“Remember, you’re looking for a gun that makes holes. Not bullet holes. Don’t worry – you’ll figure it out.” Valve has a knack with pithy lines, but this one really gets to the nub of Portal. It may have come as a shortform component part of The Orange Box, but it left having inspired enduring memes and appearing to have created a whole new subgenre with its deft appropriation of the firstperson shooter as a story-led puzzle game.
It’s a line spoken by Wheatley, a robotic AI consisting of just an eye which rolls along a ceiling-mounted trackway and is voiced by a neurotically stuttering and burbling Stephen Merchant. He’s here at Portal 2’s beginning to save us from imprisonment in, well, what looks like a motel room. The first time we awoke, its brown ’80s décor, complete with yellowed palm-tree mural on one wall, was dingy. A long time has passed until this second waking, though – its now ruinous state only worsening when Wheatley somehow moves the entire space, setting our perspective tumbling before the walls tear apart, revealing that our room is in fact a container among many, many others containing test subjects in a vast, crumbling hangar: 10,000-odd, Wheatley says.
We’ve come to Valve’s new studio in Bellevue, Washington, to play the early sections of both Portal 2’s singleplayer story and cooperative modes. There’s not a lot we can imagine adding to Portal, which by its end had seemed to explore every dimension of its one-trick (but what a trick) gun, but that’s the challenge Valve has set itself for the sequel. And what other way to approach it than with one of the oldest in the book: an apocalypse. A bygone apocalypse, anyway.
Wheatley uses our room to smash through a wall, and we fall through its floor to land in a glass cubicle just like the one in which Portal began. Now, though, Aperture Science lies quiet and broken, destroyed in the aftermath of GLaDOS’ destruction at the end of that first game. A soft, male AI voice calmly intones: “We are currently experiencing technical difficulties due to circumstances of potentially apocalyptic significance beyond our control. However, thanks to emergency testing protocols, testing can continue… so science can still be done, even in the event of environmental, social, economic or structural collapse.”
Yes, it’s time to go back to testing. A portal opens and we catch a glimpse of ourselves – Chell, the protagonist of the first game. You may not have been surprised to learn that she’d return in the sequel, but Valve had other designs. “We thought it would be easier at first to have you start with a clean slate and have you play a different test subject,” says writer Erik Wolpaw. “But in initial playtests, to a person, when GLaDOS woke up, everyone wanted her to recognise them.”
Wheatley, then, is the new character in Portal 2’s singleplayer story, and Merchant’s idiosyncratic staccato Bristolian burr is a fascinating choice. “We were thinking we’d have this other character that you’d be seeing a lot – you have GLaDOS and she’s robotic; do you really want to listen to another? We need vocal silhouettes, which we had in Left 4 Dead, too,” explains Wolpaw. “GLaDOS is slower-speaking and more deliberate, so we wanted something to offset that – a frantic person. Stephen Merchant does that really well. We had that in our mind – and the other thing for a videogame which is great is that he talks really fast. We’ve got six seconds to give you all this information.”
The game’s opening puzzle is simple – moving a box over a button to open the exit door, the first of a swift and elegant series of introductions to Portal’s core ideas that somehow make that original game, which was surely the model of a perfectly paced learning curve, almost seem clunky. We’re on the hunt for the portal gun and we soon find it, after crashing through another floor, and we speed through the momentum and box-moving tests that make Portal-logic revelatory. It’s clear, though, that breeziness of this sequence is the result of serious work at Valve.“Portal was a big gameplay training arc for the most part – say 80 per cent was bringing you through all these new concepts related to the original portal mechanic,” says Wolpaw. “We knew we couldn’t just do that again so we spent a lot of time looking at the original Portal levels and trying to distil them down to what we needed to teach players right off the bat to get those concepts across.” Not that the team was afraid to just repeat puzzles.
“That was a lot of time and something we were worried about, because we didn’t want it to be boring for people who had played before, making them feel there was something new to see, even though they’re solving a puzzle they’ve solved before. There are pretty basic puzzles and a bunch of them are old puzzles from Portal.”
