While I was researching, writing and castrating myself over Where We Came From, I did manage to find time to work through the Portal 2 co-op campaign with prestigious Alliance of Awesome pal, Gregg B from Tap-Repeatedly.
So this week Gregg and I chat about the special, intimate moments we shared together - but first, here's a short video with scenes taken from our game. My intention here is not to demonstrate Portal 2 but capture the camaraderie of co-op play. I think it works and there's bound to be at least one scene that will bring a smile to your face:
HM: Right, I think we need to say something about the podcast-sized elephant in the room, our Portal 2 discussion on the Alliance of Awesome podcast. We were a bit down on this puppy, weren't we?
GB: Only in a small way, at least for such a great game.
HM: Yes I'm talking about the podcast that never got broadcast.
GB: Apparently it was my fault. Too quiet or something. Try telling that to the Gregg that played Portal 2 with Joel Goodwin.
HM: You're actually louder than me on that video. That's because my microphone only pumps out the left channel for reasons I still have not got to the bottom of.
GB: It's been such a long time since I played the original Portal but playing Portal 2's co-op mode made me realise what it was that I loved so much about it. In the original Portal it felt like I was walking into each chamber and all the puzzle pieces were there in front of me; it was just a case of me putting them together in the right way. With Portal 2's single player I sometimes felt like I was searching for the pieces as well as putting them together, namely those damn Portal-able surfaces.
HM: Yeah let's get our single-player grievances out in the open here, go all open kimono on this.
GB: That was perhaps my biggest gripe, that a few too many of the puzzles revolved around finding that elusive patch of tiles you could put a portal on. Another minor issue was that, when Portal let you go outside the test chambers the environments felt more natural and less like test chambers. Portal 2's ‘exterior’ areas felt like extended test chambers, like things were a little too conveniently placed; more contrived you could say.
HM: Yep, and a little too much hand-holding - I wasn't particularly challenged. A strange underuse of the elements, as if so much more could have been done with all the bits and pieces available in Portal 2. And I felt that Valve's trademark design in dressing up linearity as a lucky/unlucky reality was starting to strain. And the environment, while being beautiful to engage with and look at, never rubbed off as real whereas the Half-Life series does. Aperture Science was huge... all of the time.
GB: I was really surprised at how varied the environments were and the scale was frequently just immense. It was strange to go from the darkly comical Portal to the more overtly humourous Portal 2. I know the original went out-and-out comedy at the very end but up until then it was pretty grim by comparison. At first it just didn't feel right to me, but it wasn’t long before I was totally won over by it. Portal 2’s single player feels like a very different game to the first, almost as if a different Valve worked on it; a more confident Valve shooting from the hip. I seem to remember you mentioning during the podcast that their streamlining design process sort of tarnished the experience for you. Which kind of relates to your point above.
HM: Which is all important background to mention when bringing up the co-op. Because the co-op is magic made from the brain dust of puzzle-angels. I wasn't all that bothered with playing co-op after the singleplayer but God damn, the co-op in some ways MAKES Portal 2.
GB: Well that’s it. Going back to what I said earlier: Portal 2's co-op mode is what made me realise what I missed so much about the first game. It was those wonderfully terse, and quite frankly, incredible puzzles. No stumbling about looking for a stray surface, just you, a few elements to play around with and a clear objective. In this case, it was you as well as a friend. And I totally agree with you regarding the co-op making Portal 2. For me it's the highlight of the game. That’s not to say that the single player mode is weak, on the contrary.
HM: Heh, although just a pinch of those hunt-the-white-walls did still survive.
GB: Yeah I distinctly remember one instance that had me shouting 'Look through my eyes! Look through my bloody eyes! You see that? A tile, all the way over there!!'
HM: But I think the inversion of the role of narrative and puzzle is a big contributor here. Portal is a puzzle game with an interesting backdrop. Portal 2 is a story with puzzles snagged in its narrative teeth. Portal 2 co-op flips it back and the story gets well out the way, being just a thin, flimsy hook to hang the rather more attractive puzzle artwork on. Which is great.
GB: I don't think the story felt thin or flimsy, it just didn’t feel quite as organic or as seamlessly integrated. I think you’re right saying Portal was predominantly a puzzle game with an interesting backdrop whereas Portal 2 is a story with a puzzle game in it. Portal was almost always a step ahead of the player, mainly because we didn’t know what to expect back then, but I think with Portal 2 the player had some idea of the setup and it was just a bit more predictable for it. That’s probably why Valve went in such a different direction with the game.
HM: Oh I don't mean that the story was bad, but it was basic. You were no longer exploring the environmental narrative of Aperture Science and our relationship with GLaDOS was a lot more "go do this" rather than the slightly more complex thing going on between Chell and GLaDOS in the single player. I liked that. I liked the simplicity.
GB: Yeah definitely.
HM: But beyond that - they even managed to use the co-op situation to produce more interesting banter between GLaDOS and the players. There was some funny funny stuff in there.
GB: There was. And without going into spoilers, the interplay between GLaDOS and each individual player as you play through the co-op mode is just brilliant.
HM: And wow, well, these tests are much harder. After playing for a couple of hours, it'd be 11pm and we just knew we had to stop. Our brains grew weary and just weren't making sense of the sheer mess of the test before us at that point. Those were the times when we just followed instructions from one another. I don't understand, whatever, I'll just do it -- that was the time to quit! I was surprised how it really tested both of us.
GB: I loved that we'd both enter a room saying things like 'Okay, so what have we got?' and spend a few minutes exploring and inspecting. It was like The Crystal Maze, only without Richard O’Brien. Sometimes there'd be no spark and just when we thought it was time to retire we'd see the solution, well at least one of us would, and we'd be on our way. That's the sign of a good puzzle, when you're on the very brink of giving up and then BANG you see it. And Portal 2's co-op was full of those.
