joyful celebration of puzzle-solving, the co-op campaign is well-crafted and provides an experience that echoes the newness of the original game, and the whole game exhibits great game design from the sound to the visual cues to the writing. What intrigues me the most about Portal 2 is how it has the best adventure game story I’ve seen since adventure games died1.
Way back when it first came out, I mentioned that Portal had less story than it did backstory. The game focused on establishing an atmosphere that evolved as the game progressed. Portal began with a sterile atmosphere, punctuated in part by odd, off-putting details, only to become creepier and more sinister. You moved from the cool blues of the testing chambers to the rusted red and brown of Aperture Science’s backstage areas. It worked because it was so tightly focused and so new. Trying to re-create that same feeling would have been too derivative unless many of the original elements of Portal, such as GLaDOS and the testing chambers, had been scrapped2. Instead, Portal 2 took the approach of having an actual story, one in which characters evolved and changed, and in doing so used many of the techniques of 1990s-era adventure games.
Portal 2′s story, as with the game itself, is extremely linear and completely on rails. Gameplay is a series of puzzles set up as beads on a string3. Each puzzle room begins and ends with a bit of narration. The puzzles are the game’s lowest-level pacing mechanism, serving as gameplay and as gates to the next bit of story. Portal had the same structure and rhythm, but the pattern becomes much more obvious over Portal 2′s extended playtime, even though it’s occasionally interrupted by set-pieces in which you escape down catwalks.
The story isn’t expressed explicitly through gameplay, though the overarching theme of escape fits well with how you use the portals. Instead, the story is grafted on top of the game. As in many adventure games, the story exists separate from the gameplay, and you could strip out that story and be left with a serviceable physics puzzle game more akin to Cut the Rope.
You don’t even play a developed character. Chell isn’t quite the ageless, faceless, gender-neutral, culturally-ambiguious adventure person of adventure games past, but you don’t know anything about her other than she’s female, young, and a whiz at solving puzzles with portals. As her name suggests, she’s a shell, an avatar for the player. Chell never speaks, has no personality, and is functionally an amnesiac. She exhibits the same bloody-mindedness as an adventure game character. She may not take everything that’s nailed down, but she incessantly applies her one inventory item — the portal gun — to every puzzle she comes across.
Even worse, you’re not the story’s protagonist! To borrow a phrase from Christine Love, don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. GLaDOS is the real protagonist. Chell remains the same throughout, never developing or changing beyond exhibiting an increasing skill with portals. GLaDOS is brought low, reduced in status and stature, only to discover who she really is and where she came from. She has character-defining revelations that, in the end, make her a different person, one capable of caring about Chell. True, she chose to erase the part of her that was Caroline in a manner reminiscent of how players in Paul Tevis’s RPG A Penny For My Thoughts can choose to forget their traumatic recovered memories, but in doing so GLaDOS remained true to who she is as someone distinct from Caroline.
Why, then, do I think the story is so great? For one, while you aren’t the protagonist, you have agency. You’re the person who drives the story forward. The actions you take, not only in solving puzzles but also in moving some of the game elements such as Wheatley and turrets around, are central to the story. In an unusual approach for videogames, Portal 2 explicitly acknowledges your agency. Wheatley comments on your character’s past actions in Portal on several occasions. His fear of GLaDOS cements her as a credible threat and Chell as someone who performed a mighty deed. “You know who took [GLaDOS] down in the end?” Wheatley asks. “A human! I know! I wouldn’t have believed it either.” He also acknowledges Chell’s prior actions in the big boss fight at the end. “I took the liberty of watching the tapes of you killing [GLaDOS], and I’m not going to make the same mistakes,” Wheatley tells you. It’s great to have a game recognize what your character has done and praise it in the context of the game, even if they’re the character’s actions from the previous game.
In creating the story, Valve blended techniques from static fiction and from videogames. They used a lot of foreshadowing and thematic resonance to give the story heft. The story’s silliest elements are heavily signposted through jokes that function also as foreshadowing. The announcer in the early chapter mentions that Aperture Science personality constructs remain functional in low-power environments of as few as 1.1 volts, and at one point you run across a swath of potato batteries entered as science projects during Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. Both of these are jokes, the latter referencing a joke from Portal, but then Wheatley sticks GLaDOS on a potato, which can indeed produce 1.1 volts with the right choice of electrodes. Even the bit with the moon at the end was foreshadowed both by Cave Johnson nattering on about moon rocks being pure poison but a great portal conductor and by the art in the opening room changing to include a large moon after you awaken the second time.
Portal 2 also included the Oracle Turret, a turret that plaintively says, “I’m different!” as it rides on a conveyor belt to be incinerated. If you pick it up, it babbles meaninglessly — until, later in the game, you realize that it referenced upcoming plot points as well as the game’s play on Greek mythology.
Oh, yes, the game’s symbology and themes. The game has strands of larger themes woven through it, from capture and escape to children and abandonment to the fluidity of identity. Greek mythology is referenced throughout. It’s no coincidence that the oracle turret mentions Prometheus, who brought fire to man only to be punished by Zeus by having his liver constantly pecked out by eagles. You and potato-GLaDOS are thrown down into a deep pit where the pillars are labeled “Tartaros”, wherein you find GLaDOS’s potato being picked at by a bird, which is also foreshadowed by the bird attacking Wheatley earlier in the story.
Portal 2 also relies heavily on storytelling through the environment. Not only is the setting nearly a character (a long-standing interest of mine), it provides optional backstory that players can pay attention to or ignore as they see fit. The first underground section, set in the 1950s-era Aperture Science labs, includes a lobby filled with ashtrays for all of the smokers and a trophy cabinet. The cabinet is filled with trophies proclaiming Aperture Science as the #2 applied science company, reinforcing how the company has always been behind Black Mesa. The environment echoes the story’s arc. You begin in ruined chambers that show glimpses of the sky, foreshadowing the ending. You then move to repaired chambers before being thrown into the rusting underbelly of Aperture Science, only to climb back up to the testing chambers and eventually to freedom.
The NPC characterizations are fabulous, aided and abetted by the hands-down best voice acting I’ve ever heard in a videogame. Wheatley and GLaDOS change and develop without losing the core of who they are. Throughout Wheatley remains an idiot who always takes a brute-force approach to solving problems, whether he’s a small robot eye who breaks open windows instead of picking door locks or a giant robot who fixes a test chamber without an exit by ramming another test chamber into it. GLaDOS, who changes the most, still remains a right bastard despite her Caroline-driven softening towards you.
This is also the funniest game I’ve seen since Psychonauts. Portal 2 has a blend of character-based humor (“I’m going to be honest with you now. Not fake honest like before, but real honest, like you’re incapable of”), slapstick (“SURPRISE! We’re doing it NOW!”), absurdist humor (“Then ten years in the chamber I built where all the robots scream at you”), and straight out jokes (“To help you remain tranquil in the face of almost certain death, smooth jazz will be deployed in three…”). It’s the kind of funny that makes you want to grab people and quote bits at them4. There’s a reason why my ringtone is the space core’s monologue and my four-year-old daughter has been marching around the house saying, “How are you holding up? Because I’m a potato.”
There have been plenty of adventure games that have the same story structure as Portal 2, used the same puzzle pacing mechanism, and had the same disconnect between gameplay and story. Nevertheless, just as Portal succeeded by combining familiar design elements with verve and skill, Portal 2′s story succeeds not because it uses new techniques but because it uses old ones in a coherent and skilful way.
 Early on, Valve did toy with a version of Portal 2 that had no portals or GLaDOS before ultimately abandoning that approach. (back)
 This is where I’d mimic Kirk’s domino pictures with pictures of beads on a string that I’d then spin into an extended metaphor about gameplay and love, if only I weren’t so lazy. (back)
 But please don’t, at least not excessively. That kind of behavior is why no one in the world is capable of watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail any more. (back)