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Test results from the Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory

26/05/2011

I’m having the aural equivalent of motion sickness, and it’s awesome.

I never fell in love with the original Portal much beyond “this is a nice little timewaster for a few hours” and while Portal 2 is by all means a fantastically designed game, it doesn’t really grab me that massively either – excellent game, but it’s just a bit too short and unreplayable to really make a lasting impression on me. But of course, it’s all done by Valve standards so every single part of it is finetuned to absolute perfection in the way that makes every single other developer company go orange in a mix of envy and jealousy. The sound design is a part of that lust for perfection. Portal 2 has a lot of music – the 75 minutes and 22 songs of music that was released for free grabs yesterday is only volume 1 out of 3. In-game it’s a very inconspicuous soundtrack, never really stepping outside its main purpose of soundtracking the game yet not becoming the focal point. The tunes most familiar here are the ones that belong to the sections where you got stupefied by a particularly hard puzzle and thus spent ages shooting through portals in a vague hope of having an idea what to do in the same area with the same music. The rest you might as well be hearing for the first time. In-game they worked perfectly, backing pivotal moments almost invisibly and creating an atmosphere. A lot of soundtracks do that but fail to impact outside their context. Listening to the Portal 2 OST outside the game, you actually come to realise just how magnificently crafted it is: for what’s supposed to be background music, it’s insanely detailed, crafted with love and care, building on subtle movements instead of big changes and packed to bursting with tiny things you would never, ever notice without a good set of headphones and lack of any other sound. It works well as a stand-alone listen. Somehow, Valve have managed to merge the two completely different worlds.

But to go back to the aural motion sickness.

Portal 2 soundtrack is dense. It’s almost fetishistic in its behaviour to muck about with sound, from toying around with deep bass sounds to taking advantage every way it can from stereo settings. This isn’t your usual “sound travels from one side to the other” kind of thing. This is sound ebbing and flowing between every single direction, moving wildly and erratically. On one hand, it’s immensely atmospheric – you can really tell why Portal 2 has such a brilliant atmosphere, and it’s all because the music is playing with sound so much that even if you don’t actively notice the tunes, the sheer way it goes around in space mucks with your head and contributes to the overall feel of the game. On the other hand, it’s actually making my head a little bit loopy. There’s a few songs on the album that make me feel like I’ve just been spinning around wildly for a good few minutes. The sheer density of sound, the mixture of noise and electronic twiddling that’s constantly present and the way it loops around actually messes with my head slightly: couple of tracks more than others. It’s slightly weird but at the same time it’s actually quite cool. Good music always makes you feel but how many times can you say you’ve met music that genuinely affects you physically? Plus the sheer amount of detail put into each song is pretty awe-enducing in its own right.

All in all, it’s rather fancy. Certainly one of the more intriguing game soundtracks in a while.

Download Songs to Test By – Portal 2 Soundtrack Volume I here

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