Editor's note: Alert readers spotted this one in our recent Most Anticipated Games wrap up, but non-alert readers can enjoy it in its entirety, right here/now. -Demian
I am not, as a rule, someone who succumbs to hype easily. This is not a testament to the strength of my will power — it’s more a result of me approaching middle age. At this point in my life, I’ve learned that the easiest way to disappoint myself is to get too excited about something. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” goes hand-in-hand with “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” The lesson both sayings offer is one of tempered enthusiasm.
Given these predilections, I can hardly think of a better upcoming video game to discuss than Portal 2, the sequel to the 2007 smash hit. As I noted in my Gaming Decade piece, Portal was more than just an innovative and profoundly entertaining experience for me. Rather, it demonstrated that I had underestimated the entire medium of video games.
Before I played Portal, I viewed the Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 conflict as a race to nowhere; two major electronics manufacturers squandering their fortunes on an infantile hobby that society had all but rejected. The market had spoken: No one wanted to spend money on the latest murder simulator when they could pretend to bowl or play tennis with their kids. The console war was over and Nintendo was the winner.
I owned a DS and a Wii because of their lightweight qualities: The games were fun, easy to pick up, and served as an ideal distraction after a long days’ work. Seldom did I feel compelled to spend an entire evening playing a game — it was just something to do when nothing else was going on. I felt like I had outgrown the need to buy and play lots of games and that Nintendo was perfectly suited for my new entertainment philosophy. The sales numbers suggested I was not alone.
When I went to the 2007 Tokyo Game Show (my first), it was a confirmation of everything I had presumed. The big budget, AAA games on display all seemed the same: generic action games, generic RPGs, generic shooters, etc. I was much more interested in the weird handheld games I saw, like a Fist of the North Star DS game where you used the stylus to touch enemies’ pressure points.
Six months later, the wave of Portal acclaim, Internet memes, and in-jokes drove me to install Steam on my laptop and purchase The Orange Box (on sale). It took days of reading forums and tweaking the launch options to even get Portal running, because I had bought my ThinkPad in 2006 when I thought I’d never play another PC game in my life. At the time, I assumed that my computer time would be dedicated to watching DVDs and video chatting with friends back home. PC gaming, with its constantly escalating system requirements, was something that only the most-dedicated game enthusiasts (read: nerds) could bother spending their time on.
Once I finally started the game and entered the Aperture Science testing facility, I was blown away. People often describe Portal as a “short” game, but it wasn’t for me. Every level, I marvelled at what I was seeing and hearing. GLaDOS’ dialogue had me laughing out loud, something few video games had managed before. When I stumbled onto the hints that all was not as it seemed in this experiment, I truly felt like I had learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.
Portal was a triumph, not just as a game but as a brilliant science-fiction story. There was no superfluous exposition, no cumbersome backstory, and barely two characters in the entire game. It was funny, scary, exciting, and even touching, thanks to the brilliant “Still Alive” song over the closing credits. Clearly my dismissal of the video games industry was misguided and premature, for if a game was capable of delivering that kind of emotional impact, I needed to play more games.
Cut to two years later, and I play a lot more games. I own all the major consoles now (though I’m still using the same ThinkPad), and I’m trying to balance the thrill of new releases with my need to go back and revisit the games I missed during my ignorant phase. It’s not something I’m very good at; if anything, my pile of shame is larger now than it was when I hardly played games at all.
This is relevant because when Portal 2 arrives this fall, it will have a lot of competition and face much more scrutiny than its predecessor. Portal was a surprise sandwiched between two high-profile sequels in The Orange Box and later sold individually at a discount price. Portal 2 will be a major release with all of the baggage that the reportedly full-retail-price tag ($60) carries, to say nothing of the “sequel to a beloved property” problem.
One only has to look to BioShock 2 earlier this year to note the pitfalls that await Portal 2. BioShock was the only other game in 2007 that gave Portal a run for its money as a Game of the Year contender. I eventually played it in 2009, and I’m still not sure which game I love more. Yet when BioShock 2 hit the shelves this winter, despite the strong sales and acknowledged improvements, gamers collectively shrugged. Robert Ashley lamented on Twitter that the world of Rapture was now “mundane and expected.” Surely Aperture Science and GLaDOS face the same problem.
As for me, Portal 2 must bear the added weight of my admittedly unfair expectations. The original Portal changed my outlook on the entire entertainment world; how the hell can Portal 2 even hope to recapture a fraction of that excitement? Even with my aforementioned habit of deliberately cooling my enthusiasm, the shadow of Portal is too large to simply ignore.
Having said all that, certainly Valve and Portal 2 deserves the benefit of the doubt. For starters, Valve makes excellent games and has a strong track record when it comes to sequels. The other two components of The Orange Box were very well received sequels, after all, as was last year’s Left 4 Dead 2 (regardless of what you thought of the timing of its release). The lengthy wait between Half-Life chapters also shows that Valve is not in a position to rush things to market for a quick buck. Portal 2 is coming three years after the original, which is plenty of time to get it right.
While we know very little about the new Portal, Valve revealed co-op play, which is an encouraging development. I can think of very few games that weren’t immediately improved with the addition of a partner, and even the weaker ones were a lot of fun to play. In a puzzle-driven game like Portal, the addition of another player (and another portal gun, presumably) could make for some very exciting problem-solving circumstances. Could one player open a portal on a flat object and have the other player carry it somewhere? Or perhaps one player could divert enemy attention while the other attempted a risky jump?
Video game sequels, as a rule, expand and improve upon the original in ways that movie sequels cannot. Portal 2 is in a precarious position due to the celebrated perfection of Portal; there is no obvious room for “improvement.” In a way, Valve’s success has made the usual slam-dunk nature of a sequel suddenly less than reliable. Portal 2 certainly has an eager audience, but I’d wager many of those fans are cautiously optimistic right now, waiting to see if the game can satisfy them. When you fall for a Companion Cube, it’s hard to love again.