Portal 2: The best sequel since the second Godfather film.

Hell isn't other people: it's being a lab rat for a company that refers to a ball as an "edgeless sa

Portal 2 is that rare specimen: a game that's not just fun, but funny. Over ten hours of play, it satirises the anaesthetic awfulness of corporate culture, abounds in zingy one-liners, features the Bristolian burr of Stephen Merchant and even chucks in a handful of sight gags about potatoes. Perhaps more impressively, as Ed Stern, writer of the game Brink, puts it: "All the jokes are the right size and the right shape for a game and they come at the right time."

Any sitcom fan will tell you that the best comedy flows from character and setting. Both of these are exquisitely judged here. Like its 2007 predecessor, Portal 2 is set in the "testing centre" of Aperture Science, a chirpy, muzak-playing world of wipe-clean surfaces and junior-executive buzzwords. Hell isn't other people: it's being a lab rat for a company that refers to a ball as an "edgeless safety cube".

As you work through its puzzles, you are told, "Smooth jazz will be deployed in three . . . two . . . one," while the founder gives regular off-key motivational speeches over the PA system: "When life gives you lemons, don't make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! Demand to see life's manager!"

The unreliable narrator has been used as a trope in other video games (most notably in BioShock) and here it plays out as dark comedy. For something horrible lurks beneath the faux-jollity of Aperture Science. As the first Portal made clear, all the talk of research is just a front. You are just the toy of GLaDOS, a psychotic artificial intelligence with the sing-song voice of a female Stephen Hawking and the passive aggression of a disappointed mother. ("Look how majestically you soar through the air. Like an eagle. Piloting a blimp.")

While GLaDOS is inhuman in her lack of concern for your suffering, so were the humans who built the facility. Take this announcement from its bluff, all-American creator, Cave Johnson: "Now you might be asking yourself, 'Cave, just how difficult are these tests? What was in that phone book of a contract I signed? Am I in danger?' Let me answer those questions with a question: 'Who wants to make $60? Cash.'"

Humour is a vital component of Portal 2 because its gameplay is so streamlined that it could easily become repetitive. As in the first game, you have a gun that fires entry and exit portals on certain surfaces, allowing you to teleport around various deathtraps. There are some innovations, mainly in the form of coloured gels that can accelerate your movement, and allow you to bounce or create new portal surfaces. But it's the story that allows the original four-hour novella of a game to become the equivalent of a Victorian realist novel.

Its success shows up just how little comedy there is in the medium today. Ask people to name a funny game and most will choose one of the low-tech, dialogue-led classics of the 1990s, such as LucasArts's Monkey Island series, Sam and Max Hit the Road or Grim Fandango. In the years since, we've had all kinds of advances in graphics engines, gameplay mechanics and even narrative content (think CryEngine, the Kinect and Heavy Rain), but there's been a noticeable absence of LOLs.

What recent games have made me laugh? I can only think of No One Lives Forever 2 and the bits of Grand Theft Auto 4 where you aren't mowing down slow-moving pedestrians. (The so-bad-it's-good 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand doesn't count because I don't think the rapper was in on the joke.) As Portal 2's lead writer, Erik Wolpaw, told the Eurogamer blog: "People seem to be skipping straight to the pure art and yet nobody's made the Caddyshack [of] games yet . . . Let's make Caddyshack and then we can make Anna Karenina." Portal 2 deserves its shower of ten-out-of-ten reviews; it's the best sequel since the second Godfather movie. And it's got more jokes about potatoes.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt