Dark Souls. Skyrim. Batman: Arkham City. 2011 was one hell of a year for video games, but when I cast my mind back to the start of the last decade, the game that sticks in my craw is Portal 2. Valve had launched Portal in 2007 as an unassuming facet of the now-iconic Orange Box, and the little spats of story it had baked into its pristine puzzle foundations really stuck.
You played as Chell, a lab rat testing a portal gun in a facility overseen by the malicious AI GLaDOS. But there was more to Portal hiding behind its septic walls, and as soon as players stumbled upon its secrets and once the now-iconic phrase “the cake is a lie” started to cement itself in the internet’s lexicon, the future of this franchise was written in code.
Thanks to endearing touches like its oddly heartwarming credits song ‘Still Alive’, it was clear that a sequel to Portal was needed. Not only to please fans but also to expand on the genius idea that underpinned the game. But even beyond the hype, nobody quite expected how much the second game would bring to the table when it arrived this month 10 years ago.
Portal 2 features a consistent, loveable aesthetic, a narrative that runs the emotional gamut, and some of the greatest puzzles I’ve ever had to wrap my head around. As you jump between the decades of decline at Aperture Science, the maps get grander but the things up-close – the paraphernalia and posters – still manage to tell nuanced stories. It does this while introducing gels, gravity fields and various other whip smart twists on the portal puzzling formula that helped to maintain the interest of players.
Portal’s lingering curiosity also returns as you explore the expanded and abandoned Aperture Science facility. And then you start asking the real questions: What lies behind all of this architecture? And what’s hiding in those rooms with the purposefully glazed windows? By revisiting and elaborating on the original game’s premise, Portal 2 left players with more questions about their place in the machine.
Yet it’s the way Valve toyed with the concept of the Video Game Secret that is my favourite thing about Portal 2. The original Portal quickly became famous for its easter eggs and lingering questions, and the studio clearly understood the importance of secret-hunting to a would-be sequel.
Portal’s Rattmann dens were charming hovels of humanity that came back with a bang in Portal 2. In the sequel, these dens were expanded to build a tragic character – Doug Rattmann, a scientist at Aperture Science – out of bean tins and graffiti. Rattman painted murals on the decaying test chamber walls that depict Chell as a messianic figure, teasing the existence of other humans in Aperture. It’s interesting looking back at this now, knowing how Valve would later use graffiti and murals to similar effect in order to depict Gordon Freeman’s journey from scientist to saviour in the early hours of its 2020 VR title Half-Life: Alyx.
Speaking of Half-Life, in the late game of Portal 2 you could also find a secret empty dry dock with huge ramifications. A life ring reveals that it used to contain the Borealis, an Aperture Science research vessel that mysteriously vanished. Mentioned in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the Borealis is the major narrative bridge between the world of Portal and Valve’s flagship franchise Half-Life, a vision that is yet to be realised. It’s a testament to the game’s genius that this secret is still so ominous 10 years later, especially as Valve has said it is finally ”excited to explore more opportunities in the Half-Life universe” following the success of Alyx.
Valve also weaved its superb command over secrets into the reveal and launch of Portal 2 using multiple Alternate Reality Games. First they updated the original Portal with radio objects which when destroyed, emitted sounds that could be scanned with slow-scan television software and turned into images. This led players to an Aperture Science website, and Valve then updated Portal once more to change its ending and show Chell being dragged back inside the facility, setting up a sequel.
Then as Portal 2’s launch approached, Valve teamed up with 13 indie game developers to create The Potato Sack Bundle. Portal content was secretly patched into several indie games on Steam, which were bundled and sold on April Fool’s Day.
Like the rest of the community, I remember discovering that something was different about this pack, and I worked with fast friends online to find several connections to Portal 2. In one of the games, Defence Grid, I remember using the console to run a recruitment scanner that would check my Steam ID to see if I (or any of my friends) were eligible to complete a challenge and progress the ARG.
Another fascinating story concerned a user called Jake_R who travelled to the actual headquarters of indie studio Two Tribes to find clues. He was led there after finding hidden Braille coordinates in the studio’s game Toki Tori, and even climbed a pole to find the cypher as the developers filmed him from afar.
Valve then cleverly poached the top ARG hunters as its climax approached, swearing them to secrecy as they were flown to the studio’s headquarters to play Portal 2 before anyone else.
This culminated in a website called GLaDOS@Home, where the community was tasked with collectively playing the indie games from the bundle to raise a progress bar that would make Portal 2 release early if filled. Sure enough, the game launched some 10 hours ahead of schedule, and the rest was history.
In and around Portal 2, Valve redefined the video game secret, and this has become one of the most enduring parts of its legacy. Now if only we could get a Portal 3…