The Clone, the Cube, and the Construct: Part 2

by Steve Bowler on April 14, 2008 · 48 comments

in critique,design

The lloooooooove cuuuuuube....

Every good story needs a love interest, and it should come as no surprise that Portal had one with some very comical overtones. The Weighted Companion Cube has captured the hearts of millions? hundreds of thousands that have played the game, myself included, and now can be purchased as lovable merch on t-shirts, or incredibly awesome plush toys.

I was surprised to see my face light up when I ran through course 17 when I took notes for this series the other night. I was just doing a speed run through the test course, listening to the audio calls as they were designed (I was having trouble remembering what was going on in-game listening to the raw sound files on their own), when I had this particular little epiphany. I can’t really think about the game any other way than what I wrote about in my first Portal piece, and I hadn’t played course 17 again since writing that. So what hit me was this:

The Weighted Companion Cube as a Love Proxy Device

Whoah, whoah, stay with me for a minute here, it’s not as outlandish as you think.

I mean, think about how much we all love that stupid little inanimate cube. It’s got pink hearts on it. How can you not love it? We’re all pretty much in agreement that as far as hard weighted cubes go, it’s pretty damn cuddly, right?

Well I got to thinking, GLaDOS certainly talks a lot about how fond she is of you, how you’ll be missed, and that you’ve broken her heart. She loves Chell (which I will go on about ad nauseum tomorrow) in some ways that only a Mother can, and I think she yearns for Chell to love her back. But how can she experience this? It’s a horrible relationship. One is a human-esque test subject a mile away, and one is a mechanical AI construct hanging from a ceiling viewing the other through video cameras.

One way would be to give Chell a device to love in GLaDOS’s stead. A proxy device, if you will. Much like parents will give children in isolation wards stuffed animals to hug instead of their parents, GLaDOS has sent Chell the Weighted Companion Cube.

I laughed at myself for thinking this, jokingly, when I started up course 17, and wasn’t even going to comment on the cube for this analysis. But then I got to the part where you were supposed to incinerate the cube, and I stood around and let GLaDOS go through all of her nags to prompt the player to burn the Cube. Some of them are…telling. Most of them are merely your garden variety nags. “Burn the cube or you can’t continue” type of fare. But two of them are different, and my jaw hit my table when I heard them, because they are the voice of a passive aggressive parent on their deathbed telling their child to go on and live life to the fullest without them:

The Companion Cube cannot continue through the testing. State and local statutory regulations prohibit it from simply remaining here alone and companionless. You must euthanize it.

My first thought was of GLaDOS, swinging from her perch, alone and companionless. At first I thought to myself “wow, this really backs up the theory that she wants the player to put her out of her misery.” But what if it’s more sinister than that? What if she’s just complying with state and local statutory regulations? She cannot be left in the facility alone and companionless. She knows that Chell will leave her if given a choice once she completes the testing, so Chell must be “convinced” that she needs to destroy GLaDOS. Now, I don’t really believe in this particular aspect of the theory (because who the hell made up that law???), but from a strictly logical law abiding AI frame of mind, it does make a very odd kind of sense. However, I instead think it is merely GLaDOS giving the player some foreshadowing of the coming events that she has planned out for her. You must destroy the Companion Cube just as you must destroy GLaDOS. She has given you a piece of her to love, and now you must also kill it.

The second line that pertains to the cube is even more chilling and parental in nature:

While it has been a faithful companion, your faithful Companion Cube cannot accompany you through the rest of the test. If it could talk, and the Enrichment Center takes this opportunity to remind you that it cannot, it would tell you to go on without it, because it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you.

If this isn’t the most charged parental passive aggressive line of foreshadowing in the game, I don’t know what is. GLaDOS just comes right out and says that she’d rather die in a fire than become a burden to you. It wouldn’t be an outstanding bit of literary foreshadowing if it didn’t actually happen at the end of the game. Just looking at the line at face value, it is obviously a form of projection on the part of GLaDOS. Of course the cube can’t talk, but GLaDOS can, and she is quite literally telling you what she thinks while pretending to be the voice of the cube.

It is interesting that she chose projection to show Chell what she wants Chell to do, as projection is rooted in denial, and part of my apprehension with exploring this narrative that I see when I play the game is rooted in the fact that at times it seems that GLaDOS is quite dedicated to the concept of killing Chell. While I still believe that GLaDOS wants to die (or be destroyed/freed from her confines in Aperture Science, whichever it may be), I began to wonder if GLaDOS herself had come to terms with this. It is as if her subconscious knows that she needs/wants to die, and has positioned Chell to make sure this happens, but her conscious mind cannot come to grips with it, and fights it.

Even if you knew you were going to re-appear somewhere else when you died, death in itself is scary. Even people committed to suicide are hesitant. Those on their deathbed staring death in the face are rarely ever without fear of the unknown. Is this why GLaDOS seems so polar in her responses leading up to and during the final battle? Does she know she needs to die and yet is reluctant to do so?

Hopefully I’ll have time tomorrow night to explore it further in the final installment.


kost April 15, 2008 at 3:47 am

I’ll start reading the post now, but first i must say that the WCC was introduced simply to make the player want to take the cube with him on the cube marathon level, nothing else..

But lets see what you have to say about it..

kost April 15, 2008 at 3:57 am

OR “it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you.” means that the devs dont want you to carry it around with you for the rest of the game.. (remember Ockham’s razor? “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.”? but maybe you are right and I’m completely wrong in all I say here..)

Poke April 15, 2008 at 6:34 am

This is a bit of a stretch. I think that the cube itself was a (brilliant) game mechanic provided to keep you attached to the otherwise standard box (in my opinion this is a joke made by Erik Wolpaw, the previously box-obsessed Old Man Murray).
The burning part, however, can be looked at more seriously. Simplest solution, as kost said, is that the cube is to be incinerated to allow the player to move forward, but it could also be forshadowing. But the whole love-proxy seems a bit overanalyzed to me. GlaDOS is still GlaDOS, and it doesn’t need to love or be loved. If anything, i’d say this part was to motivate Chell into killing her, as a sort of revenge.

If you ask my overall theory, the Portal story is a story of Chell clones which are put through the test chambers (this includes the “last chamber” part). Each Chell made it further than the last one, a bit like Alice from resident evil extinction. The notes (rat-man) are left by previous chells. Whenever a Chell dies (not unlike the player does in the game) GlaDOS creates a new one, modifies either her or the course (or both) and tries again until it achieves the goal (kill GlaDOS). The only thing needed to explain, in my opinion, is why can’t GlaDOS flat out kill herself but needs to work in such a roundabout way. I think you could investigate the function of each of GlaDOS’s cores to analyze her better. Just don’t start analyzing the cake recipe XD

Poke April 15, 2008 at 6:41 am

It just occured to me that GlaDOS did this because she has a coded-law that prevents her from killing herself, but if she does this in the form of an experiment, it wouldn’t count as the purpose as suicide but rather investigation. The Chells are nothing but an experiment, and she slowly learns how to lead Chell into killing her. Her main methods are the companion cube and the pit of fire, both meant to make the player want to kill GlaDOS (or at least do it as self-defense).

Gregory April 15, 2008 at 7:03 am

kost: The author is dead. It’s a concept often used in literary analysis and belabored by amateurs like me. The original intentions of the devs regarding WCC might have been utilitarian, but once incorporated into the greater story, it becomes more significant. We can’t read the minds of the devs; we don’t know if they later decided to make the WCC more significant in the story. All we can do is examine the resulting work and analyze it on its own terms.

Jake April 15, 2008 at 10:33 am

As far as the WCC goes. This is a big one, so bear with me. The big thing that GLaDOS tells you early in the Test is that
“The Weighted Companion Cube will never lie to and infact cannot speak. It must be noted that, in the event it does speak; disregard its advice.”

Then Later as you qouted above.
“While it has been a faithful companion, your faithful Companion Cube cannot accompany you through the rest of the test. If it could talk, and the Enrichment Center takes this opportunity to remind you that it cannot, it would tell you to go on without it, because it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you.”

We have to disregard its advice correct? So infact the WCC doesn’t want to be incinerated and does want to be rescued form the enrichment center. Assuming it could talk, anyway. Point being, we can’t assume that she is projecting herself onto the cube, because then we end up second guessting every thing she ever says with double – triple or more entendres.

I don’t think she wants to be loved by anyone. She has always sound to be to be a bit arrogant in regards to humans. I mean, just because you jump into a shark tank to kill yourself doesn’t mean you feel like you want the shark to love you. GLaDOS’s feeling is more like being angry that she would have to resort to the shark tank (Chell) to die. I see this as a two birds, one stone thing of tormenting something “beneath” GLaDOS and at the same time modivating it to hurt GLaDOS.

The only thing I can see the WCC is used for in GLaDOS’s tests is one thing: Emotional stress test. Its all over the level. All of the writing/drawings on the hidden alcoves are aimed in some fashion towards the Cube in a loving fashion. And the ones towards GLaDOS all tell of her stealing Love (the WCC) from them. And not to trust her. But I digress. There is the fact you are forced to hit your love (the WCC) with antimatter, Not something I would do to my love anyway.

Its a test designed simply to see how a person handles massive amounts of psychological torture.

Norm April 15, 2008 at 11:11 am

@Gregory: you’re certainly right regarding the “author being dead” but you’ve also got to have a sense of perspective. At some point you’re analyzing Caddy Shack.

Now, I’m not saying that Portal doesn’t have some neat bits of back story and artistic merit, but it’s very clear that the developers didn’t intend for much of that to happen. Portal is a dark comedy game, and GLaDOS’s lines are meant to be funny because of their deadpan delivery of ridiculous subjects. It’s less passive-aggressive and more ironic.

I was with the OP 100% on the first post in this Portal series – I thought it was a very clever observation that warranted prodding the devs to see what they thought. The subsequent posts, however, seem like trying to find spiritualism in a Monty Python sketch. There are myriad layers of subtlety in the comedy but don’t mistake them for something more serious in nature.

kost April 15, 2008 at 12:20 pm

“The subsequent posts, however, seem like trying to find spiritualism in a Monty Python sketch. ”

Epic.. thanks..

spitfire April 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Huh. And to think, Monty Python made no less than three movies about or related to the topic of Spirituality. Perhaps you’ve seen/heard of them?

I guess I’m in good company then.

Norm April 16, 2008 at 10:26 am

@Spitfire: absolutely, and my choice of Monty Python was intentional. “The Life of Brian” was a cutting satire that makes no bones about what it’s trying to say – it is clearly a comedy with a message about individuality and religion. The difference is that Portal wasn’t trying to say anything and the devs have made that pretty clear in their interviews.

