“Portal 2” Encourages Learning & Bonding

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“Very good. You’ve really come together as a team, thanks to the one of you who appears to be doing all of the work,” says Portal 2’s GLaDOS, who happens to be the most sarcastic and hilarious A.I. ever programmed.

In Portal 2’s co-op mode, two adorably charismatic cycloptic robots named Atlas and P-body are trained and tested as they make their way through a series of Aperture Science puzzle stages guided by the maniacally calm voice of GLaDOS. Her narration begins with a tone of feigned enthusiasm as she guides your robots, whom she calls “Orange and Blue,” through a gameplay tutorial that includes the use of your most important tool, the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (or portal gun).

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As you continue through puzzle stages together, GLaDOS’ narration becomes increasingly cynical and sadistic. She makes fun of the players as she attempts to pit them against each other, despite the aim of the game being cooperation. “As an impartial collaboration facilitator,” she apathetically drones, “it would be unfair of me to name my favorite member of your team. However, it’s perfectly fair to hint at it in a way that my least favorite member probably isn’t smart enough to understand. Rhymes-with-glue. Orange you are doing very well.”

It’s not often that a game appeals to parents and kids alike the way Portal 2 seems to do with ease. Orange and Blue are instantly endearing, and GLaDOS’ narration is humorous and oddly captivating. The look of the game is flawless and simple, and gameplay feels fast and exciting. But the thing that really makes this game special is the puzzles. There’s no violence, unless you consider the catapults that launch you to your death when you make a mistake to be violent. But the guns in this game don’t shoot anything except solutions to problems, which is, quite simply, a breath of fresh air.

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Playing Co-op Mode Together

Cooperative gameplay has really come a long way, and Portal 2 has pushed the boundaries of creative cooperative level design. Back in the old days, we used to have to take turns playing either Mario or Luigi. Game franchises like Halo and Diablo now feature modes where you can play together with friends, but modern co-op levels just recycle the environments used in solo level by ramping up the monster hp.

Portal is a truly innovative co-op experience, because the levels are designed in such a way that the success of the pair can only happen when each player performs a specific and independent task to help the other player through. It is impossible to complete any Portal 2 co-op level without the full participation and problem solving abilities of both players. As GLaDOS observes, “These tests are potentially lethal when communication, teamwork and mutual respect are not employed at all times. Naturally this will pose an interesting challenge for one of you, given the other’s performance so far.”

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Since the two players are so dependent upon each other to succeed, Portal 2 co-op is a remarkable way for parent and child to bond over the struggle of the puzzles, the intense satisfaction of having solved them together and your unified hatred of GLaDOS’ mockery. The reward for completing each stage, besides intense relief, is a new cooperative emote. Orange and Blue learn to high five, hug and dance with each other (much to GLaDOS’ dismay). Once you’ve learn an emote, it can be performed at any time, giving you a great way of celebrating mini-successes together along the way.

Adults and kids will both be genuinely addicted to playing this game together in co-op mode, but for different reasons. The puzzles are engaging, and while the younger guys should be able to take on the earlier ones, you will most definitely need to strain your adult brain to figure out the later ones. No need to worry, though—mistakes are easily forgiven, making it an excellent experience for little ones all the way through. If one of you dies, they can just run back to the other player, no problem. There are no “lives” in this game, which greatly encourages the use of trial and error to solve the puzzles. Catapult—*splat*– OK let’s try something else.

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Portal 2 in Education

The strategies and tools you need to use to solve Portal 2’s puzzles employ a variety of concepts taken right out of the science curricula of many classrooms. Action and reaction, inertia, gravity and mass are all concepts used to solve the puzzles.

Players must use their portal guns to create pathways for themselves and other objects, which can be placed on virtually any wall in the game, meaning the way to the end of a level will change every time it’s played. But there are also essential tools that must be used in order to succeed, including blue and orange goo. Orange goo is slick and shoots you like a rocket as you run; blue goo makes you bounce. Catapults shoot you over ledges, and objects must be moved, dropped or thrown. If you don’t carefully calculate the use of these mechanics, the level is impossible to complete.

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After the release of Portal 2, science and math teachers from around the country began writing to Valve, thanking them for creating such an innovative teaching tool. Valve responded by graciously creating a custom level design tool. Ever since then, teachers have been creating levels to use as lessons in the classroom and sharing them online.

That means that once you’ve completed co-op together, you and your little Aperture scientist can create and play your own level as you secretly learn about physics and engineering. Or you could even use one of the custom levels and its accompanying lesson plan created by a teacher to reach specific learning targets. Even GLaDOS would be impressed by your teamwork.

Be warned, you will need two PC’s, two purchased copies of the game and two Steam accounts to play in co-op mode, but you can play together online.

To see Portal 2 team-building of a different type, view this marriage proposal created using the custom level design tool and the volunteer work of Valve’s Ellen McLain, the voice of GLaDOS.

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