The Best Game Music of 2011: Portal 2

Portal 2 comes in near the top of a lot of critics' "Best of 2011" lists—it was a joyously brainy, well-written and brilliantly designed puzzle game. I have a soft spot for it partly because it inspired me to break out my dominoes and write the most fun game review I've ever written. But I also love how musical Portal 2 is—beats, tones, and rhythms run through its very core. In fact, I think that the game's rich musicality is one of the things that sets it apart from its hard-to-follow predecessor.

The score, composed by guitarist and electronic musician Mike Morasky, directly challenges the idea of a "score" when it comes to a video game. There are plenty of great musical tracks, all of which can be downloaded for free from Valve's site. But the magic of the game is how the designers at Valve incorporated the same musical elements from the soundtrack into their gameworld. There is a lovely and rare revolving-door relationship between the tones on the Songs to Test By album and the actual game Portal 2.


Rather than pick three favorite "Songs," I thought I'd just break it down by three great musical experiences found in the game.

"Laser Music"

Thanks to YouTube user llSoulfirell for posting this clip—this segment, taken from one of Portal 2's early testchambers, was the moment that I truly fell in love with the game. It's a tricky three-part laser activation puzzle, requiring careful placement of the reflector boxes to proceed.

Once a laser touches its designated receptacle, something very cool starts to happen—music starts to play. The first receiver triggers a rough, shifting synth that moves between a low E, F#, G# and D. Trigger a second receiver and you'll hear an A#, a G# and an F#, which combine with the first four notes to imply a tonality known as Lydian (technically lydian dominant, but we'll get into that in a second). Lydian is what's called a mode, a way of dividing up a scale to get a certain sound. It's the brightest sound you can derive from the major scale (better known as the scale sung in "Do Re Mi" from The Sound of Music). Its most distinctive aspect is that raised fourth note, which is what makes it sound like a major chord with a little window opened right in the middle, the better to let in some more light.

…Erm, okay, music nerdiness has gotten away from me. It happens. Anyhow, hitting the third and final laser receptacle triggers more variations of the notes we already are hearing— a second D combined with that lower D brings out a dominant tonality, making the whole thing a loose lydian dominant chord (or an E7#4).


Theory aside, the upshot is that one moment you're solving a puzzle, the next you're listening to a bright, mystical lydian soundscape. And of course, as soon as you hear it, that means you've solved the puzzle and will be moving on. The story continues, GlaDOS goes back to taunting you…but if you're anything like me, you're also just a little bit more in love with this game.

"Faith Plate"

Portal 2's "Faith Plates" (which are really just ironically named catapults) are another splendid use of dynamic music, made cooler by how they interact with and riff on the harpsichord music that plays in the background. This video gives a great example of that, with the two faith plates doing a harmonic and then rhythmic variation on the harmonies set forth in the canned classical music. (I can't for the life of me figure out what the piece is; hey man, classical music ain't my forté (see what I did there)).


(But of course, it is Bach. Thanks to the esteemed Matt Burns for the heads-up.)

I really enjoyed this video as well, which uses a user-generated level to make the faith plates interact more directly with the harpsichord. Music! Games! Science!


"The Entire Ending"

So obviously this video is of the ending of the game, so if you haven't finished it, don't watch it. Also, if you haven't finished it… go finish it! What are you doing?


I was gobsmacked by Portal 2's entire ending sequence—it was entirely unexpected and truly inspired, easily one of my top gaming moments of 2011. The whole sequence is paced so effectively—players are in shock after the whole mind-blowing "Shoot the Moon" bit, and suddenly find themselves on an elevator being serenaded by four turret-bots. It's charming and funny, but soon fades… until we are carried up to a cavernous chamber that is filled with bots of all shapes and sizes (even the animal king!), who proceed to let loose an auto-tuned aria that still gives me goosebumps.

Kick through that and up to Jonathan Coulton's funny closing song (which I must admit I didn't dig nearly as much as "Still Alive" from Portal), and you've got my favorite finale sequence of 2011. I sense I am not alone in this.


Hit that video and watch it again; it never gets old.

So there it is, one of the most adventurous mainstream gaming soundtracks of 2011. You'll notice I said "One Of," because… hmm… could it be that there were soundtracks that were even more adventurous? Only one way to find out. Our series will continue tomorrow with yet another of the best video game soundtracks of 2011.


"The Best Game Music of 2011" is a multi-part series highlighting the best video game soundtracks of the year.

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