Now that the year is over and hindsight has shown awarding bodies the best of the best in 2011 it seems pointed to look at a particular facet of what has been regarded as one of the best games of last year.
It maybe that that my ear is unusually bent - in a near autistic manner - to oddities and nuances in sound but it seems that for the dozens of blogs dissecting the game, (some of the best I will list at the end of this post) the sound design in Valve's Portal 2 seems to have been sorely overlooked. Over on Cruise Elroy there is a piece on just how music and sound are an ingrained part of the environment and gameplay in Portal 2. I wanted to take that critique to a level where by those who care more about music than gaming may find intrigue enough to discover for themselves how the two are married within portal 2.
Portal, as a franchise, is known above many things for its sense of fun. The original Portal - although a marvel in originality - quickly descends into a playground once the physics have been mastered and the sense of joy and limitless freedom is only juxtaposed by the claustrophobic narrative and ominous ambiances creeping behind the soundtrack. The music and sound in portal 2 are a much more involved affair, deconstructing the typical idea of a soundtrack and allowing music to become as much a part of the act of playing the game as it is to simply listen.
Mike Morasky took on the role as sole composer for the game after previous collaborator Kelly Bailey's move away from Valve. He has given an account of the dynamic and interactive nature of his sounds within Portal 2 over on gamesradar which highlights the depth of thought that went gone into what is usually seen as an afterthought in game development. The music from Portal 2's forbearer is often condensed in memory to Jonathan Coulton's 'Still alive', and whereby the soundtrack for the sequel is much more grandiose and involved than the stark ambience seen in the original one forgets, while playing, that there is rarely a silent moment. Underneath the chiptune and harpsichords of the soundtrack proper lies similar ambient sounds and almost-songs slightly plucking on the strings of your attention. This is a notable factor in the mind of a game musicians, the line between being heard as part of the palette of the game but not being too prominent as to be overbearing. And so, actual soundtrack (which is free to download from the Portal 2 music site) aside, there is always the creeping noise of the facility itself to complement the visual scale of the game.
With Portal's sense of humour duly noted there are brief musical instances created in the fine line between science and fun. In the initial relaxation chamber you are advised by a faceless announcer
"If you suspect staring at art has not provided the required intellectual sustenance, reflect briefly on this classical music."
"To help you remain tranquil in the face of almost certain death, smooth jazz will be deployed, in three, two, one."
What plays next is a short burst of Larry Steven's 'Offering' which should you also wish to remain tranquil, you can hear below.
Both these examples show Valve using music not just as counterpoint to action but as an integrated plot point, even if that point is simply a waltz into the absurd.
Other musical moments come as homage to sci-fi greats. There is no denying GladOS' similarities to the homicidal HAL 9000 of 2001 fame, but upon finding the inaccurately named 'Turret redemption line' there is a strong invocation of Vangelis score work for 'Blade runner'. Listen below and compare for yourself.
As you cut along the test chambers, be they rebuilt, ruined or retro, music is almost literally coming from the panels and play elements themselves. In the turret production facility your companion Wheatley spins a humorous yarn about the fate of the robotic caretaker of the unit and the screams of the dismantled robots therein. In the background, nearly hidden from aural discovery and perfectly synchronised with the score tiny, metallic yells punctuate the story. Further down the same manufacturing trail, if you dare get close enough, the laser cutting robot-arms forming shapes for the construction of turrets have a song all of their own known as 'diecut laser dance' in the accompanying soundtrack.
Not only are there audio treats seeping from behind the near sentient panels, almost every testing element has its own unique body of sound, allowing Valve and Morasky to define the game world through more senses than most AAA games on the market. Not only are these elements delineated by aesthetic but they also appeal to the players sense of hearing. The most prevalent show of this attachment and dedication to sound as a gameplay tool is the first of GladOS' 'pretty good' looking chambers. In it the player finds receptors for three of the previously discovered 'Thermal discouragement beams', as the beams are portalled or redirected into these buttons a differing melody line drifts from each, building into the soundtracks 'triple phase laser'. One can literally play with how these three melodies interact and hear the creation of the soundtrack all while achieving what is a necessary part of advancing through the game. This level of immersion and gifted reward to the astute gamer are clear signals from the developer that they mean to have sound as something more than the cursory flourish of an overriding score.
