Friday, May 13, 2011

Portal 2: Great ending? Or GREATEST ending?

I finished Portal 2 recently, and ever since, I've been doing two Portal 2 related things: Obsessing over the ending, and trying to find time for my friend and me to play co-op.  This post is about the former.

There will obviously be spoilers all over the place, since I'm, you know, talking about the ending of Portal 2.  If you don't want to know about the ending of Portal 2, or about the middle either, you should probably go read something else.  Or go play Portal 2.  That's probably the right thing to do.

Like I said, I've been obsessing over the ending.  Here's a recap.

After trying to dispose of GLaDOS, we have put Wheatley in charge of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center.  However, this ended up being a pretty bad mistake.  Not only has Wheatley become drunk, high, and horny with power, but GLaDOS recognizes him as the moron personality core that the Aperture scientists had developed to try to dumb her down and prevent her from flooding the Enrichment Center with deadly neurotoxin (because she had flooded the Enrichment Center with deadly neurotoxin).

(She could bathe in this stuff.)

By the end of the game, Wheatley has decided that he's tired of you and GLaDOS, and he's going to kill you (this is that part).  However, there's a little bit of a hitch, besides the fact that you're trying to NOT die: Wheatley is such an incapable personality that the Enrichment Center is about to self-destruct.  The goal isn't just to keep from dying; you need to put GLaDOS back in charge.  Otherwise, you'll die anyway; it's been established already that escaping the facility is extremely difficult and complicated.  GLaDOS has agreed to let you go if you put her back in charge, and we have no choice but to trust her.

When you finally arrive in Wheatley's lair (his term, not mine), he's ready for you.  But he needs to kill you quickly because the facility is going to blow in about six minutes.  Great.  Except he's watched the tapes of you killing GLaDOS, and has become genre savvy.  He's even got a 4-part plan: 1) no portal surfaces, 2) neurotoxin immediately*, 3) bomb-proof shields for him, because 4) bombs for you.  He probably hasn't thought things through, though, since there's a pipe carrying white portal gel right in front of him.  The first thing to do, of course, is hide behind it and wait for him to try to bomb you.  SPLAT; there are portal surfaces everywhere.  Naturally, Wheatley says he meant to let that happen.

The plan you and GLaDOS have concocted to stop Wheatley is to have you stun him, have her grab a corrupted personality core from a trash pile, and than have her hand it off to you so you can place it on Wheatley.  After a few cores are added, the system will consider Wheatley too corrupt, and require a manual core replacement, just like the beginning of the game.  At that point, GLaDOS was corrupt enough that the system asked for a manual core replacement as soon as Wheatley was plugged in; when GLaDOS refused to be replaced, you had to get over to the Stalemate Resolution Button and override GLaDOS' refusal.

Sure enough, after three cores (one obsessed with space, one interested in adventure, and one spouting off nonsensically wrong "facts"), Wheatley is deemed corrupt enough for the replacement.**  But, naturally, there's another stalemate.  A fire in the area where the button is actually alerts you to the location, but also serves another purpose; the fire activates sprinklers, which wash off almost all of the portal gel.  There's only a small patch, directly underneath Wheatley, and we must portal to the ceiling above the button in order to reach it.  By forcing the player to put a portal under Wheatley, Valve is forcing you to set up your portals in a way that is essential to the ending.  Meanwhile, Wheatley is loudly demanding that you not press the button, while GLaDOS is desperately pleading with you to press it.

Once you reach the stalemate button, you learn that Wheatley's 4-part plan included a 5th part: the button was booby-trapped.  This is where the game seques into cinema instead of regular gameplay, and it does so using visuals and music that actually gave me chills.  After the explosion, your viewpoint is exactly the same as it would be if you had died normally within the game (which I did on my first two tries against Wheatley--both times, he bombed the hell out of me before I could even look around to formulate my strategy).  However, as the music starts to crescendo, the camera of your viewpoint moves, and you can see your own hand and arm as you look for your portal gun.  Wheatley is simultaneously scolding you for ruining everything, and panicking because the center is about to explode and he doesn't know how to fix it.

Meanwhile, we're injured.  We've managed to grab our gun and flip over, and as we do so, part of the ceiling breaks.  The full moon is above us, looking particularly large and detailed.  And, strangely, our portal gun sights reappear on the screen, a signal to the player that we are now out of the cinema mode and that you can shoot the gun.  And it's right over the moon.

I knew that I had placed my orange portal under Wheatley, since I play on a Macbook Pro and it's easier for me to place blue portals.  It's much more common for me to accidentally set a blue portal when I want orange than it is for me to set an orange one when I want blue, so orange tends to be my "close/entry" portal, and blue my "far/exit" one.  I'm not sure it matters if you click the correct portal at this point, or if the game just assumes you set a blue one, but either way, your portal gun sights are directly over the giant, tempting moon, and there is nothing else in sight.

I remember thinking, "This is crazy.  But there's nothing else to do," before shooting my blue portal at the fucking MOON.  Sure enough, the music and dialogue stopped abruptly, and I could hear my character's heart thump before a little twinkle pinging noise signalled that the portal had indeed landed.

But, you know, you just shot a portal on the moon.  And, thanks to Valve's smart thinking, the orange portal is currently directly below Wheatley.  And space is a vacuum.  WHOOSH.

Oh, but you're dragged out, too.  The strange handles on Wheatley that, according to the developers, were supposed to function as cheek muscles or eyebrows, depending on the desired expression, are actual handles, keeping you from being sucked into space forever (something that the space-obsessed personality core is VERY excited about!).  Wheatley, of course, is incredulous and panicking, but as he rambles aloud about how he can fix it, GLaDOS' voice announces that she's already fixed it.  And then she manages to grab you while detaching Wheatley, who speeds off into space, shouting repeatedly for you to grab him.

After falling unconscious, you awaken in the presence of GLaDOS, as well as Atlas and P-body, the two co-op robots (they're just there as an intro, they are not important to the ending otherwise).  GLaDOS explains that she's relieved that you're all right, and that she's realized that you're actually her best friend and not her enemy.  However, she's also managed to locate the source of all those warm, fuzzy feelings, the location of Caroline (pronounced Carolyn), her original personality from when she was Cave Johnson's secretary.  And, of course, she deletes Caroline.

At this point, I figured she would go back on her promise to let me go.  I actually thought, "Oh, okay, so now she's going to kill me."  But no.  She tells you that you've basically been ruining her life, and she wants you to get the hell out of there and never come back.  Great.  We go up the elevator, and Reconstructing Science (the best song ever) plays.  But then the elevator opens, and we're not out of the center.  There are turrets waiting for us.  But as they stare at you, their lights go off.  They then begin to SING, as if their moving arms are controlling the amount of sound or (more likely) airflow to create the different notes.

As they sing,*** the elevator moves up, and soon, you're in a massive, expansive room, filled with turrets.  One continues the original song before a short round one begins singing soprano (I couldn't make out the words, but who cares?  There's a turret singing opera), while the rest sing the orchestral parts.  There's even the gigantic, animal print turret in the back, singing bass.  They all sing in the same GLaDOS turret voice.  The song is sweet and romantic sounding, and it continues as the elevator glides up faster and faster, abruptly ending as you reach the top.  The door opens, and you go outside for the first time in the entire series.  There's an endless field of yellow, high grass before you, before you hear the door slam behind you.  The door is actually on a tiny little metal shed, completely unassuming.  But before everything goes black, the door opens one more time, and the weighted companion cube, the same one you had to incinerate from the first game, is thrown out the door for you to keep, and the door slams shut once more.

The game then cuts to the credits, run during the song "Want You Gone," where GLaDOS angrily sings about how much trouble you've caused her, and how glad she is to be rid of you.  Finally, we get a glimpse of a miserable and remorseful Wheatley, floating in space, as the space personality core happily orbits around him.

So, that's a LOT of ending there.  But why is it such a great ending?  Lots of reasons.

The Wheatley battle is extremely clever.  By announcing the ways that he's going to conduct the battle, specifically by telling you he's going to avoid GLaDOS' mistakes, the player panics.  Don't lie; you panicked.  Even just a little.  I panicked so hard, I almost quit for the night.  To be fair, I had just died twice, each time before I could even look around the room and figure out a strategy.

Adding the cores to Wheatley was pretty fun, mostly because it was simple, it used the other two gels, and it felt less like a repetitive boss battle and more like part of the plot.  Like, it took three cores because each one added 25%.  Meanwhile, Wheatley is taunting you and admonishing you, even admitting that you weren't the first person he had tried to help escape.  And working with GLaDOS was extremely unnerving, but it didn't feel forced.  The deal between the two of us felt completely real.  She WAS my only chance to escape, and I was absolutely her only chance to be put back in charge of the facility.  The only risk was that she might betray me, but without trying, I was going to be stuck there forever, or die soon anyway.

And working with her in the boss battle didn't feel risky.  It was as if neither of us really had time to either betray the other, or think about the other one possibly betraying us.  We just wanted to stop Wheatley.

And more than that, weirdly enough, I felt like Wheatley had messed up the natural order.  I felt weird in the beginning of the game, going through the test chambers and hearing the peppy male voice give instructions and advice.  It wasn't that I liked GLaDOS; it was that there was something WRONG with the Enrichment Center without her there.  Having Wheatley in charge was, for the same reason, wrong.  It almost felt as if GLaDOS and I needed to get rid of him so we could continue our own fued.

I've already discussed how the fire/sprinklers bit served two purposes: it directed the player's attention to the stalemate button,**** and it prevented the player from putting their entry portal anywhere except below Wheatley.  Booby-trapping the stalemate button was, actually, pretty brilliant, both in terms of Wheatley's foresight, but also in terms of Valve's planning and writing.  I couldn't believe the button had been booby-trapped, not because I thought it was a stupid idea, or even because I thought I should have seen it coming, but because booby-trapping the button really made me feel as if we (GLaDOS and I) were going to lose.  I did think I had died at first, but then, when I saw myself moving, I was just as surprised as Wheatley that I was still alive.  It still felt as if there was nothing more to be done, and I felt just as desperate as Wheatley sounded, and as GLaDOS had sounded.

In fact, in that moment, it really felt like the three of us stopped fighting against each other because we all realized that shit, we were about to die.

I did think that shooting a portal on the moon was ridiculous.  But then, after watching the ending several times, and playing through single player again, I realized that it wasn't.  The game carefully establishes in the third section of the old Aperture Science facilities, that moon rocks, crushed up into powder and made into a gel, were great portal conductors.  That's what the white gel is supposed to be.  And, in the very first part of the game, in the motel room, there's a picture on the wall depicting a mountain lake.  After waking up for the second time, if you look at the same picture before it falls off the wall, the moon is suddenly present in the painting, and it's GIGANTIC.  Clue?  One that you probably didn't pick up the first time around.

Valve did do the moon thing pretty thoughtfully; the portal doesn't hit instantaneously.  In fact, I think people have done the calculations, and since portals travel at the speed of light, it took just the right amount of time for the portal to hit the moon as if would have needed.  A friend of mine (Scott!) also suggested that perhaps one of the reasons why Wheatley could still be heard in space, and why you didn't die as you hung on for dear life, is because the vacuum was also pulling out regular air with it, and that you and Wheatley could be in that tube of air.  I'll buy that.  I'm not exactly dissatisfied with the moon thing.  It just seemed absurd at first.  Maybe there's a reason the achievement at that point is called Lunacy?

GLaDOS deleting Caroline was probably one of the greatest moments ever.  She's just had this amazing character development, carrying over from the first game, where she slowly changes from just a scientist trying to test the portals, to a desperate and frustrated researcher (trying to trick you into returning to the incinerator), to a vengeful and vindictive demigod (she controls the entire environment), to a powerless potato, to your ally and companion.  And once she's back in power, she's sure to delete that part of her that gives her the compassion and caring to be your friend (GOODBYE, CAROLINE).  She's back to the beginning, and to ensure you don't cause her to go through the same development again, she gets rid of you.

At first, I thought she'd gone back on her word, and that the turrets would kill me (or that she wasn't going to kill you, but she wouldn't save you if the turrets wanted you dead--I think that still might be true).  Instead, they sang.  Again, I found this absurd.  I had missed an easter egg in the game where you could find singing turrets, but even after finding them, it still didn't explain anything.  But after several runthroughs of the ending, I finally decided that the turrets were thanking me.

Wheatley had tortured them by creating hybrids made of turrets and weighted storage cubes.  The turrets seemed to be in pain and extremely deformed, not just physically, but even a little bit mentally.  It was pretty terrifying to find them that way, and even more disturbing to have to play the game using them as storage blocks to progress through the test chambers.  Wheatley not only almost destroyed them all when he let the Enrichment Center come so close to a self-destruct, he had tortured them in "genetic" experiments.

Putting GLaDOS back in charge and keeping the facility from blowing up has saved the turrets.  I figured maybe they'd be vengeful, since I, you know, disabled and killed some of them in the past.  But I guess they were serious when they sometimes said, "I don't hate you" when they shut down.  Whatever works.

So I concluded that either they were grateful to me, or possibly that GLaDOS was using them to express her gratitude without having to actually express it.  Another clue for that possibility is the ending song, "Want You Gone."  While GLaDOS is essentially telling you that you've ruined her life and she wants you to leave her alone, she does allude to possibly still considering you her friend (well, did you think she meant you?), and very strongly implies she still hasn't deleted Caroline for real.  Either way, giving you the companion cube at the end did seem like a sign of gratitude, or at least an implication that GLaDOS doesn't want you to be alone.  Or maybe that she's sorry, by giving you back something she took from you.

All in all, there are some absurdities to the ending (space, the turrets), but when you get to the surface, you feel as if it's finally all over, that you've earned that freedom, and that anything you did wrong (euthanizing the companion cube, disabling and killing turrets, and even killing GLaDOS) has been forgiven somehow.

The only flaw in this ending?  While I appreciate the minimal cake jokes, I think "space" is going to be the new cake.

* He says that he's starting it immediately, implying that GLaDOS did not, but if you've played the first game, you'll notice that she turns it on as soon as you dispose of the first personality core.  After that, the boss battle starts, and the neurotoxin will reach capacity (i.e. kill you) in 6 minutes.  In Wheatley's battle, the same thing happens: the neurotoxin starts when the battle starts, and it will kill you in about 5 minutes.  So I'm not sure why he's stating his neurotoxin plan is different from GLaDOS', but maybe we can just chalk it up to him being an idiot.

** I find it strange that Wheatley wasn't already corrupt enough.  Granted, I completely understood that GLaDOS would be, but Wheatley should have been at least 75-90% corrupt by the end of the game.  He was single-handedly destroying the facility, out of idiocy.  But then again, otherwise what would the boss battle have consisted of, plot-wise?  Fair enough, Valve.

*** Not the one on the far right!  That one sits there, looking confused while the others sing.

**** When the announcer told me to go to the stalemate button, I didn't know where it was because the "fire detected in the vicinity of the stalemate button" part hadn't happened yet.  Once that happened, it was obvious where the button was, but beforehand, the button was still behind a panel of wall


  1. Nice, I finished the game myself today and it was awesome. Nice article.

  2. Nice article! Enjoyed reading it. :)