Portal 2

Portal 2 came out this week. I’ve finished the single player. Time to say things about it.

Everyone I’ve mentioned this to asks me one question: Is Portal 2 worth the full retail purchase price? Short answer: Yes. Medium answer: Yes, if you’re willing to pay $40-50 for a 6-12 hour experience, provided that experience is one of the best games you’ve played in years.

Long answer:

Portal 2 was absolutely phenomenal. The single player took me about twelve hours to finish, though this number has been rounded and counts time spent doing something else for five minutes before coming back to a puzzle. This may be because I’m bad at video games. This may be because I spent a lot of time goofing around when I could have been moving more quickly through the levels. It could be because of that one puzzle at the end where you reverse the polarity; I knew what I had to do but couldn’t wrap my mind around it and argh! Anyway, the usual playtime, start to finish, is something more along the lines of 9-10 hours. Six is the lowest I’ve seen, and that’s from a crazy genius guy who, out of all the people I know, is the best at video games (and I know hundreds of gamers). So unless you are the best at video games, count on 8 hours or so.

Portal 2 recaptured a feeling I haven’t had since Portal: every room and every puzzle was a new experience, with the accumulated knowledge from all previous trials providing me with exactly the skills I needed to take on the next. In most games I feel like I’m being asked to repeat a single experience over and over, even in my favorite games: fight another room full of enemies the same way you fought the last one, solve this puzzle but now the blocks drop faster, jump on these platforms but now they’re further apart. In Portal, the repeatable skill you have to master is “thinking.” The only exception to this was one or two of the “blue gel” puzzles, where I approached at the wrong angle and lost control. One of the strengths of Portal is that it’s not out to give you something “twitchy” to do – if the particular technique you’re trying incorporates split-second timing or finesse, there’s probably an easier way that you haven’t seen yet. There were one or two puzzles where I couldn’t tell if I was stupid or incompetent, whereas most of the time when I get stuck on a puzzle in Portal, I know I’m definitely stupid.

Yes, but how’s the writing? The writing is great of course. Why are you even asking me this? Ok Ok, I’m picky about writing, so of course I have something to say here. Because the game is longer now (about four or five times longer), it can’t have the primal narrative purity of the first one. If you played Portal, you already know GlaDOS, who is still the best and most interesting character. You hear two other major voices during the game, and they’re funny and well-written, but neither of them have set up housekeeping in my brain for the rest of time. That said, the story is deep, intriguing, and well-told, giving you insight into decades worth of history while the game itself spans mere hours.  Sidenote: the Steam version of the game comes with a digital version of the Portal 2 teaser comic. If you’re into that stuff, I’d recommend taking a quick look at it before you play; it’s quite beautiful and fills in a few of the blank spaces between the two games. Also, why did no one tell me about these amazing Portal 2 “investment opportunity” teaser trailers? Linked here is my favorite: Investment Opportunity #4: Boots.

Once again, Portal is an operative lesson in game design. Why do some games have environments that are so samey? Because if you want to create a game where the design, the mood, and aesthetic undergo a paradigm shift every hour, you’re going to end up with a nine hour game. A truly spectacular game that I would classify as a true work of art, but a nine hour game nonetheless. Portal also is a great example of what I’d like to call “shrouded linearity.” There is usually one way to go, only one direction to proceed. You know this, and that the right way won’t be something completely obtuse. Because of this, when you see something that looks interesting and do-able, you can just go for it, without fear. The game is linear, but searching for the line and not worrying about what’s behind you is part of the fun, and definitely part of the mood.

I’m probably going to start a new game, with the developer’s commentary, sometime tonight. My twelve hour game will become an eighteen hour game. And that’s without the multiplayer, which I haven’t even tasted yet.

Portal 2 begs the eternal question: can quality be valued as highly as quantity?

I say yes.

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