Studying Storytelling: Portal

This is Volume 8 in an ongoing series called Studying Storytelling where I look at HOW stories are told, not the stories themselves. For more on the inspiration for this series, start here. For an index of previous entries, go here

Setup and delivery. It's a key to storytelling. You create an expectation (will they or won't they fall in love?) and then you tell your audience what happened (they totally fell in love and now they won't stop making out everywhere. Ugh, get a room).

Last month I set up a new direction in Studying Storytelling with my treatise on the three primary types of video game protagonists. Today I deliver on the expectation that I'd actually talk about that. That's how it's done, folks.

For the first video game edition of Studying Storytelling we're taking a look at Portal and Portal 2, widely regarded as two of the best and most innovative video games of the last decade. Portal was the game that made me start playing games again. I thought I had outgrown it, that it was kids stuff, something I shouldn't take the time to do anymore. Portal changed my mind, and I haven't looked back since. Part of that is because it was simply fun to play, but how it told its story also reminded me what a great medium for creative storytelling video games can be.

The Basics

Your character jumps into the blue portal, which gives you the momentum to reach the platform by flinging you out of the orange portal

I'm assuming basically zero video game knowledge here, so you can skip to the next section if you're familiar with these games or gaming generally.

Portal and Portal 2 are puzzle-platform games. In a platform game, your character advances through the game by navigating a series of rooms or levels by running, jumping, activating switches, and so on. Super Mario Bros. is the quintessential side-scrolling platformer, for example. Throwing in the "puzzle" aspect is self-explanatory. You do the platform stuff, and you solve puzzles while doing it.

In Portal, you control a silent, mostly unseen character called Chell. She's so anonymous, you only learn her name in the end credits, and the only times you see her are when you can catch a reflection somewhere. In the post linked above, Chell was the first example I provided of what I called the "strong, silent type" of protagonist. It's almost like I knew I was gonna write about Portal...foreshadowing!

The game begins with Chell waking from some sort of stasis to begin a testing protocol of uncertain purpose. In the tests you (Chell) solve a variety of puzzles in a research complex owned by a company called Aperture Science.* Each room you enter is a testing chamber and you have to figure out how to get through it and out the other side. At your disposal–and what makes Portal different from other puzzle games–is a device called the "Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device," or the "Portal Gun." It allows you to shoot walls and create two portals that connect to each other.  That way, you can reach areas or objects that would otherwise be out of reach. If that sounds a bit confusing, the picture at right might help.

Okay! That's enough of the what. Now let's look at three aspects of how Valve, the company behind Portal, tells its story. I always try to steer clear of *SPOILERS*, but if you've never played or heard of the games then some of what follows might qualify. Consider yourself warned.

All of a Sudden: No Prologue, No Backstory

In older games like The Legend of Zelda you might see a screen crawl that gives you the rundown of the backstory à la the "A long, long, time ago..." setup in Star Wars. Or occasionally you begin the game and another character immediately tells you, "Hurry! the village is in danger! The evil wizard Xorthax has stolen the magical Derpwhistle and you must retrieve it!"

Okay, damn. Just got here, but I guess I better go find that Derpwhistle. And it sounds like I'll prolly have to tussle with Xorthax in the process. Ugh, great. I bet that guy sucks.

These are straightforward ways of flinging you into the story headlong, and they work perfectly well for most adventure games. Modern games are generally less explicit in telling you your precise goals, but many use cinematic prologues to tell you what's going on. You generally know at least the basics of your character's backstory and why you should care.

With Portal, you get none of that. Chell waking from stasis is deliberately disorienting and confusing, especially because you experience it through the eyes of the character. You're in a spartan room with no real idea what's going on or why you're there. You proceed through the game by running, jumping, and solving puzzles, but the story itself is not a simple adventure. It's a mystery. Why are you there? What's really going on? It's an engaging beginning precisely because of how little you know.

One of the biggest challenges for many writers, especially novelists, is knowing when the story really begins. While the writer might need to know all the backstory and details that makes the world come alive, the reader often doesn't, at least not right away. If, as a writer, you're spending pages upon pages explaining all the stuff that leads up to your story then your real story is the backstory. The world of Portal looks and feels deep and complex. It's obvious that a lot of backstory must exist, but precious little is revealed to you until you need to know it. It's a much more satisfying experience as a result.

Paranoid Android: A Funny Artificial Intelligence Serving as Quasi-narrator

Portal is a mostly quiet and solitary adventure. Chell doesn't speak–neither with an actual voice nor in the form of dialogue selections from conversation windows–so you don't have any idea what she's thinking. How are you supposed to figure out what's going on? Even if you could speak, there aren't any other characters for you to talk to!

Well, there's one exception, and it's a big one. You've got GLaDOS, the seemingly friendly and helpful AI who guides you through the game.

It's not clear where she comes from or what she's up to at first (more mystery!), but GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) is there to inform you of the "testing" procedures, help you through the early stages, and slowly drop clues about the true nature of the Aperture Science facility. Though she seems friendly at first, it doesn't take long to surmise that maaayyybbe GLaDOS isn't on your side. After all, for such a huge facility, it seems awfully empty. How'd it get that way? Who or what is all the testing for since there doesn't seem to be anyone around? Hmm...

As a character, GLaDOS comes from the same lineage as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. She's an artificial intelligence that has achieved some level of sentience, and the exact extent of her abilities is one of the more interesting questions in the game. The writing for GLaDOS and voice actress Ellen McClain's performance are top-notch. She's catty and passive-aggressive. Needy and insecure. Oh, and she really, really would like to kill you, it turns out. But she also kind of loves you? She needs you. She promises you cake!

Didn't we have some fun though? Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said "Goodbye," and you were like "No way!" And then I was all, "We pretended we were going to murder you." That was great. – GLaDOS

GLaDOS functions as an unreliable second-person narrator, a sort of fun house mirror held up to our silent, mysterious protagonist. She gets meaner and pettier as you progress in an inverse relationship with Chell's success. Yet she also remains a piece of computer hardware and software, which means many of her messages are monotone, canned, pre-programmed warnings and information. This makes for a lot of funny moments, and really the narrative hinges on the tension between GLaDOS' sentience, her struggle against the limits of her programming, and Chell's effort to make it through the test chambers unscathed.

The Cake is a Lie: Context Clues Flesh Out the Story

In a novel, you can only see what the author explicitly tells you exists. In film, you only see what the camera sees. Good writers and filmmakers do this in a way that still feels like you're the one solving the problem or cracking the case, but the direct control you get in a video game is fundamentally different. Game programmers make the same kinds of decisions about what you can see, touch or hear, but you, the player, have much more direct control over the experience than in any other medium.

The Portal games do this more thoughtfully than most. With a silent protagonist and an adversarial, unreliable artificial intelligence providing quasi-narration, there's not a lot of options for you to get to the bottom of what's going on. The solution to this is heavy use of context clues. As you advance through the games, there are messages on walls, notes on pieces of paper, and audio recordings that give you more info on what's happening, eventually allowing you to piece the story together yourself.

It's a great use of what makes a video game different from other storytelling formats, especially in the sequelThe truth is that the first Portal game has a very simple story, even though GLaDOS is what elevates it from being just a fun game to among the best I've ever played. Portal 2's structure is much the same as the first one, just with more of everything, especially story. It continues the use of visual context clues while dramatically upping the ante on auditory ones, making for a much deeper narrative.

About half the game consists of trying to escape an old, dilapidated part of the Aperture facilities wherein you periodically hear recordings of a man named Cave Johnson, founder of Aperture Science. These recordings provide info about the old test chambers you're solving and gradually reveal the history of the company. The concept of hearing old tapes as you progress is a clever way to provide backstory without stopping the game dead in its tracks to do so. It makes progressing through the game narratively rewarding while retroactively making the first game more meaningful too.

Achievement unlocked: Killer storytelling.


It doesn't hurt that Cave Johnson is voiced by the always-awesome J.K. Simmons, and the jokes are just as good as with GLaDOS. Portal 2 also throws in another new character, Wheatley, voiced to excellent effect by Stephen Merchant. Across the board, the writing is witty and funny with great performances, down to the clever and catchy songs written by Jonathan Coulton that end the two games. Here they are, right after I hit you up to sign up for the blog.

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Portal - "Still Alive"

Portal 2 - "Want You Gone"

Featured image by Valve (Steam) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Portal illustration by derivative work: Pbroks13 (talk)Portal_physics.svg: User:Dammit (Edited version of Image:Portal physics.svg.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 nl], via Wikimedia Commons 

*For the sake of space, I'm ignoring the tie-ins to the Half-Life games since they're not critical to understanding Portal.