And You Thought I Hated the First Portal
For the record, I actually enjoyed Portal. If you can tune out the Internet hype and lower your expectations you’ll find a genuinely clever game with a satirical wit that subtly grows as the player progresses through the test chambers. As I’ve stated before, the Internet just can’t handle subtle. They took all of the satire and throwaway jokes and ran with it, turning what was once good into obnoxious memes.
Valve took notice of this. “People liked the funny,” says Gabe Newell, who inexplicably sounds like a Dalek in my head, “Up the funny! UP! THE! FUN! NY!” And up the funny they did. If the first Portal was satire, the sequel is parody. Bravely tossing subtlety aside, Valve puts the comedy right in the player’s face to ensure that you don’t miss a second of the funny. Enter: Wheatley.
Jesus Christ, Wheatley.
Wheatley is a robotic eyeball that emotes through spinning and blinking which would have been pretty great had Valve left it at that. Instead, they hire Stephen Merchant to adlib Wheatley’s lines, a British Hank Kimble that narrates the game as you play. Some would argue that’s part of Wheatley’s charm. Without much exaggeration, here’s a sample of said charm:
“Alright, so how are you then? Good? Good. I’m good. You’re good. We’re both good. That’s good. Look out for that hole, now. That’s a good girl. Ha, see, I told you you were good. Oh dear, I said you twice. You you. Must be a bug in my programming. Watch it! You almost fell down that hole. That would have been bloody embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Oh, I said bloody. Look, I don’t mean to swear but I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately what with all the subjects dying and oy! Another hole! They really let this place go, didn’t they. Sometimes I think I’m the only one still alive. Still alive. Why does that sound familiar? Oh, but hey there! There’s you. You’re alive! There’s two of us. We’re going to get out of here. Take a left here. Now we’re walking. Now we’re about to take a right. We’re at the part where we’re going to take a right. We’re taking a right. No, wait, you’ve turned around. No, no, now you’re going the right way. Boy, this is exciting, isn’t it?”
If that doesn’t split your sides, don’t worry! Valve created two back-up comedians, GLaDOS and Cave Johnson. GLaDOS, embittered by her defeat in the first game, assaults the player with repetitious irony and insults. The pattern works something like this:
Step 1: GLaDOS taunts, threatens, and insults Chell as she enters a new test chamber.
Step 2: GLaDOS taunts, threatens, and insults Chell as she completes the test chamber.
Step 3: See Step 1.
Everything that was ominous about GLaDOS has been removed with a jackhammer. She’s more childish than anything, even at her most vicious, kind of like Cobra Commander but with touch of wit. And that’s the thing—individually, her insults and tricks are amusing. The problem is that Valve utterly fails to control her and she, too, becomes a parody of what she once was.
There’s a chance this might have been deliberate, a way of preparing the player for Cave Johnson. Cave Johnson is instant parody. His gross understatements and patronizing attitude toward the test subjects are completely ridiculous but by this point I was actually okay with it. It’s like Die Hard and Die Hard 2. Die Hard was a brilliant movie and anyone who’d argue otherwise obviously has some sort of problem or is your mother. Die Hard 2, though…well, it wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t very good, either. It had John McClane being more John McClane and placed in an even more unlikely scenario, odds stacked even more against him. That’s what we wanted. We wanted the same, but more of it. More of the same.
A bit older and wiser, I didn’t want Portal 2 for precisely this reason. Portal, despite my own personal misgivings towards it, was good enough. It was clever, a bit witty, and ended well before it became tiresome. There were some areas that could have been improved upon but nothing that would warrant a sequel.
So Valve gave us Die Hard 2. Fun, familiar, and acceptable, even if unnecessary.