Thursday, May 12, 2011

Portal vs. Portal 2

I think I may be the only person on the planet who's not madly in love with Portal 2, but who's also not completely unimpressed. We all know I'm a retro curmudgeon, and that I've gotten into the dangerous habit of challenging popular opinion, so it should come as no surprise that I prefer the original Portal to the sequel that virtually everyone is hailing as The Second Coming of...well, Portal.

The first Portal remains one of the most perfect games I have ever played--and considering I'm something of a perfectionist, that's high praise. When I play video games, my primary interest is in the gameplay: Portal offers an excellent learning curve, keeps a close eye on the pacing of the puzzles, provides challenges that require thoughtful and skillful solutions, and...really, I could keep going, but suffice it to say, the gameplay is the primary focus of the game, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

The visuals are deliberately crafted to keep the focus on the puzzles, too. Level architecture is appropriately complex, but the decorations are kept simple to avoid drawing attention away from the brain-intensive challenges. Some people have complained about the sterile white walls of the Aperture Science testing chambers, but that's like complaining that minimalist music doesn't have a lot of instrumentation. Portal is as pretty as the technology of the time allowed, but the visuals are deliberately not of primary importance.

As for the story, the entire plot can be summarized in a sentence or two, but it's the subtle and gradual unraveling of the details that makes the story compelling. That, and the increasingly unstable computer AI who does all the talking. There's a lot of room for interpretation in the things GLaDOS does and does not say, so in some regards, the player gets to create and explore his or her own version of the story. Story isn't the main focus of the game, and it's conveyed with just enough mystery and suspense that players have something to chew on during the pauses in their puzzle-solving.

Of course, you can't mention GLaDOS's dialogue without talking about the humor. Regardless of whether you find the game to be funny (and the vast majority of people do), the humor principle the designers followed is solid: gradually contort the computer and her words into something far more absurd and sinister than the player expects. An appreciation of irony, absurdity, and/or twistedly evil ideas is all the player needs to be tickled by the writing in this game.

Now, let's compare this to Portal 2: There's plenty of absurdity and twistedly evil ideas, but there's also a mean streak to the humor--some of it is clever and unexpected enough to be pretty universally funny, but anyone with any kind of sensitivity to, say, being overweight or adopted, might stop laughing when GLaDOS starts making what are essentially well-articulated fat jokes. Most of the humor, however, is fairly absurd, but the absurdity leans toward idiocy and lunacy more often than not. (In fact, there's an achievement for lunacy, but that's a different story altogether.) So, we have a shift from humorously defying people's expectations to relying on the inherent humor of stupidity, insanity, and being fat and adopted.

That being said, there are quite a few jokes that are adapted from the first Portal, and they straddle the fence between fun reference and uncreative duplication. Still, a lot of the material through the first half of the game feels very much in line with what the previous installment has to offer, and there are some fantastic laughs, but something about the writing doesn't feel as quotable this time around...and the dialogue gets more and more mundane between the last ramblings of Cave Johnson and the final showdown. Even the closing song, while quite catchy and performed well, is disappointingly pedestrian compared to "Still Alive." I chalk it up to focusing too hard on telling the story.

Whereas Portal is unquestionably a gameplay-oriented game with graphics and dialogue that are attractive enough to help maintain interest, Portal 2 strikes me as a story-driven game with gameplay tailored toward advancing the plot and showcasing the pretty graphics. This approach is not intrinsically good or bad, but it's decidedly not my preferred style, nor is it completely in line with the feel of the first game.

To its credit, Portal 2 employs a design tactic that keeps the player focused on the puzzles, but it's a tactic that's only necessary because the environments are so huge and visually distracting--portal surfaces are usually only found in places where you need to use a portal, and they generally cover just enough surface area for you to land your portal in the right spot on the first or second try. Even when an entire wall is portal-safe, an observant player can typically detect some subtlety or pattern in the wall texture that indicates where a portal should be placed.

On my first playthrough, scouring massive rooms for any distant portal surfaces brought back a few unpleasant memories of the hidden object challenges in Metroid: Other M. If all the environments were breathtakingly beautiful and a joy to explore, I might not have minded, except I'm running Portal 2 on a computer that can barely display screenshots of the game. I have played a lot of computer games, and never in my life have I needed to turn every single graphics option to the absolute minimum setting.

