“Portal 2: Cooperative Testing Initiative” is the superior of its single-player cousin.

Reposted from PopMatters Multimedia Reviews.

Note: this contains spoilers for the single-player campaign.

Confession: I am a chronic loner. As, I suspect, many game reviewers are. I would go so far to say that game journalism significantly selects against social individuals, as most journalism indeed does–something about sitting down and devoting 10 to 50 hours on a $60 toy does not strike me as compatible with a vibrantly extroverted lifestyle. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you. At any rate, it’d be hypocritical of me to criticize. Still, to be quite frank, it’s beyond me why multiplayer has become the celebrated commonality of gaming experience that it has. But maybe that’s just the social outcast in me talking.

All right. Now that the entire internet is aware that I have no friends, let’s get to the business of talking about Portal 2‘s cooperative mode. For the task I enlisted the companionship of fellow podcaster and blogmate Nick Dinicola (of Utter Miscellany), and despite a few setbacks involving mic problems and work schedules, we were able to complete it within two play sessions. Frustration and exhilaration ensued, both I must assume to be intentional, so I can safely say that it is a veritable truckload of fun whether or not you are a co-op player by nature.

If ever there were a genre of play which benefited from multiplayer, it is probably the puzzle game. And of puzzle games, Portal 2‘s co-op certainly shines as one exquisitely well put-together play experience. Far and above its single-player campaign, the co-op mode of Portal 2 is the part which most resembles its predecessor in terms of length, style and pacing and, for that, strikes me as the more memorable of the two.

You see, if I had one major criticism of Portal 2‘s single-player, it is that it lacks the pedagogical cadence so essential to the original’s skill-building. The first Portal was essentially a crash course, but it was a crash course thoughtfully designed to resemble actual course instruction. Skills were introduced, reinforced, then layered upon a second set of skills, which were also reinforced, et cetera, right up to the fight with GLaDOS which served as a final exam. You would expect work like this to come from students as, indeed, it did. Portal 2, by contrast… well. We can sense the same attention to pedagogy exists somewhere within its framework, but unlike the first game it meanders– entertainingly, certainly, but unfocused nevertheless. We are introduced to one set of tools, then hurled toward another set with no clear relation to the first, then we run haphazardly through both at once after forgetting the majority of what either set did, and when the final boss shows up we don’t even get to use half of what we were supposed to learn. This doesn’t remind me so much of collegiate instruction as public high school where teachers spent the last months of their curricula buffing students up for standardized testing, only for most of it to end up irrelevant and quickly forgotten.

The co-op mode, by contrast, develops its players’ skill-sets much more methodically and reinforces those skills right up to the end, just the way the first Portal did. I chalk this up to utilitarian design philosophy: two-player, four-portal puzzles are the one truly unique thing which the sequel brings to the table, so it’s smart of Valve to spend considerable time getting its skill-building just right. It even introduces skill combinations not present in the single-player–namely gels and hard-light beams, adding a productively different level of play to the campaign you just won’t get out of solo play.

(That is, unless you design your own levels with Valve’s newly-released build tools. But let’s assume for right now you are playing on Xbox Live. I would say “or PSN” but…well, obviously not, at the moment.)

Reflecting its length and structure, there is a little less plot to go around in the cooperative mode, but I would not consider that to the campaign’s detriment. The first Portal had very little by way of plot and made up for it with an incredibly strong sense of character, something we definitely have in spades here as well. Your robotic avatars Atlas and P-Body both exhibit far more personality than Chell (delightful, stubborn and officially mute though she is), but GLaDOS, as always, is the real show-stopper. Though she has less of a personal arc as she does with friend/arch-nemesis Chell, she returns here as the manipulative passive-aggressive mother figure we all know and love. I can advise only to not play this mode with anyone towards whom you harbor insane feelings of jealousy, as GLaDOS certainly won’t help.

Finally, a few words on the narrative itself: as I discussed recently on our Portal 2 podcast, one overriding theme I’ve noted across both campaigns is the essential–you could say–”human condition” GLaDOS and all the other AI are inevitably prey to. Even if GLaDOS deletes what she believes to be her conscience, Caroline still inspires some margin of sentimentality in her, something made abundantly clear at the end of the single-player storyline. Likewise, in the cooperative campaign, we get the impression that there is something either innate or infectious about being human, as P-Body and Atlas develop one human-like affectation after another, much to their maker’s chagrin. Moreover, echoing a theme we see a great deal in post-humanist science fiction, we get the distinct impression that GLaDOS is “pining” for humanity, such that during one climactic moment it is that humanity, and nothing else, which will “save” the day. Whether GLaDOS desires human interaction because of her own suppressed human side or because she wishes to have that sort of vibrant counterpoint she misses with Chell is left open to interpretation, but it’s clear that reunification with mankind (even postapocalyptically) is of all-encompassing importance by game’s end.

