Rule number one of Backlog Club: Work through your pile of unplayed video games one at a time, and discuss them with other people. Rule number two of Backlog Club: Don’t talk about Backlog Club.
Just kidding! Tell everyone. Please.
This article is part of our new experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) pick a game that’s likely to be on our list of “games we should get around to playing”, and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month playing that game. We’re finally catching up with Portal 2…
Before I played Portal, I felt like I knew most of the plot just from cultural osmosis. There’s an evil robot lady, there’s a gun that shoots holes, there’s a cube that you love, and there’s cake, until there isn’t. I knew the writing was sharp and witty, and I knew there was a song at the end. I played Portal, and I was right about all the things. Thanks, memes.
Before I played Portal 2, I felt like I knew some of the plot from cultural osmosis, and some of it from extrapolating from the first game. There’s still an evil robot lady, but now there’s also a spherical Stephen Merchant. There’s still a portal gun, but also some new mechanics, maybe involving various types of goo. There are still cubes, and turrets, and rooms full of puzzles, although I wasn’t 100% sure about the existence of cake this time (fool me once, and all that).
I finished Portal 2 this past weekend — sorry for the month-long delay, by the way! I was on an extended holiday — and I think I ended up liking it even more than Portal the first. Even though the original game laid the incredible, seminal, genre-defining tracks, Portal 2 builds on them in a way that only Portal could, and that, for me, is what elevates it above the original.
Imagine, if you will, being tasked with creating a follow-up to one of the most universally beloved games of all time. A game that has become somewhat of a cultural monolith. A game that has spawned countless others, inspiring both mechanical puzzle twists and a generation of writers who want to create a villain even half as compelling as GLaDOS. I think I would just quit my job and go into hiding. It’s like trying to make Citizen Kane 2. You’d have to be mad.
Luckily, some people are mad, and they are braver than I am, because that’s how Portal 2 came into existence.
Standing on the shoulders of the giant that came before it, Portal 2 takes everything you thought you knew about Aperture Science, sets it on fire, and dances upon the ashes while calling you fat. It reduces its brilliant villain to a literal vegetable, puts a moron in charge of the whole thing, and reveals the hitherto unseen human side to the “science” — the man who started it all, his experiment-loving assistant, and the waves of test subjects that came before you.
Its jokes rely on you having played the first one, and having set up the animosity between you and the homicidal AI that is now naught but a spud upon a spike. It relies on you being a trusting participant — one who knows how puzzles and video games work — in order to torture you by pulling away the rug. And then laughing at you for being stupid. And fat.
But Portal 2’s humour isn’t just built on insults. It’s built on absurdity. There are ever-mounting stakes — it used to be about wanting cake, then about escaping from a decaying factory, then destroying your former nemesis who didn’t actually die, and finally, about stopping a facility from exploding by defeating a mad-with-power idiot savant AI with the help of your former nemesis. It’s absurd that you’re locked in a cage of never-ending experiments, because science. And it’s absurd that the cage exists in the first place, all because of an increasingly-unhinged man with too much money and not enough foresight (although we all know those exist in spades).
Once you’ve set up an absurd premise, along with a deranged villain or two, everything is free game. Absurdity makes a great canvas for comedy, because it holds up a funhouse mirror to the real world — it is a warped reflection of fundamental truths, a way to highlight the insanity of the things we take for granted, like death, work, mortality, and the pursuit of knowledge. And what can you do, but laugh?
But best of all, Portal 2 never tries to be anything but what it is. It is sheer character development, with puzzles. It does not attempt to channel Avengers-level dialogue, where everything must be a quip and no one can ever display true emotions; nor does it look at the success of Portal’s writing and go, “ah! We should have MORE writing.” I mean, yes, technically, it has more writing, but it’s not bloated. Everything has a purpose, whether it’s a setup for a later joke, foreshadowing, or just more insight into GLaDOS’ personality. And sometimes, it’s just a prolonged joke about an AI that really, really likes space.
The point is that Portal 2’s writers understood something vital: Less is more. Large swathes of Portal 2’s levels are silent spaces, with the occasional input from Wheatley or GLaDOS when you solve the puzzle. Compare that with some modern games, like Justin Roiland’s upcoming game, High On Life — a game in which your gun can, and will, talk to you, non-stop — and you’ll realise how much that silence contributes. Jokes are funnier when you cut out all the sub-par filler jokes, obviously, but also, that silence allows you to revel in the game’s absurdity without feeling like it’s being shoved in your face.
Portal 2 trusts its players to be smart enough to get a subtle joke, or to notice the environmental storytelling of its ludicrous workplace posters, or to listen to the dialogue lines of turrets as they get catapulted into a fiery pit (“Nooooooo!” and “I did everything you aaaaasked!”). Even the meta-narrative of the chapter titles and the achievements are designed to elicit a laugh, like the bit where he says “this is the part where I kill you” and the chapter title and achievement pop-up promptly agree.
And it’s such a relief to play a game that trusts you. I’m not going to go all “back in my day” here, because honestly, early games were too mean with their tutorials, and the less said about the obtuseness of point-and-click games, the better — but being trusted to be smart makes you feel smart. Or… maybe I’m just smarter than the moron orb. But whatever. I’ll take it.
What game should we play from our backlog next? Let us know in the comments — we’re not doing a poll this time! You get to pick! Also, tell us what your favourite bit of Portal 2 is. Mine was space. Spaaaaaaaaace.
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