Happy ten-year anniversary, Portal 2

How has it been a decade already?


[Narrated by Josh Picard]

The year is 2011, and the haunting, distant sounds of the Aperture facility are reverberating through our unfinished basement. My brother’s at basketball practice, I have free reign of the Xbox. I’ve spent the past half hour trying to solve this puzzle, but I’m not getting up until I solve it. “Hello, who’s there?” the turrets chirp at me.

They always kind of creeped me out, but I push it aside and… aha! I climb up to the tallest platform in the room, throw myself off with reckless abandon, and land my portal at the last second. Now I’m hurtling through the air, and land gracefully in front of the exit. I pump my fist, celebrating my victory, and feeling like the smartest kid in the world.

Back when Portal 2 first came out, you couldn’t escape it. Kind of like Minecraft or Fortnite, it was one of those games that was everywhere. T-shirts, plushies, LEGO, stuff like that. My ninth-grade science teacher even had the Aperture Science safety posters on his classroom wall, which always provided me with a fun read when I would get bored in class.

Even as someone who only tangentially knew about games at the time, I knew what Portal 2 was. “The cake is a lie” had already taken over the internet years before as a meme, and Let’s Plays of the co-op were all over YouTube. Portal 2 wasn’t just a game, it was a cultural touchstone, and one that has become as big a part of gaming history as Call of Duty or GTA.

Of course, that could be said about nearly every Valve game. Their catalog is one of the most impressive out there: Team Fortress, Half-Life, Dota, Left 4 Dead, Counter-Strike. Basically everything they touch turns to gold — especially Steam, but more on that later.

That being said, all these years later when I went to replay Portal 2, I thought, “surely this can’t be as good as I remember.” I was so, so wrong.

After learning that one of my close friends had never played it before, a small group of us decided it was worth watching him struggle through the puzzles as we facepalmed in the background. Besides, nothing says quarantine like a game where you’re trapped in a science facility, right?

I was so impressed with how the game had held up, I decided to look up when it came out. April 18, 2011. Damn, ten whole years? It’s pretty hard to believe, to the point that if someone wiped my memory, and told me it came out today, I would probably fall for it.

When I first picked up Portal 2 back when it came out, I hadn’t heard of the series before. I really wasn’t gaming all that much either, as it was released when I was too busy with my nose in young adult books.

But I saw a commercial for Portal 2 on TV, and I knew right away it was something I wanted to try. So, I saved up my allowance and bought a copy to play on my brother’s Xbox 360. I don’t remember much about that playthrough, other than that I couldn’t play it while I was home alone, because they nailed the uncanny, liminal feeling of the environments that creeped me out if no one else was there. It was crazy to have that feeling come rushing back to me, now sitting in my own apartment.

So when we decided on replaying, I was super excited about it. There’s nothing better than a game that you remember really loving, but that’s all you can remember. It’s like having a clean slate so you can enjoy it all over again for the first time.

And enjoy it, I did. Within the first minute or so we were already laughing, and I cannot stress enough how much I love writers Erik Wolpaw and Jay Pinkerton’s work. There’s this quick, witty humor they have going on that I can never seem to get enough of. The sheer volume of jokes is already amazing, but the number of jokes that land is even more so (it’s all of them).

One of my favorite jokes happens while the game is teaching you the controls right at the beginning, but I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t had the privilege of playing it yet. I just appreciate the fact that Portal 2 uses everything at its disposal to get a chuckle out of you, from the tutorial to the chapter titles to even the achievements.

For me though, I think my favorite part of the game is Stephen Merchant’s performance as the idiotic AI Wheatley, the sequel’s new addition to the series’ minimal cast. Merchant is a prominent British comedian, best known for his appearance in the English (and original) version of The Office.

Valve designed and wrote Wheatley’s character specifically with Merchant in mind, because he was just too perfect for the job, which is obvious to anyone who has played it. In an interview with IGN, Merchant said he accepted the role without thinking much of it, but when he started telling his friends about the role, he began to understand the kind of pressure he was under. “I was petrified,” he tells the interviewer, “what if I blow it?”

As I’m sure you could assume from what you’ve read so far, he in fact did not blow it. His comedic timing and delivery are always perfect, plus the fact that any time he goes off on improvised monologues (which is often) they’re always so random and hilarious yet perfectly in character.

The real dramatic challenge of Wheatley’s arc, though, is being both wacky and idiotic while also being maniacal, which Merchant yet again nails. Being a lovable villain is a fine line to walk, but Wheatley achieves it, just like GlaDOS before him.

As much as I could go on and on about how brilliant Merchant is, I have to also give props to Ellen McLain’s return as GlaDOS, as well as J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Cave Johnson. Perfect casting is a theme with Valve (especially considering they have enough money to get whoever they want for a role), and the writing always allows for the actors’ undeniable talent to shine through.

The introduction of Cave and Caroline’s characters, and the deep dive into Aperture’s history, was such an interesting way to give the game a new flavor while at the same time keeping true to the feeling of the original and expanding the world’s lore all at the same time.

[Image Credit: YouTube user AmbiAnts]

The commitment, humor, and ease of these performances are truly awe-inspiring, and enough to cement the game’s place as one of the best ever created in my book. But the voice acting is only one aspect of what makes Portal 2 so incredible.

The visuals also hold up well, which is partially due to the fact that there aren’t really any people on screen at any point. Attempts at photorealistic human faces seem to age the fastest in my opinion, so avoiding them all together definitely helps.

Even so, Valve seemed to go for a stylized version of reality that feels immersive and lifelike, but doesn’t feel so cartoony that it takes you out of it. In our playthrough, I think the only sign of aging we saw were a few textures popping in, but that was pretty minor.

Like the performances, another aspect that will always age like fine wine is the core game design itself. The puzzles are ridiculously, addictingly fun. I’m so glad I didn’t remember any of them, because I had a blast trying to work them out all over again.

I remember thinking that I wish we had more momentum-based puzzle games, because there’s a certain kind of thrill to flinging yourself off of a high platform to be catapulted toward the exit. The fact that the game’s field of view is in first-person makes it all the more thrilling.

Not only did the designers use the core portal mechanic intuitively, but there are so many other mechanics added on top of it, including some from the original game like cubes, emancipation grills, and turrets, as well as new ones like faith plates, the different kinds of gel, light bridges, excursion funnels, lasers, and so on.

The thing about all of these different elements that I was so impressed with is how organically they are introduced and utilized as the puzzles increase in difficulty. When we hit the last few puzzles, I was so shocked to see how many different elements we were using to solve, and how all of them fit together so nicely. Valve, color me impressed, even after all these years.

Even when everything else fades away, and what used to seem shiny and new feels dated, that game design is always going to feel fun and exciting, which to me is what sets apart a good game from a truly great one.

The craziest part of this is that in early development, Valve was exploring other types of puzzle mechanics other than the portals. In an interview with Fast Company right after the game’s release, Wolpaw revealed that they thought there might be more to explore within the Portal franchise, but they “discovered through playtesting that people wanted portals in their Portal 2 — and GlaDOS, and the whole vibe of the first game.” Thank you playtesters, whoever you were.

I know I’ve spent this whole time talking about Portal 2‘s impeccable single-player game design, but I have to throw in a shout-out to the co-op mode too. There was no greater joy than dropping your buddy to their doom or squishing them in that one maze puzzle (you know the one) and I will forever be chasing that high.

[Image Credit: GameSpot]

The other thing I got to thinking about was Portal 2‘s length — its run time clocks in somewhere around the eight-hour mark. I feel like recently, there’s this idea in the games industry that the bigger a game is, the better. Just look at the hype surrounding the worlds of games like Cyberpunk, The Witcher, or GTA V.

I think a great example of the inflation of playtimes is Naughty Dog’s Last of Us series: the first game would run you roughly twelve hours, while the sequel was 25 to 30 hours. The sequel’s doubling of the original’s run time was a selling point during Part II‘s marketing campaign last year, and touting a game’s long run time seems to be more and more common these days.

Now, that’s not to say that these games are necessarily worse for being bigger or longer, it’s just that when I was playing Portal 2, I couldn’t help but notice how tight and polished the whole experience felt. As a writer, I was so damn impressed because every line spoken by a character felt amazing — every joke landed, every emotional beat hit.

It felt like if you took away one sentence a character spoke you would miss something big. Spending hundreds of hours in a game can really be a blast, but sometimes I can’t help but wish for more short games that pack a hard punch in a smaller window.

I’ve played a lot of games, but I really can’t think of a studio that has Valve’s command over game design. The people who worked on Portal, and so many other titles, really are the best in the industry, and they have the success of their IPs to show for it. That’s why it’s such a shame that Valve all but stepped away from game development.

Steam, Valve’s digital video game distribution service, was released in September of 2003. Initially it served as a platform to distribute updates to their own games, and soon expanded to put out games from third-party publishers as well.

In the first few years after Steam’s creation, only publishers could get their games onto the storefront, but that all changed in 2008 with the introduction of the Steamworks software development kit. From then on, anyone could put their games up for sale, which revolutionized the gaming industry. Without Steam, the indie scene wouldn’t be as successful and vibrant as it is today, thanks to Valve’s ingenuity.

By 2013, Valve had taken over 75% of the market space for digital distribution of PC games, and by 2017, users purchasing games through Steam had soared to over $4.3 billion. Yeah, that’s billion with a “b.”

When you think about it, it makes complete sense that Valve wouldn’t be making games anymore. Developing games is insanely expensive, risky, and takes a ton of work. Creating something like Steam is basically every company’s dream — it’s low maintenance but turns the maximum profit. It means they don’t have to crunch, or worry about if they’re going to get a return on their investment during the development cycle.

But at the same time, it’s such an incredible shame that the studio decided to turn away from games as their main focus. Thanks to Valve’s track record, how talented their developers are, and fans’ enthusiasm for highly anticipated sequels, it seems impossible for them to fail. To have them step out of the spotlight feels like Tony Stark deciding not to build the Iron Man suit because it wasn’t cost-effective, but what can we do?

Of course, Valve has released a few games over the past few years, like Dota Underlords and Half-Life: Alyx. These more recent titles have been met with mixed results (looking at you Artifact), but it’s hard to say Valve has lost their touch when making games isn’t their focus in the first place.

Players seem to get their hopes up with every new announcement, only to be disappointed when their next release isn’t the full game we all hope it to be. Part of me wishes they would either go all in or stop developing altogether, just to save us the heartache.

Despite it all, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Valve’s games will forever be remembered as some of the all-time greats. From Team Fortress to Half-Life to Left 4 Dead, these games raised us, in a way. Hell, Portal 2 was the game that taught me how to use twin-stick controls.

I’m certainly going to be secretly hoping Valve will make an epic comeback in game development, but even if they don’t, I have plenty of fond memories to look back on, and for that I’m grateful. Happy anniversary, Portal 2.

Noelle Warner