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This isn’t about how I don’t like Portal 2. Tomorrow (or perhaps earlier?) will be a historic day in my life. Not just because I’ll be playing Portal 2, but because it will be the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many years that I’ll actually play a game on its launch date. I barely ever pay full price for games anymore, much less preorder them. With that said, I don’t think I need to go into further detail how extremely excited I am for Portal 2.

I want to emphasize that fact so that the rest of this post isn’t misinterpreted as being critical of Portal, or any specific game. The release of Portal 2 however works well as an opportunity to discuss sequels in general, and why I almost always dislike them. Maybe these don’t apply to Portal. Maybe they do. We’ll find out tomorrow!

Sequels devalue their originals

A story as a beginning, middle, an ending. Arguably the most important aspect of any story is its conclusion because that’s what justifies, or gives meaning to, everything that came before it. Everything builds towards the end. Once you have a complete story, and then add another story after it, another beginning, middle, and end, then the original ending isn’t an ending anymore. All of its potency has been sapped. In the second Dune novel (a sequel I quite like, personally) Paul turns from the virtuous savior of the universe into a corrupt, morally ambiguous warlord, almost a villain. After knowing this, a reader can’t appreciate the original the same way anymore.

Sequels tend to be more about the “universe” than a story

Ever notice how sequels, or prequels for that matter, seem to be focused on explaining the backstory or side-stories of the original works, sometimes at complete expense of any good story of their own? Take another two exceptionally nerdy examples: The Matrix sequels and the Star Wars prequels. If you’re the kind of person who really wanted to know exactly how the force worked or how many versions of the Matrix there were then these films delivered exactly what you wanted. If you wanted to see a good film then they’re the opposite. None of the stuff those movies were about appeal to anyone besides, well, am I allowed to use “nerds” as derogatory on a videogame site?

While I can’t speak for Portal 2 itself, the bridging comic suffers from exactly this. If you were wondering where GLaDOS, the evil AI that killed everyone, came from, now you can read all about how once upon a time (SPOILER WARNING) some guys made an AI which was evil and killed them. There’s no real story to tell. And seeing her spherical components in the hands of humans rather than a semi-abstract virtual world emphasizes their silly designs. But hey, if you really wanted to know this backstory, it’s there.

Good sequels only succeed in spite of these problems

Take another sci-fi example: Alien and Aliens. Aliens doesn’t try explaining where the xenomorphs came from, where the crashed ship came from, or anything else that would intrude on the space of the original movie. The only part of the sequel that owed anything to the plot of the original was the very beginning when Ripley was rescued, which was by far the weakest part anyway. And looking back to Dune, the reason I like its sequels is because the drastic shift in tone is understandable. Paul’s transformation is realistic and believable–real life heroes do in fact get corrupted by endless power. It’s the sequel of not just a fictional hero, but of so many real ones as well.

A game like Portal, or any game for that matter, is more difficult to categorize than these other examples because half of what we want is more game rather than just a story. Portal 2 can have the worst story in the world and I will still play it as long as its gameplay is as good as the original’s. There’s also the fact that Portal’s story does lend itself to being open to expansion. Its ambiguities lend themselves to concrete explanations, as opposed to games like Killer 7 which are ambiguous for the sake of discussion and personal interpretation. However, the fact remains that Portal had an absolute ending to it–GLaDOS’s challenges are conquered and she is destroyed*. Everything in Portal leads to that final moment of her defeat. Now in Portal 2 you wake up again and find that GLaDOS, guess what, is still kicking and there are more puzzles to solve! When GLaDOS becomes an endlessly spawning villain like Bowser then she doesn’t seem so unique and interesting anymore.

I haven’t played Portal 2 so this isn’t a criticism, it’s a concern. It would be a shame if Portal 2’s quality was held back simply due to its nature as a sequel. But I don’t doubt that the guys at Valve have what it takes to do so. Maybe Portal 2 will become another example of a sequel that succeeds in spite of all of its disadvantages.

*Yes, I realize that she is “still alive,” but that wasn’t the ending, it was the epilogue. The problem isn’t whether or not she was factually dead or alive in the end, the problem is that she being dead is the game’s climax. If she’s still alive in an epilogue then that doesn’t undermine the climax in the same way that her being alive in a sequel does. This is what makes a story different from a history.

