Cheap Thrills: the Unsettling Nature of Portal

I would like to preface this article by imploring that you play Portal, as my summary of the events and descriptions do not do the game justice, and the full experience can only truly be attained as a player.

Recently I found myself unable to stop thinking about a 4-hour long puzzle game developed by 10 people in 2007 and, as much as I try, I really struggle to put this experience into words and communicate how and why this game made me feel so disturbed, but hereby my attempt to explain the unsettling experience of playing Portal

Portal was released by Valve in a game compilation containing the highly anticipated Half-Life 2: Episode 1 as well as Team Fortress 2, making the game’s success and critical acclaim while standing among giants nothing short of a miracle. Valve was one of the first developers to truly dive into environmental storytelling in a first-person shooter with Half-Life, and Portal would be the industry’s first time seeing a first-person puzzle game with a gun that couldn’t shoot things, at least not directly. Portal came about when Valve employees were invited to attend DigiPen Institute of Technology’s senior class showcase in 2005, where the groups were tasked with creating a game. Seven students had created a game called Narbacular Drop, which saw the familiar first-person perspective paired with the unfamiliar use of two portals to complete puzzles. They were rather simple and usually just involved putting cubes onto buttons to open doors, but the player could use physics to propel themselves through the portals as well, which the employees found interesting. The group was invited to present their game to Valve, only to be stopped 10 minutes in by CEO Gabe Newell with a job offer for all seven of them to create their game. 

The first thing to note about starting up Portal is the ambiance, or perhaps the oppressive lack thereof. The opening screen, seen above, is cold and creepy, and the same goes for the test chambers. The ‘music’ that plays before pressing play has no discernable instruments or melodies, the entire room instills claustrophobia, and the smaller glass room invokes the sense of being watched. After pressing play, you awake inside the ‘bed’ to a chipper melody from the radio, and while a timer counts down beside you, you’re greeted by a robotic voice. Something immediately feels amiss, especially when the audio cuts out just as she is about to inform you about the potential dangers of the ‘test chambers’ you are about to complete for Aperture Science. Once the timer hits zero, the wall next to you and the wall outside of the glass hall open connected portals in blue and orange. Making your way around the corner, you can see what seems to be an office above the chamber, but the glass is shaded, making it difficult to discern. A camera hangs above the doorway, with a red light beaming back at you, further instilling this feeling of being observed. You begin to make your way through the various puzzles, and while the robotic voice is somewhat comforting yet unnerving to have around, she is largely indifferent to whether you succeed or fail, and extremely nonchalant about the potential risks of testing. The player might now begin to question what the point of testing even is if she doesn’t care if you die during them, and you might even feel a sense of determination to pass to prove her wrong. After completing your first test with an ‘Aperture Science High Energy Pellet’, which will cause death upon contact, she’ll disingenuously say “Unbelievable ! You, Subject Name Here, must be the pride of Subject Hometown Here.”(Chamber 06) Upon entering a chamber with a strange liquid on the floor, seen below, she will matter-of-factly say “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!” (Chamber 08) To contrast this sanitary and scientific setting we have what looks like sewage on the floors of the facility, and it feels rather out of place. Upon completion, she merely says “Very impressive. Please note that any appearance of danger is merely a device to enhance your testing experience.” as if to backtrack on her previous statement, which players who had a failed attempt know to be a lie.

The sewage on the floors of Test Chamber 08, along with the Aperture Science High Energy Pellet and the office for onlookers. 

The reason why the robotic voice is so important to note in this is because she only tends to speak before and after chambers, and the rest of the time you are left to complete the tests in complete silence, save for the ‘music’ in the background. As the tests get more and more difficult, you will spend more and more time trying to complete them, and more and more time by yourself. Waiting for her to speak and give the game its flair and character is a great way to incentivize the player to keep pushing through, as the only other reason given for wanting to complete the tests is simply for the sake of Aperture Science, a company we know nothing about. One could argue that modern players who would have spent around 8 euros on the game would feel the incentive to get their money’s worth, but for the original players of the Orange Box this would just be an added bonus to the game they were already buying, with no real reason to complete it. As the tests continue to get more and more difficult, the first blatant sign of something being amiss comes in the form of Test Chamber 16, which, according to the robot voice, is unavailable due to mandatory maintenance. Instead, “It has been replaced with a live-fire course designed for military androids.”  which are small turrets with a single red eye that shoot and kill the player upon making eye contact. She simply wishes you good luck and a much more concerning character presents itself to assist you in her place, as you can enter a maintenance shaft out of her line of sight full of writings on the wall, most notably “the cake is a lie.” Up until this point the robot voice has mentioned the promise of cake once all the tests had been completed, but the scrawling of it being a lie along with handprints, “help” and empty cans of rations confirm our suspicions yet leave us with even more questions. The maintenance shaft, unlike the sanitary white test chamber, is dark and rusted, with large vents and various cables hanging from the ceilings. The writings will also reveal a possible way to solve the puzzle and destroy the turrets by dropping cubes on their heads, as the turrets turn off once moved or disturbed. These cubes have served the purpose of pressing buttons to hold doors open for the player, but now they’re being used as a shield against bullets. In Chamber 17, the player is given a ‘companion cube’ which is a cube much alike to the ones used in every other test but with a small pink heart on each end. The cube is used constantly throughout the test, as a stepstool, shield and for holding down buttons, living up to its name as a companion. The voice will warn the player not to perceive the cube as alive and that the cube cannot speak, which seems like strange advice, until you find another maintenance shaft with graffiti and security cameras that have been ripped off the walls. Riddled with pictures of a companion cube with hearts, the cube taped over the faces of people, and even poetry for the cube, making the warnings fair. At the end of the test, rather than simply leave the cube on a button, you are specifically tasked with incinerating your cube, and there is no way to pass the test without doing so. After taking this cube across the entire chamber with you, when you have spent this entire game by yourself, the player can begin to feel a resentment towards the robot voice at having to incinerate your companion. Though I didn’t feel as strongly about it as other players chalk it up to be, there is something rather sad about watching that cheerful pink heart go into this crude incinerator, and the little ‘fratricide’ achievement appear. If you felt any lingering guilt, she’ll rub salt in the wound by remarking that “You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.” (Chamber 17) insinuating that even though she forced you to euthanize it, you’re more heartless than any other test subject on record for doing so without hesitation. 

