Now We’re Playing With Portals!

My son beat Portal 1 again… in about 3 hours. Then he turned to me and said, “maybe it’s time we get Portal 2.”

So we did that thing. We bought Portal 2 and set him up with it, and he played it for a while, but he’s got this thing where he plays something, then he watches vids, then back to playing. Since the vids he watches are Minecraft, when he swings to the next game playing cycle, the wind blows due Minecraft.

I seized the day. Or night. Definitely the night, but mostly the opportunity.

He’s not playing Portal 2 at the moment, he’s making a working Space Invaders game in Minecraft with fire charges to shoot down (set on fire) the aliens, so surely he wouldn’t begrudge me a chance to try it out for a few minutes, right?

And a working Sentry Turret. Yeah, he made one of those too. With a trip wire instead of a laser, but if you cross that sucker it auto fires flaming arrows. So, yeah.

Anyway, I booted the game up surreptitiously, feeling like I was sneaking in some illicit pleasure on the side.

It says something about your life when your illicit pleasures comes from playing Portal 2 while your son is in the same room.

I installed Bulletstorm this last weekend as well. That WAS an illicit pleasure, since every time I grabbed a desert zombie with the energy whip and kicked it in the balls, I had to look behind me to see if my son noticed.

Portal 2.

One word to describe a game. One word.


That word gets thrown around a lot, but this game… this game takes the prize.

There aren’t a ton of surprises in here for me. My son watched a Let’s Play Portal 2 series on YouTube while I was in the same room, with the sound on. I didn’t watch more than two or three minutes here or there over his shoulder, but I HEARD the entire story unfold. I came to love each utterance of the irrepressible Cave Johnson, and wished I worked for him in Human Resources. That right there would be an entertaining job.

Doesn’t matter if I know what’s coming. This isn’t a game, this is reality, viewed through a screen that turns from 2d into a window because you forget this is a game. Seamlessly.

Never played anything like this.

I played the first Portal, so I knew what was up with the gun and the portals and the cube and platforms and lasers and such. Each room a puzzle, testing, testing, one two three.

What drew me in was how alive the world is. The most featureless room is bustling with activity, the walls are alive with the sound of screaming (cue Julie Andrews in an orange jumpsuit twirling around…).

Well, they would be screaming if those walls could talk. Instead they move… as hidden arms fumble around trying to pull wall panels in after them, with mixed success.

The smallest touches aren’t noticed as small touches, they are alive. The game has no apparent artifice. It’s natural, alive, unscripted, it breathes and draws you in with the very BEST parts of escaping from reality.

I destroyed each room puzzle because I resented them holding me back from finding out what was going to happen next, what would I see next, what would the panel robots do, where would Wheatley be peeking out at me from, what graffiti would I see, what incredibly snarky thing would GlaDOS say next?

Immersive. But maybe an even better word would be personality.

These are not voice actors reading a script, these are living, breathing neurotic robot AI personalities that grow with every move you make.

And yet, it’s too seamless, too brilliant, too perfect NOT to be scripted. Every single millisecond is scripted, but it’s done so damn well the illusion of an organic, growing environment is perfect.

I started playing it last night, and at some point five and a half hours passed, and I don’t know where they went.

That hasn’t happened in years.

Somewhere in there, I realized this playthrough was precious. It would only happen once. I began taking my time to sightsee, looking at every nook and cranny, peering into cases and looking in ashtrays. Clicking on doors.

Frequently I was rewarded with recorded messages from Cave Johnson, or hilarious trophy engravings. Everything rang with truth. Not THE truth, but A truth.

Cave Johnson might seem like a caricature, but when I worked for one large company, Onan Generators, a company that had started as a small family-owned business, they had a little-used section of the massive plant that showed products from over the decades as the company grew and branched out, and some of those were as crazy as anything Aperture put out. Some of the earliest ones were made for and at the specific request of the US Army. The tales told about old man Onan rivals the personality of Cave Johnson, and while playing the game you might be jolted out of your immersion thinking it’s too far-fetched, but what I felt was an amazing synchronicity of experience.

I had worked for this man before.

I had seen these ancient and abandoned sections of the plant before. I had found the chairs tucked away behind decommissioned boilers where old maintenance men had slept off their drunk on the clock. I had seen the old and amusingly outdated warning signs.


This company was a real company, made mythic. It was Paul Bunyan, a tall tale that held more than a kernal of truth in every personality, in each increasingly unlikely but hilarious situation.

I know it goes completely off the rails later. Heck, it goes off the rails when you see the impression your sleeping form made in the mattress at minute two. But before it does, it pulls you in and sells the world. I bought into this place.

When the world changed from the ‘modern’ company testing rooms to the early years, and the architecture and environments changed, they had already had me but now I didn’t want to go.

If I wasn’t a responsible adult that has to have a semi-functional brain at work, I would have played it on through the second morning star and straight on to daylight.

Oh, yeah. There were portal puzzles and testing rooms? I think. I’m not sure. They were all cool and felt awesome to work through, but I didn’t let them slow me down. I couldn’t.

The puzzles were standing between me and story.

I don’t how else to say it. I want this movie. I want this TV series. I don’t need the game part of the game, the game is the vehicle they used to deliver this fascinating story full of awesome personalities. But if the game wasn’t there, if I wasn’t wrestling with the game part of it in my thirst for the next part of the story, would it have grabbed me so strongly? No. No, probably not.

Is there an Oscar award for actors who lent their voice to a video game? I’m sure there is, maybe not an Oscar but I’m sure there is an award somewhere, there are awards for everything, and whoever voiced GlaDOS deserves it.