Almost every new testing element added to portal 2 has its own notable sound, a calling card which it either sends echoing around the vast chambers or mumbles quietly to itself waiting to catch a keen eared player. The hard light bridges hum and warm with the unique synthesiser noise that leads in the soundtracks 'hard sunshine', but is only audible if you had disregarded GladOS warning and 'rubbed your cheek on one'.
Even though its introduction is set in the most dilapidated bowels of the aperture facility the sound design given to the gels is by far the most advanced in terms of dynamic programming. The sweeping arpeggios that signify the player stepping onto the orange propulsion gel work in direct union with the game physics of gel itself. During gameplay the gel accelerates the players walking speed, in terms of sound this directly affects the tempo of the arpeggiated synth heard below.
There is also a melody line applied to the blue repulsion gel which bounces you around the now defunct chambers. It's tempo changes in unison as you gain and lose speed on either side of the arc of your bounce. Sadly there was no sound detail added to the moon dust based conversion gel which allows any surface it 'paints' to accept portals.
If ever there was necessity for a sound to highlight the experience of being flung through the air in a retro-futuristic laboratory controlled by a megalomaniacal robot then the bit-crunched, altitude based beats heard when using the aerial faith plates would be it. The game world applies the physical sound of the air rushing past you as you soar but as the forces equalise and you lose momentum the garbled electronic score of 'friendly faith plate' almost descends from the ceiling to fill the lonely void at your apex.
The use of sound in conjunction with the faith plates is given a new level of audio appeal when encountered in the later 'wheatley chambers'. After being taunted about his raison d'etre (he was created as a dampener to GladOS' intelligence) you arrive in a chamber to the sound Bach's 'Little Prelude in C minor BWV 934' being piped in in an attempt to prove his intellect. As the player uses the plates to fling across the room the clavier of Bach fades into a heavily synthesized version of the piece as if altitude affects whether and where the music is organic or sequenced. This serves as a metaphor in the world of Aperture Science where the robotic and mechanised is always viewed as 'higher' than anything human. You can hear the two instruments vying for dominance in the track 'Machiavellian Bach' below.
"Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event that the Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice."
Outside of normal gameplay there are also a slew of hidden areas throughout the science-fuelled world of Aperture Industries. Preceding the release of portal 2 a comic was produced to tell the story of how Chell came to survive between the two games. Centred around the character of former(?) Aperture employee Doug Rattman it details how he has lived/is living in hidden areas around the facility. When finding these oubliettes the player is not only rewarded with beautifully stylised murals depicting key scenes in Apertures history but also discovering these hideouts you hear the strange pseudo-singing and nonsensical ramblings of the time and isolation demented 'Ratman' himself.
The other, much beloved and discussed, aural element to portal 2 has been the undeniable quality of its voice acting, from J K Simmons voicing bombastic Aperture boss Cave Johnson down to the diminutive yet deadly turrets. Hidden in another secret area within the run-down facility one can find a quartet of these heartbreaking and often heartstopping little characters practicing a song known as the 'turret wife serenade', heard below.
Each and every time I encountered one of these audio easter eggs it excited me as a musician and as a gamer. Having the evidence presented to me, via the game, that Valve care about each layer of a games construction equally and that they created devices to appeal to each of my senses is a real testament the dedication of their fanbase. And with the announcement of a simplified system whereby fans can create test chambers and map-packs of their own, it's hoped that levels will be created with an sound design and music as a primary goal and achievement, giving credit and attention where it is due to the unique way in which sound has been integrated into the game.
Hopefully, in the future of the 'games as art' debate, it will be this level of dedication to the many facets of other art forms that go into game development which will allow gaming the kudos it deserves. Until then we can only hope that, even though easily overlooked, forethought into score and the level of sound integration that Mike Morasky and Valve have created and presented to the gaming community can be taken as a jumping off point.
With that in mind I can only implore you to (re)play portal 2 with one ear open to all the treats the expanded aperture science facility can offer a gamer should they only stop to listen.
All songs named can be downloaded for free from valves dedicated portal 2 music page.