Comedy is hard. Creating a funny videogame is harder still, because many of the tools at your disposal (physical comedy, facial expressions and the like) rely upon the whims of whatever graphics engine you happen to be using. Spoken dialogue can get you some laughs, but this relies upon the skill and delivery of your voice actors; something which is notoriously tricky to get right with games, because the actors are often just stuck in a sound studio with no real context for the lines they’re reading.
Valve got the tone exactly right for the original Portal, squeezing more laughs from a series of monologues by a single AI character (voiced with poise and wonderful narcissistic detachment by Ellen McLain) than most games could ever dream of. GLaDOS was an instant hit, garnering deserved critical acclaim and, as is unfortunately inevitable when something becomes popular on the internet, a borderline-obsessive fan culture. As well as condemning comments threads to years of ‘hilarious’ quips about the authenticity of certain baked goods (if you referenced that line un-ironically after 2008, you are a disgrace), it left Valve with a potential time-bomb.
Portal 2 was always going to be a commercial success, but keeping it as fresh as the original when many of the lines from that title had turned into grotesque, over-used catchphrases would be a considerable challenge. Writers Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton and Chet Faliszek nailed it by staying pretty well clear of the old jokes (which, had they been reused, would’ve each felt like a hearty squirt of lemon-juice to the eye) and by introducing a couple of new characters; former GLaDOS core Wheatley, and boundlessly optimistic man of science Cave Johnson.
As with the first Portal, Valve found the right voice actors for each role. I was initially sceptical about Stephen Merchant as Wheatley, but his hapless, frantic delivery style turned out to be perfect and was aided by some terrific Source engine character animation. Valve managed to give Wheatley a range of movement and expression almost as convincing as something from a Pixar film, despite him being essentially just a floating metallic eye. JK Simmons did an equally fine job as Johnson, rattling off lines like “Oh, in case you got covered in that repulsion gel, here’s some advice the lab-boys gave me: [paper rustling] do not get covered in the repulsion gel!” with aplomb.
Of course, no matter how many great characters and one-liners there are, the heart of Portal is its test chamber puzzles. The first game used a strict, room-based set-piece approach until the final quarter of the game (where Chell was free to run around the facility a bit). Portal 2 sensibly mixes things up, interspersing sections of set-piece rooms with exploration in and around (and even below) the Aperture Science building. Even when you’re outside the regular test chambers, however, you’re still in the middle of a giant puzzle. They may be broader, outside of the confines of a single room, but you’ll still be impelled to put the ever-useful portal gun to use in order to progress.
With Valve’s trademark care, Portal 2 introduces new concepts and devices to the puzzles, including light-beam conveyor belts and gels of various hues and properties. There are enough new toys to keep matters interesting but not such a surfeit of gimmicks as to be overwhelming, or to disrupt the exceptional balance found in the first title. Thanks to some measured pacing, each new gameplay mechanic is revealed at a sensible rate. This is pretty much a Valve design staple; incremental reveals of new features, followed by a more demanding test, until the mechanic can be integrated into the solving of wider puzzles without the player even really thinking about it. It’s a tried and trusted approach and it works here once again.
Slight additions to the single player campaign puzzles weren’t the main innovation of Portal 2, though. That mantle would have to be placed on the stand-alone co-op campaign, which toned down the more guided aspects of single player (Valve’s philosophy is to avoid having players stuck in one spot for too long) and crafted a series of chambers that demanded communication and, well, cooperation to solve. Put bluntly, if you try to play through these rooms with someone lacking a basic understanding of teamwork, you will not succeed. Split-screen play on the console releases makes this a little easier (although it also makes it a little easier to punch the person you’re playing with), but with the online communication tools provided by Valve (a good job too, because they inexplicably removed split-screen play from the PC release).
Shrugging off its age, the Source engine does a marvellous job keeping up with Wheatley’s frenetic personality and rendering the environments of the Aperture facility. It may not be ‘bleeding edge’, but I despair of anybody who fails to appreciate the overgrown, decaying rooms of the game’s opening chapter, or the stark, industrial belly that constitutes the laboratory’s basement.
But while the Aperture building has seen better days, Portal 2 itself is a magnificent follow-up to an already classic title. A sharp script with enjoyable new characters to deliver it, alongside subtle innovations in test chamber technology, mean both comedy and puzzles avoid the pitfalls of old ground and instead take their place in a bigger, more expansive adventure. Funny, smart and with a devilishly devious co-op campaign thrown in too, Portal 2 is a treat of a game.
Now, Valve, how about that Half-Life 2: Episode 3?