Games of 2011: Portal 2

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

WARNING: This post is going to be spoiler-filled.

More than puzzles, rogue AIs, cake, lemons, or potatoes, I consider the Portal series – and especially this year’s Portal 2 – to be about space.

Consider the original game: you wake up in a confined cell, and are only released after a timer counts you down. As you progress through the stark white test chambers, they gradually open up in size. You begin to find cracks in the system, holes in walls that lead to clues that there’s something much larger going on around you. Then the much promised twist comes, and as you flee, you start to see how large this world might be. The game ends with you in the outside world, collapsed on the pavement, with the sun shining down on you.

It’s been over half a year since I played through Portal 2, but the bits that have stuck with me all relate to the use of space. In particular:

Waking up at the start of the game in a small, obviously fake hotel room. As the room is forced to move, the walls begin to fall apart and you take in rows upon rows of shipping containers – all presumably holding rooms similar to yours. Yes, it’s a set piece. Yes, there’s minimal interactivity. But it sets the stage, letting the player know that this world goes far beyond their view.

Throughout the game, while you may be on narrow platforms and ramps, the game areas typically have unbelievably high ceilings, with tubes and machines stacked as far as you can see.

The intermediary caverns, used to traverse between the major areas of the game, are huge. I actually disliked these parts – they were an exercise in zooming in to a distant platform, praying you might find a surface to open a portal on. Flawed as they were, they did convey a sense of distance and expansiveness to the world.

Portal 2 expanded on the idea that the test chambers were configurable, and often does so right before you, walls shifting mechanically to define the space. Sometimes this happens slowly — rooms that aren’t ready when you enter them. Other times it’s done as part of a chase sequence, forcing you to re-evaluate your options on the fly. You never lose sight of the fact that beyond the walls of the chamber you’re in, there’s a giant world.

Consider GLaDOS herself as well. Originally just a person, her mind is transferred to a computer, and suddenly she is omnipresent within the walls of Aperture. In the middle of Portal 2, she is transferred to a potato battery — clearly a space too small, as she constantly shorts out — and forced to ride shotgun with you. Your main mission becomes to restore her as she was, as the alternative you’re faced with may be much worse.

And of course, there are the two big moments right at the end of the game: the roof caving in during the final boss fight, where you must use space quite literally; and your eventual departure from Aperture Science, left to your own devices in an endless field of wheat.

Portal 2 is better in practically every way over the original. The new mechanics, the writing, the music, the voice work, and the co-op options are all top notch. But it’s the sense of scale and space that made it transcend the first game for me.

As a postscript, I also want to cite Erik Wolpaw’s wonderful offhand comment about Chell’s fate in an interview he did with PC Gamer shortly after release:

> She does get a happy ending, there’s no point in being negative about it, I just can’t let go of the fact that we know where she gets that happy ending, and there could be some danger out there. I’m an adult, terrible shit happens to me all the time. I want happy endings for everyone, the kind I’m not gonna get in real life – I mean, we’re all gonna die, let’s face it.

Portal 2 is available for Windows and OS X on Steam, the Playstation 3, and the Xbox 360.


Steam OS X Release Coming?

Yesterday, Valve unveiled the first major overhaul to Steam‘s UI since the service launched. It’s gorgeous, even as a beta.

Within the release notes was a note of particular joy to me:

> Now using a WebKit based rendering engine for the client and in-game overlay web browsing components (replacing Internet Explorer)

As people have been digging around through the data files for the new version, they’ve noticed OS X window graphics, OS X menu files, dock icons, and strings about platform availability.

Moving to a cross-platform web rendering engine certainly doesn’t hurt this argument, either.

While a Steam port to OS X (or Linux) doesn’t mean that every game on the service becomes available to OS X gamers, it could mean that those games that are already cross-platform (Popcap’s stuff, some of EA’s recent titles, and plenty of indie games among others) would be.

I look forward to finding out what this all means.

(via Brad Shoemaker)


Gaming 2008: Game Of The Year

Left 4 Dead: the game that forced me to buy a headset, to acquire screen capturing software, and to lease a dedicated server.

Yes, I said *forced*. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.

The gaming world has made it clear how important it is to do online multiplayer right, but very few games spend the time to work out co-op play properly. It’s often bolted on after, with the main campaign not being designed to accommodate multiple players on given missions.

But Left 4 Dead exists solely as a co-operative experience. Sure, there are bots that can fill in should you not have enough human players, but you cannot (usually) survive in this game on your own. Teamwork is not optional, it’s mandatory.

And every time you run the levels, you’re running a different experience. The weapons, the enemies, and every crucial health pack and bottle of pills (peels!) change every time you play. It’s all generated dynamically – as is the music, and the dialog.

But the sweetest twist to L4D is Versus mode. No longer are you just a survivor, trying to escape the zombie hordes – now you get to spend half your game as the zombie horde, attacking the survivors on the other team.

There is no sweeter revenge than to lure away the guy who killed you the round before and pounce them as a Hunter, swiping away furiously while they scream for help. There’s no better team catharsis than running a perfect set piece.

Left 4 Dead is the most social FPS game I’ve had the opportunity to play. Sure, there’s shit talk and rage quitting, but there’s also a sense of camaraderie. I would say 80-90% of the games I’ve played have been downright pleasant – even when my team gets destroyed.

Valve really hit the right combination with L4D, and it’s a game I see myself coming back to for years to come.

(Special thanks to Josh Gluck for inadvertently being my model for all of the screenshots.)