Portal Was a Triumph

Let’s talk about Portal, the game from Valve. It’s a first-person puzzle game in which you place portals that allow you to teleport from one portal to another. You use these portals to reach places you normally couldn’t, move objects around, and solve puzzles.

You know, putting this in words is difficult. Let me show you the trailer.

The game is absolutely brilliant, and has a streak of dark humor that’s unusual both for its tone and for being actually funny. Its pacing is spot-on, keeping you moving forward without frustrating you too much. It’s currently sitting at 89 on Metacritic, and a lot of gamers have been raving about it online.

Add me to that mob. Portal is exquisitely made, polished until the cannonball has no corners whatsoever, and manages to combine puzzles and atmosphere and characterization into a beautiful package. It’s better than a chocolate-covered magic pony.

And I’m about to spoil it for all it’s worth. I’m going to break down its structure and pacing, dissect its backstory, and try to explain why the game works as well as it does. If you have any interest whatsoever in playing Portal–and you should–then go get it and play it before reading on. It’s available for Windows as a standalone game, or for Windows and XBox 360 as part of the Orange Box bundle with Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and a bunch of other stuff.

In a lot of ways, Portal isn’t that complex. As in Lode Runner and similar early videogames, you have the ability to manipulate your environment in one very limited way, and the game requires you to use that ability to solve puzzles. In Portal you can place two ends of a teleportation portal and use it to pass through to the other side, or move things from one place to another, or drop objects on buttons or dangerous gun turrets.

The story is simple. You wake up in a confined cell and are greeted by a computerized voice. The voice explains that you’re taking part in some tests. You then go through the tests, discover that at the end of the tests you’re supposed to die, and instead try to escape, pausing only to have an epic battle with the computer behind the voice. The game doesn’t have a story so much as it has backstory.

The structure is simple. The game’s a pearl necklace, a string of discrete levels. You can only go through in one direction, no backtracking allowed. It’s reminiscent not only of early level-based videogames but also of Valve’s Half-Life series.

The non-player characters–well, character–are simple. GLaDOS, the single real NPC, is merely a voice that follows a script. Since you can only move through the game linearly, GLaDOS’s comments are always apropos, and do not repeat.

So why is Portal so good? It’s multi-layered, with the environment, tone, and NPC characterization enhancing the base puzzly gameplay. What’s more, each of those layers progress satisfyingly. The tone shifts, how GLaDOS reacts to you changes, and your understanding of the game world increases. There’ve been complaints about how the game is short enough to be played through in two to four hours, but its short playtime means its density of fun is high throughout, and the humor isn’t worn out by repetition.

Let’s look at how the story is paced. It starts out straightforwardly, with you waking up in an enclosed test chamber. After a few seconds, a computerized voice welcomes you.

[audio:glados-welcome.mp3]

That, as you eventually learn, is GLaDOS. In her introductory speech, she sets the tone for what’s to come. The testing she mentions sounds like it should be okay, though “your brief detention in the relaxation vault” has a menacing tone. The glitch where she doesn’t describe what you shouldn’t do in order to be safe is also worrying.

But there’s plenty of other things to pay attention to. Each test comes with cute symbology to show what to expect.

An example of the sign that shows up before every test

See how the next test might drop a cube on my head? Anyway, there are jokes that riff off of bureaucracy and the dangers of doing science. The force field that removes anything you try to take through it except yourself and the portal gun is the “Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grille”. The crates are “Weighted Storage Cubes”. The button that opens a doorway is the “1500 megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-colliding Super-button”. GLaDOS offers inappropriate suggestions, such as, “Remember, the Aperture Science ‘Bring your daughter to work’ day is the perfect time to have her tested.” Things that should be harmless, like the Emancipation Grille, may, “in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel, and teeth.” It has the feel of Brazil, or the role-playing game Paranoia, but is more humorous than dangerous.

Then you start noticing disturbing details. Most of the testing chambers include observation rooms. The rooms are high up on the walls, and have frosted glass between them and you, but you can still see that there’s no one in any of them.

Observation rooms are scattered throughought

Where is everyone? And what does GLaDOS mean when she lies to you about not monitoring a test chamber, later reveals the lie, and then says, “As part of a required test protocol, we will stop enhancing the truth in three two o[static]”?

Then the testing turns more dangerous. The Aperture Science High-Energy Pellet will kill you if you touch it, though it’s easy enough to avoid. More worrying is the addition of floors that kill you if you touch them. GLaDOS does offer a reward for completing all of the tests, though.

[audio:glados-cake-and-counseling.mp3]

It gets worse, of course. A test chamber has been replaced by a live-fire course filled with deadly turrets that softly croon, “Are you still there?” after you dodge out of their sight. The tests have gone from being passively deadly to actively trying to kill you. What’s worse, you see your first sign of life.

The word HELP is written in front of a malfunctioning moveable wall

Hidden behind a malfunctioning moveable wall is a hidey-hole where someone quietly went crazy.

THE CAKE IS A LIE

It’s understandable why someone was fixated on cake. GLaDOS mentions cake several times, and an icon of it is visible on every testing chamber sign.

The cake icon that is on every test sign

It’s not long before you reach the final test, where GLaDOS tries to drop you into an incinerator. The cake was a lie! But you’re able to escape perdition, given that you’re holding a device that’s made for escaping, and start scampering through the bowels of the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center looking for a way out. You’ve gone from taking part in relatively benign and amusing testing to running for your life through the Enrichment Center’s heavy machinery, moving from the sterile blues of the Enrichment Center proper to the malevolent red of the Center’s interior.

That’s the main story arc, and little changes during your backstage escapades, so let’s look at the game’s characters. There aren’t any other people, just you, GLaDOS, and hints of people who came before you. There are handprints, “this way” paintings, and some writing, but no other signs that anyone is or ever was in the Center.

A scrawled 'this way' sign

This void is filled by the Weighted Companion Cube. It’s a cube like any other, except that it has little hearts on the side. The test’s symbology enforces how you’re expected to feel about it.

The Weighted Companion Cube and its related symbology

You carry the Weighted Companion Cube throughout the level, using it to protect yourself from energy pellets and open doorways. Throughout, GLaDOS refers to the cube. “The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak.” “The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.”

At the end of the level, GLaDOS informs you that you must “euthanize” your Weighted Companion Cube by “escort[ing] your companion cube to the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.” You cannot go on until you destroy the cube.

The Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator

It’s a brilliant riff on how some videogames try to freight your actions with grave moral consequences. Sure, there’s a solid gameplay reason for having you toss something into the foreshadowingly-named Emergency Intelligence Incinerator, since a similar situation occurs at the end with your showdown with GLaDOS, but its value as an elaborately-built-up joke far outweights its practicality. Infocom’s Trinity had you kill an innocent skink with your bare hands at one point in the game. You could leave the skink alive, but not if you want to keep playing. Portal echoes that with the Weighted Companion Cube, but the Weighted Companion Cube isn’t even alive! If it weren’t for the test’s symbols and GLaDOS reassuring you that an independent panel of ethicists have absolved you of all moral responsibility for euthanizing the cube, you wouldn’t give destroying it a second thought.

Yet, in the end, you do pause. I felt a twinge of remorse for chucking it into the fire. It turns out I was not alone. (And feel free to buy me a plush Weighted Companion Cube to help me move past this trauma.)

[audio:glados-euthanized.mp3]

GLaDOS is a compelling character because of her character arc. At the beginning, she appears as she actually is: a set of scripted lines playing over loudspeakers. Her glitches and bits of static reinforce that impression. As the game progresses, though, she becomes more lifelike. She narrates less and comments more. She lies and then admits that she lied. She attempts to discourage you in one test, telling you over and over that it is impossible, then congratulating you on remaining “resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.”

When you escape your fiery fate and are no longer following established test protocols, you are no longer in view of GLaDOS’s cameras and she’s forced to improvise. It’s here that she becomes even more human. Listen as she tries to deal with you surviving.

[audio:glados-party-speech.mp3]

She wants to convince you to stop, and the only thing she has to offer is the promise of cake. GLaDOS is, in effect, a three-year-old, with a toddler’s non-existent grasp on right and wrong. She uses every tool at her disposal, though her tools are sadly limited to non-present cake and threats of death.

As you travel through the Center’s backstage areas, GLaDOS reaches out to you and tries to establish a rapport, the better to manipulate you. But again, like a three-year-old, her understanding of how humans interact is lacking.

[audio:glados-remember-when.mp3]

She encourages you to return to have cake. She warns you that somebody cut the cake. “I told them to wait for you, but they cut it anyway. There is still some left, if you hurry back.” She’s finally reduced to making threats, telling you, “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you, and all the cake is gone.”

When you do finally find her, her flat affect gives way entirely. You destroy pieces of her as she taunts you, saying that there was going to be a party with all of your friends before you ruined it by trying to escape. “I invited your best friend, the Compaion Cube. Of course, he couldn’t come. Because you murdered him.” She alternates between threatening, gloating, and cajoling. And in the end, you kill her.

What about your avatar? The game gives very little information about the main character. You can see her through a portal, but you don’t even learn her name until the credits roll and you see that her name was Chell. During your end battle with GLaDOS, she tells you, “You’re not a scientist. You’re not a doctor. You’re not even a full-time employee!” Beyond that, there’s little to go on.

Chell, the player's avatar

I have a theory, though, that Chell has been through the testing many times. At the beginning, GLaDOS tells you, “Hello and again welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center.” During your fight with her, she says, “What’s your point anyway? Survival? Well, then, the last thing you want to do is hurt me. I have your brain scanned and permanently backed up in case something terrible happens to you, which it’s just about to.”

It’s unclear from the game whether GLaDOS really did kill everyone, or if they evacuated the complex due to her behavior or due to the events of Half-Life 2. Regardless, GLaDOS is left alone, with nothing to do except run through her test protocols over and over. If she ran out of people, she might have trapped Chell, and revived or cloned her over and over to test her. Given the references to androids, she might have turned you into one. If this theory’s correct, then all of the messages in the game could be from prior incarnations of Chell.

I’ve speculated a lot about this little four-hour game and spent a goodly chunk of time describing how it achieves its impact through the player’s increasing understanding of the game world and GLaDOS’s evolution from robotic recorded script to an emotional character. So if you didn’t play it, now don’t you wish you did?

I MADE YOU A CAKE BUT I BAKED YOU

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