Personally I rather dislike this theme, as it rests upon human (and usually American) exceptionalism. It supposes in a vaguely conceited way that humans, even flawed as they are, are evolutionarily necessary and that technological expansion ultimately can’t be counted on as a replacement at all. On the other hand, it’s so warmly reassuring, knowing that even GLaDOS doesn’t really want us messy little meatsacks disposed of. In the labyrinthine underworld universe that is Aperture, seeming like some nightmare aparatus out of Cube moreso than a realistic space, it’s nice to know our machine overlords will still have a use for us. Unrealistic, but well, perhaps we like it when GLaDOS is a little sentimental as well as completely insane.

While I disagree with reviewers who claim Portal 2‘s co-op a single-use experience, I daresay you do want to put a good deal of time between each play, the better to forget many of the puzzle solutions and start out fresh. Otherwise, Portal 2‘s co-op is some of the most fun that you can have with another person. It’s at least as fun as the single player game but with far better puzzle design and gratuitous death done in the name of science. If my compatriot G. Christopher Williams felt secure in invoking the phrase “Still Alive” in his review of the single player campaign, allow me to go one further and declare its co-op mode a huge success. Even its ending credits are better.

In fact, this whole experience was so rewarding that I’m forced to consider a few lifestyle choices. Maybe those extroverts were on to something with this whole “friend” thing.

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Comments

  • Patricia Hernandez  On 05.25.11 at 12:49 am

    LONG RESPONSE TO LIKE, A SENTENCE OF YOUR ENTIRE THING:

    Hmm. You say that it contemplates the idea that ‘humans, even flawed as they are, are evolutionarily necessary’…to me the idea is more along the lines of that there is a certain beauty to be found in humanity precisely because of the fact it’s flawed…and that’s a very ‘humanesque’ thing to feel, since our culture definitely romanticizes flawed people.

    The longing for that isn’t based on evolutionary necessity inasmuch as it is on desire, and while these aren’t opposing ideals (necessity vs desire), desire almost implies a lack of neccesity, no? A tinge of superflous..ness.

    I will not contest, however, that it is a troubling/perplexing notion even with my interpretation/framing of the issue.

    Then again I think back on this;

    http://gamesarentnumbers.com/archive/portal-2-negative-review.html

    “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.”

    The idea falls nicely under the attempt to revolve everything around you: you’re human. You’re special. You’re special BECAUSE you’re human, even GlaDOS desires what you have!

    Then you have the more, uh, Harroway? Approach? Unsure. In any case, the discourse around the cyborg. The ‘natural’ is privileged above the ‘artificial’ even though the difference between the two is wholly political and arguably, we’re already ‘cyborgs’ anyway, so what’s the point of separating these two ideas?

    • Kris Ligman  On 05.25.11 at 1:05 pm

      Yeah, I think I could have worded that better in my original review. (One of these days I’ll remember I have the chance to RE-EDIT before I repost these on my blog.)

      There is a pretty simple reason why so many stories, whether post-humanist or featuring aliens or whatever, bias “normal” humans: that’s our image of ourselves and we feel alienated (ha) if a story tries to decenter us. If you look at the entire history of astronomy, you see the same resistance from society and especially religious bodies to the idea that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, that we don’t actually have some privileged position in the history of all that is or could be.

      I’m thinking also of the franchise Mass Effect here, where despite the fact there are much older, more established spacefaring races out there who have got this shit down, it still boils down to humanity’s instrumentality in getting anything done. This is part of why I prefer Dragon Age: Origins- I can be a non-human, even someone with a metric ton of reasons to hate mankind, and still be that special someone who fixes everything. (Although I wouldn’t deny even DAO has a hefty anthropic bias.)

      But that’s definitely a good point about separating desires from needs. Although, as so often happens, that “quintessential humanness” which is key to saving the day ends up involving emotion and empathy, which makes that division fuzzy once again.

      That all said, I regularly tell people my mom’s a cyborg because she’s got a metal hip. :P Kinda wondering what the discourse will be like in another generation or so when we’re more modified and wired in than ever.

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