Without even listening to the soundtrack to Portal 2, there are already two exceptional items to mention; it is 64 tracks long, split into three albums, and it’s completely free. The entirety of the aural euphoria from composter Mike Morasky is available to download in full at the company’s website. Why? Because Valve. But, availability is only the tip of the iceberg of why Portal 2 has the world’s greatest soundtrack.
The Portal 2 OST is such a vast, well-composed and eclectic mix of tunes that listening to its tracks in succession is like traveling across country and having the seasons change every few minutes. One moment is tempered, filled with muted strings and peppered with tonal computer sounds. The next is escalating synth and lasers blasts over a thundering bass beat.
You can be confident in the quality of a soundtrack when even the game’s menu songs exude intensity. 9999999, one of the first songs you’ll hear at the main select screen, is a hypnotic, slow-build beat with patient synth drums and ample cymbal crashes. It resembles another tune, Concentration Enhancing Menu Initialiser, which is equally as potent. The funny thing is that this song is really only played when hovering over the game icon in the Playstation 3 system menu. Valve made sure no screen is without something powerful in the background.
While these pre-game songs are wonderful for even-tempered tone-setting, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of the first in-game song, The Courtesy Call, which opens sounding like a water-damaged Gameboy chirping into life, leading straight into strings-heavy crooning. When the horns kick in alongside what sounds not unlike a chiptunes song, it hits its fever-pitch. Let’s not forget that this is all occurring while your robot sidekick, Wheatley, is steering an entire room (which you are inside of) by suspended crane and crashing it through a forest of other suspended habitation rooms.
It’s the contextual awareness that makes the Portal OST more than just a series of enjoyable tunes. There is logic to their placement. In the same way the opening song mimics the chaos of Wheatley’s docking procedure, other moments of imminent disaster are accompanied by jagged sounds over rapid beats. Friendly Faith Plate reverbs in your eardrums, booming and hissing simultaneously, while you learn the very real dangers of Aerial Faith Plates that hurl you across the room. Bombs for Throwing at You plays during the final boss battle and the drum beats move at breakneck pace, with synth sounds that seem to echo around you in a disorienting fashion. All of this is laid over the absolutely thundering sound of orchestral instrumentals.
Besides a few stand-out tracks already mentioned, designed to highlight landmark moments in the game’s progression, the majority of the OST is pensive and often so muted, that it could nearly be mistaken for sounds in the distance. Haunted Panels, for instance, is nearly one brass note with a few sprinkles of slow and gentle piano. Adrenal Vapor sounds like one musician playing a xylophone while another does science in the corner, bubbling liquids in beakers. These more simplistic, melodic tracks accentuate patient puzzle solving, rather than frantic battles or dramatic moments.
You can spend ages talking about the computer bleeps and synth tones that dot the games various songs. There’s a pervasive electronica theme throughout most of the music, but that’s only a fraction of what the soundtrack has to offer. Laden within the pensive symphonies of digitized tones and what sounds like a symphony of dot-matrix-printers is actually a robust orchestral sound. Strings, horns, brass and percussion all meld into the soundtrack in a majority of the songs and lay the groundwork for a common interpretation of the game by fans; that Portal 2 is an opera.
One could write a whole novel on the associations of Portal’s core story and that of Greek dramas – particularly the story of Prometheus – and many elements of classical literature. But, in the music, it’s beyond apparent. Listen to the track The Music of the Spheres and then to the absurdly named Machiavellian Bach, which begins with a classic concerto format that slowly evolves synthesized robotic sound. Robust classical sounds turned to lifeless synthetic tones. The picture paints itself.
Even more convincing of Portal 2’s operatic foundations can be found in the perfectly named “Turret Opera” also known as Cara Mia Addio, which translates from Italian (often called the language of opera) to “Farewell, my Dear.” I can scarcely even define how intricately beautiful this song is, but in the interest of continuing my point, take a look at the lyrics. Written in Italian, they translate into a mournful serenade to Chell, as she is ushered slowly up the elevator to the surface once more. Perhaps this time, it’s for good.
Portal 2 has so many great songs that even some of them are hidden from the common player. The eerie tune, Ghost ofthe Rattman will begin to play when you first discover one of the hidden dens of the only other living creature behind Chell. His story is outlined at length in the Portal comic Lab Rat, but in his song, you can make out the distant, unintelligible sounds of a madman. In another hidden hiding place, you can trigger a specially commissioned track, Exile Vilify, a beautiful piano-heavy tune performed by one of my personal favorite bands, The National.
This breakdown of Portal 2’s soundtrack is long, but it still barely manages to encapsulate the intricacy of each and every song. Every melody is placed with purpose into the game to blend into the background as the player gets lost in puzzle solving or to exaggerate the intensity of a chaotic moment. The soundtrack isn’t just good, it’s masterly plotted out for each moment.
Portal 2 had its critics. There are those that complained about length or felt the later puzzles never quite reached their full potential. But, the music that hums through your speakers throughout the game is without equal. The OST is one part techno and one part opera, all deftly layered inside an already exceptional game. Even if you’ve never played it, you can enjoy all three volumes. No matter what context, the Portal 2 soundtrack improves every scenario.