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

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


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."

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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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