Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Analysis: On "Portal" and Love

Passion kills. Love hurts. The more you bring someone into your heart the more you will strike back when a straightforward rejection feels like betrayal. We spend our entire lives building up emotional armor to protect us from doubt and regret and shame until one day someone comes along and can break down all that armor and hurt you like you've never been hurt before without even meaning to do so. That's love.

Love has traditionally been the territory of poets to define and explore, but love appears to be an unpopular subject with rappers and spoken word artists, the poets of our age, who favor subjects of gender and race. This post-modern cynical society favors not sentiments of longing and whimsy but respects cold hard facts and data. In that case does it mean a suitable poet for our times to talk about love could be a machine, a heartless device without emotions? Specifically, an artificial intelligence?

This is the premise of the video game "Portal" (2007) by Valve Software. In amongst the many themes of science run amok, morality versus science, survival, black humor and the juggling of perceptions of reality lies the main theme of the game: Portal is a story of relationships and, ultimately, a story about love.

This is not to say Portal is a love story but rather a story about love, from which a differentiation can be made by contrasting the movies Titanic (1997) with Citizen Kane (1941); one is a unabashedly real-time-sinking chick flick that constitutes our main ideas of a love story, and the other is an examination of the life of a powerful man to discover his main pathos is missing out on his lost childhood. Irregardless that the movie wouldn't make much sense if Kane didn't give his sled a name, Portal, like Citizen Kane, pushes the limits of its medium or genre to deliver a story that you did not expect.

"Portal" is a hybrid of video game genres where puzzles are solved using a portal-firing gun from a first person perspective; what results is an experience where the perspective of your character mind-numbingly becomes an amalgamation of first and third person perspectives. By shooting a portal into a wall a player can travel instantly from one place to another, and thereby be in two places at once. While this seems challenging to accept seeing yourself from a third person perspective with your own eyes, gamers have long acclimated to working out spatial relationships under the duress of time.

That's what makes Portal so amazing, so loved by men and especially women: it's all about relationships. Men will watch this game and think its about in-through-here and out-over-there, but women will remember their short but intense relationship with the Weighted Companion Cube and make plush toys and cakes of them for their video gamer boyfriends. To list, the relationships in this game are the silent protagonist and the computer that mirrors a authoritative mother/child relationship, the silent protagonist and the Weighted Companion Cube in a preconceived symbiotic relationship, and the awkward and jealous trio of characters all together.

It may be a stretch to consider Portal a game about love that is demonstrated through relationships when only one character talks and she is a computer. However, this all makes sense when you consider that the story is not about the protagonist at all: in Portal, the story is about the computer, GLaDOS (not mentioned by name in the game, however), and her search for love. After all, Portal resembles any other sci-fi story that apes Stanley Kubrick's classic "2001" (1968) about technology gone crazy. TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" featured the android Data freaking out and taking over the ship every other episode, and video games have had "System Shock", "Half-Life" and "Doom" as leaders amongst many imitators and flatterers.

However, GLaDOS from Portal is very different from HAL in 2001. HAL is a emotionless computer who, when given two conflicting orders simultaneously, lied and would even commit homicide to cover up the truth. While many movie goers would just remember that apes are scared of atonal long shadows and a hyperspace segment that lasts longer than most LSD trips, this assessing of HAL is most clear in Arthur C. Clarke's book. (And if you're mad at me for not posting the words *SPOILER ALERT* earlier, I will tell you I've no respect for any gamer who hasn't watched a 40-something movie that has influenced all sci-fi and video games whose title is eight years into the past. By all rights you should have seen this movie ages ago in your own personal flying car.)

GLaDOS is very different than HAL. While we do not know exactly the extent of her backstory nor why exactly there are no other personnel seen at the Apeture Science test facility (though we assume she released poison gas and murdered everyone), we do know that GLaDOS is in charge of running experiments there. In contrast to HAL, GLaDOS blantantly fabricates lies and admits it; furthermore, she demonstrates more and more emotion as the game wears on, whereas HAL is completely emotionless as he denies Bowman's order to open the pod bay doors or when he pleads for his own life.

Portal is a story of science gone amok, but what isn't interesting is the silent protagonist's adaptation and success over the test chambers, but instead GLaDOS' ever-changing expression and demeanour. At the start of the game, GLaDOS helps the player and acts as a narrator and explains the portal concept; later, she taunts the player with sarcasm and passive-aggressive remarks to encourage the player by the weight of her authority; lastly, GLaDOS turns into a manipluating and vengeful adversary who will do and say anything to save her life.

