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.

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