"He didn't make anything—he's a writer."
I overheard that comment on Thursday night as I waited to hear Erik Wolpaw speak in a small basement auditorium at New York University. Wolpaw is the co-writer (not the maker!) of Portal 2, but he's not someone to be looked at dismissively. His latest collaboration, the sequel to one the most beloved video games created for the current generation of consoles, may be the finest comedy in the short history of the medium.
To be fair, there haven't been many claimants for that crown. Almost seven years ago, the video-game journalist Stephen Totilo asked, in this magazine, "Why are video games so humorless?" But Portal 2 is funny by the standards of any medium. More to the point, and in contradiction of the remark made by the stranger who had the misfortune to be sitting near me, it is a game whose success is dependent on—indeed, it is made by—its writing. I can't think of another game in which the dialogue and the voice acting are, in hilarious combination, almost the singular reason to recommend it.
The word you hear applied to the original Portal most commonly—even from the Escapist's curmudgeonly Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw—is perfect. At the Wolpaw lecture I attended, Frank Lantz, the interim director of the NYU Game Center, referred to Portal as "maybe the high-water mark of storytelling in games."
In both games, the player/protagonist is a young, dark-haired woman in an orange jumpsuit whom you see only in glimpses. (In Portal 2, the top half of the jumpsuit is tied around her waist, revealing a white sleeveless top.) She must surmount a series of challenges mostly through the use of a "portal gun": a weapon, if it even merits the name, that creates oval-shaped portals. These aren't just simple holes. With one trigger on your controller, you place an entrance on one wall; with the opposite trigger, you place your exit on another wall (or on a floor, or a ceiling). This seemingly simple but wholly original device imbues the game with a mind-bending sense of physics. (It also led one writer, Joe McNeilly of GamesRadar, to call the original Portal the first non-phallic first-person shooter.) Both Portal games are, in essence, first-person puzzle comedies, and they are also the only two known examples of the species.
Portal 2 is not perfect, nor is it better than Portal. Largely, that's because it's impossible for the game to recapture the surprise, the miracle even, of its predecessor. If you've already played Portal—and if you haven't, stop reading now and go do so—you're familiar with how a portal gun works, as well as with the game's unique combination of menace and whimsy. The new game is longer (that's not necessarily for the better) and includes a two-player cooperative mode that I haven't completed yet. But beyond the co-op mode, what's really new about Portal 2—what is the game's most remarkable achievement—is how it compels you to stop and listen.
When the game begins, the protagonist has awakened from a many-thousand-year sleep. Her guide through this apocalypse is Wheatley, a moronic if well-intentioned robot. And as Wheatley, Stephen Merchant—the British co-writer and co-director of The Office and Extras—delivers an impeccably timed comic performance. If you keep moving quickly through the game, you'll miss much of what he has to say. If you wait around, though, he'll gently—and amusingly—nudge you to keep moving.