So, in the pub the other week, conversation swung to the best pop culture of last year, naturally. When asked about my ‘game of the year’, I refused to pick a single game. Further pushed, I picked WWE All Stars. It was a choice born partially of the thrilling novelty of such a pop/obscure pick, partially of intoxication, but mostly of total honesty.
It is a choice behind which I will of course stand. It’s also a choice which got me thinking about how hard it was (and almost always is) for me to pick a single Best Game, and how I’ve completely failed to write anything about any of my favourites from last year.
Consider this, then, a loose tour through all the games I really enjoyed last year, accompanied with some hand-drawn doodles, and why exactly WWE All Stars was the absolute Best Game of 2011. But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s jump back to April, and take a look at…
As the name suggests, Portal 2 was a sequel, with all the baggage that entails. Worse, it was a sequel to a truly brilliant game. The original Portal took a wonderful central concept – a gun that could shoot teleporting holes into walls – and expressed it perfectly, compressed into two and a half hours. On top of that, it added a classic antagonist in GLaDOS, some of the best jokes in gaming, and a song. It was a revolution, practically inventing the first-person puzzling genre, that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Portal 2 wasn’t much of a surprise at all. Like all good sequels, it didn’t move away from the core principles of the original, but built on them. It kept the same setting – a series of test chambers in the Aperture Science laboratory. The same cast – silent Chell, ever-taunting GLaDOS. The same mechanics – solving spatial puzzles using your portal gun. It took all those, and then built on them.
So, a journey beneath Aperture’s floors revealed the ruins of cavernous testing grounds from its past. The bumbling AI Wheatley (played by Stephen Merchant) and self-confident ghost of Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons) filled out the dramatis personæ. And the portal puzzles were expanded with physics-altering gels which could be guided through test chambers to make surfaces slippy, or bouncy.
Most of it all, it adapted Portal‘s attitude and structure: a highly polished series of puzzles, bookended by chunks of narratives, with jokes. Portal 2 avoided the obvious pitfalls – pandering to the memes the original bred and sent out onto the internet; trying to turn the plot into something of world-shaking import; trying to repeat the surprise of that song – but, ultimately, it was more or less the same thing, stretched out and with some fancy bits added on.
Which sounds really negative, but clearly that’s not the case. This is one of my favourite games of last year. Familiarity makes its structure – a series of chambers, bookended with a joke or bit of story – stick out a little too awkwardly, but it’s a better game than the original Portal in almost every way.
It takes its extended length as virtue, providing more of an actual, story-shaped story, and a wider variety of settings and puzzles. Most impressively, Portal 2 manages to keep its difficulty curve every bit as smooth over those extra hours, with every new discovery telegraphed neatly and then built upon, and rarely repeats itself.
I’d even argue Portal 2 is actually a funnier game. The jokes in the original mostly worked because they took the player by surprise. Abandoned laboratories are not a setting you expect to find jokes in, sci-fi puzzle games aren’t a genre renowned for their hilarity. It was a sort of comedy ambush. Portal 2 knows you know this, going in, and cuts loose with the jokes from the first comedy setpiece, which sticks you in a motel room and indulges in a spot of fourth-wall breaking ‘press A to speak’ action, all curated by Wheatley – the noisy robo-comic to your silent straight man, and every bit the equal of GLaDOS.
It’s definitely the best written and acted game I played last year, and is in the running for best written and acted piece of 2011 culture full stop. It’s certainly the funniest.
As a package, Portal 2 is so sharp that you hardly even notice its elegance until afterwards. When you do, it becomes clear how much silliness we have to put up with, how often people accept that the voice acting wasn’t too uneven this time as if that was something worth celebrating, how merely quite good plots have champions of the medium wetting themselves with excitement.
Portal 2 is a darn good puzzle game. It’s not half bad as science-fiction. But mostly importantly, it is simply the funniest comedy game I have ever played. If it hadn’t been for that pesky original, Portal 2 could’ve had a shot at being the best game of all time.