Portal 2 and Imagination

For those of you keeping score, Valve have not released a narrative based game since October 10th, 2007.

That’s four years. Four years of co-op multiplayer shooters and hats and no Half Life. This has been a great disservice to the gaming world, because Half Life 2 is one of the pinnacles of video game storytelling. Other games have stories, while Half Life 2 told one in ways that so few titles are capable of.

Coincidentally, on the same day as Valve released the most recent bit of Half Life 2, they also released Portal. Portal was a proof of concept wrapped up in a polished meme-worthy package. It was, in its own way, narrative brilliance: it was a masters’ class in making gamers care about inanimate objects in the game world, in letting the player affect his or her own salvation, in providing a compelling villain. It had all the things other games lacked, and it came without the trappings of an overbearing mythology no one cared about.

It also created about a half dozen memes that have stuck with us until today, so there’s that, too. We often forget the quality game behind the memes when we talk about Portal; I was lucky enough to be the first person in my group of friends to beat Portal, so I remember Still Alive as a charming, fantastic ending rather than a cloying thing referenced to death by everyone and their brothers. I know GlaDOS as a villain instead of as someone who’s voice you imitate when you’re being evil or as a line of quotations. I have a homemade companion cube that was made before it became a fetishistic object of desire.

What I’m saying is that Portal was a fantastic game in its own right, and that Portal 2 builds admirably on that, in ways which video games have rarely touched before.

(And now the cavalcade of spoilers. If you have not played Portal 2, this is one of those situations where it’s really, really, really a good idea to go in as unspoiled as possible. More than other games, it needs that. So if you’ve not beaten it, stop here, bookmark this page, and come back later, when you’ve beaten it yourself. If you want a mini review, it is a great game that is the best video games have to offer.)

Portal 2 completes an absolutely monstrous task: it makes a villain sympathetic. What was the last video game you played with a sympathetic villain? The best we get in games is a villain who is understandable but monstrous (and even then, we’re pretty much limited to Sephiroth). GlaDOS is not understandable: her actions are evil and insane. And yet, we sympathize with her. We absolutely do. Even though she spends a couple hours of the game trying to kill us, she is absolutely, 100% sympathetic, even when she’s trying to kill us.

I mean, let’s not even talk about the writing. The writing is the best in a video game by an absolute mile, to the point where everyone else should feel bad. I laughed out loud. Interestingly, it’s much less memic this time, in the sense that I remember very little of the dialog, and I don’t really want to play it back to other people. Rather, I want them to play it. That’s the greatest strength of the writing: it’s clever and charming without being a collection of memes.

But let’s go back to GlaDOS. She’s the most effective villain in ages, and here we see why. It’s not because she’s a clever monster who says hilarious things, but rather because she feels like a person who has thoughts and feelings and emotions. Her motives are relatable. While this may not seem like such a step, taking a villain and turning them into an understandable protagonist is really a sign of great writing that video games don’t offer too much.

Wheatley, too, was an incredible character. This was a game with only three real characters: GlaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson’s disembodied voice, and it succeeds because all of those characters are extremely well drawn, memorable, and most importantly empathetic. It goes to show the importance of well drawn characters in enabling us to connect to video game stories; sure, we tolerate overblown cliches and unbelievable characters, but what really serves to make games memorable is when there are characters we can relate to. And we can relate to all three of these characters, despite all three fitting into the evil genius stereotype at least at some points.

Let’s look back at Portal the original for a second. This was a game of chess, a single minded competition with an antagonist, with no other characters besides pawns (the companion cube, turrets), aided by a collection of memorable side rooms which gave the player some idea of the Aperture Science laboratories before Chell woke up. Portal 2 takes these ideas, and it builds on them. It creates three antagonists, and casts one of them to each third of the game. It takes a past or future antagonist (either Wheatley or GlaDOS) and casts them as protagonist for a third and two thirds of the game, respectively. Really, it’s not a complicated game from a narrative perspective: it’s three of the original strung together, with an addition Alyx voice added to each section, probably from the realization that stories are more fun when you have witty repartee instead of one sided ranting.

Instead, it’s the little things that make Portal 2 shine so brightly. There’s story in every crack of every level. Environments feels destroyed but lived in, like there’s a reason they exist rather than for you to fight through. Narrative comes at you not in long speeches, but instead by looking around, by absorbing the ambiance. The story does something that good stories do: it layers. There is, of course, a major narrative arc that ties everything together, but the walls and floors of Portal 2 are filled with stories left untold, ideas left unexplored. In today’s world the natural reaction to these unfinished ideas is to fill them in, but it’s precisely because they are left to the imagination that they are most effective.

One of my favorite things in the world (the actual, breathing world) is a wall across from my public library where there’s lots of graffiti on the wall of a coffee shop. My favorite one reads For Willy! For Humanity! and it’s my favorite for precisely the same reason I love the narrative of Portal 2: it’s so open to interpretation. What could it mean? Portal 2 is full of those moments, little side paths that lead to offices with their own gentle humanity, filled with ideas that the player is allowed to interpret. It’s what makes the game so interesting and so real.

When I beat Portal 2, my immediate reaction was to play an old game, specifically A Link to the Past. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but now I understand it: I wanted something imaginative. New games, for all their graphics and all their fun, tear out the imagination required to make old games so much fun. Portal 2 is a modern old game, in that way: you need to use your imagination to make the game so much greater, and that’s what makes it so bloody enthralling. There’s a story there, but there’s also your stories, that you create in the empty offices and caverns of Aperture Science.

This is the narrative trick Valve, and really only Valve, have. Instead of putting the weight on the narrative and the writing, they provide ample opportunities for the player to imagine the world as it was, before you were there, and to write your own stories on the world. More than any sort of moral choice, this is the kind of input that I want on my game world. It’s not even input, but to me, it feels like everything. It feels like there’s a part in the story I can live and create, and that is the best feeling in the world.

In many ways, then, the ARG was a direct extrapolation of this principle. Valve took the story of Portal 2 and thrust it outside the game, making the player feel like a part of the game world outside of the game itself. This is why the world of Portal and Half Life feels so real to me even though there’s very little world building: it is directly engaged to me. More than trying to release Portal 2 early, the whole reboot mechanism was designed to engage us to GlaDOS’ and to Aperture Science, and in this respect it succeeded spectacularly. It engaged me to the game world without having to play a second of the game, and that is a fantastic success.

Portal 2, like so many other great games before it, has restored whatever faith I’d lost in video games. When I place it among my all time top ten, I do so with confidence; it will take a place beside Super Nintendo and Valve games of yore, and it will do so because of the imaginative fires it lit, not because of any jokes that the internet will find funny a month from now. It will be there because it was an engrossing, spectacular title that I wish I could play every day.