The Clone, the Cube, and the Construct: Part 1

by Steve Bowler on April 13, 2008 · 105 comments

in casual,critique,multiplayer,nitpicking,uncategorized

Okay, so this clone, a cube, and a construct walk into a bar...

Thanks to all of the great comments in the previous threads, I decided that I wanted to do one more final analysis of the entirety of Portal after the previous two articles, mainly so that I could either convince myself one way or the other regarding my theory on why GLaDOS tortures Chell (and therefore the player) into wanting to kill her at the end of the game. What I was looking for was some concrete evidence; something that could not be hamstrung by differences of opinion.

I thought I had my answer when I realized that GLaDOS could open and close portals at will, as she does in the first couple of levels of the game. This, it would seem, was the lynch pin of the argument that she could have killed Chell at any time she chose, but then when I went to go grab screenshots of it, I realized that GLaDOS could only create portals where an in-wall portal device was located (the walls are marked with protrusions on either side of where a portal will appear).

So while I am still left with the problem of how GLaDOS removed the dead bodies of previous test candidates (and presumably the previous inhabitants of the Aperture Science Labs), I did stumble across what I think was the intended narrative of the short Portal story. It quite literally is a tale of The Clone, the Cube, and the Construct. It’s a story about a woman, enslaved, and her attempt to break free by proxy. It’s a long ride, so curl up with a blanket while I attempt to unravel the big picture in three parts. Today, it’s all about:

Chell, the Android Clone

We begin the game with no clues as to who we are. We emerge from a cocoon-like device only to find out we are in a glass cage of a room with no doors. As a gamer we identify with this “blank slate” by projecting our own thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors onto the protagonist, but we need to attempt to look at what Valve was telling us about the protagonist herself in this situation.

  1. We were in some sort of hibernation state. This suggests we were previously “stored” somewhere.
  2. We are not trusted enough to be allowed freedom without limits.
  3. We have no idea who or what we are.

These things lead me to believe in the clone theory: that Chell (our female protagonist) is actually a clone. Besides the implications of the meanings behind Chell (namely that it is another term for a sheep), we learn throughout the game that she is certainly not human. She is, in fact, an android (GLaDOS indirectly tells us as such later), and has been modified with bionic jump boot implants. While Chell was probably the daughter of founder Cave Johnson at one point, it does not appear that she is that exact individual any longer.

We are almost immediately informed as to what we are there to do, by the voice of the Antagonist, who we later find is named GLaDOS, the sentient AI who is here to run what we are led to initially believe is a series of tests regarding portals and our use and understanding of them. However, GLaDOS immediately slips up and gives us our first “clone” clue in her opening line to Chell:

Hello, and again, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer Aided Enrichment Center.

On the surface, this line seems harmless enough. The line is there to trick the first time player into thinking that they are just another test subject in this neat little puzzle game. However, GLaDOS says “and again.” This implies that she has greeted Chell in some manner before her/our first awakened moment. The only way this is even possible is if Chell’s memory has been wiped or if there were previous versions of Chell.

Later, in the 2nd test chamber, GLaDOS says to us

Remember, Take Your Daughter ot Work Day is the perfect time to have her tested.

Tested for what? Some people have speculated, I think incorrectly, that it was currently Take Your Daughter to Work Day, and that Chell is just someone’s daughter volunteering running the course. Anyone who has gotten 3/4 of the way through the levels could tell you this obviously is not the case. However, I believe that GLaDOS is revealing a bit of a secret here, and that is that she now views Chell in a maternal sense. Everyday is “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” for GLaDOS and Chell. GLaDOS believes herself to be Chell’s mother, if she is not in fact Chell’s creator, as I will attempt to explain later.

At two points in the story, GLaDOS refers to Chell’s performance with a form response. It is missing two key points of data when said aloud to the player: “SUBJECT NAME HERE,” and “SUBJECT HOME TOWN HERE.” While being an excellent (if not hilarious) game-ism in that it avoids attempting to tell the player what town their character is from (and therefore does not break the illusion that the player is the avatar), it possibly tells us something more about Chell. It is entirely possible that GLaDOS did not make an error when reporting the line as heard. If Chell is indeed a clone, it means she does not have a “home town.” While she does seem to have a name, it is also possible that Chell was Cave Johnson’s daughter’s name, and the Chell we are playing as may no longer have any memory of that name. She could just be the genetic inheritor of Chell, not Chell in name, and therefore would not need to be addressed as Chell by GLaDOS.

