Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists Portal 2 [Soundtrack] on Blogcritics.
Portal 2, the unabashedly clever puzzle narrative released April 2011, has been hailed by critics as one of the best video games of the year. The game focuses on the plight of Chell, a human test subject trapped in the derelict facility of Aperture Science, surrounded by rogue A.I.’s, both malignant and benign. While Portal 2’s storyline, graphics, gameplay, and voice acting talent are all superb, I’d like to address a somewhat unsung aspect of the game that’s definitely worth mentioning: the soundtrack.
Composer Mike Morasky is behind the understated genius that is the Portal 2 soundtrack. Morasky, who also composed the soundtracks for Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2, focused on the interactivity of the soundtrack. The ambient noises and tunes that seem to emanate from the walls of the now-deteriorated Aperture Science test chambers respond to your actions and movements. Performing certain tasks will trigger certain strains of music, leading to a growing crescendo of electronic praise to be heard only when you’ve completed the puzzle.
True to the game’s feel and subject matter, the score is entirely synthesized, including no organic instruments of any kind. The result is ambient sounds and erratic musical patterns that sound as if they were inadvertently created by whirring, busily working machines. The soundtrack serves many purposes. Some tracks, as previously mentioned, exist purely to create atmosphere, whether it be through uneasy ambience (“Technical Difficulties”) or through repetitive, needling motifs that keep the player on edge (“I Saw A Deer Today”, “An Accent Beyond”). Other tracks reflect and underscore key plot events as they unfold, but still retain the artificial feel that the game requires (the protagonist is traversing through the bowels of an uninhabited facility, after all). One such track is “The Courtesy Call”, which plays during the first few minutes of gameplay. The track begins with sinister chords that bleed into each other and then abruptly mounts in urgency as what sound like warning sirens blare. A veritable rollercoaster of emotion, this track serves as the player’s introduction to the playing field; wary apprehension quickly morphs into hardened anticipation of the rapidly-approaching unknown.
Now, it would be unfair to talk about Portal’s music without mentioning Jonathan Coulton, the musician behind the hit song “Still Alive”—sung by the murderous A.I. GLaDOS, the main antagonist— from the original game. Coulton contributes a song to Portal 2 as well, also played during the end credits of the game and again sung by GLaDOS: “Want You Gone”. The two songs represent significant shifts in the GLaDOS’ character development. Where “Still Alive” is smarmily, resolutely defiant, “Want You Gone” is melancholy, bitter, and hurt. Those aware of the fate of the protagonist Chell at the end of both games can appreciate GLaDOS’ resulting change in demeanor and the notable difference in the tone of the songs.
Also worth noting is the inclusion of “Exile Vilify” by The National. The band wrote the song specifically for the game, making for an appropriately somber, haunting piece. The song, cleverly buried into the game for the player to discover, reflects the broken, hopeless feeling that befell a previous victim of Aperture’s machinations. Valve (the company behind Portal and Portal 2) and The National held a contest challenging fans to create a music video for the new song, further emphasizing the key role that music plays in the Portal universe.
Portal 2 introduces a slew of new characters and obstacles to surmount. Ultimately, though, these additions wouldn’t have half the impact they do were it not for its masterful soundtrack complimenting the gameplay at every turn.
If you’d like to see the winning music videos (plus a lot more!) for “Exile Vilify”, go here!
However, I’d like to include my personal favorite entry that I’ve come across. It’s essentially an elegant four-minute summary of the game comprised entirely of gorgeous in-game footage, so beware of spoilers.
Read the interview with composer Mike Morasky at gamesradar.com: http://www.gamesradar.com/portal-2s-dynamic-music-an-interview-with-composer-mike-morasky-and-five-tracks-to-listen-to-now/
Download the soundtrack: