Portal: Cake, deception, & companionship

For the past few weeks, between school and midterms, I attempted to play Portal in preparation for a short essay I would need to write about companionship in games for my “Interactive Narrative and Character Creation” class at DigiPen Institute of Technology. I tried my best to play through the game, however, by test chamber 16 I was overwhelmed with motion sickness. I spent the next twelve hours watching Blitzwinger play the rest in 20-30 minute intervals, and between napping off the motion sickness.

In Portal, the player wakes up in a laboratory and must go through a series of tests with some in-development technology, and if successful, will be thrown a cake party at the end of the 19 test chambers. As the player makes it through each of the rooms, an artificial intelligence anachronically named GLaDOS, attempts to prepare the player for what lies ahead, and sweetly congratulates the player upon their success. However, the player is not on their way to a “cake party”; they are on their way to a fiery death. As they player escapes death, they find themselves in the background areas of the facility where cubes are shipped around and sentry turrets are made and tested. At the end, the player meets GLaDOS’ entity and defeats the vicious AI by using the rocket turret to shoot parts of her off and drop them in the incinerator.

The epitome of the narrative theme of Portal is written on the walls in the back on test chamber 16: “The cake is a lie.” This is a metaphor for deception, and more specifically how a negative situation can appear to be more positive than it is as long as one has the promise of cake- or any pleasing prize- at the end. Consistently, GLaDOS will say atrocious things to the player, such as “Unbelievable! You, Subject Name Here, must be the pride of Subject Hometown Here.” and “Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an ‘unsatisfactory’ mark on your official testing record followed by death. Good luck!”. Her sweet praises and compliments are always fondued in sugary sarcasm. She says “It has been replaced with a live-fire course designed for military androids.“ and “The Enrichment Center is required to remind you that you will be baked, and then there will be cake.” as if these things shouldn’t cause the player to expect danger. This clues us in that GLaDOS is not our friend and the player isn’t surprised when she betrays them. So, the overarching literary theme of deception is enforced by GLaDOS consistently. There are also a couple more subtle themes. Isolation is felt by the player because they are the only organic creature they see in this whole gray and hospital-like facility. There appear to be areas for other people to be watching them (the offices and windows that look into the test chambers), but the play never sees anyone else. Another more subtle theme is escape, which doesn’t come into play until after evading death at the end of test chamber 19. The player feels so much urgency at that point, and there are a few new mechanics in which time matters even more in order for the player to be successful. GLaDOS also further enforces this theme by telling the player “I know you’re there. I can feel you here.” and “Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said ‘Goodbye’ and you were like [no way] and then I was all ‘we pretended we were going to murder you’? That was great!”.

While I personally feel GLaDOS was the most impactful companion because she narrates the journey, many players feel a closeness to the famed companion cube, even though you only have it for a short time. The companion cube only appears in test chamber 17. GLaDOS makes suggestions that the cube cannot speak and will not hurt the player. Because of this, players expect that the companion cube might say something or actually have feelings. At the point, the player is also weary of trusting GLaDOS, so it becomes reactionary to believe the opposite of what she says. The cube also has a pink heart design, which makes players feel that this is the “attractive” cube, or more special than the other cubes we’ve encountered so far. Unlike the other weighted cubes in the facility, there is only one companion cube, so the player must make sure to bring it along with them wherever they go in chamber 17. By the time chamber 17 is over, players may feel attached to the cube because they have just been through an incredible test together. However, GLaDOS forces the player to incinerate the cube in order to exit the chamber. This also makes players feel an attachment to the cube. Even if the cube isn’t sentient, it now feels like it is to the players.

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