The power, the nuances behind her voice in those early scenes, the sense that she is programmed to be emotionlessly professional while underneath is this endless river of venom wanting revenge. Ant it’s funny! Oh my God, is it funny. It’s awe inspiring. Her delivery isn’t a delivery, it feels like she’s talking to you RIGHT NOW.

I caught myself a few times standing there, not thinking about the puzzle because I wanted to see what one of those AI would say or do next. A few times Wheatley would say something that would prod me to thinking, “Oh shit, I should figure out a way out of this mess, okay, what was I doing again?”

I don’t know what to say. If you played it when it came out, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t played it, there is probably a good reason for it.

Immersive. Personality.

I am sitting here trying to recall.

When was the last time I had this feeling of immersion in World of Warcraft?

When was the last time I lost all sense of time, I just had to stay, had to see what would happen next, forgot what I was doing or that I was playing a game and just gorged on a damn good story that took me away?

The Warlock Green Fire solo quest through Black Temple. That sucked me in just as much. But briefer.

Okay, so what else? What before that?

Some of the solo scenario challenges in the Isle of Thunder sequence came close, because they combined puzzle-solving with story, but they were too short on story and too long on mindless bash fights.

I can’t really think of any more moments.

That’s not a hit on World of Warcraft, because it’s a different kind of game. WoW isn’t meant to take you out of yourself, because everything is designed to make you choose what to do if questing or grinding, and when raiding everything is built around long term preparation followed by brief moments of explosive action.

In WoW, there are few times where you don’t have an actual quest chain to follow or a map you have to call up. The world rarely hunts you down to drag you kicking and screaming into a quest, you are always seeking out the world and trying to make it notice you.

Raiding really shows this. You have to think, prepare, gear, mess with stats, plan strategies. It’s a football game where your team gets in a huddle before the play and decides on what to do as a team. You break, make the play, there is a furious burst of action and then the whistle blows and you all get together to see how you did while catching your breath. Then someone needs a bio break and someone else has to go to the door to get a pizza.

A different game, not a worse game. But it CAN have moments like it, the Warlock Green Fire questline really showed it. Those moments in Black Temple were intense. And I remember a similar feeling during the Rogue legendary questline when stealthing into the Worgen capital city on an assassination mission.

Is it only solo scenarios that can bring that level of seamless immersion in a scripted sequence of events? Is it possible to have that kind of immersion when working as a team with other players?

Is it the multiplayer aspects of WoW and the allowances we have to make that prevents total immersion in the game world?

I don’t know. I do know I love both games, and I’ll still be playing WoW long after I’ve beaten Portal 2.

I already know one thing, though.

The story of Portal 2 will stay with me and have me thinking about it long after I’m done playing it, while I couldn’t really tell you what the overall story of Mists of Pandaria has been so far without thinking about how to describe it.

Like, we got blamed for some sha by the Shado-Pan because we can’t control our feelings, but they were hear all the time, and Klaxxi invade all the time but Pandarians feel no sense of threat because Shado-Pan so slow down and relax, but trolls and Thunder King bits, and lots of mogu hid somewhere on this small island for thousands of years and nobody thought to hunt them down and finish them, and then sha, and some sha, and Horde sha bits, and then timeless rare hunting and easy-peasy gear upgrades.

And pets.

I’m watching other characters tell a compelling story in Mists of Pandaria, or reading them in books published outside the game.

In Portal 2, it feels more like I’m living it, or more to the point having the story happen to me, with sharp pointy bits.

Okay, 2000 words. Too long, executus, too long. I must add videos!

7 thoughts on “Now We’re Playing With Portals!

  1. Every once in a while an actor gets a role that makes you think “They were born for this”. JK Simmons got his with J Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman movies, so I was completely amazed when he got the role of a lifetime again as Cave Johnson.


    • Continuing the tangent, I always thought his role of a lifetime was Schillinger (Oz, although a lot of actors had “roles of a lifetime” on that show, not the easiest show to watch but man, those actors showed up and performed!) but he’s been good in everything I’ve seen/heard him in with the possible exception of The Closer, good show but the role didn’t seem to be a great fit for him. Talented dude, even makes those stupid State Farm commercials relatively watchable.


  2. I think you covered it well. For the record, the Multiplayer campaign in Portal 2 is set after the solo player. It will make sense later.

    I don’t have anything else to add, or recommend, for now.


  3. Yeah, I remember that feeling. And since you got it I’ll pass along another one.

    Memoria, by Daedalic. It’s a point and click. A couple of the puzzles are frustrating enough they kicked me out of the story – but the story brought me back in. And when i was done – and when I’d seen both the endings (because I got warned to save so I could see both choices), I sat back and gloried in having participated.

    Yeah, I think that’s the best word for that sort of immersion. Not played. Not listened. Not watched.

    Participated. Like I participated in Portal 2.

    I think there are others out there like that. Not a lot, but games designed to let you stop and look around and become immersed without feeling like it’s a race for survival and everything has to be seen later on review or you lose. Maybe some of the rest of the readers here will suggest as well.


  4. I’ve not played it, but my kiddo got it on launch day cause he loved the first one so much. He’s a huge fan and I may have bought him turrets for the past few holidays.


  5. Portal 2 has a great multiplayer mode. You play a pair of robots, each of which has its own portal gun, with different colors for your portals so you can tell them apart. The puzzles are designed to require teamwork to solve and they certainly do. The game has some great built in ways to point at and otherwise indicate things/locations, but when I played through with a friend we found it really helpful to be able to talk to each other on Skype while playing.

    I am not sure if you have the computers set up in such a way that you could play two computer multiplayer with your son, but if you could, you might find it a really worthwhile experience.

    It represents a different storyline than the main game. It’s not anywhere near as epic, as you are ‘just’ two robot minions, but I enjoyed it a great deal and the game is a lot of fun with another person.


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