I think it’s fairly trivial to say that Portal is a significant and influential franchise, and that both titles in the series are excellent experiences well worth the time of any player. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the original Portal is such a cohesive and nearly flawless gaming experience that it should be remembered alongside such other towering encapsulations of solid game design and execution as Shadow of the Colossus, the original Half-Life, and the first entry of the Dark Souls trilogy.
But my praise for Portal 2, while still extensive and enthusiastic, is simply nowhere near as unmitigated or unending as my praise for Portal. In terms of its narrative, Portal 2 opted for a lighter tone, with a heavy emphasis on blatant comedy which marred the established atmosphere of Portal and the established character of GLaDOS. Meanwhile, in terms of gameplay, Portal 2‘s single-player campaign opted for easier puzzles overflowing with a large number of lightly utilized new mechanics.
For the purposes of this article, I am restricting my comparison to the single-player campaigns of Portal and Portal 2. Due to the stellar co-op and test chamber creation features of Portal 2 (as well as the additional length of Portal 2‘s campaign), I have spent longer playing the sequel by a substantial margin. But the comparison I am setting out to make is between the campaigns of the two games (I will also be leaving out the challenge mode of the original Portal). These campaigns, after all, constitute the quintessential Portal experience, containing nearly all of the narrative details of the series (other than some details in the co-op chambers and external comics).
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of both Portal games, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already played the games.
The Lighter Tone of Portal 2:
Back before there was an extensive and seemingly endless bank of high-quality community levels (because the map-making tools had not yet been implemented), Matthewmatosis made a video about how Portal 2 was a great game which could have been better. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. As I will be referring to his review in the course of this article, I would like to underscore that Matthewmatosis is an excellent and entertaining games analyst, and he is one of the few gaming critics—alongside such others as Noah Caldwell-Gervais, Tevis Thompson, and MrBtongue—whose work I have recommended consistently in the past. Near the start of that review from a few years ago, Matthew sums up his experience of the original Portal thusly:
The very first trailer for Portal had me enthralled. Placing portals on different surfaces to solve puzzles is an imaginative and immediately interesting game mechanic. But when Portal released, there was a surprise in store. Not only was the gameplay great, but it featured some of the best writing ever seen in a computer game. GLaDOS brought the empty halls of Aperture Science to life. Her dialogue was cold and mechanical, but draped in an endearing sense of black humor. The game could have been labeled great on its gameplay alone, but it was the successful implementation of GLaDOS, and the atmosphere that brought to the game, that elevated it into something more.
The praise extended to the character of GLaDOS in that quote frames his ensuing critique of her petty tone and shallow, saccharine backstory in the sequel. But I think those changes to the character of GLaDOS are indicative of a more far-reaching tonal shift between the two titles, from Portal‘s serious tone (with a sense of humor) to Portal 2‘s goofy tone (with a sense of wonder).
An aspect of the mood of the original which is often overlooked or even forgotten is its creepiness. Portal is a bit of a creepy and even mildly frightening game. The test chambers are sterile, lifeless, hostile, and quiet. Chell is completely alone with some fairly difficult and threatening challenges. GLaDOS’ references to Aperture’s scientists and test subjects slowly take on an unnerving vibe as the player progresses through the game, never seeing any other humans.
These concerns are crystallized into a concrete and horrific threat when GLaDOS reveals her extensive and systematic use of neurotoxin to eradicate the scientists. If you manage to squeeze into a section outside of a chamber’s white-walled facade, you find yourself in a dark and rusted corridor etched with the frantic warnings and lamentations of absent test subjects. And, finally, GLaDOS was more intimidating because she spoke exclusively in a disaffected monotone, much like GLaDOS’ cultural predecessor HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Sure, it’s not a horror game like Dead Space by any stretch of the imagination, and many of GLaDOS’ most hostile lines come across as humorous (to say nothing of the companion cube sequence and the fact that some of those etchings are the now-infamous incantation that ‘the cake is a lie’). But there is a very real sense that Chell is portaling for her life, and that there is some actual tension to the ending escape sequence (the beginning of which coincides with an invigorating swell of background music—one of the first significant uses of music in the game). It was this darkly comedic tone and ultimately serious atmosphere, I would contend, that facilitated the inclusion of the easter eggs placing Aperture and Black Mesa in the same fictional universe.
Every character in Portal 2 is lighter and more cartoonish than GLaDOS in the original, from Wheatley to GLaDOS to the defective turret to (above all) Cave Johnson and his doting assistant Caroline. Gone is the authoritative, monolithic monotone of Portal‘s GLaDOS (though, as a matter of minor convention, the desperately seeking turret voices are retained). Instead, GLaDOS moves from a curt, cruel tone of voice near the start of the game to a soft, emotional tone of voice near the end of the game—the latter sounding less like a disinterested artificial intelligence and more like a human speaking through a filter, much like Wheatley.
