Literary Analysis: Portal

[NOTE: I believe that the video game as an art form is highly underrated, and so this literary analysis of Portal is my attempt to prove that video games can be just as serious a form of art as any other medium. I hope you enjoy this.] UPDATE: Here’s a link to the excellent blog “Crude Ideas”. I’ve mentioned Crude before, back in my “There are no Strong Atheists” post. A brief conversation with Crude in his comments section was one of the things that prompted me to write this post.

               This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The Portal games are incredibly original and well-written video games created by Valve Corporation, also known for their Half-Life series. Half-Life, while very well made and well written, is ultimately, at its core, another first person shooter. A very good one, no doubt, but a first person shooter nevertheless.

                Portal is something completely different.

                The basic mechanic of Portal is simple but brilliant. You, the main character, are equipped with a Portal gun. The Portal gun makes gateways – you shoot one Portal where you are and another Portal where you want to go. If you step in one, you come out the other. That’s it. The game is a puzzle game, where you are put in different areas and must figure out a way to get from where you are at the start to the exit, using your Portal gun to navigate.

                Right. There’s the mechanic. Now here’s where Portal moves from “brilliant” to “one of the greatest and most ingenious games of all time”.

                The story in Portal is terrifically written. Here I will attempt to give a full literary analysis, going through plot and characterization and trying to figure out why the writers told things in the way that they did. It’s really pretty fascinating.

                The game starts off with you, the main character, waking up in a little glass area, complete with bed, toilet, and even a little radio, contained inside a white room. Above you a timer goes off, and a computerized female voice “welcomes” you and informs you that you are in the “Aperture Science Enrichment Center”. She tells you that you are “now ready to begin the test proper”. You, the character, are required to walk through a “material emancipation grill”

                Several things have been established in this “scene”. You are alone; you are in some sort of laboratory; a computerized voice is to be your guide; and you are about to undergo some sort of “test”. This section introduces you to the idea that you are some sort of “lab rat”, and you are stuck. The computerized voice, “GLaDOS”, is your only “companion” at this point in the game. Interestingly, we are not sure if GLaDOS is actually a unique character yet; it is still possible that she is only a recording. The manner in which speaks gives the impression that she is speaking for every employee in Aperture Science.  We also have no idea if any other humans are even inside the facility, or if it’s just you and GLaDOS.

                Notice how minimalistic the game is; you are to be given the information absolutely necessary to proceed and no further. Everything you learn about the game comes from your own investigations and what GLaDOS tells you; there are no other sources. Right now, it looks as if the game will be a simple puzzle game with a computerized guide; this is by brilliant design, to set up for the reveal later.

                The bulk of the game is made up of you going through a series of “test chambers” with GLaDOS as your guide. At one point very early on you manage to pick up the “Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device” – your Portal gun, used to help you navigate the chamber.

                The game very clearly follows Aristotle’s dramatic structure – Rising action, Climax, Falling Action, and a Resolution – one of the only games that fits so neatly into such a structure.

The test chambers in the first half of the game are building towards the climax – they ever so slowly reveal a little bit more about the plot, and GLaDOS’s character, at a time. As we go on we see GLaDOS slowly undergo a personality shift – a very subtle one, but a noticeable shift. In the early test chambers, GLaDOS appears mostly harmless. The hints we get about her are true personality are subtle – early on in the game, for example, GLaDOS tells you that she won’t be watching you in the next test chamber. At the end of the chamber she reveals that she lied, and promises to “Stop enhancing the truth in 3 – 2 –bzzzzt.” No one. GLaDOS is lying to you.

You get the first real glimpse of GLaDOS’s insanity by Test Chamber 16 – it doesn’t exist. It is under “mandatory scheduled maintenance” and you, the player are required to navigate around “military androids” – talking turrets with cute voices that will shoot at you until you die.

At this point, it becomes clearer that GLaDOS is no automated guide. She is an insane, active presence, manipulating things around you to her will and deciding to make you go through a military android Test Chamber just for the Hell of it, and still lie to you about it. Her whims are arbitrary and all-powerful.

