Portal 2’s GLaDOS, the game’s coolly sadistic robot narrator, wanted me to hate my co-op partner. In corporate lingo pulled from a dystopian HR manual, she warned that Portal 2’s levels are lethal unless my teammate and I trust, respect and communicate with each other. “Naturally this will pose an interesting challenge for one of you,” she said, “given the other’s performance so far.”
A little counter-intuitively, GLaDOS’s targeted insults are a big part of why Portal 2 is my favorite local co-op game. For several levels, Portal 2's co-op is a competition between players, both in gameplay and in GLaDOS’s robot heart. But as the game ramps up in speed and complexity, it becomes clear that players need to split all responsibilities, something co-op games all aim for but rarely pull off. And by that time, both of you hate GLaDOS enough to ignore her uneven favoritism.
Portal 2 is a high-stakes, first-person puzzle game. In its co-op mode, you and your partner are the robots Atlas and P-Body, equipped with guns that shoot the entrances and exits to portals. You are told to complete a series of “tests” in a metallic warehouse. The tests are pointless tasks like moving boxes from point A to point B using the portals. As the game goes on, the tasks become increasingly difficult, requiring ten to fifteen steps of reflecting lasers, avoiding acid pools and getting shot off springboards. All the while, GLaDOS’s voice is indifferently detailing your stupid failures and successes (or your partner’s).
It’s the perfect formula for a co-op game. After the first “Team Building” level, which I definitely carried, GlaDOS rewarded my partner five science collaboration points. I’d played the game before, and while I forgot everything gameplay-related, I knew that meant nothing. He smiled a little. I feigned outrage.
The goal of level two was to get from the entrance of a room through a door opposite us. A button opened that door, which was separated from us by a toxic pool. I shot a portal on our side, and on the other side. My partner pushed the button. Easy.
Through the door were four buttons across several platforms and an overhead tube that, when activated, would drop a ball. Some inscrutable symbols shone on the wall. For a while, we didn’t know what to do. We ported ourselves around the room, a little whimsically, trying things out. After a few minutes, we started to feel anxious. In a moment, my partner realized that all four buttons needed to be pushed within five seconds, which would light up the four symbols. We had to move quickly and coordinate our button-pushes. The ball dropped, and the door to Level 3 opened.
I felt embarrassed. How simple, I thought, and I’ve played this before, too. My partner didn’t say anything. “The two of you have forged an excellent partnership,” GLaDOS said. She observed that, while one of us handled the cerebral challenges, the other was ready to “ponderously waddled into action should the test become an eating contest.”
That’s Portal 2’s trick. You enter a room with no context and feel immediately overwhelmed. But after trying out a few things, one success leads to another. When the level’s done, you’re ashamed the simple task of getting a ball into a hole was so impossible to fathom. It hurts good, but that’s not the whole trick— it’s that it wasn’t always me waddling into action. In the beginning, you trade off being the dumb one, and GLaDOS says as much.
We moved on to the Mass and Velocity tests. To reach the goal, one of us needed enough air momentum to get across a toxic pool. There were three portal panels, two directly on top of each other. My partner wandered around the map, puzzling over the setup. I decisively shot an entrance and an exit on the opposing panels and told him to go through them, an infinite loop, to gain momentum. Once he got enough, I’d replace one of the portals, open one near the ceiling and shoot him across the room.
Ah ha, I am the smart one now, I thought. I didn’t say that, though; I just looked a little smug. “The best way to build confidence is to first recognize your insecurities,” GLaDOS explained.
It feels good to be the first person to realize the way out. That’s how most co-ops are—one of you is the leader, and the other must accept a subservient role. It’s something I’ve always despised, that a game mode named for split responsibility often fails to do even that. Portal 2's co-op is funny in that way. Starting out, you and your partner are compelled to compete for answers. The gameplay reflects that, and GlaDOS satirizes it.
Then, the tone shifts. After several levels, it becomes clear how much you need your partner. And the game rewards you for sharing the burden of discerning and completing tasks, even as GLaDOS hates you both equally.
We entered a room with three trigger pads, all separated by acid pools, and a ball dropper. One of us had to spring across the room, through the other’s portals, while the other dropped the ball at exactly the right moment, so it could be caught mid-air.
To figure that out, we each launched ourselves into acid many, many times. I could have let him spring around forever. We didn’t know where to place the portals and could not, for the life of us, time the ball drop.
Also, built in to Portal 2's co-op are endless sabotage possibilities. At any point, a player can press a button and drop you into a ditch or crush your wiry body. They can commandeer your portals, submerging you in acid. Sabotage is cute, but it gets old after a while. Although the temptation to succumb to those impulses or believe GLaDOS’s denunciations is strong, the truth is clear: Portal 2's co-op is more fun when you collaborate.
When I asked later, what stuck with my partner was nailing that ball catch. To map our way there, we alternated in discovering next steps until the path was clear. The moment he caught the ball was euphoric. Then, the game no longer felt like a series of small tasks, but like a choreographed partner dance. It was easy to feel equally stupid and incompetent, because my success was dependent on his—but also, equally accomplished. That’s the magic of the co-op.
GLaDOS wasn’t impressed with us, again equally. “I’m not sure how I can make these tests any easier for you,” she mocked. Me neither.