Additionally, if Chell is indeed “from” the Aperture Science Labs, it makes a logical fallacy out of the statement:

The device is now more valuable than the organs and combined incomes of SUBJECT HOME TOWN HERE.

Because if Chell’s “hometown” is ASL, the portal gun could not be more valuable than the individuals who made it. Not only does Chell not really have a hometown, it is far easier to just leave the line blank rather than fill it in and make the statement false. Additionally, GLaDOS probably doesn’t want to tell Chell that she is a clone (the testing data is no doubt hampered by world-wrending truths), and therefore would not show her hand by giving this information away in a congratulatory statement.

Another line from GLaDOS which, while hilarious on the surface, clues the player in to Chell’s cloned nature is the line

Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!

Again, while hilarious, there seems to be a clue here, and that is that GLaDOS is more concerned about the performance evaluation than you dying. She is letting you know that you should already know how to beat this section of the course, and if you fail, will mark it as an error on your testing record. Death seems to be of little, if not lesser, consequence. Probably because she will simply reactivate another clone of Chell and download the latest brainscan of Chell’s last run through the course.

Further evidence of Chell being a clone can be found when the player discovers all of the little hide-outs that previous testing candidates have left behind:

  • The handwriting is always the same.
  • The hash marks on the walls are 90-100 days long. It is unlikely that multiple people were allowed to stay in the testing environment that long while people still inhabited the ASL.
  • The name and password login written on one of the walls is: cjohnson. The odds of someone other than Chell running this course previously and knowing Cave Johnson’s name and password is astronomically small. More to the point, this is probably not Cave Johnson’s name and password, as previously thought, but the original Chell Johnson’s name and password, from an earlier clone iteration who could remember who she was.

One could counter-argue that it’s “just a game” and that the handwriting on the wall is just an artist throwing the same textures up on multiple hide-out hole walls, but that would be over simplifying what was displayed on those walls. The fact that the login written on the wall actually works on the Aperture Science homepage tells me that those words were carefully crafted and thought out.

Now, remember when I said I would attempt to prove that Chell is an android now? I think GLaDOS tells us indirectly during testing chamber 16.

Due to mandatory scheduled maintenance, the appropriate chamber for this testing sequence is currently unavailable. It has been replaced with a live fire course designed for military androids. The Enrichment Center apologizes for the inconvenience and wishes you the best of luck.

Again, on the surface, the player has a laugh at this and thinks “oh that wacky AI making these crazy mistakes!” When in reality, she has just hidden a larger truth: You are a military grade android. This course has been designed to test the latest and greatest version of you, Chell, who has by this iteration been upgraded to the status of a military android. You have jump springs growing out of the back of your legs with some kind of bionic attachment joint holding them in place. You can handle a radioactive portal gun with no ill side effects, and you don’t need shoes, for crying out loud. Raise your hand if you’re a human and would even think of running that course without shoes. Normally I’d rest my case on such granite-solid logic, but fortunately GLaDOS backs me up with another line once you finish the course:

Well done, android. The Enrichment Center reminds you that android hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.

The line is intended to throw players off and make them think that GLaDOS has made a critical error and is giving you the android line for when androids complete the course, but in reality, she has delivered the proper line for when an android completes the course, meaning you.

Furthermore, it is one of the first signs of foreshadowing that GLaDOS is threatening to kill the player. On the surface, it is an idle threat. But if we explore her motivations for doing so, we can see that it is merely a pawn in the greater game of getting Chell to destroy GLaDOS.

I’ll talk about that a bit more later. This piece has been running super long and I’m going to break it up into three parts. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how I think I’ve figured out the meaning behind the Weighted Companion Cube.

And you thought it was just a silly old cube!