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Earlier this year, I had a bit of time before the big Spring game releases came out, so I decided to replay Portal and to play Portal 2 for the first time.

I’d liked Portal the first time I played it; I really liked it this time, to the extent that I think of it as a sort of local maximum in the design space. It’s a puzzle game, with a puzzle idea that was new at the time and that is still interesting on replay. It spends a few short levels gently introducing you to the concept; and then has quite a few, still short, levels unpacking consequences of that concept. And then, once it’s given you that foundation, it switches over to a more narrative mode where the puzzles are presented in a less isolated environment; it ends in a short boss battle. And it does all of this in three hours; there have been times in my life when I would have wanted more, but now I very much appreciate the respect the game is showing for my time.

That’s the game from a mechanical lens, but there’s also the game’s narrative aspects to consider. It starts out with you waking up in a facility, not knowing who you are. And, as you play through the levels, you get more familiar with GLaDOS: she’s quite funny (as is the game as a whole!), but there are horror undertones that turn into an equal match for the humor; and then, as you go further, you realize that she’s really a psychologically damaged individual. Like the mechanics, the narrative comes together in the boss battle; and it gets capped off by one of my favorite songs in all of video games.


After finishing Portal I moved on to Portal 2. I was a little worried that, after just having played through a bunch of portal puzzles, I’d see repeats or excessive complication, but I enjoyed the new puzzles. And I wasn’t sure how they’d follow up the story, but there was a new character who was entertaining, GLaDOS was back, and I got to learn about the facility. So: all good.

Until it wasn’t. It was inevitable, I think, that the sequel would introduce new mechanics; the new mechanics were fine, but the game lost its simplicity with their addition. Or at least they were fine until I hit the white paint, which accepts portals: so, if you see a surface that you want to put a portal on, then you paint it and become able to create a portal. But not all surfaces accept paint at all; whereas if a surface does accept paint, then you’ll be able to get paint there fairly easily, painting the paintable surfaces is rarely a challenge. So the upshot is that white paint adds no interesting complexity to the levels: instead, you analyze them just like a standard portal level, and then have this extra tedious step of splashing paint everywhere in order to be able to figure out how good your analysis is.

The narrative side was a letdown as well, albeit for opposite reasons. Wheatley showed warning signs early on: he was mostly a buffoon, unlike anybody in the original. GLaDOS started to show a bite, but then rather than leaning in to the consequences of incinerating her in the first game, the game stepped back and decided not to treat her seriously, instead placing her consciousness into a potato. (Because science fair potato batteries are hilarious! Har har!) And, the more you learned about the facility’s history, the less you could treat it seriously either: the game just repeated the joke of the facility’s test subjects being cannon fodder over and over again.

To be sure, the original Portal also repeated that joke; but they did it without turning the game into a farce, because there were other strains giving texture to the narrative. And, while I don’t have anything against farces, and actually I can imagine enjoying Portal 2’s world quite a bit in other contexts, it wasn’t a well enough done farce to stand next to its predecessor.

So, soon after encountering the white paint, I gave up: I didn’t want to explore the new mechanics and actively disliked one of them, even the traditional portal puzzles were getting complex in ways that I didn’t particularly enjoy, and I didn’t trust the game’s narrative enough to make me want to push through to see the endgame’s narrative payoff. Not that I think Portal 2 was a bad game, I’m happy to have played through the first half of it; but I also haven’t had second thoughts about stopping when I did.

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