Michael Burden

Michael Burden (BSc, MA) finished his thesis on the cultural impact of algorithms in video games and web sites while writing this paper. He has previously worked for two video game companies (the defunct Igamol, and Ubisoft), as well as authoring video games for research, and is now performing analytics at BioWare. His one-year-old son is already trying to join his video game sessions.


Sean Gouglas

Sean Gouglas (PhD) is Director of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta and an Associate Professor in Humanities Computing. He is also a theme leader for Canada’s Graphics, Animation and New Media NCE. His research focuses on universities and the game industry, as well as women in gaming. He is amused at the irony that his co-author is now analyzing metrics for a large company.


The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

by Michael Burden, Sean Gouglas


The videogame Portal is an algorithmic exploration of human struggle against algorithmic processes that have superseded their original intended purpose. The game explores the search for freedom from such computational processes. The freedom presumed in the portal gun - which allows access where there was none - is circumscribed by creating pathways that only open back into the maze of the Aperture Science Facility. The promised reward for completing the algorithm is freedom, but the promise is made by a master chained to the very facility it controls. Both GLaDOS and the player are bound to complete the algorithm. There is no escape.

Portal extends this tension, perverting the traditional relationship between player and protagonist. Each test requires inputs to complete, with the companion cube serving as a necessary but disposable means to that end. What the companion cube is to Chell so Chell is to the player - she reappears after each failed test like a weighted companion cube dropping from a chute.

Harmony between the game mechanic and the story ensures emotional resonance between Chell’s suffocation in the workings of the system and the player’s own frustration in moving through the game. Unlike other artworks, Portal not only communicates emotion but also allows for play to achieve it. Thus when the narrative pushes Chell to complete the tests by being incinerated, the player’s own yearning to escape the confines of GlaDOS’s control reaches its own breaking point, synchronizing the goals of both player and protagonist. This aesthetic of play speaks directly to the relevance artistic videogames hold for {INSERT AUDIENCE HERE}.

Keywords: Portal, Art, Algorithms, Testing, Videogame, Aesthetics

"We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth."
Pablo Picasso: The Arts (1923)
"The cake is a lie."
Portal (Valve, 2007)


Algorithms, the step-by-step processes that permit simple and complex computation, provide powerful shorthands, allowing control and exploitation with the promised certainty of reliable outputs. In everyday life, algorithms surround us, and we increasingly give agency to algorithms that are too complex for our understanding: 

  1. Algorithms control financial trades without oversight, as humans toil on the ground serving the algorithms’ needs (Slavin 2011)
  2. Algorithms refine exposure to information, serving as gatekeepers to that information, creating and reinforcing perspectives (Pariser 2011) 
  3. Algorithms determine whether to receive an email or silently trash it (Brownlee 2011) 
  4. Algorithms shape the development and release of books and films (Wakefield 2011)
  5. Algorithms keep aircraft in the air (mostly) (Heasley 2011)

Algorithms are optimized for defined inputs and repeatable processes. However, unless the algorithm matches some fundamental law - if it only holds to a temporary pattern in the social construct - then eventually the reliable results of the algorithm will be invalid and untrue (Martin 2009). Algorithms are unable to adapt to change, and we are limited by the parameters of the machine and the way it is designed to process those parameters. 

Algorithms, however, are more than just instructions that run software. As algorithms are used in and applied to social situations they become forces that shape and persuade. Bureaucracy is just one well-known example of the tyranny of ceding control to Kafkaesque algorithmic processes. Rigid testing protocols of a quality assurance lab would be another. 

All videogame mechanics at their most fundamental level are algorithms (Sicart 2008; Hunicke, Zubek, LeBlanc, 2004), which Manovich (2001) sees as an explicit hallmark of videogames. The game world is an algorithmic simulation of physical existence. Videogames uniquely combine the qualities of game play, world simulation and narrative (Lindley, 2003). As such, videogames provide a fruitful medium for the exploration of what it means to be a human in a world increasingly dominated by algorithms.

GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence that serves as the antagonist in Portal (Valve, 2007), is a collection of complex algorithms unified in single purpose to test for testing’s sake - and the algorithms have gone mad. Chell, the test-subject protagonist, is nothing more than a necessary algorithmic input. The experiments within the Aperture Science test facility act like algorithms, taking their input and producing output: pass or fail. Death for Chell is just a failed test - a mark recorded amongst the other data for later statistical analysis in the search for Taylorist efficiency. As GLaDOS has lost all external context beyond her own functioning, Chell’s escape from the algorithm is necessary for survival. 

This paper argues that the increasingly algorithmic nature of everyday functions and interactions creates an opportunity for self-reflexive videogames to be especially relevant as an artistic medium – it is our embeddedness in an algorithmic world that is a natural fit for videogame mechanics and affordances. To make this argument, we examine four points. First, critical engagement with specific videogames is more important to the general acceptance of the medium as art than meta discussions about the potential of the media to be art. 

Second, through a close reading, we assert the art-worthiness of the wildly successful videogame Portal. Given the game’s almost universal acclaim, holding Portal up as art may seem like plucking low-lying fruit. However, extended critical discourse of the game is lacking – most game pundits and theorists instinctively acknowledge its art-worthiness without dissecting in detail its artistic integration of mechanic, narrative and theme. The key mechanic1 - a gun that shoots portals or tunnels that allow physical movement between unconnected spaces - explores the meaning of freedom when trapped in the algorithmic processes of what we perceive as reality. 

Third, we argue that Portal explores what it means to be within a game and to escape from that game – an ironic function as Chell can never leave the game and the player cannot escape until he or she has completed the tasks laid before them by the designers. The restrictions of space and agency become the mechanism of the game’s functioning, subverting most of the genre’s well established tropes: the training level becomes the game; the princess rescues herself from the castle; the player dances behind the curtain as well as on stage. The central narrative is the main character’s search for answers and escape while serving as the experimental subject of an algorithmic machine focused on testing purely for testing’s sake. The game’s chief conceit rests on the computer gone awry, presaging the algorithmic control and growing dominance of metrics, analytics and surveillance in modern society. Portal explores these issues by subverting the proceduralist, quality control mechanism by which production and truth are obtained. Identity and subjection are mixed as an increasingly hostile and ever more perverted Milgram experiment is inverted and repeated. 

And finally, we examine the tension between the confines of a game (its rules, controls, levels) and the expressive freedom of art to challenge rules. Play engages the audience in different and potentially complementary ways as compared to the intellectual and emotional engagement of art. Through play, the game provides an artistic comment on both the human condition and the medium.

The Art of Videogames

The debate over videogames as art has been contentious, although the discussion seems to have diminished in the last year or so. Most in the gaming community seem convinced that games can be art, and there seems less opposition elsewhere, although perhaps still no clear consensus. Still, the matter continues to hold interest (Muzyka and Zeschuk, 2011), as does the debate as to whether any authority can bestow the label 'art' on a medium. Some see such a blessing in the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announcement that it will fund videogames as art (Bogost, 2011), the Smithsonian American Art Museum's 2012 exhibit on 'The Art of Video Games,' (Smithsonian, 2012), or Roger Ebert’s exasperated concession ‘Fine - Go play with your toys’ (Stuart 2011)2.

Although perhaps too narrow an assertion, there appear two motivations for considering videogames as art. The first, which seems to be driving the public debate, is a search for legitimacy or relevance for a popular medium. This motivation has trickled into the academic discourse as some seek to convince their somewhat skeptical colleagues and administrators of the intellectual authenticity of their object of study. This debate, we believe, will lessen and ultimately will be settled by inertia as the critical discourse around and about games becomes increasingly enmeshed within the mechanics of academic legitimacy: grants, publications and curriculum.3 In time, an imagined ‘sufficient quantity’ of anointed artistic games will reach the consciousness of enough people that widespread acceptance will be gained.

There is persuasive evidence that such a quantity has already been met, with developers exploiting the affordances of videogames to construct art or embed an artistic message. For example, Daniel Benmergui’s Storyteller (2008) seems an intentional artgame with the interactive nature an essential element. A commercial game with artistic merit such as Portal is different. It is produced with profit in mind, despite the artistic freedom allowed its creators.4 Such videogames employ the procedural rhetoric within games to expose their world to the exploration of the audience (Bogost, 2007). A growing critical mass of games exploring such issues present the case for games as art simply through their excellence: Ico (Team Ico, 2001); Flow (Thatgamecompany, 2006); The Marriage (Humble, 2007); Passage (Rohrer, 2007); Flower (Thatgamecompany, 2009); Braid (Number None, Inc., 2008); Graveyard (Tale of Tales, 2008); Everyday the Same Dream (Molleindustria, 2009); Limbo (Playdead, 2010); and Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012). Like film before it, games are or will be viewed as art and therefore a legitimate object of study within a broader university community simply because standing against this tide will be too difficult.

The second reason, which is more problematic and therefore more interesting, builds on and lends weight to the first. In participating in the debate on whether games are art, game theorists and critics gain access to both a forum for discussion and a critical intellectual apparatus in the examination and study of games. The debate itself creates a discursive headspace for game study. Other forms have made this journey before: film, graphic novels, pornography, etc. (Carroll, 1998). Each has travelled the road in a slightly different manner, negotiating and altering as appropriate to the medium’s affordances the various critical tools needed for effective engagement.

However, if calling a videogame art opens up these critical opportunities, so too would calling it a text or a cultural object. Each label unleashes a host of interpretive tools that could be adapted to the peculiarities of the medium, with a semiotic deconstruction or cultural studies encoding/ decoding providing as reasonable a first step as the assessment methods of art historians. And yet, this process was already well in hand without resorting to art criticism. Aarseth (2003), Gee (2005), Consalvo and Dutton (2006) and Bogost (2007, 2008) have already provided such paradigms, creating spaces and toolboxes for effective engagement with the medium, as have Konzack (2002), Malliet (2007) and Mäyrä (2008). Perhaps in a few years, critical assessments of videogames may depend exclusively on these efforts, and will not require at least some comment on the medium as art. We are not there yet. 

The core challenge in defining art-worthiness, identified by Weitz (1956), is that any definition presupposes a limit on what new art can entail, which will inevitably be challenged because that is a function of art itself. Robert Sharpe, for example, asserts that difficult boundary cases of art remain fairly intractable, and for this reason he suggests that Berys Gaut’s cluster concept is perhaps best equipped to “deal with the idiosyncrasies of the concept” (Sharpe, 2001, p.275). "Gaut provided 10 points to evaluate an object as art, including possessing positive aesthetic properties, being expressive of emotion, and being intellectually challenging"(Gaut, 2000). A group of artifacts might qualify as art without satisfying all ten points.

