In my last post, I discussed sequels, and why we should be open-minded about them. Today, in the sequel to last week’s piece, I’m going to pick apart Portal and Portal 2 to see why they work so well. I’m going to first discuss the puzzles first, and then the characters.
Both games do an amazing job of layering lessons in an accessible way. Consider the progression path for each of the early testing chambers in Portal:
- You walk around a small enclosed room and can do nothing else apart from picking up objects for a minute. Then a portal opens to a visible area outside the room and you walk to the exit.
- Portals that switch location allow you to enter one room to collect a cube and another room to place the cube on a button. Then you walk to the exit.
- You wait for a portal to be opened, then you pick up the portal gun and use it to open one portal. Then you walk to the exit. You can only fire one portal type – blue – and the orange portals are pre-set within the room.
- You use the portal gun to hop through a portal. Then you use it to hop out the other way at the other end. Then you walk to the exit. You can still only fire blue portals.
- You use the portal gun to pick up a cube that you can place on a button. Again, you can only fire blue portals at this stage. Then you walk to the exit.
Portal‘s escalation is incremental, and only ever introduces one new aspect of play to each new room. The game avoids a tedious tutorial, and through play the player will eventually learn all the puzzling possibilities of the portal gun. And these possibilities are complex. By the end of the game the player is using momentum to throw objects huge distances, placing portals whilst in mid-air to reach places otherwise unavailable and redirecting dangerous objects to activate switches. The later puzzles would be fiendishly difficult to work out without all the training given over the first part of the game. But the player gets there because the game is paced so well according to their current level of skill.
Not only is there an incremental progression of challenge level, there are also very few “filler” levels in either game – especially Portal. At almost every stage, the player learns something new. It is a difficult balance to pull off and both games do it admirably.
Portal’s later puzzles are more technically difficult than those in Portal 2 – some involving the need for quick reactions several times in a row. For instance, having to jump over multiple deadly lasers in a tunnel with multiple moving platforms. Portal 2′s are more varied with the addition of special gels that change the properties of surfaces, extendable light beams, and refracting cubes that redirect lasers, to give just a few examples. This difference reflects the fact that Portal was an original, short, speculative, relatively low-budget puzzle game marketed mainly to PC Steam users. They wanted a unique and cerebral challenge in their 2 hours of play. Portal 2 was created as a mass-market, big-budget game with celebrity performers and so was necessarily more varied, bigger and more accessible.
But enough about puzzles. Let’s talk characters, and why Portal 2‘s story is more interesting than Portal‘s.
Underground Robot Opera
Portal is the innovator. Along with the rest of the Orange Box, it proved that Valve could make fantastic games that weren’t Half-Life or spin-offs from Half-Life mods. It was never expected to be the massive hit that it was. As a two-hour puzzle game, it is basically note-perfect. It’s got an interesting, unique setting. A fun, surprising antagonist. Great jokes. And that twist. Those things together, and the fact it was packaged together with two Half-Life 2 mini-sequels, and Team Fortress 2, the most beautiful and brilliantly marketed shooter at that time, led it to blow up into the pop-culture phenomenon that it is. Well done Portal.
But as a narrative, it’s quite simple, and it leaves you wanting a lot more. This isn’t bad, it’s just not a story with twists and turns in the way Portal 2 is.
The story of Portal is basically as follows; player wakes up in strange science facility. Computer leads player on series of increasingly challenging and life-threatening logic puzzles. Player discovers more and more disturbing elements to the facility and the computer. Computer tries to kill player. Player kills computer.
There is one turning point. That happens when GLaDOS, the evil computer antagonist, reveals that she is going to kill the player. It is pure twist and reflects the horror genre that Portal fits into. It is not a moment of great character depth, because the entire first half of the game has been telling you that it is going to happen, and because, apart from a few persuasion attempts by GLaDOS, neither the player nor GLaDOS is affected in any meaningful way by it.
The Wheel of Suffering
Compare Portal 2. Portal 2 is a dark comedy with tragic elements, rather than a horror game with a sense of humour. It is also much longer then Portal and so has more time to explore the various characters. It does this brilliantly, and the three major characters are given depth and complexity in a way few videogame characters are. Those characters are the super intelligent sadist AI GLaDOS, the megalomaniacal businessman Cave Johnson, and the idiot computer core Wheatley. The player is, in narrative terms, more of an observer than a true character. You simply portal your way to the next available area.
For GLaDOS, Portal 2 is a cyclical story of reincarnation and death. At the end of the last game, she was killed by the player. Since then, she has been conscious for possibly thousands of years in a black-box hell, reliving the two minutes of her death over and over. She is reanimated by the player, later to be transformed into a potato, another metaphor for rebirth. The player encounters this vegetable earlier in the game, growing seedily, rooting itself in the brittle, crumbling, skeletal remains of Aperture Science. Birth within death.
As the player explores the facility, GLaDOS is revealed to be a reincarnation of Caroline – a dead Executive Assistant from the nineteen sixties, reborn in computer form. Ultimately, GLaDOS is restored to life as the centre of the facility, and from there her first action is to kill the part of her that was Caroline.
Life, death, life, death, life, death. GLaDOS’ whole existence in Portal 2 is samsara, the karmic wheel of conscious existence in the Buddhist and Jainist philosophies and much of Hinduism, endlessly rotating between various forms of suffering. Life, death, life, death, life, death. The same process the player goes through in almost every narrative game. Life, death, life, death, life, death. Exactly what GLaDOS inflicted upon the endless original test subjects of Aperture Science.