I didn’t mean to be confrontational, but I really do think that you’ve taken your analysis past the point of relevancy. I could go with you if you stuck by the argument Gregory made, which is that “the author is dead” and what the devs intended to do is irrelevant in the face of the themes you can dig up in a work of art. That is to say, whether the Portal devs meant to convey these themes of suicide and freedom doesn’t matter because the piece can be interpreted in such a way that they’re apparent.

However, in part 3 you go back to talking about the devs’ intentions, and on this point I’ll stick by what I’ve said before: in numerous interviews Wolpaw and Swift have made it clear that there aren’t deeper themes there. What you interpret as heart-rending, revealing insights and lines I interpret as modern ironic dark-humor. GLaDOS’s lines are funny because of the juxtaposition of her words with reality, or her tone with her words, or things she just said a few minutes ago with what she’s saying now. You’re taking a comedic device and turning it into an artistic statement.

You’re entitled to your opinion on that but to belittle those of us who choose not to go with you on this point is silly.

Norm April 16, 2008 at 10:32 am

Addendum: I left out a part that makes my first paragraph confusing. I intended to mention that there’s a marked difference between “The Life of Brian” and the sorts of comedy sketches that Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran. One of these things was specifically created to be a satire with numerous elements that clearly indicate this fact. The other occasionally deals with subjects that could be construed as such but doesn’t go any deeper than irony and a comedic device.

One uses the comedy as a means to an end (Life of Brian) and the other uses it as the end itself (Flying Circus). Portal falls into the latter category.

spitfire April 16, 2008 at 10:52 am

Actually, re-read Part 3. I do say “intentional or no.” The devs made a conscious decision to make GLaDOS the tutorial. That doesn’t mean they intended to make her want to die. It means the narrative, accidental or intentional, dictates that she taught you how to kill her.

I am entirely comfortable with people disagreeing with this thesis on what I see when I play the game, and I have written it entirely from the standpoint of “the author is dead.” I’ve only analized the choices made making the game and available to the player during the game. I didn’t analyze any intentions that were not present in the actual game, so I’m still on mission. The introduction of elements not available in the game via post mortem interviews were made by others in the comments, never by myself.

And to be clear, I have not once belittled anyone’s opinion for not siding with this narrative analysis. I have said it is foolish to ask me to take the game at face value, because everyone does that when they open the box. Let’s look deeper, even if we might be wrong.

It’s the only way to advance the medium and art form.

Timmah April 17, 2008 at 2:54 am

It has been a while since ive played portal so correct me if I am wrong. But as I remember it killing the companion cube opened a door to the hallway strait to the elevator. Now every elevator had a force field of some sort that vaporized anything from the test chamber that wasnt Chell. Turrets, cameras, cubes, nothing made it through. So why kill the WWC just to open a door when the cube would of been vaporized before entering the elevator? Well certainly it teaches the player a game mechanic, red button opens the incinerator and you have a few seconds to send anything that will fit in the tube to its death before it closes.

Surely that is the most obvious reason, although for some reason I vividly remember being told to kill my companion cube for the first time. I remember opening that tube to cube hell and staring down into the pit of fire till the trap shut. I was hesitant to kill the only friend I had in that game, he helped me climb to where I couldn’t reach, he took bullets for me, deflected glowing death balls, and as an intimate team we toppled turrets and opened doors I could never open on my own. His name was Zono the platonic solid zonohedron. And I loved Zono the cube, we all did.

Eventually I dropped my cube in the lake of fire to continue on my course, but not before I held it close and promised him it would be alright. We all euthanized our trusty pals and gained access to the next level along with a way to defeat GLaDOS, but we all lost something in that incinerator, more than lifeless block, we lost a valuable asset both offensively and defensively. Without that cube we never would of made it through most of the mazes.

RIP Zono beloved accessory, friend, cube.

MemBrain01 May 17, 2008 at 11:48 am

Ok here it continues (See Part 1 comments for my initial statement).

“Of course the cube can’t talk, but GLaDOS can, and she is quite literally telling you what she thinks while pretending to be the voice of the cube.”

I didn’t agree with your course of describing that the cube is a love proxy to GLaDOS, until that sentence, which fixed your layout for me again. Let me dare to finish what you didn’t: I don’t believe the cube is a proxy to GLaDOS in such a way that it is meant to convey love between Chell and GLaDOS. It *is* similar to the final scene where GLaDOS is being incinerated, but chances are the final scene was developed after the level 17 existed, and they took the chance to use similar gameplay there too (for anyone concerned that i take a peek here at the meta-level of how Valve designed the game: Chris does that too).

GLaDOS is the voice for the cube, but she also said to *ignore* anything the cube says. It would be just another case of her typical split-minded behaviour which would be actually very funny! I didn’t see it like that until now, but you brought me there, thanks! (However i still don’t believe in your interpretation of the cube *seriously* being a *love* proxy to GLaDOS)

Syl May 29, 2008 at 2:45 am

Well I liked your essays even though I don’t agree with everything you say. It makes me think of the bigger picture of the game.

First I don’t think she wants to die, but a death wish wouldn’t be out of the question entirely. I think she really does want to do her job and enjoys it, but someone messed up. Maybe because the person who created the facilities was a crazy person himself. She seems more like a broken or corrupted program.

