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What Valve did this year seemed impossible: they improved on the perfection that was the first Portal. That feat was accomplished, surprisingly, by making everything about players' return to Aperture Science less perfect. We got a scuffed-up, messier experience that resonated more deeply than any other game this year. Can Portal 2 open a rift to the top of this year's GOTY contenders? Let's see.
WHAT I LOVED:
Heart-ificial Intelligence: Portal 2 pulled off an amazing role reversal: it made the humans playing it feel like computers and the dueling AIs vying for control feel human. The character arcs traveled by Wheatley and GLaDOS didn't seem robotic at all, and each AI felt, at turns, poignantly insecure and needy. And, at the end of the single-player portion, I felt like a problem-solving machine, electric and sharp, able to coolly think my way out of the game's inscrutable puzzle rooms.
Broken Beauty: Portal 2 fractured the clean minimalism of its predecessor and created a different kind of splendor by peeling back Aperture Science's gleaming white layers. Playing through the grimy, rusted-over past of the research firm didn't just introduce cool new mechanics. It showed us the aching soul of a beautiful loser named Cave Johnson, and generated an unexpected empathy for GLaDOS.
WHAT I HATED:
Invisible Woman: I wanted Portal 2 to create more of a connection to the series' mute heroine Chell. It's great that other, newer characters get fleshed-out backstories, but that just makes it harder to care the character I'm controlling when she remains a near-total cipher.
Slightly Off-Key: A game's theme song usually doesn't count for much in overall scheme of things. But, c'mon, this is Portal, the series that gave us "Still Alive." After firing that last teleportation blast, I expected a tune that lived up Jonathan Coulton's previous classic. Sadly, "Want You Gone" did nothing for me, even after repeated listens.
Kirk Hamilton responds:
I loved the crap out of Portal 2. It was a triumph, a huge success; I'm making a note here, etc. It is an entirely worthy candidate for GOTY, even though in the end I didn't choose it for my own nomination. Here's what I think:
WHAT I LOVED
High-larious - Portal 2 was the funniest game of 2011. The excellent one-off gags, the winning animation work on all of the robots, and Stephen Merchant's show-stealing voice-over performance… I spent 90% of my time with a huge grin plastered on my face. Why can't all games be this funny? I don't know. Writers Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton and Chet Faliszek, my hat is off to you.
Brainy Gamer - Portal 2 was a real brain-tickler. Solving a tricky puzzle before sending yourself careening through the air to the finish line was one of 2011's great gaming pleasures.
Musical Heart - The way that Valve integrated Mike Morasky's super-cool music into the gameworld was creative, unexpected, and my favorite addition to the Portal formula.
The Ending - Best grand finale of the year, hands down.
WHAT I HATED
Thick in the Middle - The single player campaign's middle act felt largely unnecessary. Too many of the puzzles were, basically, "Find the White Wall To Continue."
Unnecessary Answers - A pervading sense of ominous mystery was part of what made Portal (and for that matter, Half-Life) so cool. I can't say that the sequel benefitted from adding GLaDOS' and Aperture's backstories.
PC Loading Screens - Come on, Valve. Seriously?
Luke Plunkett responds:
With Valve terrified of games including the number "3" in them, this is probably the last we'll ever see of Portal. Unless they do a Portal 2.5. Or Portal: The Portal Chronicles: An Origin Story: Chronicles. Good thing it was a great game, then.
WHAT I LOVED
Funny Bones: Good Lord, this game was funny. Consistently, massively funny. Great writing, top-shelf voice acting. That should be the norm in blockbuster video gaming, but it's not, so Portal 2 gets a big thumbs up for this.
Meat On Them Bones: The first Portal was a puzzle game. Room after room of puzzles and little else. Portal 2, with its bottomless chasms and walkways and transitions, felt more like a flowing game, which really helped matters as far as pacing and story-telling were concerned.
WHAT I HATED
Too Much: On the one hand, I appreciated the variety of challenges and tools at your disposal in Portal 2. On the other, the game often felt like there was too much going on, and it lost a little of the first game's watertight focus as a result.
Stephen Totilo responds:
What have we here? Oh! It's the best game I played in 2011.