Another response is that acceptance of art is often institutional, where art is art “in light of things already adjudged as art” (Carroll, 1998, p. 7). This acceptance of art into the art world as a key factor in determining art appears in other critical works. Eaton (1983) suggests that communities decide art, while Bailey notes the need for some community to consent to an object’s status as art (Bailey 2000). 

Mandelbaum (1956), drawing on Wittgenstein’s discussion of game and family resemblance, offers a useful analogy. New artifacts require at least some genetic legacy to earlier generations of critical discourse. The legitimization of film as an art form could serve as such a touchstone for the legitimization of videogames. Henry Jenkins, for example, finds such inspiration in a paper revisiting Seldes' The Seven Lively Arts, finding significant parallels for videogames (Jenkins 2005). For this reason, Shyon Baumann's analysis of the process by which Hollywood film became legitimized as an art form is highly constructive. Baumann identifies three major aspects: societal changes created an art space for film to develop, Hollywood changed bringing it closer to well-established art communities, and critics emerged engaging in significant and extended critical discourse about film (Baumann, 2007, p. 3). 

There have been important approaches from within the philosophy of art community to consider the art-worthiness of games. Smuts (2005), for instance, considers the viability of videogames against the major theories of art: having a manifest aesthetic, acceptance on institutional grounds, aesthetic evaluation and the role of auteurs. Smuts argues that each of these definitions can be satisfied by videogames, of which a few candidates exist although general consensus of masterpieces is still lacking. Tavinor (2009a) found Smuts' individual arguments less than watertight but agreed in principle that videogames could satisfy any definition of art. Correctly, Tavinor identifies as a chief challenge the interactivity of games (2009b). This is a useful caution as interactivity is the defining nature of videogames – much like pointing out that painting could be art if only one could get past all the brushstrokes. Interactivity provides a potentially unique opportunity for commenting on social and cultural issues. Presaging Bogost’s idea of procedural rhetoric, Zimmerman asserts,

It is clear that games can signify in ways that other narrative forms have already established: through sound and image, material and text, representations of movement and space. But perhaps there are ways that only games can signify, drawing on their unique status as explicitly interactive narrative systems of formal play (Zimmerman, 2004, p. 162).

Such a function is the medium’s strength. By focusing on Gaut's cluster theory, Tavinor shows how various videogames (including Portal) can be used to satisfy each of the 10 required criteria (2009a). In a follow up article (Tavinor, 2010), he argues the case for all of the criteria using Bioshock as an extended example. 

What can be taken from both Gaut’s and Baumann respective third points is the need for engagement with the medium, including exhibition, award and critical analysis. The quality and thematic complexity of some modern videogames invites such critical discourse: Braid explores issues of time and regret in a love affair; Flow explores consumption, evolution and death; The Marriage explores the fragility of relationships over time when balanced with the personal needs of the partners; Limbo explores our deepest psychological fears of death and longing; Ico juxtaposes the playful adventures of a young boy against a young woman’s keen awareness of their real danger.

Here, we critically engage with the game Portal, demonstrating that it explores a multitude of themes about human existence and modern life in intelligent and unique ways. This analysis does not explicitly use the paradigm of either Gaut or Baumann as the scaffolding upon which to assert its case that videogames can be art. Instead, this paper provides a critical engagement with one videogame, which is essential to both Gaut and Baumann. This paper (one among a growing number of papers) takes up the challenge of the 2010 Art History of Games conference, which asked the question: “What about videogames is artistic?” 

Rage against the Machine

The Game

Portal, written by Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, is a single-player, puzzle-solving, first-person shooter released by Valve in 2007 to critical acclaim and commercial success, with total sales in excess of four million copies (Magrino, 2011).5 The player controls a female human named Chell, who awakens to a bright overhead light in a spartan glass cage. Movement is free but restricted - there is no obvious escape as there is no door, only a pod-like bed, toilet, radio, video screen, mug and clipboard. An unseen synthesized voice begins, “Hello and again welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center. We hope your brief detention in the relaxation vault has been a pleasant one. Your specimen has been processed and we are now ready to begin the test proper” (Portal, Test Chamber 00).6 The lack of shared memory between the player and Chell dovetails with the cognitive impairment of prisoner isolation (Travis & Waul, 2003). The only focus, for both, is as test operant.

The primary game mechanic - and purported purpose for the tests - is the portal gun (the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device or ASHPD), which allows shooting separate sides (portals) of a spatial connection into different locations. Thus shooting one portal at a wall next to the player and the other, paired portal at a wall far away allows the player to move between the two portals as though they were two sides of an open doorway. Some might find the term ‘wormhole’ helpful. The portal gun, obtained in Test Chamber 02 but not made fully functional until Test Chamber 11, is required to complete the tests. This necessary instrument ultimately provides the means for Chell’s escape. 

The story of Portal is initially told through exposition and experience. The player is within a contained environment (not unlike being a test lab rat) and is presented with challenges that move the player into the next confined space. While this reality is evident through experience, exposition occurs in the form of a computerized voice in the tannoy speaker system, eventually revealed as GLaDOS, which presents itself as both the operator of the tests and, at least initially, the benevolent female guide representing the Aperture Science research team.7 During the initial levels, the voice betrays a personality that is slightly unhinged, blindly following some perverse test protocol: “Please be advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test protocol, but is an unintended side effect of the Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grille, which may, in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel and teeth.” (Test Chamber 02)

Although the modulated voice and garbled syntax of GLaDOS’s introductory speech suggests that she is not quite human, the player cannot be entirely sure the voice is a computer until Test Chamber 06 when null values in the database become manifest. GLaDOS praises Chell for successfully navigating a difficult test chamber: “Unbelievable! You, {SUBJECT NAME HERE}, must be the pride of {SUBJECT HOMETOWN HERE}.” 

Unlike the Wizard of Oz, or the Mechanical Turk before it, this quick peek behind the curtain reveals not the person behind the machine, but the machine behind the person. Tellingly, GLaDOS seems unaware of her verbal mistake and how Chell might perceive these uninitialized parameter errors. The algorithmic space created by GLaDOS’s programming is optimized and coded for testing and it runs relentlessly regardless of consequence. She not only ignores the interpretive consequences of her mistake, she seems completely oblivious to them. The testing algorithms are always geared towards reliability, even at the expense of sense (in logic terms, they are valid but not sound). As the game progresses, the benevolent voice masking GLaDOS’s murderous intent cracks, then shatters. 

A parallel dissonance colours the player’s relationship with Chell. The first person perspective and the agency provided by such interactions create a sense of connection between the player and the avatar in the gameworld - she is more than an empty shell. Some players may even assume that they are Chell - akin to Heidegger’s notion of a tool being ready to hand rather than present at hand (1962, 1, III, 15). It is possible for the immersion to be sufficient that players never realize that Chell is an intermediary between the game’s actor and themselves.8 Chell’s lack of backstory and her silence throughout the game fosters this identification. 

However, through a fairly simple arrangement of portals, the player can glimpse Chell’s physical appearance. Obtaining these partial views, in fact, becomes a game in itself, as the player seeks to espy more complete views of the protagonist, never quite constructing a complete image. This wonderfully Lacanian captivation with the self obtained through mirror-like portals plants a troubling seed: you may control Chell, but you are not Chell.9

Test Chamber 17

Each test chamber becomes more difficult, introducing increasingly complex consequences made possible by the affordances of the portal gun, while GLaDOS’s prompts to complete these tests become more insistent. Obedience to authority, particularly scientific-institutional authority, permeates all aspects of Portal with the game serving as an instantiation of the Milgram experiment – an infamous experiment that examines the willingness to obey an authoritative voice cloaked in the mantle of science (Milgram, 1963). GLaDOS compels the player to be part of the algorithmic process.

The player is placed in the dual role of the learner who suffers for failing to complete increasingly more difficult test chambers, and the teacher who punishes his or her recalcitrant student. Wearing the cloak of the Learner, the player as Chell is at first enticed, then goaded, then guilted and finally threatened to complete each test. Constantly punished for each failure (usually with death) and increasingly demeaned when successful.

As Milgram’s Teacher, the player pushes the buttons that prod Chell to complete each task, punishing her with each failure. These concurrent roles crystallize the player’s identification with and separation from Chell. GLaDOS serves the role of Milgram, prompting the teacher to inflict greater and greater acts of barbarity: longer jumps, riskier falls, fatal electrocutions.

In Test Chamber 17, the obedience to authority experiment is laid bare, where both Chell and the player are urged, for the good of science, to incinerate an inanimate “companion cube” in an Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator. GLaDOS positions the “faithful” companion cube, a large, heavy cube covered in pink hearts that is needed to hold down buttons to open doors in some tests, as a friend to Chell - a friend that needs to be destroyed to make further progress in the experiment/ game possible. Chell and the player may reasonably hesitate to incinerate the cube given its personification and the fact that the fiery pit is called an Intelligence Incinerator. Such hesitation leads to increasingly insistent promptings from GLaDOS, the Milgram scientist, pressuring the player to conform to the required process. GLaDOS insists (Test Chamber 17),

"Rest assured that an independent panel of ethicists has absolved the Enrichment Center, Aperture Science employees and all test subjects for all moral responsibility for the companion cube euthanizing process."

"Testing cannot continue until your companion cube has been incinerated."

"Although the euthanizing process is remarkably painful, 8 out of 10 Aperture Science engineers believe that the companion cube is most likely incapable of feeling much pain."

"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."

"Destroy your companion cube or the testing cannot continue."

"Place your companion cube in the incinerator."

"Incinerate your companion cube."

When Chell and the player finally burn the cube, as they must to advance the experiment, GLaDOS informs them that she euthanized her “faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations." Even here, when the Milgram-like nature of the experiment is clear, GLaDOS continues her testing, providing a Taylor-like efficiency assessment of the player’s willingness to inflict pain on the Learner.10

This scene serves two additional purposes. First, it trains the player in steps necessary to complete the game in the final confrontation. As mentioned earlier, Portal inverts many gaming conventions. In this case, the tutorial level is, in fact, the game. Second, it foreshadows Chell’s fate. As Chell treats the companion cube, GLaDOS treats Chell. 

“You are. The companion cube...”