It is now, too, that you first find the so-called “Rat Man” dens. Keeping with Portal’s theme of the “slow reveal”, the dens contain cryptic messages – warnings to you that GLaDOS is not to be trusted. They also contain food and water, suggesting that somebody else, or even several people, are still alive in the facility.

The full transition from part one of GLaDOS’s personality to part two occurs in what has become known as the Companion Cube level. One thing about Portal: It’s funny. I haven’t really mentioned that yet, but it is REALLY, really funny, and this level is a virtual microcosm of Portal itself, combining laugh out loud dark humor and character development into a really inspired level, with a difficult puzzle to boot. At the beginning of the level GLaDOS gives you your “Weighted Companion Cube” – the exact same cube that you’ve been given throughout the game to solve puzzles with, except this time with hearts. You are encouraged to bring it along with you throughout the level as GLaDOS uses reverse psychology to help you form a bond with it.

The level is long and rather difficult, and so by the end of it you really do develop a sort of “bond” with your cube. And it is at this point in the level that GLaDOS completes her transition into stage two of her personality – we’ll call this section the “Unreliable Narrator” section. Of course, GLaDOS has always been unreliable but at least she’s given us the façade of being helpful. But now GLaDOS is pointlessly cruel. You are forced to “euthanize” your Companion Cube by throwing it into a fire, after which she “congratulates” you for being the “fastest test subject ever to euthanize their faithful friend”.

GLaDOS has at this point promised you “Cake and grief counseling” at the conclusion of the test – but as every real Portal fan knows, the cake is a lie. We are nearing the end of the first section of the game – the Rising Action, and we are about to reach the Climax.

The slow character development of GLaDOS is of course excellently done, but the real brilliance of the game is that it keeps you guessing. The slow reveal tells you just enough to keep you interested, and now that we’ve reached what appears to be the end of the game we have no idea where we’re going next. So, we hit the climax – the Escape. As GLaDOS pushes you into a pit of fire you manage to Portal your way out and find a way “backstage”.  Unlike the rest of Portal, events here happen astonishingly fast. We see Part 3 of GLaDOS’s personality, and a side we didn’t know she had: fear.

We see an excellent narrative shift occur here: A role reversal. All of a sudden, you are the one with the power, and instead of a rat being pushed through a maze you have escaped the maze and made it into sections of the laboratory that GLaDOS didn’t want you to see. GLaDOS initially shows fear and asks you to comeback, and then tries to convince you to come back with increasingly lame tricks.

From a narrative standpoint this section of the game is used to illustrate that you now have the power, even requiring you to traverse an old Test Chamber in reverse. GLaDOS is no longer forcing you through her test track; you’re going to her. The minimalism has ended, which symbolizes that you’re no longer being force-fed specific information from one source. You can learn what you want to.

A note: I call this section the climax. I’m grouping it together with the battle with GLaDOS. It can be argued that only the battle is the climax and this is all a part of rising action, but I would respond that the test chamber section and escape section are simply too different to constitute the same parts of the narrative structure.

The battle with GLaDOS is, of course, the defining moment of the game and what most players remember most clearly. This can be called the “climax of the climax”. Although it wasn’t clear early on that the game was leading to this point, now that you’ve arrived it is clear to the player that, in the end, it had to come to this all along. Such is the brilliance of the game – you have been pushed towards this section of the game so neatly that you wonder why you didn’t think it was inevitable from the beginning.

GLaDOS undergoes one more significant personality shift in the game thus far – the most sudden and jarring of them all. To get the battle started you need to destroy a piece of GLaDOS known as the “Morality Core”. Once it’s destroyed a frightening change takes place. GLaDOS’s voice changes and becomes more human, more feminine, and sexier – and as a result more frightening than she’s sounded at any point in the game thus far. GLaDOS explains to you that her “Morality Core” was the only thing keeping her from flooding the Enrichment Center with “A deadly neurotoxin”, and with that neurotoxin floods into the room. GLaDOS also explains that the reason you’re the only person apparently left alive is that she had already killed everybody earlier with her “deadly neurotoxin”.

