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Thinking With, and About, Portals

Sequels are a funny thing. Those who played the prior game in any given series will come to the sequel with certain expectations. This has always been the case with sequels in any kind of media. It just so happens that video games currently bear the brunt of this. Whenever a game comes along that well and truly shakes up the preconceptions we have about games as a whole, the sequel to said game comes under some extra scrutiny.

That’s where we find ourselves not long after the release of Portal 2 with the original’s release still seen with rose-tinted glasses. Portal is still seen by many, and perhaps rightly so, as the very apex of gaming. Depending on who you ask, they’re liable to give you one of many reasons. Some folks enjoyed the feeling of loneliness and despair that the abandoned testing labs of Aperture Science provided. Others simply loved the fact that there was a game trying to be funny again and mostly succeeded.

Whatever the case, people love Portal. They surely do.

But Portal 2 ain’t Portal. It could never be. In fact, if it were, folks would likely complain about the fact that it’s too similar to Portal, that it uses the same tropes and tricks. That it feels derivative. It’s the sort of problem that any popular magician comes across. The audience loved the first trick and wants more but they already know the solution. There’s no element of surprise; no tension. So there needs to be a second trick—a new one—that’s similar enough to have the same fans but different enough to please them in a new way. And that’s tricky.

Here There Be Spoilers

But the sequel manages to strike the right balance. It’s still funny, clever and, at times, lonely. This time, though, the story behind Aperture Science is much more fleshed out. Sometimes this is in obvious ways, like the Cave Johnson recordings, sometimes in little Easter eggs and sometimes it’s only hinted at. Compared to the first game, this is an absolute wealth of information about the world that Chell et al exist within.

Perhaps that’s considered a detriment by some. Having a fully realized world means that there’s not as much left to speculation and fantasy. The possibilities of that world have been limited even if only by a little. It’s not as unlikely as it might seem that this could be responsible for some of that disappointment.

One other qualm that some of its detractors have is in the game’s length. Portal was a short game that came with two other games bolted to it. Portal 2, by contrast, exists as its own entity. It is about three times as long a game as the original. This doesn’t necessarily make it better. It’d be like comparing a short story to a novel; the format is vastly different.

The real crux here is just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Beyond just the fleshed out aspects of the world and its characters, there also seems to be a deeper mythological allusion going on in the background. An image comparing various aspects of Portal 2 to ancient Greek myth surfaced not long after the game released. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to sit down first before taking a look as it’s a doozie.
If even a fraction of what that image seems to suggest is true, it’s painfully obvious that the game isn’t some shallow imitation of what Portal was. From my own experience with Portal 2, I can confirm at least two or three of the image’s thoughts on my own. Add in the Oracle Turret and the truth becomes hard to ignore. Perhaps there are more peas than airplane after all, to borrow a phrase from Michael Abbott.

Even if the original Portal will be remembered as a seminal work, perhaps those who have been unduly critical of Portal 2 will find themselves with a different opinion in the future. One can only hope.

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