Aperture Laboratories has had some remodeling done… and it’s not pretty.
DISCLAIMER: The following review contains heavy SPOILERS for both Portal and Portal 2, as well as a discussion of human scientific testing. Please proceed at your own risk.
As you probably know, if you read my review, I loved the first Portal game. It’s smart, sciency atmosphere, awesome puzzle gameplay and portal physics, sarcastic AI companion, and perfect touch of delightfully dark humor made it one of my favorite games to date, if not my absolute favorite ever. So, of course, I assumed that I would love-love-love the sequel, Portal 2, just as much.
I was wrong.
Let me explain.
Portal 2 takes place an undisclosed, but certainly long, period of time after the first game. At the end of Portal (see what I said about SPOILERS?), Chell, the player character, destroys and escapes the testing facility, only to be dragged back belowground once more. At the beginning of Portal 2, we see that she has been in some kind of coma, or hypersleep, inside Aperture Laboratories. She is awakened by a small robot named Wheatley, who needs her help to escape to the surface. But they can only get out if they retrieve the ‘gun that makes holes’ (i. e., the Portal Device), which has been lost somewhere in the abandoned and overgrown facility.
Within the first few minutes of gameplay, Portal 2 is already unlike its predecessor. Where the first game was full of white walls and clean surfaces and an extreme minimalism which I found quite interesting, Portal 2 has turned that concept on its head. The clean, Spartan facility has been wrecked. There are vines and plants and smashed machinery everywhere. Although many of the testing chambers, and an unnamed AI (not GLaDOS), remain functional after what the AI believes has been ‘the apocalypse’, there is hardly a room which has not been ravaged by destruction or partially reclaimed by nature. The addition of new characters, namely Wheatley and the AI, is quite jarring, if you’re used to the loneliness and long silences of the first game. Even many of the textures and sound design from the original Portal have been completely changed. But, I was willing to roll with it. After all, sequels can’t always be quite as good as the first game. And aesthetics often change between games in any series.
And if that was where it had stayed, with the addition of new, talkative characters and a slight change in aesthetics, I would have been fine with that. It was rather unfortunate, therefore, when Wheatley (again, SPOILERS!!!) decided to take control of the facility, implant GLaDOS’s (still living) artificial mind into a child’s science project potato battery, and dump us both down a 4,000 foot shaft into the real heart of Aperture Laboratories.
Beneath the Enrichment Center, the modern underground testing and sciencing facilities of Aperture Laboratories, there lies an abandoned salt mine, chock full of dark and disturbing secrets. In the first Portal game, it is not made clear why exactly human subjects are being handed portal guns and shoved out into the testing chambers. My dad’s rather interesting theory, that they were being trained to use the gun in various situations so that they could become some kind of soldiers or operatives for Aperture, was disproved in the first game when it turned out (SPOILERS) that the cake really is a lie, and the only thing waiting for test subjects at the end of the testing track was certain fiery death. Portal 2 confirms my suspicions that this is all a case of ‘gratuitous sciencing’, or the ‘we do what we must because we can’ mentality.
The salt mine beneath the Enrichment Center hides the abandoned and condemned facilities of the Aperture Science Innovators, and the companies later incarnations, which have been blocked off and hidden for years. The company was founded, as far as I can tell, in the early-to-mid 1940s by enterprising businessman and inventor Cave Johnson, and used to recruit human test subjects, who were subjected to all kinds of disturbing and horrible experiments in the name of ‘science’ and ‘progress’, as well as used to test Cave’s promising invention, the Aperture Science Quantum Tunneling Device, which bears an interesting resemblance to the more streamlined Portal Device of later years. As you explore this area of the game, Cave’s cheerful, callous indifference regarding human life becomes shockingly apparent. As you come across old company policy signs and listen to the prerecorded messages of Cave Johnson himself, little pieces and bits of information fall together into a perfect picture of Aperture Science in the ‘old days’. The storytelling of this section of the game is absolutely brilliant.
However, I’m not really sure I’m comfortable with the story that Valve decided to tell.
In fact, I know I’m not.
“Aria!” you are probably saying, “It’s okay. It’s just a game. It’s just something somebody made up.” Yeah. It is just a game. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some historical background to all this. And that’s what makes it so disturbing.
I was first introduced to the Portal games by a YouTube video, a theory about the Companion Cube. The Cube, which, despite being a silent, inanimate object, has become “one of the most popular characters in the gaming community”, and during the first part of this video, the creator was exploring why this is, why people adore the silent, heart-covered Cube so much. He talked about scientific and psychological testing in the 1950s, back when “science was still interesting because there were no limits on human testing”, and when people had been put into extreme isolation for days on end, just to see what would happen. The creator of the video argued that because Chell (and, by extention, the player) are in such extreme isolation during the first game, as soon as they are handed a little plastic box with a couple of hearts on it and told to look after it, they develop an emotional attachment to the Cube, and come to see it as a friend in their loneliness. I’m not going to rehash the whole video here. What I wanted to show you was that little throwaway line, the historical precident: Back in the 1950s when science was still interesting because there were no limits on human testing…
And that’s the little bit of information I had bouncing around in my brain when I began to explore the Aperture Science Innovators facilities. And that’s the little bit of information that made all, or most of, the difference.
Because something like that could have really happened.
I didn’t sleep very well after that. I wandered around feeling disturbed and empty and depressed. I put the game away and told myself I would never, never, never play it again. The dark, delightful humor of the first game had been taken and destroyed, and replaced by nothing but darkness.
I did finish the game, later on. Because I’m stubborn like that, I guess. But I was, quite frankly, disappointed with the climax and final battle. The game didn’t have that Portal flavor anymore. It had become just another sequel, the plot grasping at straws to keep hanging on a little bit longer, a wordy fight between GLaDOS and Wheatley to explain stuff quickly and without showing it (telling, not showing, as the author in me would admonish), the wordy explanation tacked on afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the end of the game itself, the humor of the singing turrets, exhilarating rise in the elevator into an abandoned aboveground shed in the middle of nowhere, and my reunion with my dear companion cube (I know why I love it now, though, so maybe that defeats my emotional response a bit). Even the “SPAAAACE!!!!” part had me giggling. But it felt as if, after their brilliant display of disturbing storytelling in the middle of the game, the creators of the game run out of ideas, or at least ideas that make slightly more sense than shooting a portal at the moon.
I know there are people who love-love-love this game, and I can see why. But it just wasn’t for me. I still love Portal, and I can understand and (kind of) appreciate your extra-dark humor in hindsight, Portal 2, but that doesn’t mean I’ll play you ever again.
Plot, technical development, storytelling: 4 out of 5 stars
“I’m in SPAAAAACE!!! But work on your plot, please.”
Personal reactions: 2 out of 5 stars
“I hate science now. Thanks, Cave Johnson.”
ESRB says: +10 for Fantasy Violence, Mild Language
Really??? I actually had to look that up, because I didn’t know. I assumed it was T for Teen, but it’s rated LOWER than the first game??????? (It is true about the mild language, by the way. Cave Johnson, GLaDOS, you don’t have to cuss to get your point across. GLaDOS, you didn’t cuss in the first game, so why are you doing it now?)
I say: I would definitely kick it up a notch, to T for Teen at least, or even M for disturbing themes. I wonder how many young kids have played this. Am I the only person who was at all disturbed by this game, even temporarily? Anyway, use your discernment. It probably depends on the maturity of the player, but I would say more like +16, to be honest…
Here is digital cake. 🎂 🎂 🎂
Also, I happen to have an Instagram account, now! If you’d like to check it out, just swing by http://www.instagram.com/ariaemaher/ And if you like Portal stuff, I have a Portal-themed painting I did that you can check out over there…