Tuesday, June 28, 2011

SPOILER Portal 2 has a happy ending

Adam and I finally beat the co-op on Portal 2 so I feel like I can discuss the game. First, the good things. Co-op works pretty well, at least splitscreen, and it's fun. Sometimes it was frustrating that I wasn't always the one to find the solution to a puzzle, but that's the tradeoff when you play with someone as smart as you. It was a relief to be a robot and not be afraid of dying; funny how much that affects my game experience. I think there's room for more co-op puzzle games in the world.

Of course Portal 2 is very fun, and the puzzles are just hard enough that you can keep feeling smart (and that takes some subtle scaffolding, let me tell you). The only parts I struggled were the "guess where to place the portal" puzzles, and I don't feel bad about getting stuck there. This is definitely a great game, but it 's not as narratively tight as Portal (see that discussion over at the Brainy Gamer). It's also not as experimental as Portal (full disclosure: still working on my thesis about Portal and House of Leaves).

Portal's narrative is exciting to me as a literature student because Chell doesn't win, but you as the player "beat" the game (and you get your cake). Meanwhile, GLaDOS sings about how she's definitely still alive. This overt acknowledgement that we don't actually care about the protagonists, but it's our experience as players that should be awesome, feels new and exciting (or post-modern, take your pick). Are there other games where the protagonist loses while you the player wins? I can't really think of any, but please comment if you think of one.

Portal 2 went for a happy ending for almost everyone, and that disappoints my post-modern heart. I can see that it's the best way for the franchise to close the Chell chapter and for everyone to feel closure, but the themes of the work completely change. In Portal, players come away feeling that physical rebellion might not be the best way to solve a conflict with a manipulative, powerful authority. Maybe if we could have negotiated with GLaDOS things wouldn't have ended the way they did. But Portal 2 keeps reinforcing the idea that since the player is the protagonist, the protagonist can "win."

I might be reading too much into it. What was your experience with the Portal games like? Did you feel like GLaDOS won in Portal, or was that just an excuse to have a sequel?


  1. I enjoyed Portal when I played it years ago at a friend's house, but I thought it was overrated. It stretched itself too thin by trying to be a puzzle game and a first-person shooter and a platformer and a story-driven science-fiction comedy. And as a result I didn't think it excelled (beyond the level of an amusement) at any one of those elements. None of the puzzles stumped me for longer than a minute, none of the fights were at all intense, moving around in midair in first person felt awkward to me and the story was rarely the driving force of the game. (The points where it was were awesome, though.) Like I said, though, I did enjoy it. I just didn't see what all the hoopla was about.

    I have no idea what you're talking about when you say that Chell lost. She beat the boss and got out. What else did she need? Maybe I'm just missing the point because I haven't analyzed Portal carefully, but the ending didn't seem any less conclusive than, say, a Super Mario game.

  2. Well, it's easy to forget, but the original ending had Chell fainting as soon as she got out of the facility. The patch that Valve put out later made it more overt: she was dragged away by a robot who thanked her for assuming the party escort submission position. The puzzles are more memorable than the ending scenes, but if you look carefully, Chell doesn't really win, and GLaDOS is "Still Alive."

    I think for me, the game was more intense, as I hadn't successfully played a FPS before, and some of the puzzles did stump me for a few minutes. And of course, the whole reason that you're in the test chambers is that GLaDOS is keeping you there, so there's a reason for seemingly pointless test chambers written into the game's story.

  3. Obviously, spoilers!

    I kind of liked the ending. I thought it fit well with the whole "history of computers" theme as well as the "you never escape the influence of your mother" theme (if GladOS is a mother-figure, does that make Wheatley a father-figure? I'm kind of fed up with the "incompetent father" stereotype). "Frustration and loss of control of machines" is another theme that I thought worked well.

    I kind of thought Chell would be stuck on the moon, and, while kind of sad, that would have been OK with me. I really enjoyed the secret areas of the first one, and wished there had been more of those in the second one -- though they kind of creeped me out, it also added a human touch to an otherwise machine-filled environment.