On Portal 2’s Story

Note: This is not a review, but simply thoughts on the story of Portal 2. This means there will be plenty of spoilers.

Portal 2 is a large step back from the original, brief, title nestled in Valve’s The Orange Box. While Portal 2 boasts two campaigns that are both twice as long as the original, a plethora of new mechanics and a multiplayer co-op mode, the actual experience of playing Portal 2 is greatly inferior to the original. This is because Portal 2 is trying to tell the player a story.

Picking up some unholy number of years after the original, the player is reanimated after being cryogenically frozen for decades, if not centuries. You’re guided by a cute little robot named Wheatley who accidently wakes up your arch nemesis GLaDOS while the two of you try to escape. It’s not long before the imbecilic Wheatly wakes up GLaDOS and you’re back stuck in her rat maze of test chambers.

The problem is that this plot lacks stakes. As cliché and trite as it is, the threat of the world ending in many games presents stakes for the player. Here, the stakes are simply survival and freedom. This could be interesting if the game held the constant threat of death or had a motivation your escape (besides the assumption that freedom is always better than slavery). But neither the mechanics nor the narrative offers you this.

The game assumes you want to escape all this mess and that assumption is faulty because the actual fun of the game is accomplishing GLaDOS’ challenges. All the sections where you attempt to escape aren’t fun. They’re tedious, boring, drawn out and more on rails than the actual test rooms of GLaDOS. The worst part is that the game even knows this, underpinning the irony of your escape by having Wheatly telling you that you can now go anywhere, only to tell you that all you can do is follow the rails moments later.

This goes against what made the presentation of the story in the original Portal so compelling. There, you felt like you were breaking the game when you got out of the test chamber, seeking out a mystery the game was trying to mask from you. There was thrill and adventure in slipping past the gaps in the system and discovering that something more was at work.

Here, those moments are the most linear, contained and restricted parts of the game, little more than the player going through the motions of walking through a number of set-pieces Valve wanted the player to see before being tossed into more test chambers.

In Portal, once the test chambers ended and the player broke out of the system, they were treated to some of the most open-ended and spatially interesting puzzles in the game which required reflex as much as thought. Here, the opposite is true of Portal 2, it’s a game where one can’t wait until I get picked back up and thrown into the rat maze because those parts are far more interesting than anything outside the test room.

In other words, it’s more fun to be the slave of GLadOS’ mind games, or work through an abandoned series of puzzles or, later in the game, figure out Wheatley’s bizarrely hobbled and generally poorly designed test chambers. And yet the game is entirely predicated on the player agreeing with the notion that they should break away from the system and be free, even though that’s the dullest and least satisfying section of the game.

The second major issue with Portal 2 is that the game is trying to tell you its story. The original Portal left some of the most interesting reveals as a reward for exploring the world and checking out the environments. In Portal 2, there is little to none of this. Everything is told to you, everything is direct, everything is scripted.

Therefore, the player is stuck immobile listening to GLaDOS rant about some narrative piece of information or forced to gaze at Wheatly as he tells you what happened in your absence. It’s the tried and true Valve formula that has worked in other games, but here it’s so frequent and paced so poorly that for such a brief campaign, it lambasts the player with so much dialogue and narrative that it’s an excess of writing.

This also feeds into another big problem with the narrative that happens when the player is stuck waiting for someone to talk before they can progress. The player spends a lot of the game watching the environment fall apart. Yes, this is part of the way in which the game is trying to be different from the original and bring more colors in that just the sickly white and oversaturated colors. But, it makes for a number of moments where the game indulges in pure spectacle.

An early example of this is when the player is stuck in a room that is literally picked up and moved about. As the walls of the room fall away, the player sees the facility around them and then the room is used by Wheatly as a battering ram into one of the walls of a test chamber. While it’s a visually cool sequence, this is nothing more than pure spectacle to try to awe the player with how amazing the various technicians and animators at Valve are. These sequences almost never provide gameplay or narrative information.

