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Portal 2 Review Part 2/2: The Negative Review

posted on May 16th, 2011 by jackson

Any motion picture–such as 2001:A Space Odyssey; Demon Seed; Silent Running or Forbidden Planet–or Star Wars–in which the most identifiable, likeable characters are robots, is a film without people. And that is a film that’s shallow, that cannot uplift or enrich in any genuine sense, because it is a film without soul, without a core. It is merely a diversion, a cheap entertainment, a quick fix with sugar-water, intended to distract, divert and keep an audience from coming to grips with itself.” — Harlan Ellison

It is probably safe to say at this point that everyone loves Portal 2. Just look at Metacritic, just look at the sales charts, just look at what anyone, anywhere is saying about it. So what’s even the point of different publications hiring different reviewers anymore? If every single review is glowing and adores the game for all the exact same reasons, then it seems not only natural but efficient to squash them into a giant aggregate number anyway. Nothing gets lost in translation. No one either seems to have the guts or the intelligence to offer a dissenting opinion, or to even suggest that there’s anything wrong with this game beyond superficial aspects such as its length.

So is Portal 2 a bad game? That’s just the thing, on the ascending line graphing production costs there’s a threshold where a game simply is unable to be a bad game. As more and more money and talent gets poured into project then the final product converges closer and closer to guaranteed entertainment. Likewise, the game loses any chance it has of ever being a good game as well. It becomes lukewarm, mediocre. Any idiot can tell you that Portal 2 is a fun game, just as any idiot can tell you tell you that McDonald’s burgers are delicious. That doesn’t make either one good.

“But,” a casual fan may respond, “the game is all about puzzles. Aren’t puzzles good, and make you smart?” No, puzzles don’t make you smart. Much less the puzzles featured in Portal 2. In the words of Valve’s own project manager, Erik Johnson, the game’s puzzles are carefully designed to make you “feel really smart,” which is a completely different thing than actually being really smart. Being smart would be solving a puzzle that makes you feel stupid. After play-testing each puzzle a million times and carefully trimming out any element which could possibly be confusing (who would ever want a confusing puzzle anyway?) Valve wound up with a series of lowest-common-denominator chambers that eventually devolve into simply recognizing visual cues. I see a huge wall and one portal-shaped square of portal-conductive material. I wonder where I should put a portal? The mental requirement lowers from thinking well to simply thinking at all.

“But what about the dialog and the story? The writing is the best I’ve seen in a videogame! Just check out that dark humor!”

Simply being lumped into an overarching “funny” category is not enough to validate a game. And the idea that a game rated E10+, ages ten and up, is being lauded as a milestone for “dark humor” only further demonstrates how hopeless this generation of videogames is. Each one of Portal 2’s characters, or voices rather, simply recites a series of jokes. This achievement ranks Portal 2 up there with Airplane, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” or Steven Colbert’s Twitter feed. Every plot twist or character development is as artificial as the robots themselves. Suddenly [good guy] transforms into [bad guy]! Why? Because it’s funny. Such twists exist solely for convenience of the joke writers who, growing tired of gags about one situation, just make a new situation materialize out of nowhere. This is sci-fi after all, so anything can be explained. Nothing needs to be consistent. None of the plot adds up to a story. It’s just the typical videogame bullshit excuse for a story that every single other game gets docked points for.

Ultimately, the fundamental problem with Portal 2 is one that it shares with so many “AAA” style games. When you play Portal 2 you are constantly being reminded that the world revolves around you. You are the one human who survived the apocalypse, you are the one person destined to conquer the villain. Other characters exist for your sake and your sake only. Everything they say, everything they do, is for your entertainment. Every puzzle you solve, every door you walk through, every step you make through the game comes with a dog treat, a little reward to remind you how smart you are, and there’s nothing that a middle class young adult, Portal 2’s target audience, loves more than being told how special and wonderful it is.

