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.