The last four test levels contain barely-hidden niches that lie outside the extant test environment. In these it is evident that at least one other person has navigated the test facility in resistance to the system. These dens contain scrawls and drawings that provide encouragement and warnings to Chell as she navigates the facility. Later identified as the stenographic ramblings of Doug Rattmann in a comic called Portal 2: Lab Rat, the scribbles depict the troubled mind of a former Aperture Science employee trying to assist the protagonist, a mind that is all too aware of GLaDOS’s constant surveillance and malevolent intent. 

Clearly, Rattmann is insane, a state of mind that arose from his conflict with GLaDOS, but his insanity now protects him as he navigates the realm behind the curtain. Like John Murdoch’s awareness of the experimental machinery of the lived space of Dark City (1998), Rattmann’s knowledge of the inner-workings of the machine is to be considered insane by any reasonable measure - both the cake and Shell Beach are lies of the system. 

One scribbling, arranged in a concentric circle around photographs of a family of personified companion cubes at the beginning of Test Chamber 17, states the following: “I'm not hallucinating. You are. The companion cube would never desert me. Dessert. So long... Cake. Haha. Cake. A lie. The companion cube would never lie to me.” Hidden from GLaDOS’s gaze within these seemingly mentally unstable ramblings concerning the ultimate reward of cake, is the concealed yet ominous warning “You are. The companion cube.” The assertion is more than simple foreshadowing of Chell’s incandescent death at the hands of GLaDOS, it is Rattman’s warning to Chell that she has another companion in these tests in addition to the cube.

On the face of it, Chell serves the role of Milgram’s Teacher, tormenting and ultimately incinerating her silent companion cube at the promptings of GLaDOS for the benefits of science. However, Chell also serves as the silent companion to the player, who with reckless abandon allows Chell to die multiple times en route to the game’s completion, always confident that a new Chell will appear, like a weighted cube dropping through the chute. Rattmann’s scribbles, therefore, warn Chell to beware the player. The game is a lie.

In this light, GLaDOS’s cautions to ignore conversation with the normally silent companion cube take on an even more sinister tone. GLaDOS, who may have tested hundreds or even thousands of humans, may understand the affect that isolation and hopelessness have on the human psyche, and therefore deemed it necessary to warn Chell of an unhealthy attachment to the cube. However, if Rattmann’s warnings are to Chell, then GLaDOS’s warnings are to the player: ignore your silent human companion should she object to what is necessary to complete the test protocol - let her burn.

Test Chamber 19

In addition to the burning of the companion cube in Test Chamber 17, other events foreshadow Chell’s fate: for example, in Chamber 13 GLaDOS states, “When the testing is over, you will be ... missed;” and in Chamber 16 a message intended for a robotic test subject is delivered to Chell, "Well done, android. The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that Android Hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance."

As Test Chamber 19’s obstacles are completed, Chell is on a moving platform in an enclosed tunnel. A sign indicates that ‘Cake’ - which was promised for successfully completing all tests - is around the corner. Instead, the platform is headed directly toward a burning pit. GLaDOS’s homicidal intent and indifference to suffering becomes remarkably clear. The cake is a lie and the reward for successfully navigating the tests is death. The test subject’s purpose is to produce data; consideration beyond this is immaterial. Chell has fulfilled her purpose as a test subject and, like the cube, is now expendable, ready to be replaced by the next test subject. In Gramscian doublespeak, where the subordinate class comes to view the oppression as natural and expected, GLaDOS congratulates Chell on the successful testing and imminent death:

Congratulations. The test is now over. All Aperture technologies remain safely operational up to 4000 degrees Kelvin. Rest assured that there is absolutely no chance of a dangerous equipment malfunction prior to your victory candescence. Thank you for participating in this Aperture Science computer aided enrichment activity. Goodbye. (Test Chamber 19)

Science was advanced, with nothing of value damaged in the process.

This murderous intent brings together multiple narrative elements foreshadowed in the game, but also emphasizes the appropriateness of the game mechanic for advancing that narrative – ludonarrative harmony (Hocking, 2007). Portals can only be affixed to visible concrete walls. So far this has resulted in the cruel irony of a device that can connect any space only permitting connection back into the chambers that are Chell’s prison. At this key point in the game, about two-thirds of the way through, the player might simply watch as Chell moves helplessly to her fate. No icon or suggestion indicates that the gameworld is offering anything more than this perverse, Kafkaesque fulfillment of the testing protocol.11 There is no guarantee that the player will notice in time a distant concrete wall behind and above the fire pit. It is up to the player to fight for survival against the system and recognize that the portal gun – which seems shackled to Chell’s arm - is in fact her means of escape. Although, ironically, the path of escape and its reward trade the Test Chambers of GLaDOS for the ongoing level restrictions of the game designers – the player and Chell remain slaves to the game’s story. 

Unlike a film, a videogame can create a story that requires the player to act, to instantiate Chell’s desire to stay alive. The gun stops merely opening portals into other test chambers. The player takes the initiative without knowing what the goal is. Self-reflexively, the game cedes narrative control to the player, demonstrating the power of the videogame medium, which Ebert indicated as a fundamental flaw of story in videogames. It is, in fact, its narrative strength.