With this in mind, all of the absurdities of the game suddenly make sense. Why doesn’t GLaDOS, or Wheatley for that matter, ever do anything of importance when you’re not present? Or more noticeably ridiculous, why is every generation of Aperture Science preserved at the bottom of a salt mine? Why does Cave Johnson get so personal and emotional in his instructional messages? The answer is the same to each question: The robots aren’t characters, they’re objects made to entertain you. Aperture wasn’t ever a real laboratory even within the in-game universe, it was designed for the entertainment of one person: you. And Cave Johnson isn’t really talking to any other test subjects because they don’t exist and never did. He’s talking to you, for your entertainment.

Immediately it’s obvious why such a problematic game is so astoundingly popular. Its audience, financially privileged 10 to 30 year olds, falls in love with any idiot who acknowledges that they are the center of the universe. They’re so accustomed to believing this that they don’t even notice it anymore. Any game that affirms this belief is universally regarded as “good” for reasons that reviewers never actually define in concrete terms. Each review makes cookie cutter claims such as “the gameplay is good” or “the graphics are good” or “the dialog is funny” when the exact same statements can be said about other games that receive much lowers Metacritic scores. It’s the reason why Portal 2, or any similar AAA game, always blasts its way to the top of Metacritic, the sales charts, and GOTY awards. The developers and publishers are gaming their audience more than the audience does to their games.


  1. pat said on May 19, 2011:

    the writing in the game is an interesting topic to me. i do think that its among the best in the industry, but its not without its faults. while in theory i agree with you that just being lumped into a funny category wouldnt validate the game, the writing (glados’s insults and some of cave’s monologues in particular) is funnier and better written (and voiced) than probably anything else ive played. that’s the positive side of it, but that said, i have my reservations over whether those jokes and monologues are in the service of a well crafted and paced overall plot. for example, too much of the early game consists of chell completing a chamber and glados insulting you. eventually i grew tired of this pattern even though i thought the insults were funny and the chambers good enough.

    speaking of “chambers good enough” i do think too often there was one square of portable wall in the room. basically this: http://www.nerfnow.com/comic/502
    and im sympathetic to the idea that since you have so many more and more powerful tools (funnels, light bridges, gels) that you would be able to break the game, but frankly thats valve’s problem, not mine. i didnt ask for excursion funnels in my portal game (though the light bridges are pretty cool).

  2. pat said on May 19, 2011:

    a few more things.

    1. i should add, i think this game is very good, bordering on great, but is still a bit of a let down after the original (though maybe i should replay the original to make sure its as good as i remember.

    2. by linking that comic, i want to endorse the image without necessarily endorsing the paragraph below it. i do think the feel of the game changed a bit from portal to its sequel but i don’t necessarily think it feels like a treasure hunt, just a bit more guided, since you will likely have to put a portal on that one portable wall at some point. furthermore, i am ambivalent about the lack of twitch/execution challenges. normally in puzzle games i think the puzzle is the thing and execution should be simple, but this game is also about navigating space and some of my favorite memories of the first game were chambers requiring some twitch (chamber 18 is great, for example).

    3. “want you gone” is a better song than “still alive”, but still alive is catchier.

  3. jackson said on May 20, 2011:

    Just for the sake of clarification, I want to say upfront that this review doesn’t represent my personal opinions. I intentionally took on a negative persona. However, I do believe that everything in this review is legitimate and defensible.

    I don’t hate the simplicity of some of the puzzle design because I understand why Valve did it. They wanted to make a consistently fun and polished experience. They wanted every single one of their customers to be able to solve every puzzle, and thus be able to enjoy the entire game. Adding seriously hard puzzles would have compromised that.

    I’m giving Valve the benefit of the doubt and assume that their free DLC will fill this gap (either the upcoming DLC or some even further in the future), and I’m sure that the mod community will as well as they did with Portal 1.

    Overall, any game is complex and has its own pros and cons. I liked splitting my reviews into two overly positive and overly negative ones because it gave me the freedom of just going in the deep end on either side, as opposed to being honest about my feelings.

  4. christian said on May 26, 2011:

    I’m loving this review.

