Portal 2, And The Enduring Legacy Of Missing Story Components

Man, that sounds like the dullest Indiana Jones movie of all time. “Indiana Jones And The Pretentious Story Analysis! He fights a swarm of metaphors! He punches Nazis off the top of the story arc!”

So, the wife and I finished Portal 2.

Single-player, at least.

This post will contain no spoilers, so you can go ahead and read it (I can’t promise that the comments section will be the same, as anybody who wants to discuss the game and its story may need to get all spoiler-flavored). (Speaking of flavored, did you see that there’s cupcake-flavored vodka? It’s true.) (Indiana Jones chops hashashayyin assassins with deadly parentheses!) (Shut up.)

You wanna know one of the things I really love about both the first Portal game and its largely-superior — which is saying a lot – sequel? It’s that they leave a great deal to the imagination. In this day and age, with the epic leaps forward in special effects and graphics, it’s easy to put everything you want in the story and the in the storyworld right there on the screen for all to see. Books do this but by dint of a different principle: they’re so chockablock with all those pesky words and pages it becomes difficult not to throw every ingredient into the pot. It’s the Kitchen Sink method of storytelling.

But Portal 1 & 2, not so much.

Here’s what I mean: Portal is, at its core (pun not intended until now), the story of a girl being put through a series of tests by a deranged wing de-icer slash artificial intelligence. It is a battle of wits and survival using the mighty portal gun, which creates a pair of connected teleportation portals on flat surfaces. Big crazy hilarious sci-fi action-puzzle game. That’s it.

You could stop there and, hey, fuck it, a winning equation.

But Valve goes the extra distance and creates layers to that experience, layers that are not entirely grasped or seen (though one could argue that they are keenly felt), layers comprising the story of the mad AI, of the testing facility and all of Aperture Science, of the “Rat Man” in the walls and the life of little turrets and so on and so forth. The characters they’ve created in this space — GlaDOS, Cave Johnson, Wheatley, the Rat Man through his scrawlings — are again fully-felt but not necessarily fully-formed.

That sounds like a bad thing.

It is the furthest thing from it.

In fact, it’s pretty damn rad.

Because what happens is, you still get the core (there’s that pun again) experience and story, and you also get all this added voodoo. But because the voodoo has gaps — unanswered questions, vague links, hinted suggestions — you end up as the player/audience member stepping into the breach and solving those variables yourself with your own story-bridges. On various forums you’ll find endless speculation who Chell is, who her parents are, who the Rat Man is, how all this stuff connects, how it connects to Half-Life, to Gordon Freeman, how the ending plays out versus how it “really” plays out. People are finding all these great little Easter Eggs and finding ways to incorporate them into this pastiche of story (some such incorporations are brilliant, others entirely boggling).

But what it does is, it creates this legacy — it ensures that the game is (another incoming and originally unintentional pun in 3… 2… 1… ) still alive long after it’s been shelved. Hell, the song “Still Alive”…

…contains its own weird little story clues and gaps, right? You beat the game, you think you know what’s up, then the end comes and this song plays and you’re like, “Maybe there’s more going on than I originally figured.” You think about it. You talk about it. You laugh about it. This legacy of mystery — created by not answering all the questions and not building concrete connections — endures.

Really fucking cool.

But it’s hard to do. Hard to do in a way that leaves people satisfied and wanting more as opposed to unsatisfied and being fed up with your rampant jerkery. So, I ask: who did it right? Who did it poorly? Games, movies, books, comics, whatever. Think about those stories that never fully put it all together and demanded that you, the audience, do some legwork (while still maintaining the essential story and experience). Here’s a fascinating sidebar, though, and it maybe leads to a much bigger question —

Some (a lot?) of this stuff in Portal is by accident. As I understand it, Jonathan Coulton in crafting “Still Alive” had some leeway there and wasn’t forced to adhere to some canon-that-never-really-existed. Further, one of the big story twists in Portal 2 (which I won’t name in the post due to ANTI-SPOILER REDACTION SYSTEMS) was, again, a total accident due to a casting choice.

I’ve seen this happen in roleplaying games at the table — you craft a very brief throwaway character and pop them in for a session and suddenly the players either really like that character and/or they believe that throwaway character has far greater significance than intended. Audience desire and design changes the needs of the game. That’s harder to do in more linear narratives, but therein perhaps lies one of the genuine benefits of transmedia (a benefit all-too-rarely sought).

Noodle it.

And let’s chat this shiznit up.

P.S. We totally own a plush companion cube.

P.P. S. I would stab a dude in the gills for this plush Portal turret.