With her escape from the fire, the testing protocol is shattered. The player collapses GLaDOS’s Milgram paradigm, re-merging with the protagonist in common purpose to escape the facility (but not the game). This disturbance to the algorithm also reveals the final piece of the GLaDOS story. At the moment of Chell’s escape, GLaDOS drops any pretense of representing a team of scientists working for Aperture Science. She uses the pronoun “I” for the first time to describe her intent.12 The story is now clearly the struggle of woman against machine.

Chell and the player then move through the infrastructure of the Aperture Science facility, which to this point has only been revealed through slips in GLaDOS’s speech or the tiny chinks in the armour that are Rattmann’s dens. In Campbellian terms, Chell crosses the threshold to see the dark, institutional inner workings in its entirety. The portal gun opens a wormhole that deconstructs the facility and shows visually, experientially and narratively, the belly of the beast.13

In the final showdown Chell confronts GLaDOS, who appears enslaved, bound by tubes and wires to the very structure of the test facility. The machine has escaped the control of her scientist creators but has not found freedom. Instead, in Hegelian fashion, the master is enslaved in her role as a master. She is imprisoned, perhaps even more than Chell, as algorithmic constraints parallel her physical imprisonment. In computational theory, the Halting problem means that GLaDOS cannot know if she or any algorithm she sets in motion will ever finish. To find out, she must test. This could be taken further. For example, the Robertson-Seymour Theorem shows that the proofs to many classes of problems are non-constructive. This means that algorithms to solve such problems exist, but we can never know what they are. One would imagine such a contradiction would force GLaDOS to test. Relentlessly. In Portal 2, much simpler paradoxes play a key role in advancing the plot.14

The boss battle is technically straightforward, in part because of the training the player received in Test Chamber 17. GLaDOS is destroyed by fire in a convenient Aperture-Science-Emergency-Intelligence-Incinerator, echoing Chell’s near-death experience. Psychologically, the battle is more difficult. Shackled to the walls, GLaDOS appears a tormented figure. It does not help that GLaDOS tries to reason with Chell during the process, saying, "This isn't brave. It's murder.". Although necessary to complete the game, there seems reason to not kill the tormentor (Towell 2008). The experiment, however, must be completed. GLaDOS releases a nerve toxin that will soon result in Chell’s death, once again prompting, goading and ultimately forcing the player to finish the test and win the game.15 Chell, the player and GLaDOS are all seemingly free.

This ending shows that Portal is a winnable game. The ‘winnability’ of videogames is considered a reason, for example by Ebert (2010), to consider them as sport rather than art.16 But, Portal does not keep score; instead its integration of narrative and game mechanic drives the play toward completion (Woods, 2007). On the spectrum between competition and puzzle, Portal leans closer to the latter, separate from competition-intense videogames (Aarseth, 2004).

Being a puzzle, Portal does gain its art-worthiness in a matter like films: a specific objection might be that it has a linear plot. However, in addition to the agency of the player in enabling that plot to take full form (i.e., the player’s saving actions before the fire), the experience of the plot by the player is uniquely suited to the interaction that is only possible in a videogame. Leigh Alexander explains,

Even the simplest game is a series of mechanical choices. That’s why players and designers are so obsessed with the concept of choice in games; make choice meaningful, make them affect what happens in the gameworld. Just adding the element of interactivity can make those narratives so much more complex and powerful because you feel responsible for it (PBS 2011). 

Portal takes the ability to make the player feel responsible for the experience of Chell within the test regime of the facility, and pushes it to extremes as, just like in the Milgram experiment, the test subject is guided to the point of committing murder.

Gaming Tropes

GLaDOS and Game Design

The agon of Portal is the challenge of each test chamber’s puzzle, but GLaDOS is the source of that conflict. She created the environment and challenges that Chell must complete, much like videogame designers do for players. And like GLaDOS, designers remain (mostly) unseen, experienced through the challenges and environments they create.17 The game designers, GLaDOS, Chell and the player are known through that creation. All are trapped in it.

Chell and the player wander the path laid out for them by their respective designers, seeking the source of their imprisonment. Upon finishing the game and revealing the designer’s schemes, both are free to be in the world, having ended their trial. Chell destroys the research facility and kills her master, awakening in the middle of a parking lot surrounded by debris, sunshine, clouds and apparent escape. Interestingly, shortly before the sequel was released the original game’s ending was reversed so that Chell was not free but dragged back into the system, an idea that had been proposed as the original ending (Reeves, 2010). That ending adds more horror to GLaDOS’s first words, “Hello and again.”18

For the player, this openness is the end of the game and its control over the player. There is, however, an end-title sequence accompanying the credits in which a song provides a more sympathetic view of the controlling GLaDOS character. The song is perhaps a vindication of the game creators for their role, or just a reminder that all is in jest in a game. Either way, the player may then move on to whatever else needs to be done or play again, like a good test subject.

The Game Mechanic

One of the beautiful aspects of Portal is that design and play of the game fully realizes and then transcends many of the core notions and tropes of videogames. The association between GLaDOS, game designers and dungeon masters are not the only form of this.19 The test chambers embrace the limitations of level design, restricting the area in which the contest occurs, like Huizinga’s sacred circle (Huizinga, 1955). A game level must be designed, often in the way that a theatre set represents reality: by backdrops, false barriers and other tricks. In Portal the limitations of level design are embraced: the Test Chamber is unequivocally the extent of the level, without false walls or landscape backdrops (although in the second half of the game there are blocked doors).20 The only existence is the level and the concurrent tension between Chell’s desire to escape and the player’s desire to finish.

