Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thinking with Soundtracks: The Music of Portal 2

portal2ostTwo Month in Reviews ago, I alluded to our lack of a proper Portal 2 review. Andrew and I both completed the game’s stellar single-player offering within a week or two of release, but neither of us felt compelled to pen anything. Perhaps the glut of creative reviews intimidated us. Or maybe it was each of us lacking a proper co-op partner (he purchased for the PlayStation 3/PC, I for the Xbox 360).

I’ve also been worried to even talk about the game with someone who hasn’t played it. On the off-chance that they ever get around to it, I want each and every moment to be as fresh as it was for me. Portal 2’s puzzles are challenging and offer many “A-ha!” moments, but they offer little in replay value. To even discuss them would diminish their appeal.

Portal 2’s plot is nowhere near as complex as your average Japanese RPG, nor is it as sweeping as Valve’s Half-Life 2. But the writing is top-notch, and the story beats twist and land with the nimble precision of an Olympic gymnast. The story offers a handful of truly satisfying surprises, and I feel like dancing around them is even a bit too close.

What I can tell you, however, is that the music is amazing. Yes, there’s a song by The National tucked away as an easter egg, and yes, indie folk rocker/cruise captain Jonathan Coulton recorded another closing track. What’s more impressive, and definitely worth your time regardless of your relationship with Portal 2, is Mike Morasky’s score.

Previous Valve games have used music rather sparingly. Music is employed as a heightener of mood rather than an establisher. None of the tracks on the Half-Life 2 soundtrack top three minutes in length, and many come in under thirty seconds. Left 4 Dead’s musical cues tie directly into the behavior of the zombie horde, signaling approaching mobs or the dreadful appearance of a Tank. Both games let your ears soak in the environment (be it the chilling emptiness of City 17 or shamblings and groans of a zombie-filled mall) before punctuating a scene with music.

Valve let Morasky stretch out in Portal 2. The first track, “Science is Fun” (featured in the latter half of this TV spot), sounds like vintage Valve. Electronic, driving, intense. It also helps define the specific palette of warbles and whines Morasky paints with for much of the score.

You can hear him dial it back a bit on “9999999,” which keeps the industrial gestures – the grinding, the buzzing, the crunching – while introducing some strings. Keep an ear out for the arpeggios (the rising and falling tones that build chords). Morasky returns to this motif through the score to simulate the repetitive machinery of the Aperture facility.

The strings, the arpeggios, the horns that blare in “Courtesy Call”: it all rings monster movie to me. And what is the first act of Portal 2 if not a bit of a monster movie? The first game’s Big Bad, GLaDoS, defeated by your hand, slumbers ominously in the ruins of Aperture Science Laboratories. You’re led past her unplugged “corpse,” tiptoeing like a hobbit past a sleeping dragon. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that she awakens, by incredibly unfortunate means, and that the scene is scored by the outstanding “You Know Her?”

That drumming, that low banging on what sounds like everything from timpani to the battered remains of a piano’s left side – that’s Morasky starting up GLaDoS. A giant machine is turning itself on, rubbing the sand from its digital eye, and making plans to destroy you. That Morasky manages to contain this “Frankenstein Awakes” sound with the science-y aural confines of Aperture never ceases to impress.

To go much deeper into the score would probably delve deeper into spoiler territory than I’m comfortable going. The cinematic qualities really stand out, yet to mention them is to touch upon the story beats they support. Just know that Volume Two of the soundtrack contains some equally grandiose gestures that complement Portal 2’s expanded scope nicely.

Morasky didn’t just score the story sequences. I brought up Half-Life 2 initially because, unlike in previous Valve games, I just seemed to keep finding music in Portal 2. Almost every chamber, every corridor, every encounter offered something new sonically. Honestly, I probably could’ve solved every puzzle to the blissful “Love as a Construct” and been completely content.

In addition, Morasky also composed procedurally generated music to accompany several of Portal 2’s puzzles. According to a preview piece in USA Today, “there is at least one piece of music that only repeats itself every 76,911 years, 125 days, 7 hours, 56 minutes and 30.3 seconds.”

“Triple Laser Phase” (above) is a perfect example. Each refracted laser in the puzzle signals a different loop of music. In other chambers, interacting with various elements yields tiny musical cues as rewards. “The puzzles are thanking you for playing with them,” Morasky told Geoff Keighley in The Final Hours of Portal 2. “They love you.”

And I love them.

The first two volumes of Portal 2: Songs to Test By by Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory (aka Mike Morasky) are free and available for download at this website. Again, I’d recommend going and playing the game first, but even if you don’t, please check out Morasky’s fine work.