Part of the ambitious The Organe Box package, 2007’s Portal married innovative puzzles based on a portable wormhole gun with uproarious humor to such great acclaim that a sequel was all but certain, and in 2011 the stand-alone followup Portal 2 was released. Three times as long as the original with a bevy of innovative new puzzle mechanics and a co-op mode, Portal 2 reunited players with the homicidally codependent computer GlaDOS and her array of killer puzzle tests while introducing her comically moronic foil Wheatley and delving deeply into the darkly comic history of their creator Aperture Science and its founder Cave Johnson. The game was a strong sales success and critical darling, with voice actors Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant, and J. K. Simmons singled out for particular praise.
The original Portal had been largely scored by developer Valve’s in-house composer Kelly Bailey before his 2011 departure from the company, with the smash-hit end credits song “Still Alive” provided by indie singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. Bailey had provided the first game with a harsh and ambient industrial score, much like his previous work on Half-Life and Half-Life 2, though several tracks were also contributed by Mike Morasky who had begun audio work for Valve not much earlier. With Bailey’s departure, Morasky was given sole composer duties for Portal 2, bringing a diverse set of electronic and acoustic sounds to the project. An experienced indie musician, composer, audio programmer, and VFX artist, Morasky set about creating a score that would marry Bailey’s intense electronic sound with a more melodic and pop-influenced sound, with Coulton returning to provide a sequel to his cult hit song.
Morasky’s primary thematic construct for Portal 2 is a melody suggesting the wonder and potential GlaDOS’s beloved “science.” Deconstructed fragments of the theme appear as early as the mysterious “999999,” alongside electronic and vocal effects, but it isn’t until “Music of the Spheres” that the theme appears in its full glory. Almost fully (synth) orchestral, “Music of the Spheres” hands the melody off to woodwinds with flighty harp accents and deep brass to accompany the descent into the oldest areas of Aperture. Morasky then deconstructs and interprets the theme for the remainder of the game’s music: giving the melody over to solo synth pads for the upbeat “You Are Not Part of the Test Group,” layering in electronics for “Forwarding the Cause of Science,” and finally having the electronics themselves take the melody up in “The Reunion,” giving it a distorted and gritty feel. Morasky completes his deconstruction with “Incendiary Lemons” for the reveal of the game’s biggest secrets, burying the theme almost as deeply as in “999999” beneath layers of synth pads and distorted electronics. The “Music of the Spheres” theme returns one last time, fully reconstructed, in the cathartic “Caroline Deleted” before being overlaid once again by electronics by GlaDOS’s reversion to her old ways and the game’s final ascendent denouement.
The game includes a several more thematic elements as well. A motif from “Reconstructing More Science” reappears mixed with “Music of the Spheres” in “The Courtesy Call,” and again at the game’s end in “Your Precious Moon” and “Caroline Deleted,” most likely representing GlaDOS or her renewal. Wheatley gets a motif of his own as well, appearing in “Don’t Do It,” the twisted “I AM NOT A MORON!,” and the subtle “Wheatley Science.” It mirrors his progression from helpful nuisance to grave threat, culminating in the pounding electronic/orchestral hybrid action tracks “The Part Where He Kills You” and “Bombs For Throwing At You” (the latter also featuring sly and subtle references to “Music of the Spheres”).
Given that Ellen McLain, the voice of GlaDOS and her turret minions, is a trained opera singer, it’s not surprising that many of the album’s highlights involve her voice. Jonathan Coulton’s “Want You Gone,” the game’s centerpiece song, makes great use of McLain’s modulated vocals with clever lyrics and colorful support from guitars and synths. She also lends her voice to the grimly beautiful “PotatOS Lament,” modulated and distorted almost to unintelligibility at the point of GlaDOS’s darkest hour (complete with dog Latin lyrics like “potato lacrimosa”), and the finale “Cara Mi Addio” which mixes wordless turret vocals with surprisingly heartfelt faux Italian singing as it soars to a classical climax. The brief and quirky “Turret Wife Serenade” offers a lighter take on the quasi-operatic style, while Morasky uses a more traditional darkly choral approach in “You Know Her,” the menacing track accompanying GlaDOS’s initial resurrection. Other tracks also use interestingly modulated vocal samples as in “Ghost of Rattman,” which uses rambled and unhinged gibberish as a sort of bass line.
Despite its thematic strength and its frequent use of vocals and (synth) orchestral elements, Morasky’s music retains much of the harder electronic edge of Bailey’s earlier work, and this might grate the ears of traditionalists expecting a more traditional score. Tracks like “The Friendly Faith Plate” or “Die Cut Turret Dance” are extremely harsh and abrasive, if creative, in their use of electronics. Other songs, like the sequence of “FrankenTurrets,” “Excursion Funnel,” and “TEST” are extremely ambient, with little of interest for listeners who can’t stand that mode. The electronics are inextricably woven throughout the score in various guises, though it’s probably worth noting that orchestral purists are rather unlikely to seek the music out.
Morasky’s work on Portal 2 is surprisingly deep and thematic, a major improvement on the abrasive and atonal music from the first game, and a thoughtful and often funny accompaniment to the game itself. The occasional harshness of its electronics or dips into ambient sound design do better within the game than without, but there is enough music that anyone should be able to put together a highlight playlist. Not long after Portal 2’s spring 2011 release, Valve made the game’s entire score as well as Coulton’s “Want You Gone” available as free downloads (with Morasky credited tongue-in-cheek as the “Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory”). A year later, a 4-CD version called Portal 2: Songs to Test By was released at a budget price, with all the free songs as well as a disc of music from the original Portal. Either version is recommended as a generally satisfying and innovative slice of musical cake.