With just over a week to release, we speak to Portal 2 writer Chet Faliszek and play through the game's typically slick opening level. Consider our appetites comprehensively whetted.
Portal ranks in my top five favourite games for a number of conventional reasons – humour, innovation, unselfconsciousness, puzzle design – but I also loved the one thing about it that came under criticism: it's four hours long. I have enormous respect for that. A hell of a lot of games outstay their welcome. Portal left you satisfied, but still wanting more – there wasn't an ounce of padding on that game's lean, elegant frame.
“I wish we did believe in padding. It would be a lot easier,” jokes Valve's Chet Faliszek, who was in London for the final pre-launch push for Portal 2 last week. “I suggested in Portal 1 that we made all the walks to the elevators thirty feet longer; that would easily have padded the game out by like 15 minutes.”
Keeping the vibe alive
When Portal 2 was announced, then, I was more than a little concerned that it might compromise on this purity – that after another five or six hours, the jokes might get old, the portal puzzles predictable. That would be heartbreaking. But it looks like I needn't have worried. It might be a bigger game, but the pacing is still snappy, and the writing is perfectly judged.
"You know when you go see a three-hour movie, but you're enjoying it so much that it flies by in an hour and a half? That's the feeling we want."
“While we were developing Portal 2 we really wanted to make sure that we maintained that vibe,” says Chet, talking about the original game's short-and-sweetness. “That was really important. So we were constantly testing the pacing to make sure that it felt right, that it was never too short or too long.
“You know when you go see a three-hour movie, but you're enjoying it so much that it flies by in an hour and a half? That's the feeling we want, where you get your money's worth and it's a big game, but it doesn't feel boring, that there's no filler. It's fast-paced, and well-paced.”
The jokes certainly haven't worn thin. Quite apart from the entirely new gameplay features – prisms and lasers, surface-altering gels that change the physics of the environment and, of course, the co-op – it turns out that the script is funny and well-executed enough to turn Portal 2 from interesting to must-play all by itself.
“Aperture Sciences welcomes you to the end of the world”
Given the nature of the game, there's not much that I can say about the opening level of Portal 2 without spoiling something – so if you can handle the extra week's wait, you might not want to read further. But I'll avoid spilling any plot details.
After being in stasis for what appears to be several hundred years, Chell, the original test subject, awakens to find the Aperture Science Labs in a state of abject disrepair, overrun by creeping foliage. The test labs are overgrown and decaying, and pieces of the wall and ceiling have collapsed – it's a far cry from the clinical, sterile vibe of the original Portal.
A calming robotic voice welcomes you to the post-apocalyptic world, reading out smirk-worthy speculations about the fate of mankind – perhaps the earth above is being continuously pelted by meteors, or you are an alien visitor examining the ruins of civilisation – but insisting nonetheless that there is still science to be done.
The plot is ably summed up by Wheatley, a robotic eyeball voiced by Stephen Merchant who is your motor-mouthed companion for most of the game's opening twenty minutes, as you run through what used to be GLaDOS's chamber: “You'll never guess what took her down in the end. A human. Unbelievable. And then nothing happened for a very, very long time. And now there's us, escaping now. So that's you caught up.”
“That's why we have all the explosions”
Merchant's brilliant, barely-coherent rambling could hardly be further from GLaDOS's measured, robotic intonation. Even though he's essentially just a sphere of white metal, Wheatley is wonderfully, expressively animated – Pixar has nothing on this. His breakneck-pace narration keep the game's fairly simple opening puzzles interesting, driving you effortlessly through the amusingly ironic set-up that results in GLaDOS's resurrection.
“If you've not played Portal, you can jump right in here and we take you through all the essential Portal elements that you need to learn, and we do it in a very compressed fashion,” says Faliszek. “And if you have played Portal, we don't want to bore you, so that's why we have all the explosions. And Wheatley.
“There are still times when it's a little bit more lab-like. It's about pacing and breaking up the experience. We wanted to thrust you into craziness straight away, but that switches on and off.”
So what does Portal 2's level tell us about the game? That it's as wonderfully voiced and well-written as ever, certainly. But it doesn't show how Portal 2 expands upon its predecessor's scope.
“It sure doesn't show the full extent of the game, not by a long shot,” Chet asserts. “None of the new gameplay elements are in there. But we're only showing the very beginning here.”
A new coat of paint
For him, it's the paint-like gels that really change things up. As shown in those ever-so-helpful promotional Aperture Science diagrams in the gallery below, these change the physical nature of surfaces, making you think about more than just whether you can put a portal on them or not.
“The gels and paints are my favourite [new addition],” says Chet. “Portal's a lot about positioning, interacting with surfaces, and paint changes the properties of those surfaces. There's a moment when the gels are introduced where there's blue gel laid down in the chamber, and all you have to do is jump out and bounce through to the other side. But I've seen playtesters sit there and try to solve the puzzle with portals for ages, not realising that there are these other elements now. It changes the way that you think about the game.”
When the game settles into a more familiar testing-chamber rhythm after all the explosions and novelty of the opening section, it's these gameplay innovations that will sustain Portal 2's appeal. It's rare to be able to say this with absolutely no reservations, but this is going to be one of the best things out this year, and almost certainly the funniest. I'll be booking a day off on the 21st.