    Firstly, because I think it does show how one can write two critiques of one game that are both equally valid. Secondly, because there are a lot of sharp observations in this one. I’ve wondered why, at my ripe old age of 26, I fail to get excited for many of the games, films, and albums my age group seems to fawn over on the internet. This review may explain it. I’m going down the path of “settling down”, and am increasingly happy with a quiet, private life of my own. I don’t need anyone stroking my ego or validating my existence or putting me at the center of anything. When a piece of entertainment is praised primarily because it does these things, I’m left looking for enjoyment in the rest of its features, and if they aren’t up to par, it is going to lose me.

    I still haven’t played Portal 2. I want to get to it eventually. For whatever reason, I thought I read something in its early development stages stating that it took place in a new location. When I instead learned that it is back at the old lab, with the same AI, my interest plummeted. I suppose I need to get over that and focus on the content itself. Really curious after reading both halves of the review.

    PS – I apologize for not posting this half to Twitter right away.

  5. Mythmaker said on May 31, 2011:

    I’ve never understood the compulsion to create these sorts of reviews. You can nitpick anything to death if you put your mind to it, but when the reviewer admits that they are essentially pushing an irrelevant opinion they don’t actually support, I get the impression I wasted my time. The only points that would benefit from a review that must be split into two parts are those that must be made in a vacuum.

    For instance, a person could make the claim that Pulp Fiction is a mess told out of chronologicla order and lacking a steady narrative structure. They’d be technically right, but anyone who has seen the movie will understand that the point is irrelevant, and the movie is structured that way for effect, not as a result of poor editing. Or claiming that Portal could have been better with no narrative whatsoever because it would have allowed you to focus more on the puzzles.

    Making the claim that a game has flaws, then going on to say that those flaws are irrelevant in their own context, only emphasizes the issue with these sorts of reviews in that even the reviewer doesn’t take them seriously. How can they, when they are not making the review from an honest attempt to portray flaws, but as a way to display how objective their opinion is?

    More than that, it leaves the audience completely unable to recognize the weight and balance of the various parts. This isn’t a review so much as a series of talking points, lacking the perspective to view its own points in context.

  6. christian said on June 2, 2011:

    While the writer doesn’t agree with this stance, I don’t think he’d agree with calling it irrelevant. The point was to show that this negative stance is also valid for someone who looks at the game with different interests and priorities.

    I don’t understand your Pulp Fiction analogy. They way you’ve phrased it, the person calling the film a mess hasn’t not actually seen it (becuase, after all, “anyone who has seen the movie” would know better). Their argument would be irrelevant because they haven’t seen it. If instead they had seen it, and still didn’t think the chronological meddling was effective, would their argument hold just as little weight?

    As for this review, the writer did play the game. And while he did enjoy it (including its story), he’s pointing out that some people might find that the quality of the story doesn’t justify the weight it is given.

    And that’s the thing, really. I don’t think it is a contradiction to point out flaws, and claim they don’t bother you. It isn’t that you don’t take them seriously, its that, for whatever reason, you can tolerate them. But perhaps you know some people very well, and you are confident that these same flaws would drive them nuts. So you mention them in the review, they’ll read about them, and then they’ll know that maybe the game isn’t right for them (while understanding that it was, apparently, alright for you).

    There’s a big difference between a person making a judgement on something they’ve yet to experience, and them making a judgement that doesn’t match yours. You don’t have to like either, but you can’t lump them together That is far more dismissive than pointing out some problems.

  7. Mythmaker said on June 2, 2011:

    The Pulp Fiction analogy, as I explained fairly explicitly, or at least I thought, was to illustrate that criticism in a vaccuum is worthless. Criticism that can only be considered valid if it is not observed in its own medium should have no bearing on someone’s opinion. For a simpler analogy, it’d be like criticizing a DVD because it doesn’t function as a frisbee, or a parody for not taking itself seriously; you can’t validly criticize something completely out of context, and that is essentially what was done here. The second part of the review is just a strawman, and leaves the context of a game, developed by a company for the purpose of entertainment, alone so that he can compare it to an abstract conception that he even admits in follow-up comments is impractical.

    To emphasize, let’s take a look at the two reviews.

    “Portal 2 is not just a good game but a great game.”

    “Likewise, the game loses any chance it has of ever being a good game as well.”

    By presenting two opinions, each contradicting the other, the author renders their argument moot. An unweighted scale of pros and cons is worthless, particularly when the two parts of the review essentially have no ovelap. In follow-up comments, the author even clarifies that these subjective reviews are in no way representative of his opinion of the game. How can we take it seriously, then, when the author is essentially presenting caricatures of opinions he doesn’t share? A review without an opinion is a contradiction in itself.

  8. christian said on June 3, 2011:

    Thanks for the reply Mythmaker. I see where you’re coming from now. I also agree with your desire for reviews with a real opinion behind them.

    The reason this negative review worked for me, is because I didn’t see it as caricature. In fact, I could see myself writing something similar, it not about Portal 2, than about something else. I likened it to a mock debate, in which the topic chosen doesn’t always have a “right” answer, and if both sides do well, the winner may not necessarily invalidate their opponents stance (plus, not every debate team is going to agree with the stance they’re arguing for, but still have to understand it). Jackson’s true feelings may lie with the positive review, but I think he tried to create the negative stance in a genuine attempt to understand the how and the why of someone who doesn’t like the game.

    In any case, I just hope it wasn’t too much of a waste of your time.

  9. pat said on June 3, 2011:

    i think this is an interesting way to do a review because it comes at the question of what a review really should be obliquely. christian and mythmaker are covering all this ground already, so i’ll just briefly say that its not clear to me that your average review at a site like ign or whatever is really the authors naked opinion, either. thats going to be a part of it, but so will hype and expectations; what the author thinks of his audience’s taste; in a sinister interpretation perhaps what the suits at the various companies want; etc. gaming doesnt have a bright line between its real criticism (something like yahtzee or time rogers maybe?) and product reviews (many of the bigger sites that score according to graphics, music, etc).

    so reading this pair reminded me that i don’t know what game reviews should be. buying guides? criticism? completely subjective?

    also (i guess i wont be brief), mythmaker, i dont know if you have been coming to the site for a while or anything, but we like to play around with a lot of nontraditional review styles. this (http://www.videolamer.com/reviews/ps2/gladius/gladiusrealcutup.html) gladius review we did a while back comes to mind.

  10. Mythmaker said on June 3, 2011:

    @ christian:

    I think I can understand your point of view, and if it was, in fact, the intent of the writer to honestly present two equivalent positions, it is certainly ambitious. The issue for me, though, is that they are not equivalent.

    The first review, while intermittenly broken up by largely irrelevant tangents, presents a generally positive picture of Portal 2, mostly by comparison to Portal 1. The second review, however, was essentially a rant, and had very little appropriate comparison.

    The first five paragraphs, well over half the review, is just a bloated strawman that addresses generally exaggerated viewpoints with contemptuous rebuttals, more often than not substituting abstraction for logic. What’s left is either more of the same, or what seems to be an attempt to critique Portal 2 outside of its genre. It is, in essence, less of a critique of Portal 2 than of reviewing standards in general which were used to appraise it. Ad hominem, simply.

    If this were a mock debate, the latter would clearly lose because it has to resort to logical fallacies in order to provide a platform to make its own critiques. In short, this is not a good example of valid criticism.

    @ pat:

    Non-traditional reviews are fine, so long as they function. Most reviews are a subjective meter of a game’s worth, usually on the basis of whether someone should buy it. Others are made for entertainment’s sake, a la AVGN, etc..

    With this review, though, I’m not sure what the point was. It takes itself too seriously to be purely for entertainment, and it doesn’t have the bona fides to function as a serious piece.

    I have not had the opportunity to visit this site before. I stumbled across it by accident. That said, I’m at a loss to understand the Gladius review you mentioned. I frankly can’t make heads or tails of it.

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