Anatomy of a Blockbuster: Portal 2

Anatomy of a Blockbuster: Portal 2

By Stuart Richardson

June 15th 2011 at 8:00AM

Develop's monthly dissection of a recent hit game

Portal 2


Publisher: Valve
Developer: Valve
Format: PC/Mac, PS3, Xbox 360
Price: £34.99 – £49.99

Develop's index of all games featured in Anatomy of a Blockbuster can be found here.


THE SENSATION

When Portal was released as part of The Orange Box, 2007’s uber-generous multipack of games on one disk, Valve weren’t expecting too much of it.

Squeezed in beside the latter parts of the monolithic Half-Life saga and the online multiplayer phenomenon Team Fortress 2, it was simply filling out the numbers.

With a play time of around four-to-five hours, it was as much tech demo as full, standalone title. When it became one of the most talked about games of the decade, its developer seemed just as surprised as everyone else. Portal shocked.

Simple gameplay with almost limitless applications and an expertly realised black comedy tale of science gone mad fused. A small but perfectly formed game reset the bar very high indeed.

THE GAME

It was good news then, for Valve, series and studio fans, and for those being introduced to the franchise with Portal 2, that the sequel met – and some may argue exceeded – expectations.

Taking the physics-defying gameplay mechanic of Portal – in which a sequence of puzzle rooms are traversed by way of a gun which fires doorways in walls, ceilings and floors – and applying it with assurance to a far larger canvas, Portal 2 developed the series narrative and gameplay significantly.

The introduction of ‘gels’, brightly coloured pastes that can be applied to surfaces to make them by turns bouncy, slick or able to hold portal doorways, aided that development and opened up new possibilities for brain-twisting humour that has become a hallmark of the Portal name.

Along with the co-op campagin mode, Portal 2 represented a confident and convincing attempt at the difficult second installment.

THE STUDIO

Valve is the studio of the quixotic, the unapologetic romantics embracing the Valve Time disconnect between when games are promised and when they actually appear.

They do so because they know that, so far at least, the quality of every single thing the company has touched makes it worth the wait. Half Life. Team Fortress. Left 4 Dead. Counter-Strike. Portal. These games and their sequels, spin-offs and updates have cemented themselves within the popular psyche, and on all counts with good reason.

The games are released when they are ready. And, if all that wasn’t enough, there is one final word that perfectly encapsulates the addictive ingenuity of Valve: Steam.

UNIQUE SELLING POINT

A gun that shoots portals on walls. The vitriol of GLaDOS. The Moon. The idiocy of Wheatley. Co-op testing chambers. The most well controlled and entertaining utter madness this side of the cuckoo’s nest.

The draw of the Portal series is, on a surface level, the draw of pitting your wits against those of the game’s designers. Thanks to the skill of those designers and the game’s writing team, that desire is soon turned against a megalomaniacal AI.

Before any noticable time has passed, that desire is compeating against an unadulteraded love for the various characters trying to kill you. Also, for a box with a heart on it. Love and portals.

WHY IT WORKS

The FPS genre has fallen into a rut or two over its lifespan. There is an undeniable thrill in seeing enemies tumble away before the hot lead death flowing from a boom-stick at your fingertips.

No thrill can maintain endless momentum, however. In the ‘90s there were endless clones of Wolfenstein and Doom. Then came Halo. Then came endless clones of Halo. Then came Call of Duty, and so the cycle continued. Within that eternal return, however, Valve games have managed to avoid the threat of turing stale where many others have not.

Portal 2 works because there is goo you can run really fast on. Because Cave Johnson is a hilarious counterpoint to GLaDOS. Because Cake is hardly even mentioned. It is Portal evolved, not repeated.

TRY IT YOURSELF

Throw out the shedule. Crack your knuckles. Think hard. What the world doesn’t need is another military-themed FPS set in the Middle East.

Anyone can tell you that. What does it need? What’s fun? Jumping really high is fun. What’s scary? Spiders are scary. Zebra spiders jump pretty high, relatively speaking. So what would a game about fighting massive zebra spiders in a pair of special super-jumping boots be like? Probably rubbish. Still, it’s a place to start, and it represents a semi-serious attempt to bust out of the cookie-cutter design mentality.

Take a page out of Valve’s book. Be brave. Be stupid. Be romantic. It probably won’t work, but what if it does?