2011 was an absolute monster of a year. In any other year, you could have crowned Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Dark Souls, Minecraft, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Bastion, Gears of War 3 or Dead Space 2 as the Game of the Year, and be confident that the gaming world would nod and say ‘yup, that’s the one’. They are all ironclad classics, and we’re still seeing the influence of many of them. It’s likely that several people’s GOATs are on that list.
But yet, we would like to make a case that the best game of 2011 isn’t even on that list. The best game of 2011, released on April 19th, is my greatest game of all time. And that game is Portal 2.
It may not be the longest, the most re-released, or the most sequel-ised of the list we’ve just given. But it’s quality is undeniable, and today marks a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the moments that confirm its place in a future Hall of Fame. As GLaDOS would foresee, this is a triumph. So, use the ten moments here as a prompt to go play it again, or – if you’ve never played it before – then ignore this list completely, as it’s heaving with spoilers. Just make sure you slot in some time to dedicate to it, as it’s Valve’s crowning achievement, and that is saying quite something.
Press A to Speak
Back in 2011, Stephen Merchant was a bit of a punt. He’d written The Office and Extras but barely appeared in them, had a semi-successful stand-up career and a role in the film Hall Pass. Sure, he was just about stretching his long legs over the Atlantic, and was beginning to get American recognition, but he wasn’t what you’d call a name. But without him, there’s no Wheatley. Few people could have captured the robot’s turn-on-a-penny character pivots, from buffoonery, to sarcasm to pure evil.
Picking a best moment of his is difficult, so we included two, and this is the first. Arriving in your room, Wheatley questions whether you have brain damage, so quickly spins up a cognition test. He asks you to speak, with the classic ‘Press A to speak’ appearing as a prompt for Xbox players, and once you press it – pure genius – you jump. Congratulations, you have learned what the A button does, and you’ve humiliated yourself into the package.
Most games hold your hands tightly in tutorial sections, worried that you’ll do something stupid. Portal 2 has the confidence to take the piss out of you, and make you do something stupid near immediately.
Anyone coming from Portal will feel a false sense of security. Everything about the original game’s opening was safe and curated: a sterile set of guided tasks, completely authored by GLaDOS. Lesson after lesson. Portal 2 understands this, gets Wheatley to unconvincingly create a similar setup, and then tears the whole thing down.
The opening bedroom swings on its cable, slams into other, similar bedrooms, and the walls fall away to reveal that you’re in a kind of battery pen of test subjects. There’s nothing you can do but watch as you careen into – what Wheatley calls – a docking platform, only to find out that there is no docking platform, and you’ve busted through a wall and into the opening rooms of the original Portal.
The whole sequence is ridiculous grandstanding by the developers, showing that you’re in for something cinematic and unexpected. You think you’re getting sequences of puzzles once more? Uh-uh, think again.
Of course, there’s a rug pull after the rug pull. We were still reeling after the statement-making collapse section, which clearly said that you’re not getting the original Portal. And then you walk into the original tutorial for Portal. It’s the same room, the same ‘joke’ of seeing yourself wandering into a portal, just overgrown and left to rot.
It’s both a callback and a mind twister, as you wonder whether you’re going to be wandering through the exact puzzles you conquered in Portal 1. Of course, Valve know better than that, and it’s more a reassurance that while everything has changed, everything is also the same. It’s a contradiction that makes perfect sense as you play.
The callbacks keep coming. A cake recipe plays out in code on computer terminals. THAT ending song gets a sequel. GLaDOS recalls the things that worked – or didn’t work – when torturing Chell.
The puzzles in Portal 2 are great, just as they were in Portal, but Valve understood the best bits of them. It’s not necessarily their cleverness, which is on point, but often it’s just about building up momentum and catapulting yourself across entire levels. More so than in Portal, you’re Hail-Marying yourself out of portals just to see where you go. And that’s just the best.
The levels take advantage of this. Once you’re unshackled from test chambers, you can survey an entire environment for how to progress. There’s something instantly satisfying about seeing a white platform at a 45 degree angle, just waiting for you to portal it up, drop into a corresponding portal, and then – boom – you’re sailing across a precipice.
Valve really knew that flinging yourself out of portals was fun. Not content with just creating infinite falling loops and boost pads, we were given the gels. These had effects like bouncing back turrets and blocks (repulsion gel) and creating platforms for portals (conversion gel), but the real MVP was the propulsion gel.
When slathered onto platforms, the propulsion gel would become a super-lubricant that would send you hurtling. With a well-placed couple of portals, you could fire yourself even further (and give you that ‘Leeeeeeeeroooooy Jeeeeenkins!’ feeling), reaching previously unreachable locations.
