'Portal 2': A Video Game That Gets Comedy Right

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The new game, out this week from Seattle-area game company Valve, avoids the cliched techniques used by other titles to inspire real laughs

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Valve Corporation


When video games try to be funny, they tend to get laughed at, not with. Maybe a "hilarious" catch phrase repeats like a talking key chain, or the gameplay is so lousy that it's not worth fighting through for the jokes.

2009's Ghostbusters game tried beating the odds with brute force. Harold Ramis worked on the script, and most of the original film's cast returned as voice actors, yet the game still had the same failings of its comedic peers. Its cumbersome action scenes were riddled with annoying voice quips, and the game's overlong cut scenes were just as easily skipped with a button tap. Between the commotion and the ho-hum jokes, players never got comfortable enough—nor cared enough about the characters—to crack a smile.

In an interview, Ramis admitted that he was astounded by the amount of text in modern games, but his failure wasn't about stretching himself too thin. Ramis, and most game studios who toss a funny writer into the developers' den, don't get it. Game makers have to leap the hurdles of interactivity, immersion, and solid play before they can convince a player to laugh.

If you want to make a funny video game, study Seattle-area game maker Valve. Their catalog for the past few years has revealed an interesting and effective range of comedy: Team Fortress 2, which satirizes the online combat it obsesses over; Left 4 Dead, a zombie-apocalypse shooter that mines its teamwork moments for a lot of dark comedy; and Portal, the sleeper hit that drolly prods players as they solve puzzles.

In particular, I dubbed Portal the 2007 game of the year—and I wasn't the only one—because its experiments in design were so refreshing. No combat. A very cool mechanic (use a gun to create doors that link together, and use those doors to traverse otherwise impassible spaces). A humorous narrator who taunted, teased, and threatened players through the journey. A brief length that ensured neither the jokes nor the puzzles grew tiresome.

This week brings us the sequel, and certainly, some of Portal 2's success comes from delivering more of the same. But its risks, characters, and humanity are all new turns for an already innovative series, and the payoff makes this 2011's best game so far.

A robotic sphere named Wheatley follows players around for much of the game as both a guide and a comic foil. This character is an astounding technical achievement, animated in real time on game systems and computers, and its emotive animations are on par with Wall-E. By looks, he's a single human eyeball with tiny arms attached, but his blinks, shakes, twitches, and gestures reveal more humanity than the character's superb voice acting by Stephen Merchant, and that's saying something.

He and the game's chief villain, a supercomputer named GlaDOS, bicker in tandem as you escape a testing facility and solve portal-related puzzles once again. Why are they so funny? Because Valve understands exactly where to implement their funniest moments so players absorb them mid-game. When you fail a puzzle, the game knows how you'll probably fail it, and GlaDOS appropriately mocks you for, say, jumping too soon. As you're introduced to a new landscape, you're apt to stop and look around, which is when Wheatley pops up to complain about his new boss at the testing facility, shouting sardonic things about robot "hate crimes." Even the tutorial proves ripe for Portal 2's dry humor, not just asking players to "look up" or "walk there" but even "admire and appreciate this art."

Some of the best laughs come when the game's puzzle pieces click into place--not "punchline" funny but "I can't believe I got that!" incredulity. Portal 2 raises the puzzle bar by expanding the original game's linked-door concept. This time, you don't just create those doors to move around, but also to arrange brand-new elements like lasers, bridges, and globs of reactive paint. Each new twist debuts one at a time, and by the end, the twists bind: run across a high-speed paint patch into a portal, which launches you into a bounce pad, then collide with a redirected bridge so that you land at the right spot.

Such gleeful Rube Goldberg moments are carried by a narrative that gives the story's robots a good bit of humanity, and if that were Portal 2 delivered, fans would have enough to cheer for. The narrative balances all of these puzzles, characters, jokes, and discoveries quite well; one plot point comes off a bit too overt, but not because it's overwritten or badly acted, which already makes Portal 2's story better than most of its peers.

But wait, there's more: An additional, hours-long section of the game, complete with its own slew of memorable jokes, requires two people to play through cooperatively. As a nice touch, even if you're not in the same room, Portal 2 gives players a set of gestures and abilities to replicate on-the-couch moments like "go over there!" or "press this button on the count of three" or even "sweet move, let's fist bump."

Unfortunately, Valve sort of drops the ball (or, in Portal's case, the companion cube) with this section. Unlike the solo portion, players are given very little narrative to drive the action forward, let alone explanations or tips to help brand-new players understand Portal's many puzzly elements. You're assumed to be a huge fan who will run from puzzle to puzzle mindlessly.

Worse, enjoying this mode is kinda tough. You're expected to play through five to six hours of puzzles with a single friend, but with twice the brains, Valve has made this section twice as difficult. Here lie the series' most whacked-out, unbelievable puzzles by far, and kudos to Valve for pushing fans, but you'll need a mental break midway through.

That being said, if you can play Portal 2's co-op in the ideal "one pal all the way through" way, then that shared joy, and GlaDOS's repeated ribbings, result in humorous moments previously unseen in any video game, book, or film. Co-op comedy's never been done before, after all, and Valve deserves credit for its slightly uneven results. By the time another game designer tries a similar tack, surely Valve will have beaten them to another comedic innovation.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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