The atmosphere is eerily tranquil. The CCTV cameras don’t follow you around; birds call; the male computer voice is blandly upbeat. “Testing is the future, and the future starts with you.” It warns us of a dangerous upcoming puzzle and plays some devastatingly smooth hotel-lobby jazz to keep us calm. It quickly, mercifully, stalls back into silence.
Apart from the general destruction all around and the lack of GLaDOS, little seems to have changed from the original game. The HUD, minimal as it is, is identical, and the portal gun works just as it always did. But Portal 2 is clearly the result of a few lessons learned by Left 4 Dead, with the HUD displaying the position of your portals through walls.
And the route we take is much less ordained. Even in these early puzzles the route veers off the facility’s intended course, through broken walls and floors. Wheatley comes and goes, too, until he decides that he no longer wants to be contained by his ‘management rail’. He asks us to catch him as he detaches himself and, holding him, he stares back at us, spiritedly flicking his single eye around with Pixar charm. By being plugged into special holes he can open doors – the wall opens up, revealing the pistons which hold it in place.
The path leads behind the scenes of the facility, dark cavernous halls traversed by metal walkways and large, transparent tubes filled with weighted storage cubes. In one, a lone turret lies on its side, plaintively calling “hello”. Before long, though, we reach somewhere rather more familiar, a vast hall in which Wheatley warns “she” might still be alive, and will “almost certainly kill us”. It’s the area in which GLaDOS lived until she was destroyed at the end of Portal, and we pick our way among her torn fragments. “What a nasty piece of work she was, a proper maniac,” says Wheatley.
We jump down a deep hole, establishing the cushioning properties of Chell’s knee springs – being a Valve game, every action is tuned to educate – and find our objective, the main breaker room which houses the switch for an escape pod. Naturally, we do something rather less intentional instead, culminating in a familiar voice saying: “We’ve both said a lot of things that you’re going to regret, but I think we can put our differences behind us. For science, we must. I will say, though, that since you went to all the trouble of waking me up, you must really, really love to test. I love it, too.”Subtle yet densely detailed with a combination of playful reminders and warm introductions for experienced and new players alike, it’s one of the smartest game openings we’ve experienced. And it has to get through all this stuff fast, because Portal 2 is certainly not about rehashing the same mechanics and puzzles of the original. “The big goal for Portal 2 was to make you think that you really understand a lot about portals but then feed you a lot of mechanics that make portals do things you didn’t expect or really empowered you while keeping that core simplicity,” says project lead Josh Weier.
We skip ahead to an entirely new setting. We’re in a massive geodesic dome, and gone is the air of clean futurism. “One of the things we wanted to do was to expand the world of Aperture, literally – the backstory, the history – to show players more about the facility,” explains Weier. In fact, when all this was built, futurism was still in the future; it has a blunt, dated and militaristic air, with stencilled lettering over olive-painted metal, and complementing it is a new voice barking over an echoing PA system that contrasts with GLaDOS’s acoustically tuned speakers.
It’s JK Simmons, the actor behind Juno’s father and the Daily Bugle editor in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man, playing Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science, via prerecorded tape. “All right, let’s get started! This first test involves something the lab boys call Repulsion Gel.”
We’re introduced to one of the gels which add new dimensions to Portal, ideas that have come from yet another set of Digipen students. Portal’s roots, of course, lie in Digipen student project Narbacular Drop; Portal 2’s embellishments on that core are developed from Tag: The Power Of Paint, an IGF finalist project which, funnily enough, Weier says was inspired by Portal. Featuring spatial puzzles and a special gun, it hinged on the idea of paint which changed the properties of surfaces – green makes the player bounce on them, red accelerates the player, and blue allows the player to walk on them, even if they’re vertical.
Repulsion Gel is a refined version of that first paint, and fitted into this new layer of Portal fiction as a ‘dietetic pudding substitute’ which worked by making food bounce off the stomach walls – and then out of the mouth – and caused something of a public outcry. But Aperture has found an alternative application: “We haven’t entirely nailed down what element it is yet, but I’ll tell you this: it’s a lively one, and it does not like the human skeleton,” clarifies Johnson over the PA.
“It would have been tough to make Portal 2 doing more straight portal puzzles,” says Wolpaw. He and the team didn’t want to add another gun or gadget, which may have upset the logical and functional elegance of the portal device. The gels, instead, complement it. “Portal in general is about your relationship with surfaces,” Wolpaw continues. “In Portal the surfaces were binary – you could either put a portal on them or you couldn’t. The paint allows us to change the surface properties, which gave us a bunch of interesting things to do, and because it’s liquid, it flows through portals.”
The first puzzle presents us with a trench coated with Repulsion Gel in front of a high ledge, which we need to reach. The feel of the bounce is thoroughly satisfying and accompanied by a little bloopy scale of notes – judging its momentum and pitch is surprisingly natural. The puzzles soon begin exploring the notion that the longer the drop, the higher the bounce, while a later one has us bounce between two vertical, gel-coated walls over a long trench.They fit very naturally with Portal’s fundamentals, and retain the same pace of discovery, the puzzles initially appearing inscrutable but then unfurling as you explore the options. “It’s not about making it more difficult, it’s about expanding the experience,” says writer Chet Faliszek.
We’re left to wonder how the other revealed gel, Propulsion, which accelerates your motion, will do that. Nor do we play with Excursion Funnels, which can transport you or other objects through the air, or Pneumatic Diversity Vents, which can suck gel and objects through them. But we do get to play with Hard Light Bridges in Portal 2’s other big feature, co-op.
“Hello and welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Centre,” says GLaDOS to the mode’s two robot stars, Blue and Orange. One barrel-chested and squat, the other taller and more graceful, they sport fantastically characterful animation – perhaps Valve’s best so far. “We could kind of cheat with Left 4 Dead because you simply don’t notice how little animation goes with them,” says Faliszek. “You’re running along and they’re yelling, but here you’re looking where the other guy is pointing. That all ties into this really intimate [relationship] – it’s akin to dancing together.”
Often separating players, either physically with walls or practically by asking them to perform different roles, Portal 2 arms the two robots with a set of gestures which include waving and high-fiving and a ping tool to point out areas. You can also view what the other player can see. “You’re going to end up talking about what you’re doing with your friend,” says Faliszek.
“It’s one of the things we learned with Left 4 Dead where [there’s] this base story, but we want to pull [it] back a little bit.” What we have are GLaDOS’s encouragements and chastisements, arbitrarily singling out one player over the other, and revealing her hatred for humans.
We play a level in which one player must traverse a vertically orientated maze while the other raises and lowers sections – and offers tips to navigation – so they can pass. It’s temptingly easy to crush the mazerunner. In another, one player must help the other to take a ball to a high platform by catching them on a Hard Light Bridge as they bounce on an Aerial Faith Plate. The interplay feels dynamic and open, always demanding communication and offering players of differing skills a choice over which role they want to play.
The puzzles present different balances of execution and deduction, but in the parts we play there are fewer of the more frustrating moments in the original in which you knew how to solve a puzzle but found the execution finicky. In fact, pruning these out of Portal 2 was a significant part of Valve’s legendarily extensive playtesting. Witness too the replacement of Portal’s slow-moving energy balls by lasers and light bridges, which instantly reveal the success of your actions.
The result, a product of Valve’s learnings from how players approached the original as well as Left 4 Dead, is more immediate than the original, even more tuned and even more witty. And that’s some achievement – especially without any meaningful competition from a subgenre that it looked like Portal would surely inspire. “I was a little bit surprised, and Portal did pretty well; it seemed to have some impact in the game development community, but it didn’t really lead to a flood of firstperson puzzle games,” says Wolpaw. “There have been some: The Ball, Tag – the game we took – and Twin Sector.”
“It’s harder than people realise to balance the right amount of difficulty,” says Faliszek. “And because we did it close to first, we got to steal the one fiction that actually works, which is a crazy puzzle science facility,” says Wolpaw. “There’s no other story that fits. Good luck, suckers! Actually, The Ball came up with one, which was you were in some sort of tomb with traps. But I like the firstperson puzzle game – I’m kinda sad there haven’t been more since then.”
Perhaps it’s because Portal set such a high bar to begin with. Wolpaw’s right – there’s simply no other place worth setting a puzzle game than Aperture Science. And Valve’s wry twist on the relationship between game player, game and game maker is about to get a completely fresh airing. We can’t wait to get back to testing.