The agency of the player - their capacity to act - is extended through possession of the portal gun, which allows space to be overcome and the player to create their own spatial connections. But this comes with heavy limits: it can only shoot onto surfaces that are already extant, and only a particular type of surface that seems to reside only in the test chamber - the promise of freedom does not lead to freedom beyond the control of the game designer (GLaDOS). In Portal, the gun’s apparent freedom always opens up into the same trap.

The game mechanic concerns being within the confines of the constructed space. Ultimately, though, the player is able to move beyond the testing environment, called the "Enrichment Centre," and into the ‘freedom’ of the facility behind. This backstage does not replicate an entire virtual facility, only the space required to guide Chell through the puzzles that lead to GLaDOS. As Chell’s life as a test subject breaks down so does the completeness of the game designer’s levels. The entire illusion shatters as both Chell and the player see the scaffolding of the facade.

The question of a level without a game can be considered. A common cheat in games is “no clipping” (the player’s avatar is not stopped by walls in the virtual world and becomes as a ghost). This is to go beyond the game designers’ construct – to truly explore with freedom. The portal gun embodies this idea, but the player cannot leave the confines of constructed space.  If you enable this cheat in Portal, you can get anywhere, but what do you do in a space such as the cake room without the game being present? Other games explore this tension. For example, this idea is inverted in The Path (Tale of Tales, 2009) where the game only becomes a game when the player breaks the only rule of the game: stay on the path.

A videogame’s exploration of procedure can also include natural processes. In Braid, the game mechanic allows the flow of time to disengage from the physical and draw closer to the psychological experience of time; another medium might represent time like clocks melting in the sun. Because time is a dominant process in human experience, it is not surprising that the experience of the passage of life over time is a frequent theme of artgames. The agency of the player is crucial to accessing this experience. 

The Algorithmic Experience

A reasonable direction to pursue in closing this paper would be to return to the videogames-as-art question, running through Gaut's checklist of ten points to see if Portal is, in fact, art. But this paper's purpose is not about keeping score but to discuss the artistic elements of Portal, contributing to the growing community of scholars engaging critically with the medium. Portal's art-worthiness is in its exploration of the increasingly algorithmic nature of the world.

Art, however, is an exploration of human thought and creativity - an act of freedom. Algorithms, those cold, dry entities of the computer age, are foreign to it, despite the beauty they may create. They appear predictable, repetitious, automatic. Such qualities could be considered strengths when applied to systems requiring efficiency, repetition and redundancy - useful when people are considered as abstract entities needing regulation and control. Here lies the tension between our moral sense and the pressure to conform to authorities demanding the incineration of an unnecessary apparatus. The ability of algorithms to perform sufficiently better in the regulation of human affairs leaves us without the confidence of our own identity - those who can see beyond the system's assumptions can only scrawl the truth on the confined walls outside the official chamber.

Portal presents these tensions to us. It is the tension between the cold, hard certainty of algorithms and the creativity and freedom of an art. It is the tension between the algorithm’s simplification of complex concepts versus the need for problematization and criticism. It is the tension between a world without questions and the inquiry that art embodies. It is the tension between knowledge that emerges from the algorithms of the scientific method and the human knowledge encountered in art. All videogames are algorithms, and therefore, Portal is an algorithmic exploration of human struggle against algorithmic processes. The game’s very nature is an adherence to rules. Art’s very nature is to challenge rules, to the point of defying definition.21

This leads to a curious challenge for videogames as art: the algorithm must be obeyed. Perhaps most significantly, the game requires inputs from a game controller, which are mapped to permitted avatar actions. There is no game unless the player is tied to the controller. Juul (2010, p.133) has shown the futility of resisting this demand while playing (or technically, not playing) games like The Sims (Maxis, 2000) and Scramble (Konami, 1981). In Portal, if the player never picks up the controller the game stays in the opening chamber, Chell never leaves the Relaxation Vault; the game camera stays fixed on a view of an open portal while the radio loops the same song. There is nothing more.

Such controllers may be familiar to a generation raised on FPS games, but they may be unwieldy to the uninitiated. Even if the audience/ player picks up and understands the controller, they still have to demonstrate a certain facility to progress through the game. They need to make portals hit their targets. They need to complete jumps, sometimes against a clock. The game’s mechanism requires a particular form of competence in the player. This takes training, practice and learning. It is like demanding that the audience first learn to ride a unicycle before they can see the play. This is not performance as art, but action as necessary in order to have the experience. But, it is still a barrier.22

Play is free activity but Portal only offers this in constrained doses. Failure to play as the game requires will result in a failure to experience the game at all. To participate in the algorithmic aesthetic, one is required to act constantly and competently. This is a cruel restriction - to showcase something defiant to display.23 Although the output of the game is experienced visually and audibly, recording and displaying a play-through of the game to be displayed like a film would miss the point entirely. 

It robs the experience of all those elements described throughout the paper: the discovery that the tools for performance of the tests permits escape, but an escape still bound to the test chambers (at least until the final test); the dread felt as passage through the test chambers unfolds a story as suffocating as the player's inability to escape from the testing. These elements go beyond the aesthetic of the game's output - beyond the aesthetic of its images, its sounds, or the aesthetics of its story. This is the aesthetic of play.