Companion Cube before being dropped into the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator

While Chamber 18 truly puts all that you have learned throughout playing to the test, Chamber 19 is oddly simple, as the objective is to stand on a platform and use portals to maneuver around potential dangers while staying on it, with the promise of cake at the end. Low and behold, the platform begins to lower you into an incinerator, and you can either head towards a reunion with your companion or use a portal to make a quick escape, which will make the voice panic and cut out. She then tells you that this was a part of the test and that as a reward there will be a party for you, asking you to drop your gun and lay down flat on your stomach for retrieval by a party associate. The player will now have to look for their escape, using portals to make their way through the backside of the facility, a place you were never meant to see. It becomes apparent that she cannot see you while you’re there, and she pleads for you to go back to the testing chambers, all the while constantly asking if you can hear her. As you continue to defy her and follow the directions towards the exit scrawled in blood by the mysterious character that warned you about the cake, she begins randomly telling you you’re going the wrong way and reminiscing about your experiences together, before suddenly stating that you are not a good person, and that “[g]ood people don’t end up here.” She asks once more if you are listening before finally giving you the ultimatum to either turn back or be killed by her, leaving your escape riddled with turrets from then onward. 

Entering her chamber reveals a large machine with several spheres attached hanging from the ceiling, with the name GLaDOS printed on it. The voice, now known to us as GLaDOS, continuously berates you until one of the spheres falls off, and she begins to reassure you not to worry about or touch it. Conveniently there’s an incinerator inside of the chamber, and after tossing it she short-circuits before laughing, her voice changing from her highly robotic and squeaky voice to a lower more drawn out tone. She reveals to you that what you incinerated is a ‘morality core’ that was installed onto her after she flooded the facility with a deadly neurotoxin so she would stop, prompting a 5-minute timer to begin while she begins to fill the chamber with the toxin. By directing missiles from a turret through portals in order to hit her, the player dislodges each core and incinerates them one by one while she hurls insults at you. Destroying the last core, she becomes unstable and a hole opens in the ceiling as a result, sending you and her remains into the Aperture Science parking lot. 

I believe that Portal delivers a very specific feeling of unsettlement in its very simplicity. The walls are all plain white tile, the game is small in scale so each room feels just a bit too suffocating, and most of the time playing is spent in silence. According to Robin Walker, a year into the development of the game playtesters responded that it was fun but wondered about what they were actually working towards. GLaDOS came about as a solution to that problem, and with barely any art production on board they decided to have her spend most of her time as a voice-over. These solutions brought about to hide or cover for potential problems only heighten the feelings of tension in the game, as we only learn her name at the end and don’t know a thing about Aperture Science or what we’re even testing for. In most cases this would perhaps be convoluted or even called ‘lazy’ writing but in the case of Portal it just works. The original buyers of the Orange Box didn’t expect for Portal to turn out to be such a treat, and even those who buy Portal as a loose copy now will find surprise in the presence of a boss fight in a puzzle game. Portal doesn’t really subvert expectations because going into it you don’t really have any expectations other than those about the gameplay. You don’t expect the rich environmental storytelling, witty dialogue and escaping the facility itself upon picking it up. Even so, after spending about 3 hours in the game I was unable to stop thinking about it for days after, it kept me awake at night and prompted me to write this article trying to decipher why it managed to stick with me to such a degree. In all honesty, I still don’t know, and I don’t think I can truly communicate the experience to you as it downplays Portal’s strength as a story told through a video game, you really have to play it to feel it.

Written by Rebekah Spaargaren

Works Cited:

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