Portal 2: A Critical Analysis of Game Design

Let’s talk games. Game developers constantly struggle to balance mechanics and story. Too little plot makes for a monotonous, soulless game, and too little mechanics (game play design, controls, physics engine, etc.) makes for a type of low-grade, minimally-interactive film. Portal 2 straddles the two perfectly, blending a compelling story, engaging characters, and whip-smart dialogue with innovative gameplay and challenging levels.


At its heart, Portal 2 is a Sunday-newspaper puzzle game. But unlike Sudoku, Portal 2’s design compels the player to change the way she looks at the world—rather than just overcoming obstacles, she must discover how to manipulate them to accomplish her own goal.

While the puzzles themselves are interesting in their own right, it’s the incorporation of the game’s incredible physics engine that makes the puzzles stretch the player’s paradigm. The base principle of the portals is that momentum is perfectly exchanged between the two—or, as GLaDOS explains in the first Portal, “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” This simple concept begins as a fall through one portal on the floor to be launched out of the other on the wall, to one memorably complex level of gel throwing, companion-cube juggling, and painstakingly timing running, falling, launching, and avoiding bullets. These concepts of jumping, moving through portals, button pushing, momentum redirecting, and more are logically introduced and gradually complicated as the player increases in familiarity and skill.

The story isn’t merely nice wrapping paper to the mechanics of the game either; it’s an integral part to the design. Wheatley, initially introduced as your guide to learning the controls, evolves into your antagonist and GLaDOS is humanized (literally) by being degraded to a wired potato (it makes sense, trust me). There are few games with iconic lines and even fewer with entire exchanges of dialogue that are widely known, but Portal 2 has several. Cave Johnson’s lemon speech, voiced by the talented J.K. Simmons(https://youtu.be/NyLUU3O4zW8)is not only legendary but reveals essential plot information while giving the player a good laugh. With only two true cutscenes to speak of, the line between narration and gameplay is nonexistent, actively involving the player in every event of the plot. Not to mention that the post-apocalyptic story also has strong themes of throwing off repressive regimes and systems to allow a brutalized nature (here taking the form of the laws of physics, human compassion, and a well-positioned moon) to breakdown and reclaim society. Portal 2 has character development, critically intriguing writing, and a protagonist that the player can easily inhabit, inserting themselves directly into the game.

This balance and integration of mechanics and story makes Portal 2 a puzzle game with an unusually high replayability, an essential aspect to critically designed games. The versatility of the puzzle design and the dialogue Easter eggs prevent players from setting it down after solving it once. A unique feature that increases the replay value is the cooperation campaign that is completely separate from the single-player campaign, featuring two new characters whose story runs tangent to the single-player storyline. These two characters influence key events in the main storyline in interesting and hilarious ways, but more importantly the addition of another player adds a completely new mechanical dimension to solving the levels—twice the portals requires twice the cooperation and brainpower needed to solve the puzzle.

Portal 2’s originality stems from its integration of mechanics and story. Its structure, design, and handling of plot is truly innovative and provides quality, mentally rigorous hours of gameplay beyond a single playthrough. Portal 2 is a beautifully designed game that encourages players to exercise their brains, learn to cooperate with others, and think outside the box.

By Amanda Barwick