WHAT I LOVED
Playing it - Yeah, yeah, looking at it was lovely. Listening to it was cool. It is a video game, so I am happy to confirm that actually playing Portal 2 was a wonderful experience, too—a delightful experience of thinking, trying, experimenting, leaping, rushing, panicking, hoping and also just having a grand time.
Playing it with another person - Of course, the single player of Portal 2 was good. It was an iterative improvement on the ingenious design of Portal the first. Co-op was better. I played it online. I played it on the couch. I played it with a regular friend. I played it with my wife. We were dropping four portals in the labs to solve crazy puzzles, one of which had us taking off from face-to-face ski jumps of sorts, making us smack into each other in mid-air. If another game wins our GOTY vote, I will not be convinced its players had more fun than I had with Portal 2.
WHAT I HATED
Nada. It made me laugh too much. This game's a gem.
Mike Fahey responds:
Everything about this game fills me with pure, unabashed joy. Going into these discussions I was 100 percent certain my pick would be Skyrim. Now I only want it gone.
WHAT I LOVED
Did I Mention Joy?: There hasn't been a moment during my multiple play-throughs of Portal 2 that I've felt anything less than completely pleased with my time investment. From the moment I woke up in the simulated motel room to the final lines of Jonathan Coulton's "Want You Gone" my smile never faltered. Even during the game's most maddeningly frustrating puzzles, I was happy to be challenged by such a well-crafted experience.
Sharing is Caring: The addition of cooperative multiplayer in Portal 2 was handled brilliantly. By introducing two new robot test subjects to the mix Valve was able to craft a complex and completely satisfying game mode without compromising the integrity of the single player experience. And this is real co-op, not just two or more players shooting at the same enemies. Whether you're playing with a close friend or a total stranger, by the end of Portal 2's cooperative campaign you're two parts of one well-oiled testing machine.
WHAT I HATED
Do I Have to Have a Hated?: I suppose I could be cute here and say I hated that the game had to end, but in truth I felt the game ended exactly when it should have. I've got nothing.
There you have 'em, our arguments for and against Portal 2 as Kotaku's 2011 Game of the Year. We'll have one more argument this week, and then we'll vote and announce the winner on Monday, January 2.
Every popular video game has its following of wishful thinkers, wannabe designers, and straight-up trolls. None has more hard at work on the next title than Half Life 3. And they've been very busy lately.
There is, of course, this total fakey-fake-mcfakerson website, a goldmine of cognitive dissonance that's not even registered to Valve. Then there was this brilliantly unconfirmable pile of horse dung, later debunked and then disavowed by the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who heard from a friend at Valve that Gabe Newell had "authorized" certain people to start leaking about Half Life 3.
That hasn't stopped the I-Want-to-Believe Crowd, so late last night, Valve's Chet Faliszek, co-writer on the last two Half-Lifes (and of Portal 2) did the humane thing and took everyone's hope out behind the woodpile and shot it.
"You are being trolled. There is no ARG," Faliszek wrote. "There has been no directive from Gabe to leak anything. That is all false."
Faliszek also specifically debunked the idea that this speech by Wheatley, the Portal 2 AI, in the Spike Video Game Awards a couple weeks ago, contained all sorts of hints and clues and teasers that Half-Life 3 was coming in 2012. "Wheatley's speech was set in Portal 2 fiction—that is all." he said.
Yeah, well, maybe Gabe authorized him to say that, right? Right? Well, Gaming Bolt pinged Gabe about it. (You can too, I guess; he answers his own email). Answer: No.
People have got to realize how far they've sunk to self-parody here—and I'm not talking about the trolls, I'm talking about the believers. Every year, it seems, we have some crackpot troll tell us he's parsed some new sample of numerology and derived the date of the end of the world; and every year it never fucking happens. Not that I want it to, unlike Half-Life 3. But this process has an analogue in Half-Life 3. Every year people create bullshit websites and issue phony proclamations that the day is coming. And it never does.
"I just want to say this so there is no confusion," Faliszek wrote. "This is the community trolling the community nothing more. While it is nice to see people excited about anything HL, I hate seeing people be trolled like this."
