Friday, June 8, 2012

Problems With Portal 2

This is something I wrote a couple of months ago but never got around to posting. Admittedly it's not the most structured thing in the world, but I figure I'll go ahead and post it anyway since it does have a couple of interesting things in it.

I was thinking about it last night, and I realized what it was that was bothering me about Portal 2.

Like I've said before, Portal is my all time favorite video game. I can go back to it and it still feels just as fresh to me as it did the first time I played. It's got an interesting plot, it's got an incredible soundtrack (some people say it's forgettable, but since it reminds me of things like this, I love it: it adds to the creepy ambiance of the game), and it's got one unforgettable character in GLaDOS, not to mention an interesting choice of a woman as the player's avatar. And that's what I realized about what separates it from Portal 2.

There are no new female characters.

You could make the argument that (spoiler alert!) Caroline, Cave Johnson's assistant, is a new character. But she was created only to replace Cave's male assistant (if you listen to the commentary track inside of the game/play the brand new Testing Initiative DLC), is never actively seen (save for one static image), and is essentially GLaDOS. I started thinking about how awesome it would have been if, instead of Nolan North, Valve had hired a female voice actor to voice the various personality cores and defunct turrets.

Then again, maybe what you could take from it, as this person noted, is the oppression of a female in video games. I know I'm being pretentious and trying to conceptualize it, but when I played Portal, I felt like it was creepy. I felt an overwhelming feeling of being in an environment I was clearly not allowed to be in. And I loved that the lead of the game was a strong woman that I could sympathize (even though she was always trying to kill me). I didn't sympathize at all with anyone (except maybe Cave Johnson, at the end of his lemons speech- his persistence even in the face of failure and Black Mesa for science tugged at my heartstrings). And maybe it's just my GLaDOS-like nature, but I especially did not sympathize with Wheatley. The moment he got crushed in the beginning of the game, I immediately thought, "Oh, thank GOD, I don't have to listen to him anymore." And as funny as they were, in retrospect I didn't like the fat jokes. I didn't like anything that called Chell ugly. In the first game, GLaDOS called the player ugly and stupid not because it would bruise her ego as a woman, but just as a general human being. The game didn't call to attention Chell's femininity, which is what I loved about the first game. The fact that GLaDOS and Chell could fight each other, be passive aggressive without having to mention "you're fat, oh wow, fashion designers call you ugly" was great, and was what made the game even more enjoyable for me, not having to hear the same kinds of taunts that, as a girl, I already have to deal with.

I love that Portal 2 is a different story entirely, but Portal will always come out on top because it didn't rely on spoken narrative to push it along. In the first game, you relied on instinct. You didn't have your Navi-esque Wheatley following you around going, "You have to shut down the neurotoxin generators! You have to think of a way to get past the turret defenses! Ooh! Also! Don't forget to wash your hands! Also, breath in and out, you'll stay alive longer that way! Hi! Hello? Are you listening to me?"

Valve is the one studio that's always creative about the way that it goes about it's games. But from the DOTA 2 previews, the lack of any new female characters in Portal 2 (not to mention Chell getting that glossy photo finish makeover), and now hearing that there's going to be a Portal 3... my stomach is kind of in knots.


  1. First, AAAHHHHH I love the music you linked to. It caused me to spend more time than I should have looking around YouTube for Spaceship Earth music. ^__^ So good. I had never heard the Bass-Line piece, which was very cool.

    Second, I agree. I don't think Caroline counts as a "new" character, I didn't sympathize with Wheatley... and if normal turrets sound like mini-GLaDOSes, wouldn't wacky turrets still sound more like a loopy GLaDOS?

    It's interesting to imagine what Portal 2 would have been like if it lacked a constant companion. Would GLaDOS have woken up at all? Chell is much too clever to pull a Wheatley. I bet there would have had to be some sort of dormant monitoring system, picking up on Chell's rummaging around, and eventually waking up the boss. I'd further bet that it's much trickier to craft a story without a companion character, and part of Portal 1's awesomeness is how well they pulled it off. It's such a unique game for the same reason: Even though you're alone most of the time in games like Half-Life 2, you still have allies that are out there, somewhere, helping you. In Portal 1, you are faced with how truly, completely alone you are.

    Portal 2 is still fantastic, but I think you're spot-on that it lacks a number of the touches that made Portal 1 so unique and outstanding -- and if a Portal 3 surfaces, let's hope Valve remembers to be mindful of and intentional with its female characters that made Portal 1 so strong and Portal 2 possible in the first place.

  2. (PS By "its female characters" in the last sentence, I meant Valve's ::use:: of female characters and the fact that the two main characters of Portal 1 were female (as said fact contributes to Portal 1's uniqueness) -- not just "its female characters" as in Chell and GLaDOS themselves! New, brilliant women made Portal 1 special and awesome; let's see more of that magic in Portal 3!)