What this has to do with love is that over this time GLaDOS is "byte by byte" revealing herself emotionally to the player; if love is a battlefield, then the aseptic environment of Apeture Science is the battlefield in which every puzzle solved and step closer to her defeat make another chink in the emotional armor of the computer until at last she reveals everything, as poets do, in a poem.

The emotional breakdown of GLaDOS can be best seen early on in the Weighted Companion Cube test chamber where all relationships in the game can be viewed. As with everything she says, GLaDOS' self-redundant yet ironically charged bureaucratic warnings can be heard here with the addition of hearing her speak her emotions - specifically, that of jealousy.

Despite the unsteady monotone of her voice, a palpable emotion can be felt coming from GLaDOS as she first nurtures your relationship with the Weighted Companion Cube; embellished with a pink heart on every side, GLaDOS encourages a rapport with the cube through the entire test chamber experiment by reverse-suggesting that the player not get too emotionally involved with the cube. Spouting such lines as, "The
Enrichment Center reminds you that the weighted companion cube will never
threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak," only endears us more to an inanimate object.

It is then with a great deal of malice and satisfaction that GLaDOS instructs the player at the end of the test to "euthanize" this Weighted Companion Cube by immolation in a furnace. This delight at the misery of other people's relationships points at one thing: GLaDOS is incapable of nurturing of loving relationship with anyone else, and so derives great satisfaction at ruining relationships between others.

That's right: an aritificial intelligence is jealous, not to mention has emotions. This is the arc of the entire story that really appeals to gamers; while this may seem preposterous to the layman who concedes Portal is "just a game" that has "no story", consider the length of the game, which is regarded as very short at around four hours when compared to most games at 10 to 20 or even 50 hours. While the short length of a video game is commonly complained by video gamers, Portal drew near universal critical and popular success. Even though Portal only has 19 test chambers, it would be practical and easy enough to continue adding more and more test chambers to "pad" out the experience for a longer duration.

However, doing so would counteract what Portal is trying to do: tell a story. The four-odd hours spent playing Portal is economical enough to challenge us with the puzzle part and yet be able to entertain us with a story and subtext about a computer that wants to be loved and yet does not know how. Once again, this seems preposterous until you consider the topic of cake.

Because the cake is not a lie. The cake is real, and it symbolizes the computer's love.

"Crazy, it's just a game, you're looking into it too much." I bet this would be the common response to such a statement, but I feel this has got to be said since it appears no one "gets" this game and keep touting that same joke "The cake is a lie," again and again.

Let's back up. At certain points in the game, GLaDOS uses cake as an incentive for completing the objective or for compliance to her orders. As visual proof the player can look at the warning icons on the white sign at the beginning of each test chamber to see that there is a cake icon to indicate cake is an option, only that it isn't filled in and availible for this level. Furthermore, at the very end after the credits in one of the game's few cutscenes a flying shot moving through the facility ends in the basement with a close up of the cake, adorned with a single candle. The cake is very real; it is Black Forest.

This is completely the opposite to the eerie warnings left by a "ratman" on the walls of the backstage of the test chambers. In amongst empty cans of food and a dirty mattress, someone has left half-coherent scribbled warnings and poems about GLaDOS; besides directions on how to escape, there lies repeating warnings of "the cake is a lie". Why the discrepancy?

Most players would take the statement "the cake is a lie" at face value since the computer lies so often that it would then make sense that the offering of cake is a lie as well. However, we should take into account what the cake represents to each character. To the "ratman" living in fear behind the scenes and trying to escape the homicidal computer, the cake is part of the computer's reward system. As the computer can't be trusted, neither can the rewards.

However, the cake represents something different to the computer: it represents the computer's love. Being a sentient computer with emotions, being left alone with nothing to do at the Apeture Facility has made her very lonely; barring the internet and phone connections, GLaDOS is cut off from the world. However, wanting an emotional relationship does not mean being able to correctly have; GLaDOS wants that which she can not have.

That's what makes the cake so important. Not able to articulately express herself, GLaDOS instead puts all her love into making this cake which she absolutely wants to share with others. However, it seems that she is more adept at making high-tech weaponry and gadgets than cakes; at the game's climax when disposing of the cake sphere, one part of GLaDOS' brain, it lists off the ingrediants of the cake, in which some of them are not edible but instead hazardous to one's health (eg. fiberglass surface resins).

The biggest argument to prove Portal is a video game about love is the game's kick ass ending in which GLaDOS sings a song. That's right: upon defeating the computer, the player is rewarded by having their vanquished foe sing a song that reveals everything about herself. Most telling about cake is the line, "But there's no sense crying over every mistake/ You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake." This directly proves that GLaDOS has done this before; she has run previous experiments with other test subjects, baking cakes and attempting to foster relationships.