GLaDOS, of course, has gone completely insane. Throughout the final battle she insults you using increasingly less creative and childish insults, and as you destroy different parts of her she becomes more and more unhinged, talking to you with a stream-of-consciousness narrative that’s as disturbing as it is hilarious.

Finally, we reach the falling action – GLaDOS’s defeat. Once you finally destroy the final piece of GLaDOS an apparent portal malfunction lifts you to the surface. This is the only section of the game where you are not the person controlling your character. GLaDOS starts jabbering faster and faster as she malfunctions, and after seeing an intense white light you black out.

The resolution of the game is equally short – you wake up in a normal street as pieces of GLaDOS rain down from the sky. This final shot is how the game ends. You have completed your journey, defeating GLaDOS and escaping Aperture Science.

Notice how a lot is still left unanswered – for example, how long were you in the laboratory? Why were you there? Who invented GLaDOS, and why? Why did GLaDOS kill everybody else? And who was the mysterious person leaving messages throughout the test chambers. But none of this matters, because they were all secondary to the true goal of the game: Escaping. And thus, by the end of the game you feel perfectly satisfied, knowing that you have just gone through a perfectly constructed narrative arc.

Well, not quite – Portal, never content to rest on its laurels, has one final trick in store for us. After the supposed final shot of the game the camera zooms throughout the laboratory, guiding us through the escape section of the game in reverse before landing upon a single room, holding a cake (as it turns out, the cake was not a lie!). The game ends after, of all things, a final song, where you are informed by GLaDOS that she is still alive, considers the experiment a complete success, and is really happy for you all along. Finally, for real this time, our story is complete.

So what was it that made Portal’s writing so brilliant? Well, there were several things:

  • ·         It was one of the first games to take advantage of a video game as a medium for telling a story. Other games had good writing of course, but Portal was one of the first to actually take advantage of the fact that it was a video game for its story. It was a video game story, as opposed to a story within a game or worse yet, a story as an excuse to set up a game. Portal could only ever be a video game – never a book or movie. And that is part of its brilliance.
  • ·         GLaDOS’s character development. I don’t say this lightly when I tell you that GLaDOS is one of the most brilliant characters I’ve ever seen or read. Her slow arc from “helpful guide” to “complete psychopath” is so smooth that by the final chamber you barely even notice the change – it’s been such a natural progression that it’s virtually seamless. But, a change there was, and when you destroy the morality core, you realize that what you saw earlier was just a small sample of her insanity – the “new” GLaDOS is actively homicidal, vindictive, and just plain cruel. And yet, despite the sudden shift, she’s still GLaDOS – no suspension of belief is necessary for you to accept that this dangerous, seductive GLaDOS is the same one from before.  It’s as if you were waiting for this all along – it was always, inevitably, the final stage of her character arc.
  • ·         The dialogue itself. As I said earlier, and I still don’t think I emphasized it enough, Portal isn’t just funny – it’s hilarious. GLaDOS’s lines, while bizarre or frightening when looked at individually, in context end up being dry and sarcastic, and by the end of the game her desperate attempts at getting Chell to turn back and her cruel insults are both so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh at them. Part of it, too, is the voice acting. The fantastic Ellen McLain is really sensational in this game, rivaling, and many times surpassing, any type of voice acting in cartoons or movies I’ve seen.
  • ·         The plot twist – The section of the game when you escape and go “backstage” into Aperture is so unexpected and so different from the rest of the game that the creators reported that occasionally players would simply accept that the game ended and calmly accept being burnt to death by GLaDOS. It’s completely unexpected and completely ingenious.
  • ·         The minimalism. This is the reason the plot twist is so ingenious. Portal goes through a lot of work setting up the idea that you’re a rat in a maze, with only subtle hints that there’s a world beyond. This minimalism is very effective in establishing a clinical, creepy setting. You honestly feel stuck, and the story is so simple that it’s easy to become completely engrossed in it.
  • The “climax of the climax” – the final battle with GLaDOS. This meeting with GLaDOS is the high point of the game, and one of its best sections. Her personality shift to a sexy, seductive GLaDOS is both hilarious and frightening, and the dialogue she rattles off at you in the final battle is some of the most inspired in the game, as she reveals that she was the one who killed all of the scientists, leaving you as the only human left in the Enrichment Center. Her insults lead to a lot of insight into her character – GLaDOS is all about mind games. Even as she taunts you, it’s never a straight out insult. It’s always by attempting to manipulate your emotions via increasingly ridiculous lies, or even by mocking the fact that you’re adopted, another piece of information that was only revealed in the final battle.
  • The resolution. Waking up lying in the street as my character (who, by the way, is named Chell according to the creators) is one of the most satisfying moments of any game I’ve ever played. The narrative ends in victory. Having defeated your archenemy, you have earned the privilege of being allowed to return to the world above. But that’s not all…
  • The true ending. GLaDOS singing her song, “Still Alive”, is not only funny but also another example of Portal’s brilliance. Despite escaping, your victory was not totally complete; GLaDOS is alive, and she’s mocking your very existence up until the very end. And so the game ends with the knowledge that yes, you’ve escaped…but GLaDOS is still there, perhaps ready to torture some other human locked in the facility. It is the nail in the coffin to a perfect finale.

