I know you've been curious about video games for a little while now. And how could you not be? People around you talk about them all the time.
Furthermore, I know you have great taste—you and I have had some really involved conversations about the dense storytelling of The Wire, the crazy awesomeness of Michael Chabon, and why Memento is so much better than Inception. Clearly, you get it. You are an it-getter.
So I've been hoping for a while now that a game would come along that I could finally recommend to you without reservation, something that would ease you into the world of gaming while simultaneously showing you just what it is about video games that so many people love so much. I believe Portal 2 is that game.
But wait. What Is Portal 2? How long is this going to take me? What if I didn't play the first game?
Portal 2 is a puzzle game. But it's not the kind of puzzle game you play in a window at work while the boss isn't looking. It's a "sit down and give it your full attention" sort of game, complete with characters and plot.
Technically it's a "first-person shooter", the same kind of game as Halo or Call of Duty. But you don't kill bad guys or anything like that. It just means that what you see on your screen is what your character sees.
You can have the whole game experience in around eight hours for the single-player game. The game is broken into three acts, which actually make three great evenings of entertainment. (There's also a "co-op" mode you could play with a friend either in person or online when you're done with the main story, but don't worry about that for now. See if you like the main story first.)
The first Portal is a gem, but the writers and directors of Portal 2 have done an excellent job explaining the story in the first few minutes of the game. Here's the crib notes version: You're a test subject in a giant corporate research and development company—except the computers who run the place have all gone a bit mad.
Portal 2 is an excellent teacher.
Video games don't quite "come to you" in the way that films, books and music do; in order to properly enjoy a game, you need to learn how to use it.
Fortunately, Portal 2 is a fantastic teacher. It gradually increases the complexity of its puzzles and challenges while telegraphing their solutions in an uncommonly smooth and subtle way. You'll have to learn in order to progress, but you'll never feel like you've been thrown into a situation without the tools you need. And the real genius of Portal 2 is not only does it teach you how to play Portal 2, it teaches you how to play video games in general.
You can suck at using a game controller and still do just fine.
Control and navigation can be two of the most intimidating aspects of modern games, particularly with first-person games like Portal 2. On top of that, the high-pressure, move-or-die pacing of modern action shooters can be really frustrating for newcomers. By way of contrast, Portal 2 will allow you to relax and take your time. The game contains no combat at all—no enemies bearing down, no unpredictable bullets whizzing your way. You will (almost) never feel hurried, and as a result you can take all the time you need to ponder the puzzles and line up your shots.
To install Portal 2 onto your Mac or PC, visit Valve's website. (They're the company who made the game.) In the upper right-hand corner of your screen, you'll see a green button that says "Install Steam." It's a free download.
After downloading and installing the program, run Steam and you should be taken straight to the online store and prompted to set up a new account. From there, it's simply a matter of entering your information, searching for and purchasing Portal 2, and waiting for the game to download, which usually takes a few hours. Run the game from Steam's "Library" tab.
Note: Be sure that you play Portal 2 with a two-button mouse, particularly on a Mac; it's pretty difficult to play with a trackpad.
It's available on (almost) every type of video game console or computer.
One of the big challenges with getting you interested in games has been that you don't own any video game consoles. Why would you? You don't play games! Well, not to worry—although Portal 2 is available on the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, it is also available digitally for PC and Mac. (You just buy it and download it, like an iTunes app.) You don't even need a state-of-the-art graphics card or a desktop computer to run it; all you need is a two-button mouse and a reasonably new (say, up to three year-old) PC or Mac/MacBook. Installing the game via Steam and getting it up and running is a piece of cake, too. [see sidebar]
Portal 2 doesn't pull any immature video game crap. It's not embarrassing.
Now, don't get me wrong; I love video games. But you know what I'm talking about. Portal 2 doesn't feature needless violence or cursing, it doesn't objectify women, it doesn't make clumsy stabs at topical relevance and none of its characters are offensive racial stereotypes. In fact, the only human character in the game—the mysterious, silent protagonist Chell—is a woman. I know, right? They don't even make a big deal out of it, she's simply… a "she."