Here's further proof that basically everything goes better with Portal. Check out Ryan Kelly and his coworkers' Portal-fied Christmas tree, which certainly beats the hell out of the 20 years' worth of musty tinsel I festooned all over my folks' Tannenbaum this very evening. Also, learn how to make this Aperture Science-infused arbor for next year.
Kelly broke down the construction process for io9 as such:
Basically, it's our artificial tree which comes apart in three sections. The top section is suspended from the ceiling by an adhesive hook so it simply hangs downwards. The other two sections are connected and placed upside down on the floor - the tricky part is that the branches are meant to be kept extended out by gravity, so there is fishing line attached between each branch and what is usually the base of the tree, pulling the branches up towards the ceiling.
We then got two sets of rope lights (blue and red as we couldn't find orange). We laid the red out in a tight circle around the tree on the floor. The blue was wrapped in a circle, scotch taped to hold together, and then hung on to more adhesive hooks on the ceiling. Then we cut two circles of black poster board and placed these beneath the rope light rings to give them the feeling of holes. You barely see the black with all the branches and the portals lit up so it plays fairly well.
Finally, the hanging top piece didn't have branches that extended all the way up to the ceiling, so to cover the obvious gap we bought some artificial garland and wrapped that around it to match up with the ceiling. That way it looks like the tree continues up into the surface.
With a little bit of finessing, you can hide any of the obvious gaps and have one seamless tree.
Rad! You can see some more photos of the tree below, including a photo of Kelly's friend Jason entering the portal. For more Portal-inspired sculpture, see New York City's giant Companion Cube.
The industry- and design-focused publication Gamasutra has released their list of the top ten games of the year, with Valve's Portal 2 coming in at the top.
"All that extra 'stuff' isn't just superfluous," writes editor-in-chief Kris Graft, "every new addition has a purpose, and has a meaning. They made Portal 2 better than the original. Leave it to Valve to screw up the old adage, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
It is, in my opinion, a freakin' solid top ten throughout, featuring Rayman: Origins, Super Mario 3D Land, Catherine and Orcs Must Die in addition to usual suspects like Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City.
It'd look great with that last set of Half-Life LEGO we saw, give those Combine someone to chase after.
You can check out more pics of Lil' Gordon, and some of Brandon's other work, at the link below.
Portal 2's Wheatley did not win an award at the Spike VGAs. Mildly disappointing, but then, given the Spike's themselves are mildly disappointing, I'm not losing much sleep over it.
Eeexxcccceeepppptttt for this. Being a virtual character, Valve had to make his acceptance speech in advance. Just in case he actually won. He didn't, but the speech exists, and here it is.
If Wheatley Had Won [Rock, Paper, Shotgun]
It's slick, it goes to the trouble of adding copyright notices and the essential "small logos" that lend credibility to the site, but come on. This is not how video games are revealed.
Well, it might be, but come on. The website's URL is black-aperture.com, with Black Aperture being the name of a blogging theme for video games. And it's registered not to Valve, but some dude called David Hassen.
Why, then, do I point this out? For two reasons. One, that HL3 logo would make one hell of a wallpaper (so I've resized it accordingly). And two, when you crank the brightness up on the thing, you get a little Valve-related surprise that's a cute touch from whichever troll put this thing together.
Half-Life 3 [Black Aperture]
Should you ever feel the need to propose to that special someone in the middle of a game of Team Fortress 2, you can now do just that, after developers Valve added an official wedding ring to the game.
It's called the Something Special For Someone Special, and is available as a crafted item. It was added as part of a December 19 update to the game.
If you want to use it to actually propose, great! If not, I'm sure machinima creators will put it to good use.
Portal isn't just about science. It can also be about art, depending on how you look at it. And that's exactly how Nathan Altice looked at it in this piece on Valve's first-person puzzlers, drawing parallels between Portal and the work of artist Gordon Matta-Clark.
I recently visited Chicago for the DHCS conference held at Loyola University College. During the second day of the conference, I was able to sneak away for a few hours and visit the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Their featured exhibition was a dual retrospective/contemporary take on minimalism, but I was more fascinated by a small room devoted to a single piece by Gordon Matta-Clark.
