"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.
In an interview with Eurogamer last month, Wolpaw talked about his desire to make a "legitimately you-can-be-proud-of comedy—like, this is not embarrassing, it's not 'funny for a game,' it's legitimately pretty funny stuff." Merchant's performance by itself elevates Portal 2 into this realm. He's so good that I'm fearful of actually typing any of his lines on this screen, because it's his reading that makes them so riotous. Suffice it to say, this is a game in which one of the narrators tells you, "To help you remain calm in the face of almost certain death, smooth jazz will be deployed." After solving a puzzle, one character tells you, "Here are the test results: You are a horrible person." A robot undermines your weight: "You look great, by the way. Very healthy."
Not everyone is enamored of all this talking. In a 2007 interview with the gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun, Wolpaw himself compared game writing to being "the guy who talks between the nude girls at strip clubs." As the Portal scribe put it then, a game writer "tries to do a good job and be entertaining and enthusiastic, but everybody's just there for the nakedness. … Nobody cares about what that guy does, and anybody who does care is probably a little maladjusted." There are certainly some gamers who feel that way. Mitch Krpata, a sometime Game Clubber at Slate, wrote of Portal 2, "Sometimes I found myself wishing the voiceover of the moment would just shut up so we could get on with things."
But surely dialogue and voice acting have been granted full citizenship in games country in the year 2011. Haven't they? Aren't they the equal of, say, beautiful animation—an element that has equally little to do with gameplay but is nonetheless accorded great respect by players and critics? Sometimes I think we are asking too much of game designers (and writers) when we demand that they express themselves solely through gameplay and interactivity. Novels are not solely experiments in how to use text—at least, the best ones are not. Nor are the best movies always the ones with the most virtuosic camera work. (Or, as Wolpaw said in his Eurogamer interview: "People seem to be skipping straight to the pure art, and yet nobody's made the Caddyshack in games yet, right? So I'm like, woah woah woah, let's put on the brakes—let's make Caddyshack, and then we can make Anna Karenina or whatever.")
At his NYU lecture, Wolpaw said Portal and Portal 2 were about "the straight man in a world gone mad, and the straight man is you." Portal 2 has its share of fun with video-game conventions. In an early scene, Wheatley asks you to say apple, and the screen tells you to press a button to say apple. But when you press the button, your character instead performs the action mapped to that button—you jump. (OK, you kind of had to be there.) At another instant, Wheatley asks you to turn around while he opens a door. ("I can't do it while you're watching. Seriously.") You sometimes get achievements—little meta-game points on Xbox, known as "trophies" on the PlayStation—for making mistakes, even ones that lead to your death. Here's how smart Portal 2 is: In the seventh chapter, the word "receive" is misspelled on a sign as "recieve" and I pondered whether it was intentional.
Most video-game sequels iterate on the controls and gameplay of the original, making tweaks and refinements that make the new game feel "the same, but better." And sure enough, Portal 2 does contain some new gameplay twists: a trio of gels, in particular, that let your character leap higher, run faster, and expand the scope of where you can place each portal. They're fun little tricks, but the gameplay in the first Portal was so tight that these embellishments don't feel like improvements.
The writing in Portal 2 isn't necessarily better than the first game, either. But it's the nature of good writing, unlike good gameplay, to feel fresh and new when you encounter more of it. Why, then, don't we see more good writing in video games—especially good comedic writing? Because, as Wolpaw conceded at NYU, it is hard. Humor can't be play-tested, nor can it be focus-grouped. And yet: "People do all sorts of hard stuff," Wolpaw went on to say. "Skateboard off their—I mean, you've seen YouTube."
Correction, May 9, 2011: This article originally stated that the protagonist of Portal and Portal 2 wears orange pants and a white sleeveless top. In the original game, she wears a full orange jumpsuit; in the sequel, she ties the top half of the jumpsuit around her waist, revealing the white top.