This is a problem because none of these involve player action either. This means that most of the cool stuff a player sees in this game is cool stuff that they had no part in initiating. It’s akin to being stuck in front of an action movie. While that might work for a film, this is a game and players get far more satisfaction out of doing cool stuff than watching other forces in the game do cool stuff. In Half-Life 2: Episode 1, the player get to bring down the entire building, In Portal 2, the player is forced to watch someone else do it instead.

The game also forces to play to make some stupid choices. The first is to swap Wheatly’s personality out with GLaDOS. The problem is that Wheatly is very clearly an idiot and also has a nervous, creepy attitude that practically screams badguy. When it comes to that moment, even if the player knows the results will not be good, they have no choice but to do it. This means that on replay, the player is going to be forced to be a dumbass all over again.

And even worse is that once the player does that, then the game makes their new goal to put GLaDOS back into the machine. Why didn’t the player just leave her in to begin with? Everything was just fine and dandy until that Wheatly showed up again and convinced the player to be an idiot. A branching narrative where the player had to choose between the two would have been a better choice, although that would break all the continuity Valve is trying to build.

All this is to say is that Valve’s desire to make a story makes it a less satisfying experience than the original. From the decision to make the player forced into bad choices to the restricting and linear presentation, Portal 2 is a game that suffocates its player.  The sweet irony of this is as much as the player seeks freedom in Portal 2, the entire game makes them a slave to the game’s narrative design.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • You can probably figure out that if I’m commenting, I’ve already disagreed with just about everything you’ve written above.

    I can’t help but feel like you’re being somewhat unfair to the game when wanting it to be like the original’s subtle narrative. Think about when Portal first released. Before you played it (I’m assuming it wasn’t spoiled for you), you only thought it was a series of neat puzzles in test chambers, and that was it. Valve took advantage of this facade to create the narrative you described, with all its hidden embedded story behind the veritable curtain.

    But now, with Portal 2, the jig is up, so to speak. Everyone knows the underlying story. Everyone knows what Aperture/Glados is. Everyone will be looking for those hidden, “unscripted” story bits. Valve simply can’t make it like Portal again. Maybe it’s essentially less satisfying as you say, but I think erring on the side of a less subtle, scripted, and more ostentatious Half-Life 2 style campaign was really the only way to go and totally the right move.

    As for stuff like pacing, I don’t get the sense of why you thought certain parts to be slow, boring, or tedious. The moments where you escaped or were otherwise “on-rails,” as you put it, always gave you something to do and had their own variety of puzzles to solve. I thought those parts were the fastest paced in the whole game.

    On the problems relating to the game’s fundamental motivations, I never thought these didn’t make sense. On the first playthrough, there’s absolutely no way of knowing that replacing Glados with Wheatley would’ve turned out bad. He was a moron, yes, but a bad guy? No way. See, it’s the machine aperatus itself that corrupted him. He only became bad AFTER you plugged him in. It changed him–rewrote his inner code; at least this is how I interpret things.

    Putting Glados back into it makes sense too, as it’s merely the lesser of two “evils.” I’m not saying that Wheatley became completely evil, but rather the game made perfectly clear that Aperture would explode if Glados wasn’t returned to restore everything back to order. Not wanting to explode is an acceptable motivation for putting your (Chell’s) and Glados’s animosity aside.

    All that being said, I think that there’s enough (there’s only a little of it) of the very unscripted bits in Portal 2. On the surface, the narrative only ever hints at the relationship between Cave Johnson and Caroline (Glados), but only the most curious of players would ever discover the details that hint at Chell being their love child (I hope I’m not spoiling this for you). These embedded elements almost exclusively center around the Johnson story. There’s not as much as Portal–I noted how Portal 2 can’t pull the same tricks anymore–but they’re at least in the game in part.

    Anyway, I hope my very long response doesn’t come off as any sort of personal attack. I’m very much trying for a civil discussion and debate here.