As a general rule, the defining feature of modern videogame storytelling is its ineptness—its near-total lack of imagination, ambition, technical proficiency, and, well, brains. Out of the several hundred big-budget titles that game developers foist upon the controller-clutching public each year, only a handful ever deliver a narrative that rises above the average straight-to-video action movie. Even lavishly funded mega-franchise games like Halo and Call of Duty just stick to the "hero obliterates countless foes and saves the world" plot line, saturate the dialogue with testosterone-drenched military slang, provide a few cinematics featuring large things exploding, and call it good. Of course, given that the game industry's core demographic still consists of twitchy young men, it's hardly shocking that it wouldn't be striving to create a digital Finnegans Wake . Yet it's also clear that games are capable of so much more.
And how, you might ask, do we know this? Because of miraculous little gems like Portal, the 2007 puzzler that jolted videogame storytelling out of its torpor and proved, once and for all, that games can deliver rich, smart, and utterly unique narrative experiences. Originally released as a sort of novelty act within game developer Valve's software bundle, The Orange Box, Portal offered a twist on the ubiquitous "shooter": Rather than spraying bullets, the player used his gun to create wormhole-like portals that allowed him to solve a series of tricky puzzles. Portal was a surprise sensation with critics and fans, winning an avalanche of Game of the Year awards. Now, Valve is back with a hotly anticipated sequel whose title, Portal 2, is just about the only part of the game that isn't imaginatively written. While it's not quite the unprecedented marvel that its predecessor was, Portal 2 is further proof that Valve is on to something: Portal is still the only game franchise that has figured out how to take advantage of the interactivity of the medium to deliver a truly fantastic story.
A key element of Portal 2's narrative success is the simplicity of its premise. (Most games with grand story ambitions practically require you to have an encyclopedia of game lore on hand just to comprehend the plot.) As in the first game, you play as Chell, a silent test subject imprisoned within a mysterious and hopelessly vast science research facility, Aperture Laboratories, which is under the control of a sinister artificial intelligence construct called GLaDOS. If GLaDOS isn't the bar-none best character in videogame history, she's certainly the most memorable. A cunning, passive-aggressive digital psychopath whose every utterance drips with acid wit ("OK, look, we both said a lot of things that you're going to regret"), her purpose in life is to force human guinea pigs to solve devilishly designed environmental puzzles using a variety of cutting-edge technologies. With the help of a friendly, equally hilarious AI named Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant), your goal—at least in the beginning—is to somehow navigate your way out of GLaDOS's clutches and win your freedom.
To say Portal 2 is the funniest, most sharply written game of all time isn't even a controversial statement.
While this setup might not appear at first to be a formula for narrative gold, the magic of Portal lies in how the developers unspool the story. In the typical modern game, story is treated as an afterthought, pasted in awkwardly at the end of each level and delivered through movie-style, highly skippable "cut scenes." The standard game-writing protocol is to clumsily ape Hollywood blockbusters; even the best storytelling games on offer, like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Red Dead Redemption, spin their storylines primarily through cinematic cut scenes.
Not so with the Portal games. What made the first Portal so remarkably innovative was the way it allowed players to discover the story, rather than having it dictated to them directly. In the beginning of that game, GLaDOS leads the player through several seemingly harmless puzzles in a sterile and lifeless facility, but as the game progresses, the player catches small glimpses of details that hint at something deeper—an unsanctioned peek at mysterious graffiti behind a wall, or a subtly menacing inflection in GLaDOS's voice. Portal never breaks away for a cut scene and it never offers a momentous "reveal" that makes everything clear to the player. Instead, it takes full advantage of the interactivity of games and allows the environment to tell the story. The player pieces things together at his own pace; the act of playing creates the narrative.
Portal 2 may not quite pack the same lightning-in-a-bottle sense of revelation as its forebear, but it succeeds admirably at following in its storytelling footsteps. Once again, the greatest joys in the game come not only from the gameplay and scripted dialogue, but from the small details the player gleans from the universe Valve has constructed. Within the comic-Orwellian confines of Aperture Labs, lasers are "thermal discouragement beams" and spheres are "edgeless safety cubes"; signage throughout the facility advises workers to combat rogue robots by shouting paradoxes like "This sentence is false" at them. It's a world so ludicrously devoid of basic humanity that the player begins to feel he's discovered a treasure every time he spots a hidden sign of real life. Many other games have attempted to deepen the playing experience by scattering around diary entries, mind-numbing history books ("The Twelfth Galactic Congress convened on the planet Gorf in the year 3465 LD…"), and the omnipresent audio logs that videogame characters inexplicably drop like candy wrappers everywhere they go. Portal is just the first game franchise to craft these environmental details so compellingly that players scan every hidden crevice for narrative-enriching clues.
But perhaps above all else, what truly propels Portal 2 into the stratosphere is the quality of its writing—which is a sentence that virtually never gets attached to a videogame. To say that Portal 2 is the funniest, most sharply written game of all time isn't even a controversial statement. Valve has boasted that the game contains over 13,000 lines of dialogue, which is an incredible statistic not necessarily because of its sheer size, but because virtually all of those lines are good. Between the devious needling of GLaDOS ("Look at you, soaring through the air majestically, like an eagle piloting a blimp"), the antic soliloquies of idiot-bot Wheatley, or the inept consolations of an emergency-response AI that promises to help you remain calm in a dire situation by strategically deploying smooth jazz over the loudspeakers, Portal 2 manages the rare feat of making the player look forward to every spoken word.
Oh, and I suppose I should mention that the game is fun—expertly paced and filled with ingenious puzzles that offer just the right level of challenge. (Although a few of the more fiendish ones will have you wishing all manner of physical harm on the developers.) The game would still be excellent with no narrative at all, yet it's Valve's decision to put as much energy into story as it did into play that makes Portal 2 one of the greats. Surprisingly enough, the dystopian future that Portal imagines also promises a very bright future for interactive storytelling in games.
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland. His new book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.