November 8, 2007 8:02 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
This column often treats archetypes and conventions – those standards in story, art and characterizations that repeat again and again in our media – because it’s often those things, whether subtle or broad-stroked, that ring, in their repetition, the knell of our social identity. “Conventional” is not a word with a positive connotation, however; overly weighted reliance on a standard theme is often the result of an absence of creativity, and a production in any media that cleaves too close to archetypes runs the risk of creating a two-dimensional experience, a story told in symbols instead of emotions, in words instead of thoughts.
One such convention that appears often enough in video games is that of the laboratory – partly because science fiction is a popular genre, and labs also make good backdrops for horror. We’ve seen a lot of experimental labs in our most classic franchises, from Metal Gear Solid to Resident Evil and even titles like Final Fantasy VII and, more recently, BioShock, to name just a few. These are often places where we can find clues to the origin of the central conflict – this is where the employees were killed, for example, this is where the antagonist was created. They can be haunting and informative, in that they generally retain an echo of something that happened prior to the protagonist’s involvement in the plot. They also retain shades of the organization that spawned it, often in its clean, orderly white lines, refined aesthetic and frighteningly advanced technology, personified by a soothing computer voice still maintaining her omniscient eye over the space, her digital impassivity oblivious to the fact that the world has changed.
But Portal taught us that even computers can get a little nuts when they’re abandoned.
The Enrichment Center would like to inform you that spoilers following the jump may result in decimation of ignorance, violent rages, and hives. The effects of prolonged exposure to spoilers are not part of this article.
Brief Detention In The Relaxation Vault
Remarkable gameplay aside, despite – or perhaps because of the fact it’s set against the backdrop of one of the most conventional settings in gaming, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Portal has singlehandedly revolutionized storytelling in games. You may disagree, but think of this: games have made us love damsels, classic heroes, furry animals, deliciously wicked villains. But when’s the last time you loved – really loved – a gray cube with hearts on it?
Portal’s lab, apparently a research facility belonging to defunct Black Mesa competitor Aperture Science, bears an appealing resemblance to a psychiatric ward as much as to an experimental test course – you start in a small room, and your directions are always presented for you in a series of charmingly simplistic iconic panels. You know little about the protagonist, Chell, but it won’t take too long to notice you’re not the one whose mental fitness is in question.
It’s the reliance on convention that makes Portal’s slowly-unfurling concept such a delight. The computer-operated experimental test course has been a standby in those games clever enough to integrate its tutorial level, or perhaps its bonus game, with the larger plot and environment. The re-appearance of the familiar aesthetic leads the player to grievously underestimate the experience about to unfold – and Portal might have been just a glorified puzzle game.
Then GLaDOS decided to change things up a bit.
Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button
Little by little, we see glimpses into – impossible! – the mental instability of a computer, or the aggregation of computers that compose the intimidatingly-named Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System. GLaDOS’ quotes are so funny not just because the game’s writing is brilliant, but because with each incongruous statement, each little chink in the computerized veneer, we’re seeing chinks in the face of a tired convention. At first, GLaDOS’ contradiction in terms is subtle – did she just say she was lying? And what’s with the cake? It’s enough so that, at first, it doesn’t disrupt the formula much. But as time goes on, the experience of the typified test course begins to unravel, with this decidedly insane machine at the helm.
It’s refreshing, and it’s amusing and endearing. But it makes for some arresting moments, too – once you realize there is little else you can do save follow along at the mercy of an unreliable sentient machine, a touch of true fear and self-preservation instinct kicks in, especially when you realize the situations to which Chell is being exposed are actually lethal. Because the test archetype isn’t just unraveling figuratively with each off-putting oddity on GLaDOS’ part – it’s literally coming apart. A dirty handprint that seems out-of-place leads to broken test areas, where outside the pristine, closed environment, someone has apparently hidden, bleeding, with a store of canned goods, and has begun writing on the wall. The cake is a lie. Is it a joke, or is it lunacy?
Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator
Famously, during one course, Chell is given a cube and instructed to carry it with her. This cube looks precisely like the other gray cubes that it’s been necessary to employ for leverage against the environment thus far – the only key difference is the pink hearts on each face. Broadly, cubes, crates and blocks have been a gamer’s quintessential tool since the eight-bit days, but with the Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube, another convention is turned on its head, torn to pieces, and every piece thrown into a fire. The Companion Cube is given to Chell at that point in the game wherein the player realizes that something is most definitely not right – and while one is not yet entirely sure that it’s not all a charming little joke, the uncertainty’s off-putting. And then, there are these icons of a person embracing a block. And those pink hearts.
“Please take care of it,” GLaDOS says simply.
Of course, you bring your Companion Cube with you through the testing area, at this critical point in the story’s unfolding when you could really, really use a security item, something of your very own – you’ve been reminded, of course, that even your portal gun is neither yours nor safe. Brilliantly, GLaDOS warns you against “superstition” and “perceiving inanimate objects as alive.” More than once, she reminds you the cube can’t talk – it’s as if the game itself were really sentient, aware of your growing attachment to an object. A shift in power begins – instead of laughing along at the funny computer, you begin to wonder if you aren’t really the lunatic. But it becomes clear – you’re definitely in some danger, and you need a friend.
The point wherein you have to toss the Companion Cube into the incinerator will likely stand as one of the most unforgettable points in game storytelling. You’d like to salvage it, of course, if only on principle – and, hasn’t GLaDOS lied before? Maybe, if you’re just smart enough, you can find a way to remove it from the stage. All the while she mocks you – you cannot spare the cube and leave it “alone and companionless"; but it’s incapable of “feeling much pain.”
It’s a cube – and you laugh, because you’ve become the archetype of the mental captive, who has begun personifying and loving inanimate objects. The player’s own behavior and responses to the challenges presented helps vitalize the game environment more than any cutscene or backstory could.
The moment wherein Chell is riding a platform straight into a fire is, oddly, resemblant of the moment in BioShock when the player confronts Andrew Ryan – a protagonist you know nothing about is confronted with a crucial turning point in their self-concept, a person who has been a tool up to this moment has the chance to influence their destiny. But wherein BioShock drew strength from the player’s total lack of choice, Portal is illuminated by the sudden ability to make a choice – to use the Portal gun and flee the test course. And just about all of us probably experienced at least a brief moment, on that platform, where we would have ridden straight into that fire because we as gamers have not been trained to feel we have choices, and the sudden advent of realization that you can escape is one of the most exciting, empowering things I’ve ever felt in a game. in one swift coup you feel sure of yourself, and relinquish all doubt that you are in danger from GLaDOS, and you go from being a computer’s favorite toy to being human.
And, by the way, I tried harder to save that little cube than I’ve ever been motivated to save any princess, child or kingdom in gaming history.
This Isn't Brave, It's Murder
It’s funny, and it’s challenging, and it’s sad and frustrating all in the same moment – just like the aggregate of personality “cores” that comprise GLaDOS when you confront her in the game’s end. Now you see how the poor thing might’ve come unglued – in neglect and disrepair, the different facets of her personality are becoming detached. Curiosity, rage, a recipe for cake, and you feel sorry for her, sorry for yourself, and sorry for your poor lost Companion Cube. But to defeat GLaDOS, the player, ironically, must employ the range of skills learned in the test course thus far – right down to the act of destroying something you feel sad for because you need to survive (by throwing it into an incinerator, no less). Sympathy for the quirky, crazy computer is overridden by that survival instinct – the one you garnered in that moment when you realized you had the ability to save Chell from the fire and escape.
The entire experience makes for an interesting look at what actually creates gamer psychology. Motivation, fear, love, true conflict, and emotional response are all things I think it’s fair to say most developers want to incorporate into their titles these days. We’ve seen a goodly number of “moral quandary” games lately, and heard a lot of talk about creating social fabric for games, developing a deeper experience. But by showcasing the masterful employment of all those elements against such a typified, simple, done-to-death game convention – the lab testing environment – the folks at Valve almost seem to be showing off. “This was a triumph,” GLaDOS sings gently in the now-iconic ending theme, “Still Alive.” Indeed.
And there really was a cake.
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer