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Portal: The Cake is a Transmedia Storytelling Device

GLaDOS, the main villain of Portal and Portal 2

GLaDOS, the main villain of Portal and Portal 2

Portal and its sequel Portal 2 are among the most revered and influential titles in modern gaming and they are almost unanimously considered two of the best games of all time. The Portal series game play consists of using a special gun that creates two linking portals to solve several logic and physics based puzzles.

Along with its unique game play, Portal also stands out for its clever storytelling. Along with the story occurring on screen, Valve (the company that created the series) took special care to create a subplot that extends far beyond the physical game in the form of transmedia storytelling. In this way, Portal can be considered an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which is a type of game that delivers a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions in the real world.

The first example of transmedia storytelling appears in the form of worldbuilding. Henry Jenkins describes worldbuilding as “…complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories…” (“Transmedia Storytelling 101”) and this can be seen by the use of Easter eggs (a hidden reference) in their other critically acclaimed series Half LifeBelow is a screen shot from the game Half Life 2 that clearly shows the logo of Aperture Science, the name of the fictional testing facility in the Portal series.

Reference to Portal in Half Life 2

Reference to Portal in Half Life 2

This is supposed to imply that Half Life and Portal take place in the same universe which connects all of the characters and politics from both games. This is abundantly proven in the Portal series with Easter eggs that show Aperture Science and Black Mesa (the testing facility in Half Life) as competitors looking to create and perfect an invention that could revolutionize the world. It should also be noted that Portal originally came packaged as a bonus game to Half Life 2 in the collection disc called The Orange Box

Gravity Gun (left, from Half Life) and Portal Gun (right, from Portal)

The ending song of Portal contains a Black Mesa reference at around the 2:05 mark 

For the next example of transmedia storytelling, Portal uses what’s called negative capability to create a mysterious subplot that is never actively addressed in the series. Negative capability, as described by Janet Murray, is a technique used to create gaps in the narrative that requires more information than presented to understand the full story (Hamlet on the Holodeck). Portal cleverly conveys this by introducing the character Doug Rattmann, a former employee of Aperture Science that escaped being killed by the main antagonist GLaDOS. When exploring a few test chambers, it’s possible to accidentally stumble into a Rat Man room. There is no mention of these rooms anywhere in the main plot, however it makes the player wonder what these creepy rooms could mean.

Rat Man room containing cryptic messages and warnings

An example of a Rat Man room containing cryptic messages and warnings

Perhaps the most famous and referenced phrase from the Portal series is “the cake is a lie,” which can be found in one of these mysterious Rat Man rooms warning the player of the plot twist at the end of the first game. As stated before, the series never addressed the presence of these rooms until Valve released a webcomic in 2011 called Portal 2: Lab Rat” on their website that finally explained the connection of this mysterious person Doug Rattmann and Chell, the silent protagonist of the series. If a player were to never stumble into one of these rooms, they would not have researched what these rooms meant and understood the separate subplot.

The Portal series, and Valve in general, is a behemoth when it comes to the amount of transmedia storytelling they offer. Using both worldbuilding and negative capability to achieve an extended interest in the plot of the game is why Portal and Portal 2 stand out among the expansive selection of video games. If you are interested in finding out more of the series’ secrets and transmedia storytelling, check out this article.

Sources:

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 2007. Web.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York City: The Free Press, A Division of Simon and Schuster Inc., 1997. Print.