Aperture Science’s rambling facilities were built by a man going mad. That man and his madness, however, are creations of one of the sanest videogame companies on the Earth. This makes for an intriguing contradiction, and one that lies at the centre of Portal 2. The environment suggests a world of chaotic experimentation, while the lineage promises a sharp tragicomic narrative, defined by clever reversals and feints. Freedom or lies, then: which is Aperture Science’s true legacy?
Videogames have hit the labs before, but no other designers have come close to capturing the atmosphere of a place like Aperture. Portal’s Marie Celeste institution may be almost entirely devoid of human life, but it’s filled with signs of troubled human intelligence. Its chambers are clinical yet suggestively horrifying, and they’re covered with nasty jokes capable of punching through dense layers of industrial-strength corporate euphemism.
The first Portal game’s greatest trick was to gradually lift the veil, pulling back the bright steel and textured glass to reveal decades of hidden neglect: PowerPoint lectures playing to audiences of dust bunnies and rats, intrusive close-circuit cameras broadcasting their secrets to nobody. Portal 2 goes farther, offering not only an automated tour, but a kind of architectural CV: a company history written in strata, as the troubled facility’s test suites evolve upwards, mutating from primitive concrete to gleaming, clean-edged mousetraps.
With its patches of Portal paint and circuit-board lighting, few games wrest such aesthetic pleasures from a basic desire for readability, and few games can suggest so much time passing – so much strife, disaster and human desolation – with a single intruding creeper, a brace of upturned chairs, or a couple of busted ceiling tiles.
It’s another Valve masterpiece, then: a videogame environment that builds everything from crafty player tips to full-blown tutorials into its geometry. This is a place where the walls rumble with mystery while special-case scripting ensures that you’ll never bodge a mission-critical jump, and where a patient infinity of user-testing has been employed to shepherd even the least gifted of players across the finish line.
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