Forget videogames as art—they’re games. Portal was genius and its sequel will take the cakeby Sam Leith / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
I was told there’d be cake: Chell and her reality-blasting gun in the videogame Portal
A shooting game that isn’t; a puzzle game that tells a story; and a joke that became a meme. Indulge me if I depart from my habitual tone of Arnoldian high-mindedness to shout yippee at the release of the sequel to one of the most interesting videogames of all time. If you’ve never played Portal, you’ve missed out on something big. Forget the old videogames-as-art thing; here’s videogames as videogames—and as artful as you could want.
Portal was remarkable because it was a “first-person shooter”: that is, a game in which you see through the eyes of someone running around a 3D environment carrying a BFG (or Big Flipping Gun). But it was the only first-person shooter in the history of videogames in which you didn’t actually shoot anybody. At the same time it was a platform game—where you navigate from platform to platform to cross the gamespace—and it was a physics puzzle.
What’s more, its protagonist was a woman (not too common in computer games). Chell is the lone test subject in a strange, antiseptic research facility, trying to make her way through a series of increasingly complicated and dangerous test chambers. The gun she carries doesn’t shoot bullets, which is the reason why no one dies. Instead, it shoots holes in reality.
Point the gun at a wall and shoot, and a hole appears in the wall; then point it elsewhere, and shoot again. Another hole appears. Look through the first and you see out the second. Step through the first and you emerge from the second, or vice versa. Where this gets clever is that your momentum is preserved, so that if you drop 40 feet into a portal on the floor, you’ll emerge from the other portal travelling at quite some clip; if it’s positioned on a wall you’ll go flying across the room.
Portal was also one of the vanishingly rare instances in which character-based humour—and more than that, irony— worked in a videogame. Despite containing only two characters, one of whom doesn’t speak, it had something that resembled a genuine relationship. The other character can only be heard—it is the disembodied voice of GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence machine that runs the research facility.
GLaDOS alternately sulks, chides, threatens and bribes. She promises that once you’ve completed your experimental work, you’ll be rewarded with cake at a party to which all your friends have been invited. (As to who those friends are, she’s rather vague: the only candidate that you meet in the game is “Weighted Companion Cube,” an inert block of metal with pink hearts painted on it.) But as the honeyed voice of the computer coaxes you through its maze of test areas it becomes clear that GLaDOS is more than just passive-aggressive; she’s batshit crazy.
Far from giving you cake, she plans to kill you by dropping you into a lake of fire—and when you escape that fate, and find yourself in the facility’s bleak backstage areas, you start to come across graffiti seemingly left by your predecessors.
One graffito that recurs—scrawled as if by a prisoner in an oubliette—is: “The cake is a lie.” This has taken on a life well beyond the game that gave birth to it, becoming an internet catchphrase. You see “the cake is a lie” tweeted and stitched into comment threads, a wink to the world.
What a lovely wink it is. Those words are an all-purpose rebuke to, among other things, the sellers of fad diets, no-win-no-fee lawyers, neoliberal trickle-down economists, and the claims of religions. What’s most glorious of all about Portal is that it gave us not just a game but a worldview.
Its sequel comes, as you’d expect, with gameplay booted up a notch. There’s a two-player mode (you don’t need a mathematician to tell you that four portals generates more than twice the complexity of two) and the physics problems the first games presented—buttons, cubes, laser beams and suchlike—have proliferated to include tractor beams, ejector pads, and “repulsion” and “propulsion” gels.
But it’s in the narrative department that I’ll be really curious to see what has been done. GLaDOS—last heard over the closing credits of the first game singing the dreamy outro “Still Alive”—is to be resurrected, and another robotic character is promised, voiced by Stephen Merchant.
It’s rare that you look forward to a games sequel for its story. But this is such an instance. I hope to be playing Portal 2 by the time you read this. Plus, although I know it goes against everything we’ve learned, I have a feeling that this time—this time, just for once—there will be cake.