Joystiq Top 10 of 2011: Portal 2

The success of the Portal games comes from a combination of two completely different aspects: gameplay and narrative. Portal 2 is, on one hand, a great puzzle game in the classic tradition, sending you through a series of enclosed, self-contained puzzles. These require the arrangement of provided tools to create a single, predetermined "solution" and allow you to advance.

On the other hand, it's the story of the rise and fall of a gigantic research company, and of '60s-style "for its own sake" science -- it even has Flubber! -- told years after the fact, diegetically, by two rogue AIs and a series of tape recordings. And it's genuinely funny!

The greatest feat of Portal 2's single-player component is that it is able to achieve both those qualities without compromise, bridging a fully gameplay-oriented experience with a rich narrative, like ... something that allows you to travel between two otherwise disconnected spaces. It'll come to me.

The two elements, while remaining separately identifiable, feed off one another to the point that the puzzles become the story. You pass through increasingly decrepit "test chambers" as you witness all the artifacts of Aperture Science -- allowing the story to advance in both directions from the spare narrative of Portal 1, whose story primarily served to establish that something was wrong at Aperture. This time, you learn what Aperture is, how it started, and what's happened to it. There's enough detail that I never stopped to question what happened to, you know, the world. The narrative lets you feel like you're escaping from cavernous facility run by technological ghosts, not merely solving a bunch of puzzles; the puzzles demonstrate the varying levels of unhinged-ness at work behind the scenes, and the technological experimentation, at each stage of Aperture's development.

Everyone wanted more Portal, but I was skeptical about the delivery of so much Portal at once, in a full-sized, full-priced retail game. Any doubt I may have had after that single-player campaign (which was none) was dashed by the co-op, which creates a feeling I can best describe as "study group, but fun." You and a friend are consistently drip-fed the satisfaction of solving a problem together, after a truly collaborative period of exploring, testing hypotheses, and setting up complex arrays of portals and switches, sharing information with voice chat and a simple pointing system.

Portal 2's co-op is better than anything I've played at conferring the joy of working together, whether you're coordinating to hit switches simultaneously or working a set of elevators for your partner. The casting of both players as disposable robots helps encourage experimentation, as it really does not matter if you drop your partner in acid or crush him under spikes (sorry, Richard). Then, when it clicks and you finally pull off the great escape from each test chamber, you've earned that high-five gesture that Valve so graciously provided.


Joystiq is revealing its 10 favorite games of 2011 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal, impassioned picks in Best of the Rest roundups. The list so far:
  1. ??????
  2. Portal 2
  3. Batman: Arkham City
  4. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
  5. Bastion
  6. Saints Row: The Third
  7. Shadows of the Damned
  8. Dark Souls
  9. Gears of War 3
  10. Mortal Kombat

This article was originally published on Joystiq.