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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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times