Portal continues Valve’s legacy for creating rich, involving video games; the in-game commentary shows the work that went into presenting the narrative’s clear sense of minimalism. What is stated in-game and what is interpreted by the player is a carefully choreographed margin, with this in mind these are some of my thoughts regarding the science of Aperture. Major spoilers follow.

A black handprint leads Chell behind the scenes.
Portal was created by Valve in 2007, originally for the Orange box, and details the side-events of Aperture Science taking place between Half Life 1 and 2.
The innards of Aperture Science

The foundation of Aperture Science’s output prior to the creation of GLaDOS, was largely insignificant, their mantra essentially being that something should be done because it can be – negating any practical value of the product. Before the creation of their two most profound discoveries Aperture largely focussed on inane, redundant inventions (1) before creating the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (ASHPD) and GLaDOS herself.

This dependancy on misdirection continues well into the activation of GLaDOS, and could well be the reason for her eccentricity. In what would be in any other setting a prison cell becomes the “relaxation vault” and the lab, becomes the “Enrichment Center”.

“Some kind of rip in the fabric of space… That would… Well, it’d be like, I don’t know, something that would help with the shower curtains I guess..” – Cave Johnson (2)

Scribble on the wall of testchamber 17.
The vast majority of the game is spent getting used to the radical game mechanic, based on the portal system of Narbacular Drop. This forms the basis of the games testchambers, a series of tests training the player in Portal use.

Aperture was essentially founded on a principle of uselessness, so it interesting then that the defunct laboratory reflects this idea in the course of the game. While Chell has to find her way through the clinical surroundings of the test chambers, the decaying innards of Aperture become more and more visible. First through the constantly uninhabited observations rooms, then then, perhaps more chillingly, in the rusting mess of abandoned offices and stairways hidden just beyond reach behind thick, white walls.

“Has anybody left the building lately? I don’t know why we’re in lockdown. I don’t know who’s in charge.” – Unknown Aperture Employee (3)

These brief glimpses behind the scenes help the player to realise the danger of the sociopathic computer who monitors their progress, the result of an overambitious research and development department creating designs above and beyond requirements, and at times bordering on the absurd.

This is because the entire company focuses on madcap science, the crazy ideas that might just work, the inventions and ideas that invite ridicule, but just occasionally stumble on something truly remarkable by complete chance.

GLaDOS's screen shows a piece of cake.
The scenes with GLaDOS are darker and sinister, but the rest of the game has a clinical feel mixed with black humour as you start to navigate the ingenious puzzles.
GLaDOS’s instability and emotional impact

Originally designed built to regulate fuel temperature (4), and then repurposed for their master plan to rival Black Mesa. GLaDOS is the primary example of the overreaching ambition of Aperture’s founder Cave Johnson. If th company history is to be believed their entire business plan for the future required the support of an AI, the requirement for which was so great, this machine was turned on without being fully tested.

Portal’s narrative relies on the uncertainty created by GLaDOS’s lack of cohesion with her creators, this is perpetuated by the fact that she is capable of mimicking emotion and seems intent on maintaining an emotional barrier between Chell and herself. This makes her deliberate mistreatment of the protagonist easier, an abuse perpetuated by her cold, but deliberate directions.

“For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.” – GLaDOS

This becomes quite obvious when GLaDOS begins to move away from her regimented responses and towards the murk of her own independent conclusions. The contents of the now deserted Enrichment centre, whatever their original purpose, is now redirected to fuel her own morbid sense of curiosity.

GLaDOS's arm extends to put the candle out on the cake.
The importance of the numerous cake references will not become completely clear until the final testchamber, this is when the game moves from being humourous and enjoyable to emotive and engaging.

The results of this are shown in the clues left behind by the one other previous survivor (5) supporting Chell with his hastily scribbled clues until the confrontation in the large turret room. This survivor forms part of GLaDOS’s carrot and stick approach to Chell’s progress through the Enrichment center, mainly through her appearance as friendly, approachable company (which largely fails), GLaDOS for all intents and purposes is making the stick out of carrot.

“Cake and Grief Counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test. Thank you for helping us help you help us all.” – GLaDOS

The mania at the heart of Aperture’s principles seems to provide some explanation for GLaDOS’s need to continue running redundant tests using the ASHPD. In the ethic of her creators she has reached an independent decision to continue to play with the Enrichment center’s last survivor simply because she can, her ability to manipulate her surroundings becomes her sole motivation. But it becomes clear that by the end of the game her authority is directly challenged by Chell, who takes offence to this new machine-led hierarchy.

Good, old fashioned cynicism
A view of Chell through the Portal.
Unlike the other Half Life games, the primary focus is not solely on the protagonist. But in likeness to Gordon Freeman our impression of her is formed by her surroundings and company.

Chell uses silence and intrigue to outwit the AI in her own territory, firstly by methodically completing the tasks in the format and then using that knowledge to abandon GLaDOS’s tenure. Whatever her origin, it is clear that Chell needs to escape the Enrichment center, and her need for doing so is greater than allowing the dialogue of GLaDOS to stay her hand.

“It says so right here in your personnel file; Unlikable. Liked by no one. A bitter unlikable loner whose passing shall not be mourned.” – GLaDOS

GLaDOS sticks to the Aperture mantra deliberately torturing her last plaything with what she believes to be the hopelessness of her situation. This is apparent from the games onset, the careful gaps in dialogue to ensure most dangerous details (and therefore the most helpful) are avoided, and then a vast over-consumption of facts towards the end of the game, trying anything that will stick to dissuade the heroine – the danger of the outside world, the threat of violence, gentle pleading, guilt and ferociousness included.

“You’re not a good person, you know that, right? Good people don’t end up here.” – GLaDOS

This Aperture science test report is marked as failed.
I particularly enjoyed sifting through the contents of the abandoned offices after catching glimpses of them through tiny panes of observation glass.

And this is why Chell can destroy the companion cube quite easily – not because it is a so-called requirement to proceed, but because this bond to the block was not conceived by her mind, but conditioned by GLaDOS’s continued assertion over her. GLaDOS presents “facts” but as they are on her terms, they can also be entirely ignored. As we the players begin to to empathize for the objects and machinery present in the game Chell gradually pushes onwards, ignoring the frequent emotional pull of the machines and AI – and in this way both women become a source of mystery, sternly rooted on their appropriate sides of the argument.

“I figured out what that thing you just incinerated did. It was a Morality Core they installed after I flooded the enrichment center with a deadly neurotoxin to make me stop flooding the enrichment center with a deadly neurotoxin.” – GLaDOS

Chell’s ability to routinely pick apart, scavenge and destroy the contents of the Enrichment center makes the final confrontation with GLaDOS easier to digest. The strength of human ingenuity and instinct prevails, over a genuinely charming, but deeply dangerous artificial intelligence.


(1) According to the company history. To access to go Aperture Science type “login” username:cjohnson / password:tier3. Then type “notes” on GLaDOS’s command line. Back to text

(2) The founder of Aperture Science. His GLaDOS login details are scribbled on the wall in Testchamber 17. Back to text

(3) Login into Aperture Science website using the details from footnote 1, then type “thecakeisalie” to read this in full. Back to text

(4) In-game powerpoint presentations play on loop in the abandoned meeting rooms. One in particular mentions the brief for a fuel system icing inhibitor that Aperture pitched against Black Mesa for and failed. They decided to make it anyway, and in true Aperture fashion added on extra bells and whistles without testing. GLaDOS was born. Back to text

(5) Revealed in the game commentary to be an extra character known as Ratman. Who also survived the testchambers. His den in testchamber 17 marks his gradual mental decline. Back to text