Emancipation grids appear to be non-functional without the fancy special effects, and bouncy goo erratically changes colors when it pours out of the spout, splattering on the ground in patches of solid color that look like they were lovingly crafted by a 3-year-old in Microsoft Paint. The game gets awfully light on gameplay in some places, and while the rest of the game looks nice enough, the sections that are supposed to inspire awe and focus on the story come across as dull filler...especially when you have to wait around for characters to stop yakking.

With the exception of the final boss battle, the original Portal never forced you to stop what you were doing if you wanted to listen to the dialogue in full. In Portal 2, excessive dialogue slows down the game significantly if you stop to hear everything. Wheatley in particular likes to talk your ear off, most often in places where there's no real reason (such as a complicated puzzle) to stick around. If you're interested in the plot and the prospect of hilarious dialogue (and I imagine most players are), you'll probably find yourself standing around a lot, waiting for characters to hurry through their unnecessarily long pauses and finish what they're saying.

Still, Portal 2 is a lot of fun. It's just a different type of fun than the first game, and it's unfortunately not always the kind of fun I enjoy most in my video games. For me, Portal 2 is at its best when some wisecracking computer interjects with an absurd general assertion of "fact," or when the story develops with the gameplay as opposed to instead of, or when I spend more time on creative portal use than on locating a viable surface to initiate creative portal use.

It's a good game and a good sequel that acknowledges the insane popularity of its franchise without resting too much on its laurels. There are clever challenges and funny lines and interesting plot twists. There's also a nice homage to the first few levels of the original Portal that serves to demonstrate both how much things have changed and how first-time players (assuming anybody skipped the first game and started with the sequel) can start thinking with portals, in a way that won't detain the veterans for too long.

I just think it loses sight of what made the original so great, in favor of what makes certain other games so great.

I have plans to try out the extensive co-op mode, which I imagine will be much more gameplay-oriented than the single-player story mode. I'm not enthused about multiplayer gaming becoming the future of single-player games, but it's not necessary to expand on that here, as I've already explained on this blog why multiplayer gaming is not my thing. Let's hope that Portal 2 still has a few good surprises in store for this curmudgeonly gamer.


Matt Link said...

I haven't actually played the original Portal yet (I know, sacrilege!) But I was curious, what would you recommend to those who haven't played either one yet? Sounds like you're very particular to the original. Should I play the first one first to get accustomed to the mechanics? Or would you say go play #2 first and come back to #1?

Flashman85 said...

Portal 2 is structured in such a way that first-time players can pick up the mechanics without too much effort, but to fully appreciate the story, humor, and a few of the puzzles, you MUST play the original Portal first.

A Philosophical Nerd said...

I just played Portal 2 for the first time two days ago, and beat it yesterday. There is definitely a more sinister tone to GLaDOS than even the first Portal game, but I believe the important thing to remember is that from GLaDOS' perspective, you murdered her (and she was forced to relive that moment for the past several years). As such, while you're testing she was saying the most mean things she could say to you, in the hopes that not only would it break you, but cause you to fail her test and die, yourself. As an overweight person, myself, I didn't take offense to it because I was considering the game in the context in which it was intended. Women are usually concerned about their appearance, so GLaDOS commented on her weight because she was simply trying to be mean.

I wouldn't say I'm madly in love with Portal 2, but I appreciated that it's a much longer game than the original Portal, and there's so much to do with the game, including a second, unique game mode.

Flashman85 said...

APN: I've got no problem with GLaDOS being more sinister--that makes perfect sense and works very well. I don't even have a problem with her saying nasty things...provided they're clever.

There are some very creative and entertaining ways to insult people, and while Portal 2 certainly demonstrates this at times, SO much of the dialogue is centered around insulting the hero that if you're not laughing, it really feels like beating a dead, fat, adopted horse.

I get what you're saying from a characterization standpoint. I'm looking at this from a gamer standpoint: players tend to imprint themselves on a silent protagonist.

I'm not madly in love with the game, either, and part of that is because the game feels superficially longer because of all the exposition and sprawling areas with minimal puzzles. I haven't tried co-op yet, so we'll have to see.

Unknown said...

I do see what you're saying. I have a tendency to imprint myself on the main character, especially when there's a character I can relate to. I guess in this case, I was just kind of letting it all roll off my shoulders because "GLaDOS was just saying it being I murdered her." lol

Also, I do understand what you're saying about being "superficially longer." Thing is, I'm very story-oriented. I actually loved the fact that we got more backstory for the characters and for Aperture Science in general. I realize that not everyone feels this way, especially in what is, at its heart, a pure puzzle game. Not many puzzle games actually have any story to them.