HM: Turrets, funnels, buttons... and four portals. Like in the video you'd say "it's mincing my mind" which was just so darn on the money. That moment of mastery when it comes into focus - it propelled you through the game, those little mental highs. Some of them were about crazy timing, but many of them were mindbending headfucks, pardon my French.
GB: Yeah and not all the puzzles were just cut and dry cerebral exercises, some were more about the visceral thrill of actually executing the solution. An initial 'AHA!' followed by a 'Oh shit! We've got to do THAT?' Those were the moments that had me giggling like a buffoon, as evidenced by the video. There were plenty of them in single player, but here, with a spectator to share the experience, it just amplified all those moments. Elation, apprehension, fear x 10
HM: to the power of 5
GB: Cubed. Or something.
HM: You need the "right fit" for your co-op partner and I was immensely surprised at how well we just "got on with it". When one of us was making an arse of himself or just didn't get it, no one got stroppy. We were working together, for science.
GB: Surely people wouldn’t get pissy or throw a strop if their partner wasn't quite sharp enough? That would be horrible. Losing is fun, right?
HM: Well let me just mention this - there were times when it was difficult to communicate something to you. Not because you were stupid, lame, without two brain cells to rub together or simply Northern - nothing like that. But sometimes it was like, no - no that place there, then jump through there, fly over that, switch this on and kazam. Even though Valve give you plenty of tools to promote efficient communication, like the countdown timer and the ability to highlight spots in the environment, there were still times when it was difficult to put something across.
GB: Yeah for sure. I think that's just down to the complexity - spatial complexity - of the puzzles and their solutions. The feature I really, really loved was viewing through the other player's eyes. Or lenses. Or lens, whatever. I used that a lot and it proved instrumental in timing certain things or exploring with the other player when they were in a different place.
HM: I actually forgot to use that a lot. You had to tell me to use it all the time. LOOK THROUGH MY EYES. THROUGH MY EYES. Scary shit, man.
GB: I was viewing your world all the time.
HM: *shudders* But tell me, did you feel a strange air of... competition about it? Like you wanted to solve the puzzle before I did?
GB: Believe it or not, no I didn't. I'm a competitive guy but I just enjoyed the co-operation; the having to work through shit together. It was a bespoke co-operative puzzle mode and not an over-the-shoulder type affair, one where both players are physically in the game, solving puzzles together. That's a first for me. Actually, no it’s not, Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light has plenty of that as well. But that sentiment, co-operation trumping competition, really plays into the core experience of the co-op in ways that only become apparent as you play it.
HM: Holy shit, it was just me then. =) There was this compulsion at the back of my mind to grok the puzzle as quickly as possible. Not necessarily to solve, but to understand and be part of the solution. When we started to get tired, and one of us suddenly dropped into backseat mode, that person really missed out on the puzzle.
GB: I just realised I'm only halfway through the Portal 2 soundtrack. Blimey. Anyway, I enjoyed solving the puzzles but didn't feel especially disappointed if you spotted the solution before me. I'm just a big softy like that.
HM: I'm obviously intellectually insecure.
GB: In some ways it was kind of incredible watching the other person work through the puzzle; seeing them see what you couldn't. I still got that 'AHA!' feeling when you slotted that last puzzle piece into place. That came out wrong. You complete me Joel.
HM: I just can't quit you. But while we jest... there was something transcendent about play. Often we evolved the solution together, amalgamating our thinking brains into a single master-brain to tackle the test chambers. Fortunately when I was part of you I learnt nothing about your private life, so it wasn’t quite the freaky Vulcan mind-meld it could have been.
GB: The whole co-op experience was massively reassuring though if Valve intend to squarely set their sights on multiplayer gaming. I know they’re responsible for some of the best multiplayer games ever (Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead) but Portal 2 is a very different beast to those. A more intimate beast you could say.
HM: The only thing with co-op and multiplayer - which is troublesome for myself - is that there's no pick-up-and-play. You have to schedule and re-arrange. It took us, what, two months to get through it? It's not that long. All because it was so difficult to keep our spare time in sync.
GB: Definitely, and I should have recognised that as well considering how much co-op stuff I've been playing recently. If scheduling and re-arranging is what has to be done to experience something as good as this though, then I'm all in. It's a relatively untapped area of gaming that maybe Valve will blow wide open, and with Steam under their belt and the slick simultaneous multiplatform experience we enjoyed (I was on my PS3, Joel was on his PC) I've every reason to believe they’ll nail it.
HM: So, gestures. Did they really do anything? It seemed a lot of complication and additional mechanics for... well, tomfoolery, really.
GB: They were fun, but no they didn't really do anything. I mean, it's probably the closest I'll ever come to hugging you Joel.
HM: There's still the Eurogamer Expo this weekend. We could get more intimate.
GB: It's a date. If there's one thing I'd like to say to anybody who has read this far and not played the co-op mode: GO AND PLAY THE CO-OP MODE. I had no idea how it was going to turn out, but it’s been some of the most fun I've had with my clothes on. It's amazing. But choose your partner wisely.
HM: That's right! And remember: be safe and use appropriate protection.
If you're hungry for more Portal 2 talk then, my beautiful Thundercats, go watch the definitive review of the Portal 2 single-player campaign here on Electron Dance if you didn't before. It's the best ever, people have said so.
And if you're looking for the perfect Portal 2 co-op partner, you might try the brand-new shrinkwrapped Alliance of Awesome Steam group. Ciao, ciao.