Portal 2: Ironic non-interactivity

WARNING: SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.

Okay, glad we got that out of the way.

I reviewed Portal 2 for Screenjabber this week; game of the year, one of the greatest games ever made etcetera etcetera. I upstages Half-Life 2 is every single way and I’m pretty sure Portal 2 is to Portal what “Half-Life 2 was to Half-Life.” (stolen from Jim Sterling’s review, but oh so true). It’s clever, funny, well paced, emotionally engaging on a level further than Heavy Rain ever could and it just so happens to involve the best level design, voice acting and everything else I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ll be debating with myself for a long while whether Bioshock or Portal 2 deserve the third greatest game ever made spot, but I am leaning Bioshock. Want to know why?

I feel both games are in that realm of video-game storytelling that encourages non-interactive elements, but in the ironic sense. Bioshock‘s objective based first half is all in vain of the fact you’re under mind control, giving new life to commentary on linear video-games. Portal 2 goes one step beyond and gives new life to commentary on real life, with the robotic A.Is and recordings all having human wishes. Wheatley goes all Kanye West with NO ONE MAN SHOULD HAVE ALL THAT POWER and GlaDOS realises she’s a shade of a human being. J.K Simmons’ character, Cave Johnson, dreams of immortality whereas the player character (Chell) is, if anything, the most robotic.

She follows orders, does puzzles, doesn’t possess a voice or personality. Valve always make this effort in their games to show something. With Half-Life 2 it was to show that the Freeman ain’t so free, in Portal 2 maybe it’s to show that we’re not all that free. Half-Life 2‘s Freeman was under G-man’s leash, whereas in Portal 2 we’re under the leash with the difference being there is no G-man… then who’s holding our rope? I argue this was deliberate on Valve’s part, to show us a question that every great work of art asks – what does it mean to be human?

Bioshock argued this with free will, Portal 2 argues it on similar levels but in a more subtle sense. It’s in an interactive and non-interactive sense, the freedom and lack of freedom we possess is all massively reflected. Bioshock had one giant cut-scene to show you it, subtle but not as subtle as a seven hour game. Portal 2 is, in my opinion, a seven hour tutorial but without a doubt one that doesn’t dare to even hold your hand. It’s exquisite in the way it practices the best level design while at the same time how to teach a player something.

There’s some references to Promethean thematics, with one of the defence turret outright telling the story, there’s all sorts of interpretations you could gather from the story, there’s clues and jigsaw pieces about the overarching narrative and the place Chell has in the world but best of all it’s a story with a heart. That final sequence is where everything slots together, the metal clicks in your head and everything is rewritten. The turret opera sequence had me choking up, but then I realised something incredibly important, did Portal 2 fall further than Bioshock‘s second half?

Valve ironically remove our control over the game to show how robotic we all are, shows us Prometheus’ face and does lots of clever clever things… but I feel they did something incredibly stupid. Not the day one DLC business, but one that shakes Valve’s design philosophy to the very core. They always use mute protagonists, something I argue is the perfect interactive narrative technique, but… there isn’t anything to explain why they use cut-scenes or a lack of control towards the end of the game. I am of course talking about three main things that take place.

1. No matter what portal you fire under Wheatley during the very final stage of the boss fight, it always turns into an orange one. Either Valve think we’re incredibly forgetful or it took too much money to create a blue portal on the moon. The sequence was mind-blowing, don’t get me wrong, but if they hadn’t given me that final shot then I would’ve been angry. I still feel short changed by the fact that my input did not matter and I feel that this final sequence was a symbol of escape (which eventually happened). When I put in control, a blue portal under Wheatley, this was then retconned. This wasn’t ironically non-interactive, just non-interactive, and that’s not the way Valve usually rolls.

2. When you’re on the moon, there is no state of failure. It’s a cut-scene, hilarious with SPAAAAAACE and exciting and thrilling because moon, but we’re not given any control. Of all the exciting sequences to be away from our grasp, and done in the actual game engine, this was the one that could’ve been truly hearty. We’re not given grip on Wheatley, classic grip, we’re just left there holding on to our controller waiting to resume playing which never happens. You could argue Why would you want to let go? well, why would you want to die in Halo? A state of failure assures the player he is playing and not just watching a cut-scene.

3. The turret opera sequence is completely non-interactive and done in the Source engine, but not in-game. Either it wasn’t technically possible, I would really likely to know, or it would’ve taken development assets to do. Being able to walk around that wheat field at the end, holding a cube and jumping around like an idiot, would’ve given Portal 2 an edge over its predecessor. In the original, when you escape GlaDOS, nothing changes even though you’ve attained freedom. At the very end of Portal 2, giving us freedom to run around a wheat field holding a cube would’ve meant so much more. A transition from non-interactive to interactivity.

That’s about it, really, other than that it’s one giant leap and bound over Bioshock which continued its objective-based gameplay after the reason for it just vanished. Portal 2 is a six hour and a half work of art, it’s non-interactivity shows off what Valve is capable of when it comes to this ironic design technique. It holds its head above Bioshock which failed in its third act, but perhaps the gigantic message that could’ve happened (a true escape, freedom) didn’t happen in either games. Portal 2 comes closer to that non-interactive moment changing into an interactive moment, perhaps when that moment comes, we’ll all be on our crowbar holding knees. All of the sequences I talked about above aren’t ironically non-interactive, they’re just snon-interactive like in any Black Ops game albeit with some actual player triggers and not just some stupid quicktime events.

We’re a big step closer to that moment, a beautiful moment, it might just show off the power of video-games.

Just for the record:

  1. Shadow of the Colossus
  2. Fallout New Vegas
  3. Bioshock/Portal 2
  4. Portal 2/ Bioshock
I’ll be debating with myself who takes that third slot. If I’m being honest, Portal 2 comes closer because it uses subtle techniques but its crimes are perhaps larger than Bioshock because it comes so, so, so very close.

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