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.