So, that’s it for Portal. The next in my series, will be its sequel, Portal 2 – also brilliant but in a completely different way. That one is so long that it will take several installments to do properly. I hope you enjoyed this. I enjoyed writing it!

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5 Responses to Literary Analysis: Portal

  1. Great description of an amazing game.

  2. Looking forward to the Portal 2 description, when will the installments begin?

  3. Hi Blue Devil Knight, I’m glad you enjoyed this. Honestly, they can start appearing at any time. Besides the general news and opinion posts I come out with I’m also interested in doing an analysis of the “Firefly” episode “Objects in Space” and the show’s sequel movie, “Serenity” (one of the best sci-fi movies ever made).

    So it depends. It might be very soon. It might be a couple of weeks. They’re definitely coming out though.

  4. A little on the content…At first, I thought Portal was just an amazing, hilarious alternative physics game. The first couple of times I fell into the pit of fire, I thought, “Hmm, this would be a fitting ending, to just loop infinitely through this final level, ending in fire, and starting at the beginning, almost like a sick portal loop when you floor-ceiling portals matched perfectly and just keep falling forever.” Frankly, if that had been the ending, I think it would still be an awesome game. My third time in the fire room, I began really searching for an escape route, and when I found it, and GLaDOS started to actually act *anxious*, the deal was sealed: this game is freaking amazing! It was an exciting catharsis, like I had suddenly become a hunter, with a chance of fulfillment much larger than simply finishing another one of her crazy levels.

    I also simply love the final song. After getting spit up onto pavement, there was a kind of sadness to have left the macabre world of GLaDOS, and the song acted to let me know that she is Still Alive (“I’m being so sincere right now”), with all her personality quirks (and perhaps her moral core somehow reinstated, ready to get back to serious science “Look at me still talking when there’s science to do”). That song let the game reverberate in my memory in ways it wouldn’t have achieved otherwise. A catchy tune that is tough to get out of your head, one that distills the hilarity, quirkiness, and madness of what you went through while stuck in the world of Aperture Science.

    I didn’t think Portal 2 could come close, but between Potato GLaDOS, and Cave Johnson, it didn’t disappoint. Just like Portal, it starts out in a way that seems like a creative but relatively standard game, but almost imperceptibly pulls you into a story with about as much psychological payoff as the first.

    In terms of your analysis, obviously I largely agree, though I think the attempt to map it so neatly onto literary narrative arcs might be a little forced, as it seems more natural to see it as following two arcs, one that ends with fire, the other that ends with ‘I’m still alive.’ But I am no literature person, and am not very good at literary analysis frankly I tend to be more literal minded than is helpful for such analysis.

  5. Incidentally, I have yet to play the cooperative campaign. It looks cool, but my wife won’t play it with me. Maybe it’s time to start bugging her again…

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