I promise that at no point while playing this game will you feel remotely embarrassed about it. Should your friend, significant other or potential significant other walk into the room as you're playing, you will not feel even a hint of mortification. And a big part of the reason for that is…
It's funny. Like, actually funny.
Portal 2 is one of the rare games that transcends the dreaded "well-written… for a video game" distinction. The script (by Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton and Chet Faliszek) is, quite simply, excellent. And more than that, it's funny!
You have to understand, for us gamers that's sort of a big deal—video games are almost never funny. But Portal 2 manages to be consistently hilarious, and it barely breaks a sweat in the process. What's more, the game's superb vocal cast brings the script to life, particularly The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, whose performance as the helpful robot Wheatley displays a level of assured comedic timing that is as uncommon as it is grin-inducing.
And it's not only Portal 2's script that's funny—the game itself is funny, too. Between the absurd situations you'll find yourself in, the joyfully twisted layout of the puzzles, and the way that the action onscreen ties in with the taunts and observations of your robot companions, you'll be laughing for pretty much the entire duration.
It's smart. And it makes you feel smart.
Video games are complicated and difficult to make, and they are crafted by bright, talented people. Portal 2 is certainly no exception—the developers at Valve are some of the very smartest game creators around. But Portal 2 does one better than that; it will make you, the player, feel smart.
There really is no way to describe the satisfaction that goes along with solving a tricky puzzle—one minute you're stumped, looking from one wall to another, down a ramp and then back again, before… click. You throw a lever, open a door, and set yourself sailing through the air towards your next challenge, laughing and feeling like the smartest person in the world.
It's a joy to play.
But the real magic of Portal 2 isn't in its script, its graphics, its puzzles or its level design; it's in the way it plays. And that's why I'm so excited for you, dear Non-Gamer Friend, to try this game. As important as writing, storytelling, music and voice-acting are, play is the thing that makes a game a game. Play is why we are so passionate about these odd digital artifacts, why we spend so much time talking and reading and carrying on about them.
But gameplay can be so difficult to talk about—what's that old saying? Something about dancing and architecture? In order to really understand video games, you can't read about them or watch someone else play; you have to play them for yourself. It's why we all cried bloody murder when Roger Ebert dismissed the art-game Flower after watching a videotape of another person's playthrough, and it's why you couldn't possibly understand my adoration of the building blocks game Minecraft simply by watching me punch holes in a virtual hillside with a pixelated axe for a few hours.
Playing Portal 2 is a wonderfully kinetic, joyful experience, and it's one that I really want you to have. This is a game that revels in making the impossible possible, in laughingly defying physics by base-jumping from ceiling to floor and back again. It's a Rube Goldbergian problem-solving dream, at once satisfying, graceful, and beautiful in motion.
When I wrote my review, I could really only illustrate the feeling it imparts by breaking out my camera and setting up some dominoes.
Upon first entering a new room, every puzzle looks a bit like this...
…but through some deduction and reasoning, eventually you figure out how it goes together.
But then you think about it some more. You take into account the painstakingly crafted levels, the flawlessly placed visual clues, the lovely musical touches and the clean, colorful design, as well as the witty writing and the detailed world around you… and you realize that in fact, Portal 2 works a little more like this.
So, Non-Gamer Friend, I really hope that you'll give Portal 2 a shot. If you get stuck or have any questions, I'll be happy to answer them. And just before you tip that first domino to set the entire chain in motion, maybe you'll pause to reflect upon this smart, joyous, funny experience you're having. Maybe you'll realize just how great video games can be. Even if you never play another game.
You don't even have to thank me; just agree to play co-op with me sometime.
And hey, since you already installed Steam, you might as well try Half-Life 2.
It's totally good. Trust me.
Kirk Hamilton is a writer and musician in San Francisco. He is the games editor at Paste Magazine and writes about music, games and culture for a variety of publications. He can be found at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton. Email him at Kirk [at] PasteMagazine [dot] com.