Perhaps there is nothing that captures this tonal departure so concisely as comparing Chell’s near-execution in Portal to her near-execution in Portal 2. In Portal, the scene is understated and full of dread, with GLaDOS narrating dispassionately while Chell is being lowered unceremoniously into a furnace to be discarded. In Portal 2, the scene is gaudy and ridiculous, with narration from power-mad goofball Wheatley and Caroline-potato-GLaDOS while Chell waits to be crushed by an unnecessarily massive encircling collection of spiky metal objects. While she portals away in both cases, only in the former did I feel any credible threat to the situation. The former is a moment in a memorable narrative; the latter is a moment in a theme park attraction.
The Abundant Mechanics and Lower Difficulty of Portal 2:
Some of the new mechanics are more silly as well. Other than the portal gun itself, all of the mechanics in the original Portal were electronic devices (e.g. the switches, pressure plates, and Half-Life 2-esque energy balls) or realistic physical threats (e.g. turrets, pits of poisonous sludge, and toxic gas). On top of all of those hazards, Portal 2 adds, among other things, tractor beams (“excursion funnels”), fling pads (“aerial faith plates”), goo that you slide around and bounce on (“mobility gels”), moon rock gel, hard light bridges, laser beams, and laser-directing cubes. This is a collection of wacky sci-fi tools fit to be pulled out of hammerspace, more at home in the universe of Ratchet and Clank than in the universe of Half-Life.
One complaint that I held firmly in my mind throughout even my very first playthrough of Portal 2 is that its tests were and are much, much too easy. It is not to be discounted what a serious effect difficulty can have on the tone of a game. Consider a version of Dark Souls wherein all of the aesthetics and mechanics are identical, but the enemies are universally incompetent and weak, with trivially easy bosses for even low-skill players.
Besides being a boring exercise, the game would feel tonally discordant; I can’t believe that the world is threatening if my player-character is not actively threatened by the world. In a puzzle game, this translates into the intellectual challenge of the levels. Aside from the obvious fact that satisfaction as a player comes from overcoming true challenges (I certainly do not think that it is a mere coincidence that Spacechem is simultaneously one of the most difficult puzzle games I have ever completed and one of my favorite puzzle games of all time), a difficult puzzle placed in the proper thematic context can make the player feel like an active participant in exploring that thematic context.
Even setting aside the set of tests copied and pasted from the original, there were just one or two levels in Portal 2 that gave me more than even a small moment’s pause. I think the inclusion of the large number of new mechanics listed above is partially to blame for the excessively low difficulty of the game, which spends a large percentage of its time tutorializing such additions. Furthermore, Matthewmatosis rightly points out that the game’s low difficulty is often a result of the limited portal-able surface area in most of the test chambers. After all, if there is a room full to the brim with possible portal locations, then it is harder to solve the puzzle just by random guessing or by tracing the developer’s oft-transparent intentions.
To Portal 2‘s credit, one area of disagreement that I would have with Matthewmatosis is his extension of this limited-portal-surface-criticism to his discussion of navigating the ‘overworld’ in Old Aperture. Yes, it made the navigation trivial and mostly divorced it from the way that the out-of-bounds portion of the original Portal carried on more subtly puzzling the player, but—given the vastness of old Aperture—to do otherwise would have been a nightmare.
Imagining that same enormous expanse covered in portal-able surfaces, but with the same or similarly limited slivers of progression toward the next section, is all I need to do to see why its present implementation was needed. And I do think that the visual design and atmosphere of those old Aperture segments made the tradeoff worthwhile (or would have done so, had the test chambers punctuating the experience offered contrast to that style through satisfying difficulty and an abundance of strategic options).
So why do I say the design of Portal‘s campaign is better than its sequel? Because instead of maintaining a tight, tough, and satisfying exploration of its mechanics throughout, Portal 2 restricts player creativity, cranks down the challenge, and has many mechanics that are not fully integrated with each other. And why do I say the tone of Portal‘s campaign is better than its sequel? Because instead of staying grounded in a threatening and realistic Aperture (which happens to often be humorously cynical and clinical), Portal 2 opts to aim for laughs and clichéd empathy, at the expense of the story’s immersion, stakes, and the established character of GLaDOS.
But now that I’ve spent this whole article praising the original at the expense of its sequel, I think it’s appropriate to close by reiterating that Portal 2 is a wonderful game. It’s fun and highly polished; its co-op campaign is one of the best co-op experiences ever devised; and its level editor and accompanying Steam workshop integration are practically endless supplements for those aspects of the tone and difficulty which I found lacking in the main campaign. As an entire package, Portal 2 certainly offers more stuff to do than Portal. But considering only their primary campaigns in terms of their artistic, gamely, and cohesive qualities, Portal, despite its relative simplicity and age, remains the clear winner.
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