The room was filled with photographic documentation, sketches, and preparatory ephemera for ‘Circus' (or ‘The Caribbean Orange'), a work closely tied to the museum's history. (In 1978, the museum contacted Matta-Clark about executing a work in the three-story townhouse they were set to first renovate, then assimilate into the museum's existing structure.) The glass case in the center of the room had a number of hand-written exchanges between museum and artist, from mundane considerations like food and lodging to precise work-related details like the budget for power tool rentals.
Matta-Clark was known for his building cuts. He used saws, chisels, and other tools to carve away sections of existing architecture, allowing inner and outer spaces to interpenetrate. For 1974′s ‘Splitting: Four Corners,' for example, he made a straight cut through the center of a (vacant) suburban home, removing part of the foundational support from one end so the house appeared to have a missing wedge.
Splitting: Four Corners, 1974 (Detail)
Matta-Clark variously called his process and work ‘non-uments' or ‘anarchitecture,' alluding to the disruptive and destructive act of architectural subtraction. Art historian Irving Sandler calls the excavations ‘a countercultural critique of dehumanized urban renewal and international style architecture' (Sandler 1996: 69). There was certainly an anarchic spirit to Matta-Clark's methods – most of his sites were abandoned or forgotten structures that he illegally defaced. And he continually strove to ‘open up' architecture, in both a literal and figurative sense. Cutting holes in museum walls to join the inner sanctum of ‘art space' with the outside world is more than mere architectural critique.
Sandler ultimately labels Matta-Clark's work ‘negative,' exercises in entropy and futility that trade abandoned buildings for demolished artworks, both equally destined for the rubble heap. I think that's more Sandler's yearning for a lasting object than Matta-Clark's greater project. The materials that have survived in the form of sketches, photo collage, and clever wordplay point to a more positive, even playful, exploration of spatial boundaries than Sandler allows.
And they look a hell of a lot like Portal screenshots.
‘Circus' was conceived and executed as a series of three equal-diameter circular cuts along the diagonal axis of the MCA building. There were also three corresponding circular cuts along the roof's plane. Their alignment was such that they implied three spherical volumes, a detail punned by the work's dual titles (i.e., a ‘three ring circus,' or spherical shapes ‘peeled away' from the architecture, like oranges).
Circus drawing, 1978 (Ink, pencil, and transfer letters on paper)
The anarchitectural result is vertiginous and disorienting. (Literally so. Since this was Matta-Clark's first museum-sanctioned piece, tours were conducted during its brief exhibition. One of Matta-Clark's artist friends fell through the floor.) It must have been exhilarating to walk through these treacherous spaces. The careful alignment of cuts created strange windows through rooms and floors. Sunlight and winter cold alike streamed through the architectural displacements. Chicago permeated the buildings interior, and vice-versa.
Unfortunately, we can only relive this disorientation through photos. Thankfully, Matta-Clark was a careful documentarian of his own works. This certainly stemmed from the impermanence of his medium, but he also chose to use photography as more than mere supplemental residue. His documentation was an extrapolation of his experiments in real, lived space onto the two-dimensional plane of a photograph.
Matta-Clark cut and arranged his photographic documentation to mimic a viewer's disorienting experience. In the photo detail of ‘Circus' below, you can see a body standing on an exposed support beam that crosses part of a circular cut. The left edge of that beam merges into the exposed negative border of another photograph. A third photograph, in turn, is cut to ambiguously overlap the photographic spaces underneath it. They merge and interleave in spatial relationships impossible in physical space, like a fractured cubist castle. Yet Matta-Clark is careful to leave the spokes of the film visible, acknowledging his violation of ‘traditional space.' It feels like Matta-Clark is having a conversation with his viewer, letting them behind the scenes, as it were, to question how we typically take for granted the ‘three-dimensional' spaces we experience through photography.
Circus or The Caribbean Orange, 1978 (Ink, pencil, and transfer letters on paper)
One of the most enthralling aspects of videogames is their ability to play with and submerge players in fantastic spaces. From the non-Euclidean geometries of Atari classic Adventure to the improbable vectors of pipe travel in Super Mario Bros., from the vacant pastoral vistas of Shadows of the Colossus to the verdant natural habitats of Metroid Prime, players are consistently thrust into weird and wonderful spaces.
