Shooting Holes In The Story

I don’t think I’m actually done this, so just pretend it’s a late draft. I might try to tighten it up later, but here you go; I hope you’re interested. Yeah, this is still about Portal 2, so bear with me. It’s not like Gears Of War deserves to be dissected like this, you know?

I’ve been spending some time chasing this idea around in the bowels of the Aperture Science facility, taking copious notes as I wander through the middle bits of Portal 2 again. There’s some important context here that it may help to be familiar with, but just playing through Portal 1 and 2 should be plenty.

It’s probably because I’m sentimental, but to my mind an important thing about Quest- or FPS-RPGs that doesn’t get much attention, at least as far as video games is concerned, is that you actually are playing a role. Video games differ fundamentally from most narratives (and are closer to real life, in this sense) in that you are being allowed to shape a story and participate in a universe that you don’t fully own, and can’t fully command; the character whose role you play predates your presences in that space, and has a story that is in some sense theirs, reaching forward and back beyond your brief manipulation of their limbs and choices. Sometimes you need to take the time, wherever your character finds themselves – a dungeon, a running firefight, a ruined building or an open field – to do something that’s not relevant to your goals, or even to you personally, just to do some justice to the character you’re playing.

I found a lot of the “Rat Man’s Dens” on my first playthrough, being the sort of person who looks for the seams. Specifically, I found that corner of the facility where one of the radios, rather than playing the tinny Aperture-marimba, is playing The National’s “Exile Vilify”.

Did you find it? What did you do, then? It occurred to me as I sat there that this is the first piece of music we’ve really heard, in-game. But maybe, and maybe worse, there’s a decent chance that this slow lament about the burdens of alienation might actually be the only song Chell has ever heard.

I wondered what that might do to a person, how suspicious they’d be to have found that thing in that place, and how they’d react. Is it even possible to guess how somebody might feel in that situation? I crouched down to stare at the radio, listening to it all the way through before going back to finish that test. It seemed appropriate. I doubt it had any effect on the game at all (but who can know, with Valve?) but I have a sense that my participation in the game was improved somehow by it, and it’s hard to argue with that metric.

Anyway, let’s get back on track here.

So apropos of nothing, or at least it was at the time, a few months ago I wrote about the implications of the cave in Plato’s well-known metaphor having its own agency. It’s odd that the idea would find some traction in a discussion about the plot of a video game but, I guess, where else?

The idea of immortality which appears in syncretistic religions of antiquity was introduced in late antiquity. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the “descent” (loss), the “search” and the “ascent”, with main theme the “ascent” of Persephone and the reunion with her mother.

- Wikipedia on the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Here’s a question for you: how many protagonists are there in Portal 2? Chell, GlaDOS and Wheatley… three, right? And you’re resurrected in the midst of Aperture Science’s protracted decay, to be dropped into this forgotten, sealed off subterranean wing of Aperture after a GlaDOS and Wheatley’s first confrontation, to struggle back up the mine shaft and restore the status quo ante.

That’s the game, to a certain superficial approximation. And all of that has to be wrong; there are hundreds of little details in-game that put the lie to it. Portal 2 isn’t a simple or superficial game, not at all.

Though Demeter is often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sanctity of marriage, the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon.

- Wikipedia on Demeter

The first problem is, as I mentioned earlier, is all these little things that are where they really shouldn’t be. At the very bottom of Test Shaft 09, as you’ve passed Abandonment Seal Zulu Bunsen and entered Aperture’s antechambers, you start to see the signs that these sealed off and abandoned facilities aren’t nearly as sealed off or abandoned as you think. All the lights are still on, doors are still powered and they’re still controlled by devices with clean, white lines and modern-era lens-blade Aperture logos on the side. Likewise the hazmat warning labels on the pipes and vats as you ascend from the depths; with modern warnings and modern logos, this isn’t the long-abandoned a facility it seems to be at first glance.

There are other problems, like: in the last room before you ascend back through the containment door to modern Aperture, what activates that lift? You don’t. There’s no switches, no panels; the door just closes and up you go. The same thing happens in the moments before you meet Wheatley again; there’s stairs everywhere else but here, for no architectural reason, a lift you don’t actuate yourself hoists you up to the entrance to the next chamber.

You can see where I’m going with this by now. There aren’t three protagonists here; there are four. Portal 2 doesn’t make sense unless you consider the Aperture Science facility itself as an agent in its own right.

And it gets weirder, because it seems likely that the Aperture facility is the manifestation of its creator, Cave Johnson.

When Wheatley slams you down the shaft that drops you into the bowels of Aperture, it’s worth asking: why is that shaft even there? There’s no structural reason for it, and when you get to the bottom of it, there’s nothing else down there with you. It has to be something else. Another question worth taking a good hard look at is, what are you actually doing while you’re down there?

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. In ancient Orphic sources and in the mystery schools, Tartarus is also the unbounded first-existing entity from which the Light and the cosmos are born.

- Wikipedia, “Tartarus”

It’s pretty well-established that GlaDOS is the electronic (and likely the very much unwilling) reincarnation of Caroline, Cave Johnson’s personal assistant. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Chell is in all likelihood Caroline’s daughter, and that likely by Cave. Indeed, partway through your ascent, you get a disturbing glimpse of Chell’s backstory when you come across a slew of science fair projects: the one with the hugely overgrown potato (whose shape bears a more-than-passing resemblance to that of GlaDOS, with its roots threading up into the ceiling) has two noteworthy details, one being the line that it involved a “special ingredient from daddy’s work”, and the other being that it’s signed “Chell”.

“For the record you are adopted and that’s terrible. Just work with me.”

- GlaDOS to Chell, Portal 2.

The chronology here is ambiguous, but Chell would have to have been between about six and ten years old to have made the potato battery project. Cave Johnson’s last recorded message in the Aperture Test Spheres said unambiguously that “If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place. Now she’ll argue, she’ll say she can’t – she’s modest like that. But you make her! Hell, put her in my computer, I don’t care.” If Bring Your Daughter To Work Day was when everything went wrong it’s likely that Caroline, forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, has already been a victim of that process. GLaDOS stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System; it’s not clear what being forced to be that genetic component entails, but the fact GLaDOS physically resembles a bound, blindfolded and gagged woman is I think telling, and an important part of the story.

“Sorry boys, she’s married – to science!”

- Cave Johnson, introducing Caroline in his first recorded message.

The timing seems wrong – Chell is clearly a lot older than 10, likely in her mid to late 20s in-game and it’s not clear when Cave Johnson died of the moon rock poisoning he suffered. “Daddy’s work” seems to imply that Chell’s father was still alive at the time, but it’s possible it means “from the place my Dad worked” or “created”. Either way, it’s pretty clear given the chronology that Chell really was adopted, but not by any other parents; she was adopted by Aperture. And Aperture is in a very real sense, with its vast, relentless complexity, advanced technology including “brain mapping” and its mad genius CEO, both a deity and a place.

One day they woke me up
So I could live forever
It’s such a shame the same will never happen to you.
You’ve got your short sad life left,
(That’s what I’m counting on.)
I used to want you dead but now I only want you gone.

- lyrics from Want You Gone, Portal 2′s concluding song, sung by Jonathan Coulton

What you’re really doing as you ascend through the history of Aperture from the bottom of Test Shaft 09 is resurrecting Aperture itself; resurrecting Cave, and reconnecting him to Caroline again, forever. And even though Cave ordered Caroline forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, he may not have wanted the same for his daughter, and now that the reawakened Caroline knows who she really is and who you are, she may not actually want that either.

And that’s why you’re ultimately sent away, and why Portal 2 is a weirder, creepier game than it first appears; while you’ve been solving all of these puzzle-tests, you’ve also been resurrecting your doomed parents to their respective (terrible, captive) immortalities, in the end being sent away so that “the same will never happen to you”. You made the last ascension serenaded by the facility itself; they’re left alone together as you emerge from the facility to a blue sky and a field full of tall wheat. It’s sometime in early autumn – harvest season – and you’re off to see the world, with your scorched old Companion Cube as a last going away present from your parents.

2 Comments

  1. Posted October 17, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    You are freakin’ me out, man!

  2. Zeynep
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    You just left me a comment ElseWhere, but I think it’s better if I respond here.

    I did read this when you first published it, and it was a revelation of sorts. The reason why I didn’t respond was that I didn’t have much to add. And I was planning to replay the single-player once more anyway, after finishing the co-op.

    Well, with the co-op done yesterday, I do want to play the single-player again. And then I’ll probably have more to talk about. When I started playing it you told me to look at _everything_, and at first I tried to, but then I think I missed a lot of the RatMan’s hideouts.

    I completely agree with you about how taking the time to interact with the things and think about how your character would be taking them (cf. the music example) does add to the appreciation and value of the game, though. It is that kind of reception that makes a videogame into a story-driven thing rather than a gameplay mechanics-driven thing, after all.

    As to the mythology link: Yes, even though I’m not sold on Caroline being the biological mother. There is definitely that kind of dynamic between GlaDOS and Chell and Johnson’s Legacy/the Aperture Laboratories. It is not a simple game by any way.