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Playing Through ‘Portal’ and ‘Portal 2’ Back to Back Is the Perfect Quarantine Binge

What better time to play a bleakly funny game about being isolated, imprisoned and quite possibly the last human being left alive?

Stuck at home in a coronavirus quarantine? Already binged on all the bottled water and toilet paper you can get your hands on? Then it’s time to binge on all the stuff the MEL staff plans on enjoying while absolutely, definitely working very hard from home, yes sirree. In this edition, Senior Editor Nick Leftley is going to try very hard to stick to his assigned word count while having a giant geek orgasm about Portal and Portal 2.

I’m not good at video games. I’ve encountered the message “GiT GuD” more times in my adult life than I’d care to admit, and it’s why I never, ever play games online: To me, the fun part about playing a game is separating from other people and losing myself in whatever fictional world has been created (it’s normally one in which I am shooting things with a large gun, but also occasionally one in which I’m punching things with large fists — video game plots are varied and imaginative like that). There is nothing fun, to my mind, about being repeatedly sniped by a cocky 10-year-old, especially one who’s had sex with my mom. 

So, single-player games are my preference, which feels extra appropriate at a time when I’ve been told I have to quarantine myself for the next 14 days. Contact with other living members of my species is verboten, and I must face the following two weeks alone (apart from my wife and two small children, of course, the latter of whom will 100 percent not give me a single spare second to actually play any video games). Isolation from other humans is the theme here, and no game has ever taken that concept and run with it as hard as Portal.

First released in 2007, based on a 2005 independent freeware game called Narbacular Drop, Portal sees you, as silent protagonist Chell, attempting to free yourself from an ominous scientific research installation controlled by a malevolent A.I. So far, so standard for a video game plot, but that’s barely scratching the surface.

I don’t know if I’ve encountered, in any media, a story simultaneously so atmospherically creepy, and yet so goofily funny. The dread that sets in as you make your way further and further into the Aperture Science testing facility — forced to complete a series of test chambers using nothing but your portal gun (a device that lets you, essentially, teleport from one surface to another) to solve the increasingly brain-bending puzzles — is palpable. But as the puzzles get harder and the threats to your life more dangerous, so too does the A.I., GLaDOS, become more wiltingly passive-aggressive toward you. 

There is nothing to indicate, early on, that GLaDOS is anything more than a rote robotic foe, devoid of emotions and human foibles. But as the game progresses, hints of a darker, witheringly sarcastic personality begin to emerge, and by the end of the game, she’s flat out insulting you with the acid-tongued flair of an experienced drag performer. As played by opera singer and voice actress Ellen McLain, she’s an adversary you feel genuinely proud and satisfied to beat, because she’s just so goddamn mean to you.

This script gets flipped upside down multiple times in the game’s 2011 sequel, forcing you to confront her once more, then work together, then — well, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t played it. Bigger, funnier (The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant voices a dumb-as-shit robot throughout in what might be his all-time best performance) and a whole lot trickier than the original, Portal 2 fleshes out GLaDOS’ background in a masterclass of the slow reveal. For a story that hinges on the grim detail of an office massacre via nerve toxin on bring-your-daughter-to-work day, it has a surprising amount of emotional heft. GLaDOS ultimately ends up feeling far more human than the vast majority of supposedly human characters in other games — and then this itself is used to lull you into a false sense of security before another delightful twist. In terms of plot, script and voice performances, the game is pure perfection.

But there’s also the actual puzzle-solving gameplay itself, which is endlessly fun, yet also oddly soothing (when you’re not tearing your hair out, at least). You don’t have to kill anybody — there is, in fact, nobody to kill. The satisfaction of completing a particularly bastard hard test chamber, and the thrill of uncovering a piece of seemingly hidden backstory to the predicament you currently find yourself in, propels you long after you swore blind you’d go to bed in 10 minutes.

The whole package is flawless — hilarious, exciting, heartfelt and endlessly atmospheric — and I find myself compelled to play through both games at least once a year. I listen to the wonderful end credits songs of each — written by Jonathan Coulton and sung by McLain — far more frequently than that.

If I wasn’t, y’know, working and dadding, I can’t think of a better way to spend a quarantine period than by teleporting myself whole-heartedly into those same isolated, eerie laboratory corridors I’ve traversed so many times before. I’m amazed every time I play them that they always seem so fresh, and yet I find such comfort in the familiarity of it all. 

Put it this way: As the 2016 election results lumbered in and we prepared to enter the hellworld in which we currently find ourselves, it was Portal 2 that kept me sane as my phone continued to vomit out the horrors of that godforsaken night. And if these games got me through that nightmare, they can sure as shit get me through this one.