Much has been written about Valve's first-person spatial puzzler Portal since its release a few years ago. Its immersive approach to storytelling has rightfully led to the canonization of its characters, dialogues, and – yes – cake jokes. Portal's protagonist is an (unwilling) test subject for Aperture Science, outfitted with a hand-mounted portal gun that can apparently shoot wormholes through space. Fire your first shot and you see a shimmering oval on your target surface; shoot a second shimmering portal and you create a spatial connection between the two ovals. This mechanically simple system yields absolutely mind-bending spatial situations: shoot portals on the ceiling and floor and you can fall infinitely between them; shoot portals beside one another and you can see yourself emerge from the right portal as you pass through the left. It's mesmerizing, disorienting, and fun.
Portal, Catching your avatar
When I look at the perplexing open spaces of ‘Circus,' the sliver of light illuminating the wall in 1975′s ‘Day's End,' or the vertiginous door/floor cuts of ‘Doors Through and Through,' I can't help but think of Portal's eponymous space-benders.
Doors Through and Through, 1976 (Three color photographs)
Matta-Clark's works were physical and laborious – he had to rent or borrow heavy-duty tools to extract materials that were never meant to be extracted. The photographs were easier. Cut and paste, manipulate space. But videogames have an interesting advantage. They combine the promise of both of Matta-Clark's projects: the spatial improbabilities of flattened two-dimensional space with the traversal, exploration, and disorientation of three-dimensional architecture.
Day's End, 1975 (Color photograph)
But there's a key distinction between Matta-Clark's spaces and those in Portal – while the former allows inside and out to bleed together, the latter's spaces are all interior.
Consider the limitations of the portal gun, beyond its inability to ‘adhere' to non-prescribed surfaces. Part of Portal's premise is that you are trapped in a laboratory. The Aperture building (at least what we see) lacks windows, so you are enclosed within a solid cube. You can only ever paste your portals to the interior walls, meaning that you can only ever move within a confined volume. In order for the gun to work properly, you must have a line of sight on both your entryway and your exit route. Without open windows or doors, you can never reach an exterior. In fact, the only time you're able to escape to the outside is when Glados is destroyed and you're sucked out through the roof.
But even that ‘exterior' is a false promise.
If you've ever watched a Portal speedrun, you may have noticed some of the clever and confounding tricks players use to escape the confines of Aperture – in fact, violating the basic geometries of the game space itself. Placing portals at surface corners allows you to ‘bump' outside the map. Travelling outside reveals interesting new vantages. You see the geometry of the map as seen by the developers: thin 3D volumes hung in an empty void.
The artful navigation of this void allows skillful players to sequence break large segments of gameplay, perform faster speedruns, and even access areas previously available only in cutscenes. After you destroy Glados, for instance, you awaken on the outside of Aperture. However, you are no longer in control of your character. You watch through her eyes. The lush blue sky and clouds in the background imply that you've finally escaped the confines of the laboratory space. But arriving here out of sequence reveals that the ‘outside' is merely another ‘non-space.' The sky is a flat texture – a skybox – like the backdrop at the edge of the ‘world' at the end of The Truman Show. And even that texture has no exterior relationship to the interiors of previous levels. Each is an independent geometry devoid of any interior/exterior connection beyond its own walls.
When we compare similar photographs/screenshots from Matta-Clark and Portal, it's clear that they describe different experiences of space. In the former, architectural cuts below the viewer extend downward to an ultimate bottom, as we see in ‘Office Baroque':
Office Baroque, 1977 (Cibachrome)
The same vantage from Portal, in contrast, is only ever staring at the inside, an infinite visual loop between ceiling and floor:
Portal, ceiling/floor loop
The catch, of course, is that Matta-Clark's photographs are also a trick. We're not actually staring into space at all. The photo is as flat as Aperture's skybox.
Their readers thought the best video game of 2011 was Skyrim, but the editors of Games Radar have picked Portal 2. It's their top game of the year.
The readers' second favorite game was Batman: Arkham City. But the editors? They didn't pick a second-favorite. The don't do silver medals at Games Radar.
GAME OF THE YEAR 2011 (FOR REAL): Portal 2 [Games Radar]