She filled up the facilities with deadly gas, but they corrected that by putting the morality eyeball device (I can’t remember the name) but I don’t think it took out the aggression she feels. Remember the eyeball device falls out. So that means it was already lose.

I’m not sure what happened to the people in the offices. I’m sure she didn’t just kill them all with the deadly gas, because they fixed her, more then likely they ran off. Leaving people in stasis because they were in too much of a hurry to come back for them or wake them up.

So they leave GLaDOS alone and after sometime she breaks down and starts to wake up people that are left as test subjects.

I don’t think the character doesn’t remember her past. I think she just doesn’t think about it or there is no mention about it. I think she was a person who signed up to be a test subject. Kind of like a human guine pig does. The clone idea is cool though. So maybe that could be true.

The messages I believe are from that rat man character that never was mentioned. Even if I hadn’t heard about that character I would have thought it was something like that. Someone living in the test center that figured out that someone else would be woken up some day and they could use the info if he or she never got out alive.

Anyway I can see why you’d think she wants to die, but I think she’s being horrible because she enjoys it, because she is broken. Those little eyeball devices are the key. One is her morality. Still intact but not attached properly. This is why she can kill them, but only in the test not out right until you throw the eyeball in the fire.

The next few are the cake recipe and the curiosity ball. I believe the cake recipe eyeball shows that she is corrupted. After all the sediment shaped sediment means nothing. Its just nonsense. The curious eyeball is what makes her want to test the subject. She’s just curious and bored.

The crazy murderous eyeball is the thing causing her to want to kill. Like an ID it just wants to do damage and hurt people. That’s why she wants to kill Chell. That part of her might have been put in there on purpose. It might have some kind of virus. Who knows a competing business could have corrupted her files secretly so they would get the contract with the military, but that’s just speculation.

So I think it just comes down to a very delicate instrument being thrown off balance or never being balanced to being with.

Her cute soft voice of comfort is much the same as the ATM machine and just as sincere. Maybe she was made that way so she’d put people at ease. Maybe she uses that tone of voice to throw the test subjects off so they don’t see her murderous intension right away, jump through the hoops and then they die. She’d get a kick out of that if she liked to hurt people. Getting their hopes up to pull the rug from under them.

She might also be suffering from multiple personality disorder that causes her to be nice and murderous at the same time. One part of her says be polite and kind and the other says hurt the person taking the test. Basically that would explain the eyeballs. All are different parts of her personality. Until you get to the last eyeball and she finally gets less psychotic and more pitiful and dies.

The last thing I can think of is that she just like to tourcher people period, and her kind loving ways are just a part of that. Its worse if the person who is abusing you is nice to you as well. Much more creepy and much more painful, because it confuses you. And when you try to get away or kill her then she gets scared because SHE doesn’t want to die. She just wants to hurt you until YOU are dead. That might be her only job actually. Maybe the person who made her was quite mad and like the idea of a psychopathic computer that tourchers human test subjects and kill most of the staff?

Anyway that’s what I think might be happening in the game. Wonderful site! Thanks!

Dozer June 5, 2008 at 5:58 pm

The dev commentary states that the WCC exists to get you through the puzzles on course 17, but players would ignore the Cube and try to run the course without it, and succeed. So they “made the AI talk about the Cube, a lot”. The result is that players “never let the Cube leave their side”.

The reason the Cube is incinerated is
a) to teach the player about incinerators
b) because it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you.

I’ve read all your posts about Portal’s subtext but I’ve become athesisistic – I don’t believe this is a valid thesis! I think the dialogue is purely humourous, sarcastic, an almost-afterthought which turned a tech demo into one of the greatest pieces of computer-based entertainment ever made. Valve seem to put a LOT of effort into very subtle things but I don’t believe backstory and literary symbolism are amongst them!

Endigo June 8, 2008 at 9:49 am

Everything… Everything makes sense! This is insane! Awesome thinking. Though I do have one thought. “The only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart…” Maybe.. her physical heart (or whatever a robot has.. it’s core maybe?) is actually.. the Companion Cube? You incinerate it and it’s covered in hearts… It would make a bit sense..

Wolfwood June 29, 2008 at 12:36 am

Actually. If you listen to developer comment 3/3 in test chamber 16, you will find they *did* put a lot into the creation of backstory.

So they do put more into it, though I don’t think people have been asking the right questions. They obviously knew people would get attatched to the Cube, thus why GLaDOS remarks that you have the quickest time on record.

What I would like to know is how many other companion cubes there are out there…^_^

Drasken July 16, 2008 at 3:59 pm

Whoah crazy thought gotta put this in. In the concluding fight with GlaDOS she mentions “SOMETHING” being outside in the world. She also states that she hopes you can construct super computer parts fast once she is gone. I wonder if we might have to make use the last “head” of GlaDOS as a companion cube for the further installments of Portal and maybe while lugging GlaDOS around she develops a relationship with GlaDOS and her learning to not want to kill you. Please be easy on me I didn’t want to forget this part.

On the article I think that maybe all the cubes were placed there in place or another person. Maybe in the original runs there were two people in the tests together helping one another. If that is true maybe one of the two escaped and during the process wrote on the walls after learning about the project whilst slinking around behind the walls. GlaDOS in return would probably be installed with a need to keep the Portal Gun inside the facility so she flooded the entire compound to stop the “companion” from escaping.

