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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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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