Portal 2   Leave a comment

So [very] special.

I said I wanted to write about this once I finished it, and now I have, so here we are. It’s a game that somebody who reads this has even played! Amazing.

It’s astonishingly well-crafted, isn’t it? It looks lovely, and is filled with all sorts of (frequently amusing) little details. The script’s brilliant, the acting’s great – both the voice acting of the characters and the animated entities in the world; the amount of personality and emotion Valve’s animators manage to cram into unhumanoid robots is astonishing – and both combine to make it genuinely funny in a way probably not seen since its prequel.

The puzzles are (almost) always based on a set of mechanics, which are clearly shown and explained without, seemingly, ever being explained; no stodgy tutorials here. The reaction/aim tests from the first game are almost entirely gone, although in my opinion that’s not a bad thing, as I thought they tended towards irritating and fiddly; test my brain, and not my fingers, please. They don’t ever become as convoluted or as fiendish as you might want; I’m sure the different toys and effects could be combined in far more ways than they are. Apparently the co-op’s trickier but I’ve not tried that yet.

That said, there was one puzzle where I got stuck until Wheatley explained it to me. Embarassing, no? In my defence, I’d figured out what had to be done. Just not, exactly, how to do it. One of my mis-tries even got me an achievement.

(On that note, do not read the achievement list before you play the game. Pointless advice six months after its release, I’m sure, but I’m glad I didn’t.)

I have a few other criticisms: there are too many times where you get stuck at “find the single portal-able wall in the distance”, which can be frustrating; you know exactly what you’re looking for, it’s just a case of standing at various points and looking around until you see it. Pixel-hunting was tedious in old adventure games, and this is no better. I actually solved one of these by accident; I’d been staring up and around a shaft for ages, not seeing where to go. My finger slipped and clicked the mouse button. Unexpectedly, a portal opened, and suddenly white goo spurted everywhere. Take that out of context. Puzzle solved. Oh, that was a white wall in mucky orange light, not a mucky orange wall in white light? Gotcha.

But that’s not the worst bit. In the middle of the game, there’s a joining section which has little in the way of puzzles or jokes, becoming an excessively long, slow trudge down a series of dull, dingy corridors. It’s trying to wow you with impressive vistas, but it doesn’t pull it off; the graphics, whilst lovely up-close and in confined spaces, peter out to fairly low-poly, indistinct silhouettes before a murky, gouraud-shaded sky-box. It’s fine for a brief glimpse, but when you’ve nothing else to look at, and nothing to do except keep on trudging, it soon becomes tedious and miserable. It sticks out like a sore thumb compared to what’s gone before (and what is about to come), but at least once it’s over you get some new toys to play with.

It is far easier to be negative about things than to be positive, isn’t it? Other than that, it’s lovely. Of course, all this has been said by people far more eloquent than I, so why am I bothering to write this?

OK, back to the start. What does this sound like I’m praising?
“It looks lovely, and is filled with all sorts of (frequently amusing) little details. The script’s brilliant, the acting’s great – both the voice acting of the characters and the animated entities in the world; the amount of personality and emotion Valve’s animators manage to cram into unhumanoid robots is astonishing – and both combine to make it genuinely funny in a way probably not seen since its prequel.”

Right. And if Valve ever delve into making CGI-animated films beyond their trailers and advertising shorts, Pixar will have some stiff competition. Valve clearly love doing it, and they’re good at it too.

Thing is… Games aren’t films. This is something that a lot of people don’t seem to understand. The current generation’s big-budget “AAA titles” owe more to Hollywood blockbusters than all the students starting in 2012 will wind up owing the Student Loans Company. There is cinematic action! There are cinematic cut-scenes! They are advertised with cinematic trailers! Which show you absolutely nothing about the game (and please briefly consider the etymology of “cinematic”). There are big-name stars on the box! There is a single, linear series of events through which every player will progress at regulated and focus-tested pace, watching the spectacle explode around them. There is the sense that a lot of game developers really wanted to make films when they grew up, but they wound up in games and they’re damn well not going to let that stop them.

There are similarities between the two media, of course: both have moving pictures accompanied by sounds and music, and so on.

But there is one difference. One single, solitary, humongous difference of absolutely vital import:

Interactivity.

Movies are not interactive. Games are interactive. Obvious, you may think. Unfortunately, a lot of games treat the player’s interactions as a nuisance that must be worked around, or simply make any non-prescribed action utterly impossible.

So, Portal 2. What interactivity does it allow?

There are the puzzles. Quite a lot of them. And every single one has exactly one prescribed solution, around which the puzzle was constructed, and all others are explicitly (but subtly) forbidden. No doubt speed-runners will find a few ways through or past the puzzles that weren’t intended, but these are bugs (and often rely on bugs) rather than features. Effectively, all the player can do is work out the exact series of actions the puzzle’s designer intended, like the rat in a scientist’s maze. SpaceChem this ain’t; there is no player agency here.

Exploration? The game contains quite a lot of empty offices, but they’re just to break-up the corridors. There is the occasional out-of-the-way place you can portal to, and you’re rewarded with some dialogue, or a joke, or an achievement, but as the game contains no statistics, levels, XP, power-ups, pick-ups or weapons (don’t get me wrong: a game without weapons is a thing of joy in an endless sea of third-person cover-shooters) beyond the Portal Gun itself, there’s nothing they can do to affect anything in the game. They’re just easter eggs.

The plot, then. As with most games (and all films), the plot is set in stone. All the player can do is progress through it. Their actions cannot affect it beyond causing it to pause, or allowing it to continue; all the interactivity allowed by a DVD player’s remote control, and less than is afforded by an ebook reader. Does H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine become interactive because I can skip back and forwards through the pages at the press of a button? No. The plot isn’t interactive in the slightest.

So, overall, the player has absolutely no control over, nor input into, anything at any point. They can’t devise their own solutions to the puzzles using the game’s mechanics. They have no say in the plot. They are, effectively, the cameraman to the film that Valve wish to show. They can pause and resume the showing – by not yet having figured out what they must do, or by having a strop and refusing to do it – or they can stare at the floor to avoid seeing the things they are supposed to see. That is all the input the player has – all the interactivity – in Portal 2.

It may seem that I’m furiously berating an orange for not being an apple. Thing is, if I want an orange, I’ll buy an orange. If I buy an apple, I don’t want to bite into it to find pith and segments and juice squirting in my eye. If you don’t want to make interactive media, that’s fine. But why claim to be interactive?

Without a doubt, Portal 2 is a lovingly and skillfully crafted piece of entertainment, which I would not hesitate to recommend to anybody.

But as a game? Hnnng.

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Posted 9 September 2011 by Colthor in Games

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