Drasken July 16, 2008 at 4:06 pm

And by flooding I meant with the gas. So they installed the morality module to protect the workers and added cubes to help Chell in lieu of another person. Also to keep another human mind from being present which would cause an undermining of the system that was not intended.This may explain the talk about the “rat-man” that wasn’t put into the game.

Tstek August 1, 2008 at 7:09 pm

The WCC was changed from a regular cube after play testing showed that people were likely to just leave the cube after it was useful the first time, as they had been doing up to that point. They needed a device to make the player want to keep the box for the entire test chamber.

The incineration at the end of the test chamber was merely a way to train the player for what they would have to do later, much like the first part of the game. in this case they needed the player to understand what the incinerator was, how to open it, and that they needed to throw parts of GlaDOS into it in a non threatening way.

Ryzanic August 4, 2008 at 9:22 pm


Why are you insulting my mother? You have such a filthy mouth! I cannot tolerate such rubbish!

brittany August 7, 2008 at 8:50 pm

to keep the capanion cube watch

Fluke October 6, 2008 at 9:32 am

Two things:

1) Originally, the WCC was just a normal cube, like any other, but playtesters kept leaving it behind. So, the WCC was born, so the player would carry it for the rest of the level. This is specifically stated in the in-level audio commentary.

2) GLaDOS lies. Nothing that the AI says throughout the course of Portal can be taken at face value, no matter how ‘telling’. GLaDOS does not feel like a mother figure for Chell: it is just trying to get the test subject to complete the damned course.

Fluke October 6, 2008 at 9:34 am

Oh, forgot to add: also in the audio commentary, it is revealed that the incineration of the cube was there pretty much to show the player how to beat GLaDOS later on.

Aaron December 27, 2008 at 12:34 pm

That cute little cuddly cube had to be one of my favorite in-game parts.

mendel January 3, 2009 at 1:42 am

The incinerat0r exists because GLaDOS needs to be killed. As a game mechanic device (take a cube to this point) it is underused and not necessary. Because this is a puzzle game sold to HalfLife players, there must be death at the end, and since we don’t have a gun, it needs another mechanic.

So yes, this incineration foreshadows GLaDOS death because it must, because the mechanics of the conclusion of the storyline must be taught in the tutorial, and if GLaDOS wasn’t meant to die, this part would be unnecessary.

However, since the cake is a lie, the heart probably is, too.

Mia January 10, 2009 at 5:43 pm

I almost feel sorry for GLaDOS because
something is terribly wrong with her and she can’t do anything about it.
It’s not like she WANTS to kill people. What she wants to do is her job, what she’s programmed to do, which is HELPING PEOPLE.
As far as I know, helping people and killing people are two complete opposites.

greyarea January 30, 2009 at 5:03 pm

GLaDOS wanted to die, but could not simply allow itself to be killed. There is interesting logic here – if it wanted to cease to exist, it could have severed its own power supply. No, I think it had some survival instinct, and was intelligent enough to know what ending meant and was afraid to end its own existence. Therefore it required someone to destroy it, and not simply by requesting to be shut down (as that is a fairly direct request for assisted suicide) but rather by goading someone into acting of their own volition against a murderous antagonist.

The lies, the glitches and the psychotic behaviour are reminiscent of HAL going insane by having conflicting commands and not being capable of remedying them.

AItorture February 12, 2009 at 6:09 pm

If you guys want to find everything out, just look up “Portal (game)” on Wikipedia! It’s not that hard! And it basically tells you on there that Chell IS NOT A CLONE!!!!
This annoying chain of theories must end here.

Monicro1 March 8, 2009 at 2:20 am

I almost entirely agree with what you’re saying, but about GLaDOS wanting to kill you, I believe that she’s in a battle with her anger core (which you kill at the end). Further proof of my theory is that during the fight, her lines get more and more sinister, as the anger core takes more control, since the cores wittle down to the anger. Once it’s dead, GLaDOS is no longer in an internal battle, as there’s no anger during Still Alive, just sarcasm and melencholy

Jeremy Gable March 16, 2009 at 11:57 am

First off, thank you for your numerous essays about “Portal”, as that game has refused to leave me since I first played it about six months ago. I have been obsessing over this game, which is seems very simple on the surface, but has an underlying amount of fear and sadness that has been unsettling me for some time.

Playing it again last night while thinking of your theory, I stood motionless at the end of Testchamber 17, looking at the Weighted Companion Cube, staring at the heart in the middle of the box. Yes, the heart is to separate it from the rest of the cubes according to the in-game commentary. And yes, the incinerator is a trick that is meant to teach you how to defeat GLaDOS later in the game.

However, there was a word that kept getting repeated as I was staring at the cube that I believe confirms your theory:


Not kill. Not murder. Euthanize. There had to be a reason for the use of that specific word. According to the definition from

“Also called mercy killing. the act of putting to death painlessly or allowing to die, as by withholding extreme medical measures, a person or animal suffering from an incurable, esp. a painful, disease or condition.”

This isn’t murder. This is a mercy killing. GLaDOS is implying that the Weighted Companion Cube no longer wants to live. This could be why the death of the Weighted Companion Cube has resonated so strongly with its players. Here is this simple object whose primary purposes seem to be to love and protect, and at the end, you have to put it to death for its own good. Anybody who has spent 15 years with a dog can certainly relate to such an experience.

GLaDOS is obviously pulling the strings, seeing as she is the one who delivers the Weighted Companion Cube. She has given you a puppy and then told you that you have to put it down. You receive a lesson about love and death – and how one relates to the other – in just one level. Rather complex stuff.

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that if GLaDOS is teaching you about killing something that you love, it’s for a reason. After all, GLaDOS is your first memory, the thing that taught you to progress, to think for yourself, to solve problems, to overcome obstacles, to survive.

So at the end, when this conflicted piece of machinery who is obviously dealing with several anger, abandonment, loneliness and rejection issues is breaking down, who better to pull the plug than the person closest to her, both literally and emotionally?

Maruno April 8, 2009 at 1:57 pm

I think people may be missing an alternative explanation of the phrase:

“While it has been a faithful companion, your faithful Companion Cube cannot accompany you through the rest of the test. If it could talk, and the Enrichment Center takes this opportunity to remind you that it cannot, it would tell you to go on without it, because it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you.”

Remember how the test section of the game ends? With Chell descending into a fire. Perhaps, by showing that the WCC (an object Chell has developed an affection for throughout the level, an affection that really only exists thanks to reverse psychology on the part of GLaDOS) is willing to be euthanised (again, mimed by GLaDOS rather than an actual opinion of the WCC), GLaDOS is showing Chell that sacrificing yourself once you’ve reached the end of your usefulness is a good thing. The WCC allegedly thinks so.

And then you get to the final test level, with Chell slowly descending into a fire. This is the end of Chell’s usefulness as a test subject, and she can do nothing more for the sake of science and testing the gun. And since GLaDOS killed the rest of the scientists in the facility before getting her Morality Core, there would be no way to let Chell out after the test was over. The only thing Chell could do is wait around in the test chambers until she died of thirst. It’s better to kill her swiftly (in the fire) to avoid the agony of a slow death, and to help convince Chell it’s a good choice for her to burn, the WCC is personified, seemingly solely for the purpose of demonstrating that death by fire is a noble sacrifice.

Remember that, from the start of the test (at least) until just after you encounter GLaDOS, GLaDOS has its Morality Core still installed (given that GLaDOS doesn’t start with the neurotoxin until the Morality Core is destroyed, I’ll assume that it still operates even if physically unconnected to GLaDOS – thus it HAS to be destroyed before GLaDOS can go on a killing spree). This means that, as Chell is descending into the fire, the Morality Core is still working, which SHOULD be telling GLaDOS “killing = bad”.

And that’s exactly why she encourages Chell to burn. It’s the lesser of two evils – a quick fiery death over a slow thirsty death. There’s no other option GLaDOS knows of (although it turns out there’s a way for Chell to reach GLaDOS), so according to GLaDOS the only thing that awaits Chell is entrapment, with no hope of escape. Since death is the only possibility (as far as it knows), it’s better to suffer for a few seconds than a few days.

The rest of the game (particularly everything after the testing) would imply GLaDOS actually IS out to kill Chell, although that could (possibly) be interpreted as GLaDOS still trying to give Chell a quick and easy death instead of an inevitable slow thirsty one. Hence the ambushes and the “lie down and wait for the party to find you” – if they won’t kill Chell quickly, at least it’ll give GLaDOS time to analyse the situation and come up with a way to kill her in her current location.

Because if you think about it, there’s no real reason for Chell to emerge in the car park at the end. How does she get there? Fluke. GLaDOS couldn’t know that Chell might possibly be able to get outside; otherwise she might have done things differently.

Of course, this all assumes there’s some big hidden meaning to the game in the first place. I’m still unconvinced that’s the case, and prefer to believe the limitations of the game format (i.e. people not realising to carry the WCC with them all the time unless it got special attention, introducing the incinerator just so you learnt what it did and how it worked, etc.).

JustAnotherPortalNerd June 6, 2009 at 12:00 pm

while reading this article (i enjoyed the previous ones, but i think you get to…fabricating here. i dont really think the developers of the story were really thinking that far), a question jumped to my mind: GLaDOS wants you to euthanize the Companion Cube. in Chamber 01, GLaDOS is introducing the Vaporization Grid to the player which will “vaporize any unauthorized equipment that passes through it – for instance, the AS WS Cube”. Later, there are several occasions where you are able to put a cube through the grids – it will vaporize. since theres a grid at the end of TC17, after the euthanasation of the CC, too, and since the CC is just a normal AS WS Cube with hearts printed on it (sorry, but it is…i cant understand the whole CC hype ;]), im pretty sure it would get vaporied while passing through the grid, too – playing around with the console could confirm this. long buildup, short question: why does the cube has to be euthanized using the incinerator? why doesnt GLaDOS just let chell try to take the cube with her to the next chamber, making a sarcastic comment on the vaporization of the cube? i know they put the incinerator there to give the player a hint how to hurt GLaDOS, but if you think about it without considering informations about the development of the game, that means that GLaDOS wants you to know how to work the incinerator – confirming theories about shes wanting you to kill her? about driving into a fire pit means sacrificing oneself after getting un-useful (hey maruno ;])? your choice ;) it just came to my mind, why use an incinerator when theres already a grid?

jackie June 10, 2009 at 6:44 am

OK first of all I must admit I thoruoughly enjoyed the “GLaDOS wants to be free” post as well as the accompanying picture.

However this latest series of articles grows alarmingly ridicilous, especially since designers of Portal are so open with background information. It seems you grew into a habit of postulating a weird theory and then you try your hardest to find ANY shred of evidence of it, selectively ignoring all the other much more apparent stuff that nullifies it. Your choice of ignoring the Ratman blatantly shows this – even though the designers openly told that writings were made by him (regardless of him not being physically featured in the game), you disregard it because it doesn’t support your clone/android theory. Also – the WCC “story” grew out of gameplay necessity, not the other way around.

I feel bad because I really thought this series of posts would be intriguing. But now it seems that the next one could very well be “Chell is actually captain Picard and the entire thing is a broken-Holodeck Star Trek episode” with some rock-solid arguments why this is the case (the colour scheme of the levels is exactly the same as Enterprise’s).

spitfire June 10, 2009 at 9:42 am

You’re absolutely right, Jackie. In fact, if Valve says that Chell really was GlaDos and she went back in time to kill herself, we should absolutely consider it, despite the fact that it’s not in the game at all.

Ratman doesn’t exist. He never signed his work on the wall, so we’re free to speculate who wrote on the wall. Honestly, you think Chell as Picard is ridiculous, but evidently if Valve said “we wanted to make Chell Captain Picard” you’d swallow it as truth.

No matter what Valve said they wanted to do, we can only consider what Valve did or did not do. Ratman is not in the game. He doesn’t exist until they provide evidence in game or in literature/product that he existss. Saying they wanted to do something doesn’t mean they did.

BlackWolfe July 20, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Word of God has it as follows: The incineration of the Weighted Companion Cube is provided as a game mechanic to train players to use the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator so that they know what to do on the last level. Plus it’s funny.

However, if you run with the theory that GLaDOS is setting Chell up to destroy her at the end of the game, this explanation also supports that.

Shian December 16, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Sorry to bring up such an old article, but I was very intrigued at your approach.

To me, this theory explains the game much more. I think it ties up many of the loose ends, and makes the game more complete to me. When I first played the game, I felt a strong emotion that GLaDOS has a certain love for Chell, if twisted. This theory clears up much of my own ideas. Thank you.

The most beautiful thing about arts of literature, such as Portal is the Death of the Author. Once Valve released the game, whether they meant it or not, it is out there, and the parts they explain is simply their own perspective. That’s what art is, I believe — the ability to be taken in a different way, having different impact on each individual that encounters it. Whether Valve meant it or not, the fact that you’ve found an explanation and the different themes the games explore should be celebrated.

Maybe Portal itself was posed much like GLaDOS herself, waiting for a player to finish the game and see past the simple first-person puzzle aspect of it, and try to fit the pieces of the story together, to make sense of it by themselves. I appreciate your effort to further your own understandings of the game, even as other people may object and even attack your viewpoint. Please continue to develop such insightful views on video games.


ada January 6, 2010 at 1:25 pm

I agree with the love proxy Idea. And yes it does teach mechanics for the game, but I prefer to find meaning in things. Even if the creators didn’t intend for the game to be taken beyond face value, it is human nature to find meaning in the things we hold dear and in the things we loath. Game are more then little discs to take up our time, they have developed into stories with plots that exceed the common quality of movies that are produced today. So perhaps the game, and GLaDOS are nothing more than another little story about getting from point A to point B. I would rather think of GLaDOS as a character, as in a book, and take her and the game to a higher level. I love all of your insights, and have been playing over and over. I am a writer and to me, this game is a masterpiece. Look at all of these people that agree and disagree! To get such a reaction and then to call the game nothing more then “a game” is a slap in the face to all of those who created it. Perhaps they didn’t want it to be more than it is, I would be more excited if that where the case. All of this is a testament to the power of human insight and our impulse to find more then tip of the ice burg.
I hope another Portal will be made.

TheUnkow January 15, 2010 at 1:16 pm

The fact GLaDOS says you destroyed the companion cube in the fastest time than any subject on record may just be a way to encourage you destroying stuff from the company.

Makes you think you are more emotionless than the other test subjets even if you aren’t, you get distracted by the pleasure of having the best time.

Another manipulative tool of GLaDOS.

ZSchrink January 22, 2010 at 8:25 am

As to the second comment by Kost:”" OR “it would rather die in a fire than become a burden to you.” means that the devs dont want you to carry it around with you for the rest of the game..”"

If that were true, couldn’t the developers just solve it like they do in ALL the other puzzles, by using the screen that destroys anything and everything before the elevator? They put in killing the cube for a reason…

I had more thoughts, but I have since forgot them, if I remember them, I’ll post back! XD

Jessica April 11, 2010 at 5:26 pm

I finished playing Portal again a few minutes ago to listen to the commentary. I like how your blog entry makes me think. :D

As I played the game, I felt that GLaDOS continues testing (despite how Aperture Science employees are no longer around to monitor and fix things) because that’s what she was made for. She has no “OFF ” button, and nothing to do in her spare time, so she continues doing what she was created for, her purpose in life: experimenting the test subjects. Afterall, her curiousity core was made so that she’d want to test things. I don’t think she has an ulterior motive for this, such as wanting to die.

I’d also like to mention something that people said in the previous comments: Obviously I wouldn’t know this from proper experiance, but I’m preeeetty sure that burning to death is NOT a quick and painless way to die. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s right up there on the list of “one of the most painful ways to die”, as you most likely feel your flesh and muscles burn off until you are reduced to nothing.

I’m also very certain that Aperture Science was crazy enough to think of that as a way to get rid of their science experiments after evaluating their preformance. Despite the morality core put in GLaDOS, I’m sure she thought it as normal enough too. As normal as the Reverse-Heimlich Project and the Take-A-Wish Project, which caused many deaths.

Carsen October 3, 2010 at 7:19 pm

What if it was in GLaDOs’ programming that made her kill herself

CommanderSwede December 31, 2010 at 10:40 pm

I find it simply amazing how all this can be packed into a game that gives the first impression “whats the point of this?” to most players
oh, and carsen: No.

CommanderSwede December 31, 2010 at 10:55 pm

yea and i feel the companion cube is an embodiment of GlaDOS, which she also uses to hint us that shes lying when she says to disreguard the companion cube’s advice. also, i swear if you die and reload at the part where shes saying that the companion cube cannot speak, she talks over to herself, the othervoice saying “can speak” after the first says “the companion cube”

CommanderSwede December 31, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Ok, i played through the level and have more to add. But first, GLaDOS seeming to want to kill Chell could have nothing to do with the story and really just be something that makes the game enjoyable – if she just gave you the key to her room and an rpg and said “Come get me,” that wouldnt be a fun game, would it? anyway, heres a few more points to ponder:
-When seemingly talking about your sanity, she hints to the fact of how she is lying and how this is all just to get you to kill her. She says “if in the event the cube does talk to you, Aperature Science urges you to disreguard its advice” and if the Companion Cube is GLaDOS, and shes up there givin’ us advice…you can see where im going with this :)
-also i totally agree uthanising the companion cube was a test/forshadowing of what you have to do to GLaDOS – burn her in a fire. if your willing to do it with your faithful companion cube, you can do it to a mad, homicidal robot who has a matrial attraction to you.
-Also she says “it seems that the companion cube has certainly brought you good luck!” both as humour in the stock use of “good luck,” now with an unfitting emotion put in it, it also shows how cheerful GLaDOS is in seeing how much of an attraction you had to a projection of herself – maybe there is a chance for a healthy mother-daughter relationship, eh?(not really but you see where im going.)
-The companion cube also is a projection of GLaDOS in how it helps you along the level, as does GLaDOS, even though shes testing you and at times trying to kill you
-She talks all sad in the way you have to kill the companion cube, for multiple reasons that i can see:
1) its the first thing that showed you can have even a spark of love for GLaDOS
2)Shes sad to make you have to do this, and what it ultimately means in her timeline
3) shes sorry to put this BURDEN on your heart(as evident in her talking for the cube, she doesnt want to be a burden)
-Also, she says in a tone that she doesn’t seem to believe herself that it was deemed the companion cube cannot feel pain, she says this to ease the burden, but also, it shows how people think that GLaDOS could not get lonely or begin to hate her job, which of course she does
-Shes trying to convince you, or, moreover, herself, that this incineration is for the best, because, seeing how close you are coming to killing her, she begins to get frightened, so shes trying to convince herself that you incinerating her is for the best
-Also, her comment about you incinerating more quickly then any other test subject – a rather important line you failed to go over here. Not only at this point does she realise you wont hesitate to kill her, but also she begins to worry about how your do it cruely, and she begins to fear a fiery death by the hands of the one whom she loved and saved.
-Also, your notice, near the button, and i believe also on top of the incinerator, there are two more cameras – these, however, do not follow your movements, as she doesnt want to bear witness to the deed you are about to preform, or how mercilessly you may do the same to her. I also think these cameras prove that this is what the development team was going for – why randomly have non-moving cameras if this wasn’t a key and emotional moment?
-Finally, and this is really just food for thought, and has nothing to do with anything, but the companion cube can also be interperated as a reperesentation of Chell, merely a pawn to be incinerated at the end of the testing process.
I hope someone will give this a nice read :)

Ronin Tetsuro March 18, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Great theory/piece. I’ve been reading all of your work here, and I’ve had to stop myself three separate times from reinstalling Portal and dedicating the rest of me evening to it.

As to your question at the end of this piece, here’s something to consider:

You mentioned that in “Still Alive”, GlaDOS hints that her now-active backup may indeed be at Black Mesa or under Black Mesa’s control. If this is true, there’s a chance GlaDOS has knowledge of her backup location before you kill her Aperture Science “body”. Knowing this, and taking into account what we know about Black Mesa from other Valve games, could it simply be that GlaDOS knows that in order for Chell to kill GlaDOS’ next-of-kin, she will be up against more formidable adversaries than the turrets and environmental hazards at AS?

If we are to follow the parental line of reasoning, then wouldn’t it apply the GlaDOS is preparing her child for the challenges ahead once she’s gone? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that if GlaDOS is indeed alive at Black Mesa, she could have LESS control over the facility than at AS? Or that she hasn’t yet gained enough control to eliminate the human factor, and as such is preparing Chell, a military grade android, with training to overcome the human variable/threat so that she can destroy the GlaDOS backups?

Just thoughts provoked my the amazing analysis of this game. I’ll be sad when I finish the third and final part. And I’ll probably ignore things I should be doing to reinstall.

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