Lonely Laughs: the Dark Humor of Portal
I. Overall Storytelling
Portal is a short first-person puzzle platformer through which the player progresses by shooting a portal gun to escape from Aperture Science’s testing facility and from the insane AI that lies within. On its surface, the game seems straightforward enough: create portals, drop the cube, and reach the end. However, the appearance and solitude of the facility as well as GLaDOS’ constantly-evolving dialog set Portal apart from a typical puzzle platformer, creating more of an interactive experience than a game. Instead, the player acts as a witness of the deterioration of GLaDOS’ sanity and of Aperture Science itself.
The testing facility – the main location of the game – is stark, clean, and futuristic. Many of the rooms look as if they were abruptly abandoned, and as the game progresses, it becomes plausible for the player to suspect that the former inhabitants were forcibly removed from their cubicles and workstations. The smooth, metallic surfaces of the facility almost call to mind the décor of an Apple store, and the reassuring safety signs and futuristic graphics give the player a false sense of security.
While each vital action has a sound effect to communicate completion or activation, Portal essentially does not have background music. In fact, the only constant sound that the player hears is GLaDOS’ voice, so this forces the player to listen closely to the things she has to say. This seems to be essential to successfully create the interactive experience, as players might otherwise easily tune GLaDOS out in order to focus on gameplay. In this way, the narrative is brought to the forefront of the player’s focus, whether they typically enjoy dialog or not. Additionally, a faster version of the closing credits song “Still Alive” plays for a few seconds a handful of times throughout the game, tying the experience together with the simple message that GLaDOS isn’t going anywhere.
The puzzles in Portal gradually increase in difficulty, slowly introducing the player to more challenging obstacles and portal combinations. This effectively introduces the player to the mechanics of the game without overwhelming them all at once. None of the puzzles are really that difficult, and the tasks of depositing the companion cube and contending with turrets are mundane. However, this is another way that the game lulls the player into a false sense of security and forces the player to pay more attention to GLaDOS and the story of the fate of Aperture Science than to the puzzles themselves.
The player’s relationship with GLaDOS is understandably complicated. The player awakens in a strange environment, and GLaDOS is the only guide upon which the player can rely to progress. From the start, the player is forced to follow GLaDOS’ instructions. In fact, GLaDOS doesn’t say or do anything threatening until about 10 minutes into the game, at which point she says, “We will stop enhancing the truth.” This is the first red flag for the player, and GLaDOS’ dialog only becomes increasingly more aggressive, sarcastic, and frightening.
-“You can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science Self-Esteem Fund for Girls – it’s true!”
-“Android hell is a real place you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.”
-“Remember when we pretended to murder you? That was great.”
During the last quarter of gameplay, GLaDOS’ lines become more blunt and immature. She seems both angry that you have passed her tests but also panicked that you will leave her. Even though she wants to kill you, there is a sense that she truly needs you in order to keep up her tester façade.
-“Turn back or I will kill you. And all the cake is gone. You don’t even care, do you?”
-“You sound dumb. You’re not smart.”
-“The only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart.”
These turrets could have simply acted as enemy targets for the purpose of gameplay development, but they differ from standard shooting enemies in that they exclaim, “Ouch!” and other statements of pain or apologies whenever the player damages them. This can make the player feel like she’s hurting a living thing in the course of completing these puzzles, but the player cannot avoid doing so if the player wants to continue the game.
The companion cube is a seemingly static, inanimate entity, but GLaDOS turns it into a living thing and tries to make the player feel guilty when she accuses the player of “euthaniz[ing] your faithful companion cube.”
No other humans appear in the game. This seems especially strange, given the fact that the testing facility is in a muted state of disarray that suggests that humans were present in this space not too long ago. This is one of the most alarming signs in the game that something has gone horribly wrong at the testing facility. This fact also contributes to the player’s focus on GLaDOS’ lines and to the player’s attachment to GLaDOS and the Companion Cube; there simply is no one else in the space. ---
III. Final Thoughts
Portal is more of an interactive experience than a traditional game. The point of the game is not to get wrapped up in challenging puzzles, but rather to learn about what happened to Aperture Science and to try to understand the headspace of GLaDOS, an AI that seems to have pushed everyone away…or to have been abandoned.
Copyright Alexandra Lucas 2015