Still Playing: Portal 2
There’s something indulgent about the singleplayer campaign in Portal 2, with its long narrative sequences and prolonged, musical finale. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to indulge it. The first Portal was quite perfect, with a story designed to excuse the contrived level design needed to make the Portal gun work as a puzzle-solving tool. What better way to explain why the player must complete a series of arbitrary, convoluted tasks than to make the game about a captive forced to complete a series of arbitrary, convoluted tasks? We celebrate Portal for its wit and its story, but it’s easy to forget the extent to which that story serves its design.
Portal 2′s story, by contrast, was practically the main event. And why not? The black vein of comedy that could be mined from the cold fury of a vengeful, resurrected GlaDOS was equally attractive a proposition as more thinking with portals, and as such there’s a greater volume of pure narrative sequences in Portal 2, as well as more comedy. As inspired as the stunt-casting was, Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley would have been a little too outlandish for the original game, which didn’t let story intrude enough for his rambling monologues.
With that in mind, I think of Portal 2′s co-operative campaign as the true heir to the first game. It’s a purer puzzler, one which restores GlaDOS to her role as cruel, distant heckler and keeps her dialogue, short, snappy and cutting. You have, after all, got a partner to be talking to. In fact, the story’s reduced prominence during the co-operative testing is a wise concession to the fact that two players conferring via voice chat are never going to be quite as immersed as a lone player journeying through the Aperture Science laboratories. Still, the scenario is wisely constructed to ensure you’re never entirely pulled out of the fiction. Playing a pair of easily replaceable robots means death is cheap and meaningless – as it should be when your life is frequently placed in your boyfriend, wife or cheeky younger brother’s unreliable hands.
But the co-op campaign is the true follow-up to Portal in another, more fundamental respect: it’s got a whole extra pair of portals on the singleplayer game. Portal 2′s test chamber additions – light bridges, excursion funnels, those lovely, messy gels – might add extra texture its puzzles, but it’s an extra pair of intra-dimensional gateways that truly, genuinely expand on the series’ central premise, opening up the opportunity co-ordinated portalling and puzzles that rely on both players points of view. Sometimes this is very literal, such as when the level design contrives a gauntlet that one player must rush through while the other watches and gives direction from afar. At other times it’s more subtle, requiring both players to act as the alternating steps in the epic chain of events needed to exit the chamber. The presence of an extra player also transforms the role of some familiar puzzle elements: in the singleplayer game Aperture Science’s “Material Emancipation Grids” are nothing more than a neat way of cordoning off parts of a chamber: step through the blue energy field and your portals disappear. But the co-op campaign frequently toys with the possibilities inherent in one player stepping through the grid while the other stays behind.
In this way, Portal 2 offers a sense of genuine partnership absent in so many co-operative games, which, typically, offer experiences that don’t so much require teamwork but simultaneous use of singleplayer skills. Teamwork is entirely possible in first-person shooters like Halo and Call Of Duty, of course. It’ll probably win you the match, in fact, because the opposing team isn’t likely to be more than a loosely aligned rabble of lone wolves.
You can’t muddle through in Portal 2; test chambers aren’t solved by the accumulated value of each of your individual efforts, they’re solved by communication, paying attention to one another’s actions and by working as a pair. A running joke in the co-operative campaign is GlaDOS doling out meaningless “science collaboration points” unevenly between you and your partner. In context, they’re a way for the vindictive AI to emotionally divide and conquer, but in practice I can’t help but think of the anti-cooperative nature of team-based shooters which celebrate Most Valuable Players and highlight individual scores.
But the most unostentatiously brilliant thing about the co-op campaign is the UI, which provides a set of tools that quietly obliterate any possibility for confusion or miscommunication in what could have easily been a complicated, uncoordinated game. The ping tool feels so natural it practically becomes your index finger – a means of pointing out objects of interest in complex, multi-layered environments. Activate the remote view, meanwhile, and you get a handy picture-in-picture view of your partner’s screen. Conversations when playing Portal 2 flow naturally and unbrokenly – “you place your portal here so I can reach there” – in large part thanks to these simple, elegant tools, and its telling that the vast majority of games that promise co-operative play have no need for anything like them.
The beauty of Portal’s puzzles is that you don’t just solve them, you become part of them: flinging yourself around chambers like the missing piece of an elaborate Rube-Goldberg machine. The co-operative campaign makes this a feeling shared, as you and your partner act in tandem and lockstep to achieve the same end. Flying out of your own Portal and into a gateway placed by a friend is a trust exercise writ large – and the feeling of synchronicity and shared achievement in successfully executing such a manoeuvre is matched only by the physical comedy when your friend doesn’t bother to save you.