On August 24, 1996, a video game company called Valve L.L.C. was founded by former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington. Neither of them could have imagined the journey ahead, nor the legacy they'd leave behind. They've overseen the creation of some of the industry's greatest games, like Half-Life, Half-life 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead, and transformed the gaming industry forever with the launch of Steam in late 2003.
There are plenty of aspects of Valve we could celebrate 20 years on from its inception, but I'd like to focus on one; a game I consider, rather controversially, to be their finest achievement in game development: Portal 2.
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"Oh, It's YOU": An Ode to GLaDOS, Chell & the Portal Gun of Portal 2
In 2007, Valve released what we could probably call the greatest video game compilation: The Orange Box. The box's cover art introduced a little game called Portal, something that even Valve couldn't anticipate the reception of. In some cases, Portal managed to outshine Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life: Episode 2 in critics reviews of the OB. And fans were quick to latch onto its exemplary gameplay mechanics, hilarious dialogue and surprisingly deep, if not a bit short, narrative. And, of course, who could forget Jonathan Coulton's song?
Portal demonstrated a level of sophistication that many of us hadn't anticipated. Its puzzles were sublime, its humor deliciously dark and Valve's seal of perfection has made it ridiculously replay-able. But I didn't anticipate that they could somehow stretch this compact experience into a full 10 hour AAA masterpiece. But, 4 years later, they did.
Most Enjoyable Video Game Narrative Ever?
Portal 2 is potentially one of the best-written games of all time. Like ever. On the planet. Period. Writers Jay Pinkerton, Erik Wolpaw, and Chet Faliszek collected the "Best Narrative" award at the 2012 Game Developers Conference for their work, and though the following are mere quotes — albeit hilarious ones — it's clear to see why.
GLaDOS: That jumpsuit you're wearing looks stupid. That's not me talking, it's right here in your file. On other people it looks fine, but right here a scientist has noted that on you it looks "stupid". Well, what does a neck-bearded old engineer know about fashion? He probably – Oh, wait. It's a she. Still, what does she know? Oh wait, it says she has a medical degree. In fashion! From France!
Cave Johnson: Oh, in case you get covered in that Repulsion Gel, here's some advice the lab boys gave me: [sound of rustling pages] "Do not get covered in the Repulsion Gel." We haven't entirely nailed down what element it is yet, but I'll tell you this: It's a lively one, and it does not like the human skeleton.
Fact Core: In Victorian England, a commoner was not allowed to look directly at the Queen, due to a belief at the time that the poor had the ability to steal thoughts. Science now believes that less than 4% of poor people are able to do this.
Though Portal 2 may not have the most bombastic or nuanced of plot lines — in fact it mirrors the original in many ways — it’s the execution I find so compelling. I’ve never, ever laughed as much while playing a video game. The evolution from written word to hilarious delivery is something every game should aspire to, and the game's director ,Joshua Weier, needs to be commended for creating an atmosphere in the sound recording booth where such exceptional performances could blossom. And that pacing, man!
Portal 2's narrative is graciously balanced between the game's puzzles, and although innovative gameplay is certainly the main focus here, my desire to keep playing wasn't only brought about by how sexy the portal gun was (I wasn't actually sexually attracted to the weapon, alright?) but by how I longed for GLaDOS to continue scalding me, Wheatley to fumble about even more and J. K. Simmons to bring up the topic of lemons anytime he wanted. It doesn’t get much better than this.
What can we say? The portal gun was a remarkable innovation. It opened up a range of possibilities that perhaps Valve themselves didn’t even comprehend with the first title. I mean, shit got crazy in Portal 2! But somehow, SOMEHOW, the developers managed to make every puzzle feel like a natural form of progression, never too difficult and always satisfying. I couldn't fathom how fluidly the momentum of Portal 2 carried me through portal after portal as new mechanics were continuously introduced, but never overwhelmed me. It's a marvel.
However, while Portal 2 feels great to play there’s something far more impressive being done with this game, something that would have substantially improved my childhood.
In a review for the New York Times, Seth Schiesel wrote, "Somewhere out there an innovative, dynamic high school physics teacher will use Portal 2 as the linchpin of an entire series of lessons and will immediately become the most important science teacher those lucky students have ever had." But it wasn't just one.
Valve apparently received numerous emails from teachers and mathematicians around the world who had incorporated Portal 2 into their curriculum. It was coined as the "gamification of learning." Therefore, two of the games developers, Joshua Weier and Yassr Malaika, actually led a team which investigated how exactly Portal 2 could improve learning, in the hopes that they could create tools for educators to craft lessons for their students. Thus, Puzzle Maker was born.
The developers, after receiving some negative feedback following the first iteration, gave the tool an easy-to-learn interface and the ability to share puzzles and lesson plans with others.
This formed the basis of a new "Steam for Schools" initiative launched in June 2012, under which educators could acquire Portal 2 and the Puzzle Maker software free of charge for classroom use through its "Teach with Portals" program. As of November 2012, Valve estimates that over 2,500 educators are using the "Teach with Portals" software within their lesson plans. - Fast Company
But Is It Really Valve's Best Game?
For me, yeah. I understand how that may be difficult to hear for those who swear to the almighty Gordon Freeman and his gravity defying weapon, but I look at Portal 2 and I see the epitome of game design. The first title introduced a fantastic mechanic, and rather than simply bombard us with more of the same or cash in on the name, Portal 2 expanded on The Orange Box's little surprise and made the sequel the definitive experience.
Examining the games industry as a whole I can only conjure two instances of, quite simply, perfect video games: Journey and Portal 2. I love a lot of video games, and I suppose everything has flaws. But to me, though others may be able to point out some blemishes, Portal 2 is one of the best games ever made.
It's Valve's masterpiece, and, on their 20th birthday, I thank them for it.