*Very minor spoilers ahead*
It’s funny to talk about a game of the year when the AAA studios seemed content to live in a world of sequels. I don’t mean to suggest that there is something intrinsically wrong with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Saints Row the Third, Arkham City, Gears of War III and Darksouls; I’ve played all of them and they are all supremely good titles. It’s just that when I think about the qualities that are necessary for a game of year, originality factors into my equation. Enter something like Minecraft – a game that Time Magazine called their game of the year. For my part, I’ve been an avid Minecrafter since the game was in early alpha release. That’s saying something when we stop to consider that there are not a lot of studios that involve gamers in a multi-year development process. For that reason alone I’d rather nominate Minecraft as an early contender for game of the decade. Why then have I picked Valve’s follow up to an Orange Box add-on as my game of the year? Despite being a sequel, it does three original things when compared to the other titles of the past year.
Portal 2 made me laugh.
Skyrim might be pretty and Akrham might satisfy my desire to beat up fifteen people at once – yeah I have those moments – but between GLaDOS sniping at Chell, the game’s silent protagonist, and Wheatly (voiced by Stephen Merchant) crying foul on nano-bot discrimination and nepotism, Portal 2’s single player game offers eight solid hours of comedy. Perhaps I’m prejudiced as a long time listener to the Ricky Gervais Podcast, but there’s something in Stephen Merchant’s pacing and comedic style that always works with me. More so when poor Wheatly undergoes a dramatic character shift midway through the game; the only thing better than a helpful buffoon is a buffoon drunk on power. Balance that wit against game play that rewards cleverness and I’m taken back to the glory days of the Two Guys from Andromeda.
Portal 2 isn’t a dick to women.
Dickishness can have a very broad definition. For the purpose of this evaluation I’ll limit it to shameless exploitation/augmentation of the female form in a puerile attempt to titillate a predominantly male audience. Perhaps a comparison is in order.
On the left is Catwoman from Batman: The Animated Series; on the right is Catwoman from Arkham City. Notice the unzipped leather and cleavage on the latter that just screams “Take me seriously as a character while staring at my chest.” Quick reminder, Celina Kyle/Catwoman is a cat burglar who swings about Gotham on a whip in the finest fashion of Indiana Jones. An outfit like that combined with the immutable laws of physics will inevitably lead to a wardrobe malfunction. Granted Catwoman’s chest shot is tame in comparison to anything that Team Ninja has worked on of late. However, the fact remains that where so many games alienate female gamers, piss off the religious right, and undermine the value of digital art through gratuitous T&A shots, Portal 2 takes a different tack. Chell’s primary attributes are her ability to survive and her intelligence at thinking her way through the deathtrap that is Aperture Laboratories. Sure she has boobs and a buttocks that you could gimmick the game into showing you with strategically placed portals. But if you’re that kind of gamer, then perhaps you have bigger problems. Ergo Portal 2 scores major points for passing the Bechdel Test and generally staying classy from start to finish.
Portal 2 has mass market appeal without pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Assuming you’re not a blithering idiot or too arthritic to work a gaming interface, there’s no limit to Portal’s potential audience. A desire to laugh and a willingness to solve puzzles are the only prerequisites for having a good time with this game. Of course it doesn’t end there. The game offers a persistent and diverse array of subtexts. Devotees of Half-Life, Valve’s flagship franchise, are going to pick up the occasional bit of in game ephemera that would otherwise go unnoticed to the casual gamer. Similarly, my fellow historians are likely to grin as Chell’s exploration of Aperture Laboratories’ tumultuous history taps into various moments of American corporate zeitgeist. All the while there is the brilliance of the script motivating players to solve a puzzle if only to be rewarded with their next bon mot. It’s the sort of game design that eschews the all too common attitude of “We are what we are, so don’t play if you don’t like it.” Portal 2 welcomes all comers with a joke and a reassuring tap on the shoulder as if to say that you will eventually figure it out, and then there will be cake…and opera. You heard me, opera. Opera that is both haunting and beautiful. Watch the video if you don’t believe me. Spoiler warning though.
I should probably say something about the game’s co-op multiplayer. I hear it’s great. From what I’ve played it’s pretty solid. It rewards team work above anything else, and that’s fairly rare when most multiplayer experiences are a challenge to see who can stare at a respawn screen for the least amount of time. For me, however, multiplayer will always be a secondary thing to the individual experience of a title. That’s just how I roll.
Thus do we return to the point at hand. While 2011 offered no shortage of fantastic games, Portal 2, despite being a sequel, did things a little bit differently. Because of those differences it is my pick for 2011’s game of the year.