The demand for competent input from the player is a barrier, but a necessary one to emphasize a vital strength of the medium. “The plain fact [is] that it takes a player to play a game.” (Koster, 2012). Games demand physical engagement, but in asking more, more is offered. Games may put up a barrier by forcing the player to pick up the controller and jump through a few hoops in order to experience the art object. But this is only so that control can be given to them, in order to engage the audience directly: to reveal the world of the artist’s imagination. Not to a passive, though intellectually engaged, audience but to an audience that is engaged in play too. 

To date most games have missed the opportunity to enhance their intellectual engagement in ways that are only possible as playful engagement occurs. Portal is not one of these. The experience of the algorithm – Chell’s experience – resonates because it is the player’s experience too. Chell’s subjugation to process, her desire to act freely, her hopelessness as she incinerates a silent friend – these are not transmitted to the player through the artistic medium but belong to the player as their own. 

Exploring the machine gone mad is hardly a new idea in science fiction.24 However, the procedural nature of games provides a unique opportunity to explore the increasingly procedural nature of such increasingly prevalent technology. Interaction is essential to this exploration. Trapped within the Aperture Science facility, subjected to algorithmic constraints that frame all knowledge production as process, Portal artfully explores issues well beyond the confines of its test chambers.


The authors would like to thank their colleagues and three anonymous reviewers for their assistance in drafting this paper.


1 Josh Weier, project lead for Portal 2, reflected on the importance of the portal gun to the story by stating, “I have my portal gun, and everything is dripping from that” (Francis 2010).

2 Interpretation - not a direct quotation.

3 To see a summary of such efforts in Canada, see Gouglas et al, 2010.

4 We might use the word auteurs with respect to Walpaw and Faliszek, although the appropriateness of this label remains debatable as it applies to interpreting games coming from AAA studios. See, for example, Dermibas (2008).

5 It is not clear whether these sales were just the stand-alone version of Portal, or whether they included sales of The Orange Box – a collection of games that included Portal.

6 Although Valve would later provide more backstory to the character, in the game itself it remains unclear how long Chell has been in the facility or, for that matter, if this is her first time being subjected to such tests.

7 GLaDOS stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System and is a homophone of Gladys.

8 As discovered by a third of the students who played Portal as part of Wabash College curriculum (Klepek 2011).

9 This echoes aspects of Gee’s tripartite play on identities, where the player’s action are active and reflexive of the character in the game - player’s actions and choices not only move the character but alter the possible future options presented to the character down the road (Gee, 2007). In addition, with no other human characters in the game, Portal skirts the uncanny valley problem that can hold videogames back from conveying realistic emotions in the characters, a limitation not traditionally faced in film.

10 The game’s designers have noted that the companion cube was originally designed as a simple box (required to be carried to the end as an additional challenge to the player), but that players often forgot to bring the box. Erik Wolpaw, one of the game’s writers, learned from government documents that “isolation leads subjects to become attached to inanimate objects” (Edge 2008). Valve sells a stuffed version of the companion cube, which is the most popular element of the game outside the game.

11 In fact, Walpaw and Faliszek noted that during playtesting for Portal, a “small percentage” of players were content to ride the platform into the fire, believing it a natural ending for the game (Faliszek and Walpaw, 2012).

12 Such self-awareness of an artificial intelligence is foreshadowed as individual turrets refer to themselves in the first person throughout the game.

13 The crossing of the threshold normally takes place much earlier in the traditional hero’s journey, but the paradigm does fit Chell’s journey, with a little bending.

14 In Portal 2 (Valve, 2011), it is clear that GLaDOS is dependent on the facility as she receives a dopamine-like boost when administering tests, a boost that diminishes unless increasingly challenging tests are designed and administered - she is literally addicted to testing.

15 If you meet a Buddha, kill him.

16 Clearly, not all videogames are winnable (Lee 2003).

17 Alternately, GLaDOS is the Dungeon Master - the guide, arbitrator and opponent found in pen and paper adventures made popular by Dungeon & Dragon. And like a good DM, GLaDOS works against the best interests of the players.

18 At the end of Portal 2, Chell is finally free, but her freedom is an open grass field. Her skills and gun are of no use, and freedom may even be worse than captivity. In such an environment, the player may be tempted to play again, to return to the testing environment (like a good little test subject).

19 The recursive game design encounter in Fable 3, where the player takes on the role of a character in a role-playing game within the role-playing video game is another such example.

20 Daniel Johnson (2009) constructively argues that Portal is essentially an exploration of Erving Goffman’s front-and-backstage metaphor for society, and the destruction of the barriers between the two.

21 At the “Art History of Games” conference, Celia Pearce (2010) provided examples of artists working within rule systems in order to create art, saying “This is playful art; not necessary games, but structured play.” The same conference had the creators of The Path argue that videogames are not art. They want to make not-games instead.

22 One author’s sibling finds the visual movement nauseating and is unable to advance beyond the second test chamber.

23 The gallery is an important contributor to Baumann’s third point and a key part of acceptance by art communities.

24 Many episodes of the original Star Trek, such as The Return of the Archons and The Apple for example pitted the crew against a society controlled by machines.


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