Monday, 23 January 2012

Portal 2 - Narrative Through Design

Just finished Portal 2 the other night.
Had I played it last year it would have definitely made the Top 5 Games of 2011 list. Not only that, but I can say it is one of the best games I have ever played.

A follow up to the hit game Portal bundled in Valve’s The Orange Box, it does everything that a good sequel should: expand upon the gameplay, mechanics and narrative of the first game, with everything being bigger and better. Whilst it could have just been more of the same, the game even succeeds in throwing in a few unexpected surprises – with new characters and locations mixing in with the old.

The trademark humour is present and correct too – I can’t think of many other games out there that are legitimately funny as this one is. As well as the return of Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS, the game also features Stephen Merchant as Wheatley and J.K Simmons as Cave Johnson – resulting in a triple threat of perfect casting and excellent voicework.

What I really loved about the game, however, was Valve’s ability to point the player in the right direction and let them know how they need to progress within the game without explicit instructions. There is no HUD display, no on screen control prompts (bar the odd hit square to open door prompt), no on-screen text, no status screen. This is the genius of Portal 2’s design. It is up to you to figure everything out, but at the same time the game design facilitates this without explicit instructions or incessant handholding – which ultimately leads to a far richer and rewarding experience for the player when they do manage to complete a puzzle or find the exit to an area.

The subtleties of design layouts, audio cues, recurring motifs, passing comments by Wheatly or GLaDOS – all help to nudge you in the right direction. Although some of the puzzles had me scratching my head for a few minutes, not once did I have to consult a guide or look up where I had to go to next. That's not to say it’s an easy game. Although at times tricky, all the puzzles can be solved with lateral thought and the logical application of the mechanics you have learned about whilst getting up to this point – something which all puzzle orientated games ought to do, but few actually achieve on a par with the experience that Portal 2 offers.

Similarly, the backstory of Aperture Science, what happened to the old laboratories in the 70s, the fate of its founder Cave Johnson and even the origins of GLaDOS are all slowly revealed to the player, not through reams of text or clumsy exposition, but by environment – as you explore the ruined, desolate and crumbling laboratories deep under ground, the posters and signs on the walls, the recorded messages of Johnson – it all weaves a rich texture to the story that the player feels they discover and piece together themselves rather than just being directly told about.

And that’s really what makes Portal 2 a unique and satisfying experience. After playing the first game and falling in love with it, I didn't think the second could be that much better. In that respect it exceeded my expectations – in my view, Portal 2 is possibly one of the most finely crafted game experiences out there - especially in regards to inferring its narrative through its game design.

23 Jan 2012

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