Any other game would have added in propulsion as a block or some other feature on the game map. What made propulsion gel so doubly fantastic was that you could sprinkle and hose it around as much as you liked. We spent an entire evening covering one section with the conversion gel, just because we could.
It’s such a double-take moment. The item is just there, overlooking something like a quarry. “What’s that?”, you likely asked. “A potato?”. And then it talked, and it was GLaDOS. One of the best bosses in modern video gaming, reduced to squatting on a vegetable.
But rather than feel like a cash-in on past glories, it makes her dependent on you, and the dynamic is completely shifted. Having been relegated to her current position, she’s also gained something like humility, and the relationship between you and her (as well as her admiring relationship with Cave Johnson, and her sniping at Wheatley) work brilliantly.
Again, in a lesser game, it would have been a wheeling out of the same enemy, a second-coming that we’re used to from innumerable Ganons and Bowsers. But this is so much more dehumanising and embarrassing, and it fits Portal 2 like a glove.
Cave Johnson and the Lemon Rant
Some way through Portal 2, we’re introduced to the late founder of Aperture Science, Cave Johnson. We will admit to groaning a little bit when we realised he was going to appear in audio journals, which – in 2011 – were getting old, off the back of too many BioShock clones. They’re a step up from collecting text journals, but only one step.
We were so wrong. Cave Johnson is one of gaming’s best characters, and you don’t even get to meet him. The sass and gravitas of J.K. Simmons gives Cave Johnson presence, as he acts like the disappointed dad over Aperture’s many, many failings.
The pinnacle of the Cave Johnsonisms is the lemon rant. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, he says, as his body slowly dies from inhaling moon dust. But later, as death takes hold of him, he goes on a rant, demanding that life takes the lemons back. “I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down – with lemons!”. Few people can rant like J.K. Simmons – just see Terence Fletcher in Whiplash – and you can see a little bit of that character come through in Cave Johnson.
This is the Part Where he Kills You
It’s just so stupid and childish.
“Well, this is the part where he kills us”, says GLaDOS.
“Hello, this is the part where I kill you”, says Wheatley.
Up pops the achievement: “This is the part where he kills you”.
Want You Gone
“Well here we are again
It’s always such a pleasure
Remember when you tried
To kill me twice?
Oh how we laughed and laughed
Except I wasn’t laughing
Under the circumstances
I’ve been shockingly nice”
How would Portal 2 handle its ending? ‘Still Alive’ was one of the most iconic ending sequences in gaming, and people were expecting… something. There was the opportunity to do something different, to buck expectations in the same way that the opening did. But, in contrary Valve style, they went for the straight sequel.
Want You Gone was written by Jonathon Coulton, same as Still Alive, but what it lost on surprise and cleverness, it gained in melody. Want You Gone is just a cracking tune, and it carries all the memories of the previous six hours of gaming with it whenever we spin it on Spotify.
Blowing Two Minds
And just like Portal arriving with the sheer generosity of Team Fortress and Half Life 2 in The Orange Box, Portal 2 came with its own form of generosity. A full co-op campaign was bolted onto Portal 2, bringing us ATLAS and P-body to complete their very own sequence of puzzles, with all the GLaDOS-taunting and cleverness of the solo campaign.
We have fantastic memories of the co-op campaign, mostly because it introduced a new kind of behaviour that we hadn’t experienced in the many titles we’d played together: the “oh, just do it”. A puzzle would blow our minds, until one of the two of us figured out what was needed. The problem with Portal is that it’s never particularly easy to put a solution into words; it’s likely why you see more video solutions than you do text walkthroughs. So, we’d stare at each other’s explanation, frown, and say “oh, just do it”. We’d hand them our pad, and they’d control both of the characters. It was just simpler that way.
The Menu Screen
And if you wanted an example of the level of detail in Portal 2, then look no further than the menu screen. Updating with each level, it showed your progress with bespoke animated artwork in glorious HD. No one asked for it, few people noticed it, but there it was: a ‘welcome back’ to the game with a reassuring display that Portal 2 had care and quality running through it like a stick of rock.
For a ‘best game ever’, Portal 2 has a strange effect on us. We often don’t feel like we have the energy to play it again. That’s because it demands so much of us, and we often feel like we need to be in the right mood. But writing this list has reminded us just how rewarding it would be to give it another ride. We might well go back and play it now.
“I don’t want your damn lemons! What am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager!”
Do you have memories of Portal 2? Do you question its placing at the top of our own, personal best game list? Perhaps you have your own additions to these 11? If so, let us know in the comments. And if you haven’t played the game, pick it up from the Xbox Store right now.