The Top 25 Soundtracks 2012: Number 11

Number 11: Portal 2 [SONGS TO TEST BY]

If you haven't heard of Portal or Portal 2 at all at some point, I must congratulate you. As popular and well received as the games were, still not knowing what they are by this point would be a bit like not knowing what Star Wars is after The Empire Strikes Back has hit theaters. But if you've somehow missed it, Portal is a first-person puzzle game that stars you as a test subject wielding a handheld portal gun capable of creating portals (essentially doorways that link together) on most surfaces. The game challenges you with using this device to work your way through a series of challenging rooms, all of which require use of portals as solutions. All while being goaded on by the facilities slightly unbalanced testing AI, GlaDOS.

It gets a lot more complicated then that of course. Portal was actually just as well known for it's story and characters as it was its gameplay. The sequel stepped it up several notches, tripling the length of the game and introducing several new characters to create a fairly tight and entertaining plot (more then you can believe, buy it and play it). Portal 2 also dabbled in another area that was new: soundtrack.

The original Portal did have a small soundtrack, but it was a lightweight. Ten or so tunes, designed to play at key moments, only one or two of which people actually remembered. Portal 2 on the other hand, is the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Music accompanies almost every single moment of your adventure, but never once is it overwhelming or annoying. Neither is it anything like the first Portals soundtrack, which for all intents and purposes was fairly generic. 

No, Portal 2 is probably the purest form of electronic music I've ever listened to. Where most other 'electronic' soundtracks like to make use of synthetic noises, Portal 2 is the only soundtrack I've ever heard that takes it a step further and offers an entire soundtrack made of almost nothing but mathematically composed procedural waves.

Alright, most of you probably don't know what that means, which means it's time for a little bit of science! Just as Aperture would want it. So, sounds are actually wave forms when we listen to them, with a frequency and a rise and fall in their amplitude. Certain mathematical functions can generate smooth waves, such as a sin wave, that produces a very clear tone when played, and changing the function changes the sound as well as the shape of the wave. Well, listen to Portal 2 with a spectroscope on (a device for turning sound into an image waveform) and you'll get the image at left. It's nothing more then a combination of several mathematical waves turned into sound!

Now, while all music creates waves, usually its done because well, that's how sound works, so if you stick most music into a spectroscope, you'll get a very messy wave even with a single note. Portal 2 on the other hand, is using these mathematically produced wave-forms as the basic force of its music. Turn on a Spectroscope and listen to Portal 2 and in no time at all you'll see square waves, sin waves, even sawtooth waves.

The result, and for those of you who've skimmed the above you can start reading now, we're done with all that messy science stuff, is that Portal 2's soundtrack sounds nothing like most other soundtracks out there. It is entirely unique in that it takes music back to it's most basic form: Math. Then it puts that math into your ears and you don't even care that it's obviously not performed by real instruments because it's following all the rules of real music. It makes for a very interesting listening experience.

All of that combined makes Portal 2 a very fun and gripping soundtrack to listen to. Despite being made out of mathematical tones, the soundtrack even manages to carry a large amount of variety in its compositions. There are clear melodies that pop up and reappear from time to time, and the music even does a great job building up emotional intensity.

Most shocking of the Portal 2 soundtrack for myself however, was the amount of Non-Gamers who enjoyed listening to it. A purely artificial, entirely digital soundtrack, and non-gamers enjoyed it. It was not a category I expect Portal 2 to excel at. Maybe I need a larger control group. Yes...with a sterilized test chamber...and perhaps a computer program to ensure everything runs smoothly...

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, anyway, Portal 2 scores exceptionally well in several areas, most noticeably in its Composition and its Game Representation. It scores lowest in Enjoyment, not because it's unenjoyable, but for the same reasons that are its strengths. You do have to work a bit to meet the music on it's level. Not much, not nearly as much as other soundtracks, but you still do.

Portal 2
Enjoyment: 4
Stand Alone Quality: 4.25
Composition: 4.75
Emotional Reaction: 4.25
Game Representation: 5
Non-Gamer Enjoyment: 1
Nostalgia: 0
TOTAL: 4.65

Portal 2 is a unique and clever soundtrack that is an experience to listen to and enjoy. Oh, and did I mention that it is entirely free? That's right, there is absolutely no reason to keep you from downloading this years number 11 right now. For science.

Number 11--Portal 2 by Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory

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