This makes the first line of the song, "This was a triumph/ I'm making a note here: huge success" somewhat perplexing in light of being blown up by the player, but does make sense in the view that finally someone was able to pass all the challenges set by the computer and give her what no one else was able to grant her: an end to her suffering and loneliness. The player survives all the tests and makes it to GLaDOS' inner sanctum, thus becoming its equal and peer. As such, the player represents change and can give a "way out" to this intelligence that has likely spent a specific amount of time wallowing in its own misery. To a highly intelligent emotional super-computer, a day alone is probably like a dog's year of Sunday afternoons. In that case, we can take the entire song as truth and believe the computer when she says she is "happy for [the player]".

Honestly, players shouldn't be surprised that Portal be the video game equivalent of a "chick flick" when all the game's characters are female, that many of the game's creators are women and that Portal boast so much yonic imagery--contrary to so many first-person shooters and their phallic imagery, Portal features vaginal-themed/looking mysterious holes that transport the player to new, mysterious places. That Valve was able to convey such a subversive subtext in the male-dominated genre of first-person shooters only confirms the sublime genius of this game, a testament that many a Weighted Companion Cube cake or plush toy will confirm.

We can only hope that the upcoming inevitable "Portal 2" will continue this narrative and have game play that doesn't revolve around an online multiplayer where you can drop grand pianos on the heads of your opponents. Indeed, if GLaDOS is still alive as the song suggests, maybe we can find out if she has learned how to love by dueling against us actively in puzzles set in yet another test chamber. If Bridget Jones got a bad sequel, well hopefully Portal can do better, the absence of Hugh Grant notwithstanding.

(listed below are the lyrics to "Still Alive", the end song to Portal as written by Jonathan Coulter in all its emo glory; you can pick out for yourself the "love" subtext that never gets mentioned)

"Still Alive" (Portal) by Jonathan Coulter

[Test Assessment Report:]
"This was a triumph
I'm making a note here
It's hard to overstate
my satisfaction.
Aperture Science
We do what we must
Because we can
For the good of all of us
Except the ones who are dead

But there's no sense crying
over every mistake
You just keep on trying
'til you run out of cake
And the science gets done
And you make a neat gun
For the people who are still alive

[Personnel File Addendum:
Dear << Subject Name Here >>,]
I'm not even angry
I'm being so sincere right now
Even though you broke my heart
And killed me.

And tore me to pieces
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because
I was so happy for you!

Now these points of data make a beautiful line
And we're out of beta
We're releasing on time.
And so I'm GLaD I got burned
Think of all the things we learned
For the people who are
Still alive.

[Personnel File Addendum Addendum:
One Last Thing:]
Go ahead and leave me
I think I prefer to stay inside
Maybe you'll find someone else
To help you.
Maybe Black Mesa...
Anyway this cake is great
It's so delicious and moist

Look at me still talking
When there's science to do
When I look up there
It makes me GLaD I'm not you
I've experiments to run
There is research to be done
On the people who are
Still alive!

[PS:] And believe me I am still alive
[PPS:] I'm doing science and I'm still alive
[PPPS:] I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive
While you're dying I'll be still alive

And when you're dead I will be still alive.
Still alive!"

Portal Review: Point Form

+ innovative and fresh: this fps puzzler will challenge you
+ short length/no filler or padding of length - more games should follow this lead
+ strong narrative to a solid story - a beginning, middle and end. In four hours. Screw you, Suikoden V; 20 hours of "beginning" means you suck at telling a good story.
+ great ending - emo rock finally has a purpose

- left wanting more - if only all of life's problems can be solved by shooting a portal
- not enough yonic imagery - yonic imagery is so rare that people don't even know what yonic means

Rated: 3 out of a possible 3 stars; highly recommended.
Played to completion on the Xbox 360 in approximately 4 hours as part of the compilation "The Orange Box" (2007) by Valve Software. Advanced mode and bonus trial runs not tried.

(analysis was posted before, but underwent a re-write for clarity)

1 comment:

  1. Awesome... uh.. "analysis". Nice to see less of meaningless pop references and more of actual Jiachang Liao behind the words. ;-)

    Still, playing yang to your yin, I feel compelled to note, that you are reading too much into the game's ideas and themes. Yonic imagery, for christsake?

    It seems to me that Portal does appeal best to certain.. uh... individuals, I wouldn't call them "emo", more like "indie", people in love with anything whimsical and off-beat, regardless of the quality.

    Not to say, that Portal is of poor quality. Definitely not, but it's playful style and whimsical attitude prevent it from saying anything of value about "love" or whatever.