Serious Analysis: Portal 2

Hello the five people who read this blog, I am going to be doing a weekly blog post called ‘Serious Analysis’ on series or parts of series that I enjoyed.  These could be video games, anime, books, comics, animation, live action, TV or movies that I think are significant in some way and will attempt to inspire readers to look at these works in a new light or look at them in general.

This week, I am analyzing a game that neither needs added compliment nor attention, but I will give it that anyway. Portal 2 was released last week to much fanfare by the game press and fans, and is by Valve’s founder’s view, the best game they’ve ever published. And I agree. Now I could discuss this game to an endless degree, in terms of game design, dialogue and atmosphere, but I want to eschew that for one particular thing. I want to talk about how it rewards you. Specifically I want to talk about the ending, because I think it is an important hallmark of video game creation. And if that hasn’t scared you off already, you should know that this post will be intensively spoiler ridden. You will ruin the ending of Portal 2 if you read any further. This is not a drill.


Let’s start with a quick summary of how the game resolves itself. Chell defeats Wheatley with the help of GLaDOS, treated to a quick trip to the moon, and then wake up, with GLaDOS restored to her rightful place. She deletes any feelings of companionship she learned from Chell, and through the power of Occam’s razor, decides that she would be better off without Chell, since killing Chell is so damn hard. Chell is sent up in an elevator to the surface, but not before being serenaded too by all the turrets in the facility. Chell arrives at the top, which turns out to be a wheat field and is quickly given the companion cube.

These events make for an immensely rewarding game experience created by the designers. It is fascinating to see an ending these days that is rewarding purely on an experiential level. The reward isn’t from points or a score. The game doesn’t have any measure of how well the player did or how well the player did in comparison to his/her friends. There are achievements, but that is only a small part of the victory. The reward isn’t the sole feeling of accomplishment once the player has finished the game either. It is a purely experiential reward, kind of the ultimate ‘oh the player had to be there’ victory.

How does the game achieve this summoning of emotion in the audience? Again, there are a lot of reasons, but I’m going to focus on two aspects: reconciliation and ascendency.

At the end of Portal 2, the player no longer feels the great animosity we once had for the game’s enemies. The player has learned about the past of Aperture Science and as result the history of GLaDOS. The player knows who she is, and where she’s come from. The player can understand that in many ways what she does is out of her control. The culture of Aperture Science is as responsible for the player’s horrible life as she is. Wheatley is a similar creature. He was designed to be an idiot and thus has no choice but to make stupid mistakes. At the same time he genuinely believes that he can control the facility well, and do it better than anyone else. It’s a little delusional sure, but his personality is endearing nevertheless. The player can’t hate them for trying to kill the player either, because what the player is doing is interfering with their reason for being.

Thus, the reward comes when the player’s enemies find a way to reconcile with the player for their mistakes. GLaDOS does it spectacularly. She first admits that the player are her greatest friend, deletes that part and decides that the player are so annoying that it would be far easier just to let the player go. The player achieves catharsis with GLaDOS, which is only made better by the irony of the situation. The player expects that once GLaDOS has deleted the kind part of her programming, she will immediately decide to kill the player. And the player continues to think this as the player ascends up the elevator and the turrets aim their lasers at the player. Which makes their song all the more surprising. The song is another kind of reconciliation. It is the entire facility apologizing for everything it has done to the player. This the player knows innately and it becomes more telling once the player looks at the lyrics. The lyrics repeatedly call the player my darling, and tell the player need to get away from here to ever truly feel gratified. The facility will never change, but the best we can do for the player is send the player away.

Of course, Wheatley gives his own apology to the player at the end. It’s cute and bumbling in his typical speech as he regrets everything he did and tells the player that given another chance he would do things differently. While we have no idea how true that is, he at least appears genuinely sorry for what he’s done. The humour ties all of these threads together as the player are amazed by the absurdity of it all and yet a large part of the reward is that the player feel the player are now on even terms with all of these characters.

While the reconciliation is very explicit, the ascendency is more implied and has more to do with symbolism. Ascendency is the process by which the hero is sent to a higher plane for an ultimate reward. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke sees Obi-Wan and Anakin in the sky. That is the signal that Luke now belongs among the heroes of his time and the past that now rest far above them, with the implication that he will one day join them in the sky.

First let’s explore the literals of this in Portal 2. The player is moving upwards in an elevator towards freedom. Pretty clear, the player is ascending to another level. But then the player incorporates the music and it becomes a little different. The player has hundred of gleaming white creatures serenading the player up to the top floor. It’s reminiscent of angels singing to the souls as they ascend to heaven. The designers even chose to have the music be operatic and in Italian, adding to the biblical sense of the ascendency. Then add the endless and mostly pointless trials the player has faced throughout the game and there’s purgatory. The ultimate location is a giant wheat field, similar to the Elysium Field, the part of the underworld where heroes go to claim their final reward.

Therefore, the game also rewards the player on a symbolic level as it pushes the player to a new world. This new world, a new place to exist and live as the player want satisfies Chell’s desire to escape and the player’s own desires. The reason this feels so good is that ascendency is praise, a reflection of what the player have done and yet where the player must go in the future. But most importantly, it makes the player feel like their victory is deserved. The player feel like the player deserve the praise the player are getting because of all the difficulty and hardship. And then the increasing volume and tempo of the song gives the player a sense of epic scale that everything, GLaDOS, the facility and everything is pushing the player towards the surface and they are all praising the player for what the player have done.

The player doesn’t recognize this immediately, but these images are hardwired into our culture. We can’t help but subconsciously think of the bible when we see these images because of our cultural history. Same thing with the Greek mythology and Elysium Fields. These aspects make the player think of an ultimate reward without telling them that is what s/he is getting.

The reconciliation with enemies and the passage to a new world is what makes Portal 2 a landmark game in interactive storytelling. It does all of this without making the main character say a single word. Instead, the player embodies this character to their sweet end, another reason why the player feels so rewarded at the end. Chell is the player and anything she gains is also what the player gains. These elements create catharsis that requires no points, no achievements, no Skinner box techniques. Just pure narrative to create a great end to a great game.

So, when all of the elements came together, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself – a lot. If more games could have this kind of gratification at the end, I think more people would play games.

Enough gushing. What do other people think? I’d really like to hear someone else opinion.

Posted on April 29, 2011, in Books, Games, Techonolgy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. what if Glados secretly enjoyed having caroline programmed into her, and only pretended to delete it, to save face in front of chell. without caroline glados is a machine without feelings (save for hate). and wouldn’t glados enjoy TWO sets of testers than just two as a team?

  2. great analysis.for me the humor was the most endearing aspect besides the mental workout. Coming to the reward bit, the scorched companion cube being chucked out after you was a nice touch, a parting gift. more like the facility saying here’s a familiar face with you in the unknown, best of luck out there…

  3. How do you compare the immersiveness of Portal 2 with any of the Half-Life games?

    • I find Portal 2 more immersive, simply because the game is more personal. In Half-Life 2, while the world and the big set-ups were enriching, I never cared about anyone in it.

  4. To be honest, I think the end turret choir is actually Caroline (Chells mother) who tells her that she is sorry and that she “should stay away from science” (Which you can also hear when she calls Chell her “darling”).

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