Also, back to your original post, I am the kind of gamer who stood around for a bit to make sure everyone finished their dialog. This does get a bit annoying, especially since in most cases if you rush ahead they'll stop their dialog and say something else. *SPOILER ALERT* However, and I'm not sure if you've tried this or not, at the final boss escape when you're standing in front of Wheatley, if you just stand there waiting for Wheatley and GLaDOS to finish their exchange, Wheatley will actually kill you before you have a chance to escape.

A Philosophical Nerd said...

Oops. That last bit was by me. I don't know why it signed me in as my e-mail, rather than my Blogger screenname.

Flashman85 said...

APN: I stood around waiting for dialogue virtually everywhere EXCEPT the final confrontation, though I should probably try that out. I think if the game had more or more challenging puzzles during the times when the dialogue was going, you might naturally take that amount of time to reach the point where the dialogue cuts off. I'm hopeful they'll smooth that out by the next game.

I dig that we got more story and backstory, but the bottom line for me is that I want to play a video GAME. Gameplay is king, and anything else, such as story, should be totally integrated into the gameplay, or should provide a rewarding break from some intense gameplay. I never felt that the puzzles or challenges became so numerous or intense at any point that the amount of gaming down-time where most of the dialogue happened served as an appropriate cool-down period.

Anonymous said...

You really shouldn't criticize a game's graphics when you are using a computer with lower specs than the game really needs. My machine can easily play Portal 2 on the highest settings (including AF/AA) and the graphics really do look nice.

Flashman85 said...

Anonymous: While I agree that it'd be unfair to say that Portal 2 has terrible graphics, I think it's perfectly equitable to criticize the way the game looks on my machine.

I'm accustomed to playing PC games at lower graphics settings than the developers intended, but the key difference here is that Knights of the Old Republic, Half-Life 2, and other games whose graphics I can't max out never suffered in the gameplay department because of the graphics.

The last time I upgraded my computer, I was treated to cooler special effects and more gorgeous backgrounds in KotOR, but those things didn't change the feel of the gameplay; they merely served to make me go, "Whoa. So THAT'S what the game's supposed to look like!"

With Portal 2, it feels distinctly like I'm missing out on part of the basic game experience by not being able to tell where the emancipation grids are, or what color those flickering, untextured paint blops are actually supposed to be.

I look at the game's graphics settings in more or less the same way I look at multiple difficulty settings: Even if there's one setting that you intend for most people to use, you've still gotta thoroughly playtest the others (though I do recognize it's impossible to test every combination on every possible machine).

As I was saying, too, It doesn't help that so much of the game draws specific attention to the graphics, even going so far as frequently taking a break from any kind of gameplay so that you can soak in the atmosphere.

It's apparent I'm not getting the full effect of the game with my ancient graphics card, but it's more apparent that Portal 2 is not so much a game as it is an "entertainment experience" in which graphics are a crucial component.

Aesthetics, in my mind, should complement, but not overshadow, the gameplay, but again I'm someone whose primary concern in playing games is playing games.

It's not the graphics themselves that make Portal 2 less appealing to me as it is the fact that the graphics matter as much as they do. That being the case, I feel perfectly justified in criticizing the graphics. :)

Anonymous said...

my opinion:

portal 1 pros: hl2 portal hack, first game to make acaul non-loading portals, has the bubbles from the citidal, u can type impulse 101 and get hl2 weapons, u can spawn hl2 npcs so ur not totally alone (LOL)all of the obsrvation rooms are fully explorable via noclip, doors can be impulse 203ed and don;t totaly glitch

portal 1 cons: impulse 101 toomeany times cuses bug where blue bubble appers on screen, noclip sometimes buggy some times not, chell not as cute looking, only 2 scenes for puzzles (facility and matenence)

portal 2 pros: has awsome smash up shit start, chell looks hotter with big boobys and belly button showing
(i think thats cute) several themes for "testing"(decayed, repairing, fixed-up,ancient,dummy (wheatly), impulse 101 dosent glitch and cause annoying blue bubble, glados becomes a "Freind"

portal 2 cons:impulse 101 dosent give hl2 weapons, hl2 npcs are not spawnable, impulse 203ing a door will cause a black thing that cannot be passed without noclip, no hl2 portal hack, some observation rooms if nocliped too are glitche up and cannat walk around in them.

well i have more to say but thats all for now

Flashman85 said...

Anonymous #2: Well! I've never messed around with mods or cheat codes, and Chell's not really my type, so I can merely nod in acknowledgement of your comment.