Critical Play: Portal 2

Seeing Portal 2 as an option for a puzzle game, I went home, busted out my old Xbox 360, rummaged around for about 30 minutes, and eventually found my old copy of Portal 2. Ironically I never really played much of Portal 2 as a kid, so I was actually pretty excited. As a younger brother in my family, when we got any new single player my older brother had the luxury of getting to play it and I usually just sat and watched. By the time he was finally sick of the games and I had a turn to play, some of the games’ gimmicks had already begun to bore me as well (not true for many games though). So this was a good opportunity to actually get to play some Portal 2 again now through the lens of a critical play. 

The game opens with a chaotic scene of destruction in the so-called “relaxation center you’re in”. After learning the basic movement mechanisms of the game, the story is set up by placing you in the midst of a seemingly post-apocalyptic world of destruction. You’re instructed by a circular robot to find a gun that “makes holes” but “not like bullet holes”. Subsequently, your task seems to be on of escaping this destructive mess, and moving through the world around you (via the portal gun) effectively to reach that goal. 

In terms of being introduced to the mechanics, it begins as I first see an orange hole in the wall and effectively realize I must walk through it, and as I do so, I reappear out of a blue circle in a new area. Understanding the mechanism of the portals, the “large red buttons” that blocks can be placed on and subsequently the portal gun we find, enables us to navigate dimensional puzzles with a clever tool (the portals) that enables very interesting movement mechanics. The role of this tool and the dimensional puzzles that unfold with it, can not be overstated. As the name suggests, this portal play of moving not just your character, but objects (like the large buttons/blocks) to achieve short-term objectives largely drives the  broader story and excitement of the game.  It tells us about the world we’re in (where our tech is far advanced) and it changes the paradigm of how we think about movement in 3d space. Looking at it through a game designer’s lens, it is incredibly impressive to think about not just how clever the solutions to the puzzles themselves are, but how cleverly the space and architecture were designed to foster the right atmosphere for such puzzles. It’s not a given that a portal gun would be of any use in most 3d spaces. But by crafting a world in just the right manner, the game designers are able to fairly and thematically utilize this puzzle concept brilliantly into the story. For instance the way the world is situated, a player can leverage a user’s speed and momentum from falling to jump into well placed portals that launch you well over treacherous falls. This trickiness, and fair commitment to physics certainly helps make the puzzles as fun as they are. 

All in all as a kid watching my brother play this game, I didn’t really think about it much as a puzzle, more as an exciting adventure game where you have a special gun that helps you escape a world. Learning more about puzzles it’s clear that this gap in my perception of the game was largely because of how deftly the puzzles were designed into the game and how the space was designed for the puzzles. 


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