5 Comments

  1. christian said on April 19, 2011:

    This was a good analysis of the intermingling between sequels and storytelling, two subjects which games are increasingly obsessed with.

    I’m not personally playing Portal 2 on launch. I actually have no clue when I’ll get to it. I know it will be fun when I finally do so, but to me, Portal was a game that needed to exist free of storytelling, focusing on bigger and better puzzles. I’m not really looking forward to seeing what Valve came up with this time, and yes, I can’t believe I’m actually saying that.

    One gripe I’d like to add in regards to Portal’s story is that I’m not a big fan of how Valve is trying to tie it into the Half Life saga proper. It sounds like a clever idea at first, but Portal’s dark humor and meme-friendly tweeness don’t really fit into Half Life’s own tone, and without Episode 3 coming any time soon, this kind of world building feels less like creating a deep universe, and more like a continuing string of teasers.

    As for GLaDOS, her resurrection doesn’t really bother me in principal. Even System Shock had no qualms reusing its evil AI for two games. Instead, it bugs me because I’m the only person on the planet who thinks that GLaDOS was not a very good villain. So I’m not fond of her return mostly because I don’t want to deal with her again.

    I do, however, find myself enjoying the co-op robots quite a lot.

  2. pat said on April 19, 2011:

    i preordered this because i really liked portal 1. that is the only valve game ive finished so i feel like a poser by being as excited for portal 2 as i am.

    in general, i agree with the idea that sequels quite often undermine originals. in my opinion this is especially pernicious in the several video game series (i like the example of resident evil) that were (speculation incoming) more successful than expected and thus warranted tons of sequels with plots that dont coexist well with the original game. sometimes games (or movies or books) are written as trilogies or whatever and this complaint is mitigated, but in many more cases once pubs realize they have a hit on their hands they begin to milk it, regardless of the impact on the plot of the original.

    christian – from the discussions i had with you regarding portal when i played it (about a year and a half after it came out) my impression was that you liked the game enough but were annoyed by a lot of the fan reaction and meme material (cake jokes!) that resulted from it. i managed to miss a lot of that and thus did not have the same response. did i understand this incorrectly and you were lukewarm or worse on portal itself?

  3. christian said on April 19, 2011:

    Pat – You’re not incorrect. I think I probably didn’t explain myself fully back then.

    The jokes and memes did aggravate me, but I played Portal very quickly after the Orange Box came out, so they didn’t crop up until (immediately) after I had gone through the game. They weren’t on my mind, then, while playing, and while playing I wasn’t affected much by the humor, nor did I have any sort of attachment to the Companion Cube.

    I loved the way the game played, which is why, overall, I think Portal is still in the realm of “great”. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded if there was another hour of two of really good puzzles at the expense of the narrative bent.

    It was a game where I found something I loved, and something I loathed, and it felt that one kept getting in the way of the other.

  4. pat said on April 19, 2011:

    ah ok. i have various thoughts related to all of this. spoilers throughout, probably.

    since i missed the initial enthusiasm for the game, i went back after playing it (and talking to you) to see what the internet was saying about it. i was a little surprised at what people were talking about, because i agree with you that i wasnt attached to the companion cube, and the cake stuff was a bit silly in my opinion. as for glados, i could see her grating (though i disagree) i guess, but i didnt feel that while playing the game either. the main experience i had with the game (rather than what the internet told me i should care about) was great puzzle and gameplay design, coupled with a clever story with a neat twist. plotwise it didnt try to do too much but what was there i like, and it had the famous valve storytelling method of showing not telling, which i really do prefer when its done well.

    so hows that? one unqualified agreement, one sorta neutral position vis a vis christian, and one disagreement?

  5. christian said on April 19, 2011:

    Pat, that sounds absolutely perfect to me. The nice thing about my opinions on Portal is that I very much know that I’m an outlier, and that it’s the result of very particular things about my tastes. The memes may bug me, but I’m comfortable saying that it isn’t that the humor or characters are bad, they just doesn’t work for me.

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