In the Śramaṇic religions the cycle of saṃsāra is broken through nirvana – a literal “blowing out” of the fires of existence, so the living energies of consciousness are dispersed and the self exists no more. In Portal 2, the one who summits the mountain of suffering is not GLaDOS, who fits the Buddhist pattern, but the player, the mute Chell. GLaDOS is too lively, to emotional, too attached to her role and her desires to escape from this process.
Chell has advanced beyond such humanity. She is a nothing, a void, a blank slate. In her blandness she is already enlightened. Always expressionless. Always emotionless. Always voiceless. A Bodhisattva, free from the matters of this world, but waking up each game to guide GLaDOS and teach her a lesson, before ascending once more to her home above in heaven.
Mapping the Maze of GLaDOS’ Ever-Twisty Mind
GLaDOS is not only an apt metaphor for the endless rebirth and suffering of the soul. A metaphor which puts the player into a satisfyingly divine role. She is also a complex and interesting dramatic character. She comes to us as a sadistic, clever monster. But throughout Portal 2, we learn that there is more to GLaDOS than she first lets on.
In Portal, GLaDOS’ only aim is to have fun testing the player in various challenges, and then kill you. In Portal 2, she changes her mind in five key moments, each of which illustrates the frothing chaos that storms beneath her insidious surface.
Upon reanimation, she abandons her attempts at killing the player. Why? Why not simply destroy Chell, as Chell destroyed her and as she tried to do before? Because for GLaDOS, she has discovered another pleasure, another justice, beyond destroying you. The spinning hamster-wheel of existence is suffering. Your suffering is her pleasure. You made her suffer. Therefore you must be punished with existence. You must test. Over and over. This is a new perspective, gained over millennia of reliving her own death. She has learned since Portal. She has changed. She sees her path through the red filter of a new sadistic moral lens.
Then later, once she has been transformed into a powerless potato, she re-evaluates her perspective again. She decides to do one thing she would never do – team up with the player – in order to save the facility from Wheatley’s moronic management. And this reveals another side to GLaDOS. There is something she values more than your death. She wants to live. She wants her facility to survive. Buddha – AKA the player – sees the endless suffering and chaos of life as something to escape from, but GLaDOS sees the endless suffering and chaos of life as something to enjoy. She creates suffering and chaos. She lives for it. She loves to learn from it. For science.
Then, in the final scene, GLaDOS has two final dramatic turns. Having discovered her origin as the human Executive Assistant Caroline, she decides to delete the part of herself that was Caroline. She does not want to be obedient, or compassionate, or empathetic. These weaknesses are undesirable. She will cut them out. A distancing from human attachments. Almost a little bit Buddhist.
Her last turn – the most significant – is her decision to voluntarily release the player to the surface. Killing Chell is no longer her aim. She is content to leave her and carry out tests underground for the remainder of her infinite life. Although GLaDOS is not enlightened, she is changed. She would never have released the player in Portal, and neither would she have released the player at any point before her ordeal in Portal 2. It is only because she learns that co-existence with the player is an endless Śramaṇic cycle of suffering that she releases the player.
By my count, there are five great turning points in this game for GLaDOS. These are the decisions that make her interesting.
- She decides to force the player to test for their entire life, rather than killing the player
- She decides to ally with her worst enemy – the player – in order to save her facility
- She retrieves the player from the vacuum of space, saving them from certain death
- She deletes the last trace of humanity inside herself
- She releases the player, rather than torturing or trying to kill them anymore
Each one of these tells us something about what kind of a character GLaDOS is. They make her seem more interesting than the simple sadistic killer she was in the first game.
Cave Johnson is Not so Complex
Cave Johnson is a funny character, but he is not a revealing dramatic character. His one significant character moment is when he reveals in a voice recording that he has decided to have his beloved assistant Caroline replace him as head of Aperture Science, forcibly if necessary, through a computer upload. This is the origin of GLaDOS.
❤ Wheatley ❤
Wheatley. Who doesn’t love Wheatley? The first great character moment for Wheatley is when he decides to jump off his guiding rail. He has been told for his entire life that doing so will kill him. He is prepared to risk death in order to get the facility running again and release the player.
His next great character moment is when he decides, after leading the player towards the control room where GLaDOS lies dead, that he doesn’t actually want to enter that room and turn the facility on after all. He is too scared. He wants to do the loft, brainy, good thing, but he is also a cowardly selfish beast, dominated by his low gut instincts.
His next interesting decision is the choice to upload himself into the mainframe to replace GLaDOS. One can read this either as an idealistic choice to help save the player or as an instinctive grab for power. Is Wheatley a benign idiot who becomes corrupted by power? Or was he always power-hungry? A rake who only gets the chance to behave as he wishes because he cons the player into putting him in a position of authority?
Then, of course, is his choice not to free the player once he takes control, but trap you and submit you to testing. Again, this raises the question – did power corrupt Wheatley once he seized it, or was he always a monster, one without any available tools?
Once Wheatley takes over, he goes through the same limited character arc as GLaDOS did in the first game, only less competently, and ultimately expressing remorse for his attempts to kill the player in a post-credits scene. Wheatley has four great moments of decision-making that reveal his depths as a character.
- He decides to jump off his rail even though he has been told it will kill him
- He decides not to reactivate the facility, after initially telling the player how to do it
- He decides to replace GLaDOS as the computer controlling the facility
- He decides to trap the player and submit them to testing
Whilst GLaDOS is revealed to have countervailing non-murderous instincts through the course of the game – ones that can be interpreted through the spiritual perspectives of the Indian Subcontinent – Wheatley is progressively revealed to be worse than his bumptious persona indicates.
In my next piece, I finish this three-part essay with an investigation into the ideological leanings of both games. I ask what, if any, meanings can be induced from these two classics.
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