Aposter, corners yellowing under thin sellotape, clung to a cupboard door in my upper school’s physics room. I can’t recall exactly what the text said, but – brace yourself – it was something about how a fly can’t eat solid food, so it softens up your meal by first vomiting on it. Isn’t that just the loveliest thing to read before you head off to lunch?
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I’m afraid to report that the accompanying image was even more horrifying. The macro-shot of a fly perched daintily on a fork on the side of a dinner plate is now indelibly tattooed on the undersides of my eyelids. It will haunt my dreams until I die. Elden Ring‘s parade of twisted denizens? Nah, mate. Miyazaki’s got nothing on that nightmare-fuel public information poster. Survivors of my school can spot each other a mile off, not by their old school ties and stories, but by the fear in their eyes every time a fly buzzes by.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, then, I loathed science growing up. I hated the teachers and the rooms it was taught in, rooms that were either stiflingly hot or freezing cold and always stank of old books and farts and hopelessness. It’s a shame, really, because as an adult, I’ve uncovered an innate interest in how the world works. Everything I now know about science – rightly or wrongly and yes, there’s an emphasis on the latter – comes from video games. “Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing goes out” is pretty much the extent of my understanding of physics, and that comes directly from the script of FPS puzzle-’em-up Portal 2.
I learned a lot from Portal 2, actually, not least that a sequel can indeed be better than the game that came before it. To this day, Aperture Science is one of my all-time favourite in-game playgrounds. Sure, learning how to navigate its portal-based physics puzzles makes you feel both stupidly brilliant and brilliantly stupid about yourself in equal measure, but it’s the world scaffolded around GLaDOS’ wicked wonderland that delights me most. The slick, if sterile, testing chambers. The gentle hum of the light bridges. The little dens hidden where security cameras can’t pry. The green tendrils that snake through swhattered tiles and broken glass as nature fights to reclaim this terrible place.
Having missed its predecessor, I didn’t know anything about the Portal (nor – gasp – Half-Life) universe when I picked up Portal 2, so I played the first game after its sequel. I went into it knowing absolutely nothing about its world or its people, its history or its premise. I didn’t know that the cake was a lie. I didn’t know that I was “a monster”. I hadn’t even loved a companion cube yet. But I did know that this puzzler was getting near-perfect review scores across the board and starred, inexplicably, the fabulous Stephen Merchant, and that was enough to convince me to take a punt on it.
Some games are special to us because of where there took us, or what they taught us, or maybe just because they pulled us out of our lives and mercifully let us live as someone else for a brief while. Portal 2 is special to me because I think it’s about as perfect a game I’ve ever played. Even by today’s standards, it’s a devilishly delicious puzzler, a puzzler that oh-so-carefully layers learning in a way that never feels heavy or forced, and yet has you effortlessly “thinking with portals” within its opening hour.
It boasts a tiny cast – there’s just you (the mute but magnificent Chell), a rogue AI, a maniacal AI, and the ghost of a yesteryear CEO – and ostensibly a single setting; the Aperture Science laboratory. And yet its canny script and ingenious level design mean you’re never bored. You’re rarely even stuck, not even when you bust out of the testing chambers and peel back Aperture’s glossy exterior and explore its forgotten rooms and vaults. It’s a marvellous, melancholic place and a world I never want to stop exploring.
So when I read that Erik Wolpaw – Portal‘s writer – is hinting that he’d like to start Portal 3, eleven years on from the sequel and fifteen years from its debut title, I’m simultaneously both delighted and distressed. Portal is a universe that undoubtedly deserves further exploration, and Portal 2 showed – flawlessly, I reckon – that not only can a puzzle game carry a nuanced narrative, but it can successfully pull players through the fourth wall and make them laugh at the same time, too. But when a sequel builds so effortlessly on its predecessor and delights and amazes in such incredible ways… well, is there enough of its special formula left to cover a third instalment, too?
Portal 2‘s magic lies in how it endlessly surprises the player, but I wonder if Portal‘s fans may be too savvy to be surprised a third time around. And there’s no one secret ingredient here – the script, the puzzles, the cast, the story; they all blend together to make a perfect, deliciously fruity Portal 2 punch – and while you can substitute some of those things, I’m not sure if Portal can still be Portal without GLaDOS, for instance, or Chell. But given it feels as though Chell’s story has very likely already been told, what’s next? I mean, it’s one thing to have fallen foul of GLaDOS the first time around. It’s unfortunate to have it happen twice. A third time would just be stupid, quite honestly.
In some ways, it felt fitting that – like many of Valve‘s other fan-favourite offerings such as Half-Life and Left 4 Dead – the developer stopped counting at “2” and held back from making a Portal trilogy. But now, with the renewed hope of Wolpaw’s words, I can’t help it: the excitement trumps the trepidation.
As Aperture CEO Cave Johnson – played perfectly by J.K Simmons – himself told us: “Science isn’t about why – it’s about why not!” So why not give Portal 3 a chance, eh, Valve, before it’s too late?
If you’ve never played Portal 2, you can pick it up on Steam – though both games are coming to the Nintendo Switch later this year.