The Underbelly of Aperture Revisited: Celebrating Portal 2
Imagine having to follow up a legendary piece of media with something better. Can you put yourself in a place where fans ask you to take the thing you made that revolutionized a genre and make a follow-up that’s not only on par, but continues to push the envelope? That’s where Portal 2 was as it entered the gaming community’s collective radar. The game had an enormously high bar to clear with the original Portal, which was renowned for its excellent design, ingenious mechanics, and bizarre and somber, yet cynically humorous themes. Fortunately for all of Valve and Portal’s many fans, Gabe Newell’s team was well up to the task and years later, we celebrate the amazing sequel that was Portal 2.
Interestingly enough, Portal 2’s development began immediately after the original Portal’s release. With the success of the original, which was produced by a team of less than ten people, Portal 2 was staffed with over 30 team members who were split into subgroups focused on different aspects of the game. Project Manager Erik Johnson confirmed a fear at the prospect of handling Portal 2 in a 2010 interview with The Guardian. In the interview, Johnson spoke of the goals in conceptualizing Portal 2, saying that “the challenge for us was to re-surprise people, which is pretty terrifying for a developer!” There was a lot of consideration in where to go with the second game to make it as fresh and amazing as the original.
One somewhat shocking idea that the team played with was omitting the portal mechanic from Portal 2 altogether. Journalist Geoff Keighley told the story in The Final Hours of Portal 2, an iPad app that detailed quite a few behind-the-scenes aspects of Portal 2’s development. Reportedly, the game was originally slated to be a prequel centered around a new mechanic F-Stop. Keighley was specifically asked to not put details of the mechanic in his work, so few people outside of Valve know what the mechanic was or did. The only thing for certain that was known was that playtesters were so disappointed with the omission of Chell, GlaDOS and portals in Portal 2 that Valve flipped the whole project towards what originally made the franchise so successful.
Indeed, perhaps this is for the better. Portal 2 tells the story of Chell’s recapturing and GlaDOS’s recovery in a story that thoroughly expands upon both characters as well as the history of Aperture Science in its single-player campaign. The masterful Ellen McLain once again returned to deliver the sardonic wit of GlaDOS, joined by Stephen Merchant as the sort-of-helpful robot orb, Wheatley and J.K. Simmons as a salty fit for Aperture Science’s Director, Cave Johnson. And of course, portal based puzzles return to the game in grand fashion. Chell is given the portal gun once more and a new slew of environments to navigate in the deteriorating remains of the old Aperture Science complex. The mechanics are similar, but these environments present new tools and challenges that work well to bend a player’s mind.
If that wasn’t enough, Portal 2 also included a new co-op campaign that featured two bipedal robots, directed by GlaDOS through their own trials and tribulations. Players take on either Atlas or Peabody, each with their own portal guns, and the puzzles they face are a ballet dance of two-player portal firing, switching, and movement in order to traverse the complex arenas. The final product of co-op gives a dynamic edge to the regular Portal formula in terms of both level design and plot.
The original Portal was a masterpiece of design and minimalist story. To overcome the hurdle of topping the legendary classic was a process that took over four years. That four years went into building not only an extension of the original product, but a product uniquely and strongly its own masterpiece. Make no mistake, Portal 2, in almost every way, is a masterpiece just as good if not perhaps a little better than the original idea. Portal was a game that opened the minds of players to an entirely new kind of puzzling experience. Portal 2 was a game that honed that experience to a cutting edge.