A couple weeks ago I went out on a limb and declared that out of all of the gaming bounty delivered unto us during the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/Wii era of gaming, Portal is the series that defined the term “must play” for a generation. These are the two games that every single gamer owes it to themselves to play regardless of genre preference.
Having already written extensively on the subject of the games’ flawless gameplay and deceptively simplistic narrative depth, I feel like to drive home what memorable experiences Portal and Portal 2 were I should craft a list of moments in the game that lit up my brain’s pleasure center like a Christmas tree.
Those little touches of cleverness, humor, and insanity are what made a simple game about a woman solving physics puzzles at Aperture Science Labs while being abused by the psychotic artificial intelligence GLaDOS into one of the best stories of the last ten years in any entertainment medium. Take a trip down recent memory lane with me to celebrate, won’t you? Spoilers follow .
Early in the first game, you enter a test chamber and are confronted by GLaDOs’ disembodied voice declaring the following:
“The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it.”
With us being indomitable gamers and our avatar Chell representing an intellectual juggernaut of freedom lust, the puzzle was solved with ease nonetheless. Our droll praise for being “resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism” served as icing on the cake we were never to taste and helped established the game’s knack for extremely dry sardonic humor.
In the early stages of Portal 2, a rejuvenated GLaDOS hounds the player with a stream of delightfully catty abuse while facetiously assuring Chell that she’s not holding a grudge just because she killed her in the last game. I could have picked from any number of hilarious quotes here regarding Chell’s weight, parentage, and general lack of quality as a human being, but my favorite has to be the following tidbit delivered in that glorious computerized female monotone I so love.
”That jumpsuit you’re wearing looks stupid. That’s not me talking, it’s right here in your file. On other people it looks fine, but right here a scientist has noted that on you it looks stupid. Well, what does a neck-bearded old engineer know about fashion? He probably – Oh, wait. It’s a she. Still, what does she know? Oh wait, it says she has a medical degree. In fashion! From France!”
As the first game develops, the player realizes that something sinister is afoot. Our hostess becomes more condescending and unbalanced and her claims become increasingly ridiculous. And did she just say we were going to be baked, or was that just something else about cake? Time to get out of here.
The game finally comes to a head when you, having completed all tests, end up on a moving platform staring at a furnace at the end of the line with GLaDOS assuring us that the portal gun will be unharmed by your incineration. Chell manages to portal her way outside of the testing area, while the crazed AI proceeds hilariously to play off the attempted extermination as another test.
During your campaign to take out your original captor once again in the sequel, Wheatley –another rogue AI- leads you to the manufacturing plant for the turrets GLaDOS is using as part of her defenses. Turrets are one of life’s little pleasures in Portal. Sure, they are constantly scanning the room looking to fill you with lead as soon as you peak your head out, but they are oh so charming and cute while they do it. The finished turrets in the plant are rolling down a conveyor belt into a scanner where the defective ones are catapulted into a furnace, screaming all the way.
Chell replaces the good turret being used as a scanning template with one of the bad ones who are begging for bullets, asking if blindness is normal, shouting “blam blam blam!”, or just chuckling insanely to themselves, causing the innocent operational turrets to be thrown to their doom screaming “whyyyyyyy!?” while the should-be rejects wonder aloud how they’re getting a pass.
The whole procedure was so funny I must have spent twenty minutes just standing there listening to the endless line of turrets chatter. Naturally, the labor comes to fruition when a gloating GLaDOS greets you with a room filled with harmless turrets who then proceed to self-destruct.
Portal 2 eventually forces the once-adversarial human and machine duo to work together to overcome Wheatley after he’s corrupted by exposure to Aperture Science’s mainframe after Chell replaces GLaDOS (who is put into a potato battery) with him in hopes of obtaining his help to escape. Instead, he turns on you and renders the player a lab rat once again.
After you rescue GLaDOS from a hungry bird (thankfully with her slow clap processor still functioning at optimum sarcasm levels), she devises a simple ploy to crash the bad AI by posing a logical paradox (a circular question with no possible answer) to him while being careful not to think about it herself, lest she perish.
What she didn’t anticipate was Wheatley possessing the intelligence of a Twitter post. Thinking about a paradox spins your brain in circles and will theoretically overload a computer system that runs on logic, but for someone subsisting by simply pulling answers out of their rear end with no thinking involved, it’s no sweat.
The Great Pastry Deception
You knew it was going to be in here. The original Portal meme was born out of GLaDOS’ constant assurances that when you complete testing, you will be given cake. This is already funny in itself, but it remains a theme in the entire game as your delightful digitized villainess continues using cake as an incentive to return even after she blatantly attempts to murder you.
Once you escape the testing area, you begin to encounter graffiti -presumably left by other Aperture survivors- aiding in your escape, most memorably the repeated line “the cake is a lie. The cake is a lie. The cake is a lie.” This unhinged bit of legendary black comedy is a big part of what put Portal on the pop culture map.
In addition to Wheatly and GLaDOS, part of Portal 2 has Chell accompanied by old message recordings from Aperture’s insane founder, Cave Johnson. His cheerfully flippant displays of the past human rights atrocities in service of science that led to the creation of our favorite twisted AI’s, among other things, add necessary backstory and provide plenty more laughs. This is my personal favorite.
“Those of you who volunteered to be injected with praying mantis DNA, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Bad news is we’re postponing those tests indefinitely. Good news is we’ve got a much better test for you: fighting an army of mantis men. Pick up a rifle and follow the yellow line. You’ll know when the test starts.”
Best. Boss Battle. Ever.
The end of Portal has you finally coming face-to-face with your tormentor’s hardware. As she assures you of your impending demise, an object detaches from her, giving you time to figure out the strategy you’ll use to defeat her by incinerating her components before she floods the chamber with deadly neurotoxin and begins firing rockets at you. Each of her components has its own personality ranging from adorably inquisitive to Mike Patton’s savage inhuman snarling.
But, as with the rest of the game, the highlight is GLaDOS’ passive-aggressive commentary. Although you’re racing against the clock to defeat her, I wouldn’t do it too fast. It’d be a shame to miss out on any of the myriad gems of abuse she doles out before going down for the count.
And Stay Out!
My favorite moment at the end of Portal 2 is something that took both games together to build up to. In the first game, Chell is given a heart-engraved “Companion Cube” which she uses to solve puzzles. GLaDOS then demands the player drop their “friend” into an incinerator before they can progress and then proceeds to heap passive-aggressive abuse on our heroine for her heartless betrayal of an inanimate object.
After Aperture’s resident psychotic soulless servant of unsavory science is reinstated to her rightful control of the facility at the end of the sequel, she comes to the logical conclusion that killing the “dangerous mute lunatic” is too much trouble and sends Chell to the surface; a world that appears barren and lifeless. As she steps out alone into an unknown world, the door behind her pops open to expel a familiar “face”. It’s your Companion Cube, scorched but intact!
It’s a laugh-out-loud hilarious and somehow touching gesture from a digitized being who has clearly begun to develop some form of sentimentality over the two-game struggle with the player character, and it’s the absolute perfect note to end Chell’s journey on.
Another highlight that set the first game above almost every other game was the end credits. Seriously. After witnessing the demise of Chell’s lovable antagonist, the player is treated to an ending scene showing that deep in the facility somewhere, GLaDOS lives and she’s got cake and a musical message for you as the credits roll. “Still Alive” was an instant classic among gamers and was the kind of delightful surprise we just don’t see very often.
Portal 2 offers a lovely bonus tune from your good friends the turrets on the way to the surface before once again treating you to GLaDOS’s musical stylings. I’ve read people saying that Valve should not have attempted to duplicate that magical moment from the end of the first game, but honestly, I’d have been sorely disappointed if it didn’t happen. Just like in the first game’s ending song, “Want You Gone” is full of both heart and humor and serves as one of the most perfect endings of any game ever.