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Portal: A fairytale for our time

March 5, 2010

A couple of days ago I wrote a long post about Shakespeare which ended in a brief discussion of the theory of folklore and fairytale, in which I promised further ruminations on the subject. In keeping with which, here follows a post I’ve been wanting to write for months now but never got round to sitting down and doing (I wonder if this burst of creativity has anything to do with having a major essay due in less than a week?). I want to talk about the fairytale component of one of the landmarks of modern entertainment, and one which both in genre (sci-fi) and in medium (videogame) isn’t the place people conventionally look for folkloric narrative.

So yeah. I want to talk about Portal.

Now, spoiler warning, obviously. I think the ending of Portal is rapidly heading for Luke-I-am-your-father territory, which is a mixed sort of thing. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t made bad by everyone in the Western world now knowing the shock twist, but it’s a little sad to know that very, very few people will now experience that twist in the manner in which it was intended. Same goes for Portal. So if you haven’t yet been spoiled for the ending of the game, don’t be. Go and play it, or watch through someone playing it, and take advantage of your pristine un-spoiled-ness while you still can. Because I have a feeling that would make things even more awesome.

Extensive Portal spoilers from this point on. Continue at your peril.

* * *

Without GLaDOS, Portal would be a fun physics puzzler with a nifty core mechanic. Probably still great fun – placing two portals on the floor, jumping into one and watching yourself bob gently up and down will never, ever get old – but, as someone at TVTropes puts it with admirable succinctness

what would have been a pleasant and amusing physics game is immeasurably improved by the simple addition of an insane killer computer.

Now insane killer computers are a dime a dozen in sci-fi land, but GLaDOS stands out, I think chiefly because of the way she switches from genuinely attempting to be helpful, when you’re still at the stage of needing to be nursemaided through difficult bits, to venomous passive-aggressive abuse once you’re out of her control.

It’s disconcerting, because insane killer computers are usually more, well, logical in their craziness. But GLaDOS’ behaviour patterns become perfectly explicable, even predictable, if you take the standpoint that she isn’t the Insane AI character type. She’s an altogether different archetype who just happens to be represented in this ‘verse by an insane killer computer.

Before I go back to considering GLaDOS particularly, let’s take a detour to the stated subject of the post.

The thesis I’m going to try and defend is this: one of the reasons Portal is so damn awesome is because it taps into a model that nearly everyone playing it will recognise at a subconscious level – the fairytale. Fairytales, as a literary mode, have a number of recognised things that they do, and I’m going to attempt to demonstrate how Portal does them, and – as an encore – what fairytale narrative structures would predict will happen in the sequel. (Yes, I am going to try and predict something about one of the most original games made by one of the most original games companies. What could possibly go wrong?)

Let’s start the fun by taking a look at a couple of the classic fairytales. Both are from the core post-Grimm, post-Andersen corpus of Western stories, instantly recognisable to whole generations. First, here’s a variant of the Hansel and Gretel plot, the only difference being that this version has one protagonist instead of two.

A girl is lured into a strange place with the promise of treats, only for the place’s insane owner to try to cook her alive. She escapes, comes back, and burns the witch in her own furnace.

And here’s a summary of Snow White.

A stepmother becomes incensed when her stepdaughter starts doing too well, growing up too much, in danger of breaking out of her mother’s control and perhaps surpassing her. She tries to kill the girl, multiple times, and fails. The girl enforces a particularly unpleasant revenge.

Hansel and Gretel and Snow White are representative of two distinct strands of fairytale. Hansel and Gretel, like Little Red Riding Hood, is what I’ll call a cautionary tale: it presents a (version of a) childhood danger, makes it suitably terrifying and gasp-worthy, but ends with the reassurance that the monster can be slain. (The modern version of Little Red Riding Hood, that is; the pre-Grimm incarnation lacks the reassuring ending, boiling down to “Girls! Do not talk to strange men in the woods, or YOU WILL DIE.”)

Snow White, on the other hand, is what I’ll call here an aspirational tale. It’s about growing up, escaping the parental roof and coming into your own as an adult. There are dangers on the way, and they are defeated, but the story proper ends with the transition of the protagonist to the adult world.

Portal doubles up on the fairytale tropes, being mainly an aspirational tale which also follows the cautionary pattern. The cautionary tale aspects are easy to see – you encounter a monster, you fight the monster, you win. It gets massively freaky along the way, but ultimately you win. This sort of tale isn’t complicated.

The aspirational tale requires a bit more breaking down, which is what I’m now going to go onto. In particular, I want to clarify how I get “growing up story” out of “bizarre proto-fantasy”, which is what most Western fairytales look like.

To return to GLaDOS, it should be easy now to see which role she’s playing within the game’s aspirational-tale narrative. She may be an insane computer, but here she’s firmly in the role of the wicked stepmother, right down to the jibe she throws at you while you’re in the process of destroying her: “And it says here you were adopted. So that’s funny, too.” Just another attempt to undermine the protagonist’s self-confidence – as in, not even your birth parents liked you? Maybe. Shout-out to the fairytale structure the game is using? Wouldn’t put it past the dev team. This is Valve, after all.

The evil stepmother figure is an incarnation of the general horror of someone who should be standing up for you, who should be at your back no matter what, who you should have been able to trust, turning on you. For a child, this happens when a parent – the figures who, all being well, we trust unconditionally from the moment we open our eyes – betraying us. At a guess, the reason it’s so often a stepmother, rather than a biological mother, in fairytales is because it helps with rationalisation – the hearer needs to be able to say to themselves “But my real mother would never do that!”

It’s the same reaction that makes countless small children (you may have been one of them), adopted or not, react to perceived parental injustice with a cry of “You’re not my real mum/dad!” A fictional example is how Tracy Beaker, the Jacqueline Wilson character, concocts elaborate fantasies about her birth mother as a way of coping with life in care.

A lot of fairytales are essentially narratives of growing up. Generally speaking they cover (an idealised version of) what we would now call puberty – outgrowing the need for parental control, going out into the world, discovering sex Love and ultimately finding someone with whom to start the next generation (implying a return to the beginning of the cycle X years down the line.)

The fairytale struggle to defeat your evil parents is an (over-)dramatisation of, basically, being a teenager. They want you to stay their little darling, and don’t react well to your fumbling attempts at growing up and self-differentiation. Pretty much everybody clashed with their parents to some degree during that period, I would guess, whether it be over how they dressed, what they listened to or the dreaded first boy/girlfriend.

But just telling the story of How Janet Won Over Her Boyfriend’s Mother is dull; it’s a much better story to have Janet bravely enduring all the wiles the Queen of the Faeries can throw at her to rescue her True Love from the Queen who wants him all for her very own. And so what was probably a rather common story in medieval Scotland (a girl overrules her boyfriend’s mother’s objections to their marriage by getting pregnant) becomes a cracking fire-side tale with faeries and shape-changing. The ballad in question is known as Tam Lin, and you can read it here.

Now look at Portal through the same lens, taking away the set-dressing to look at the actual narrative. GLaDOS isn’t your mother, but for the duration of the game she stands in the same relation to the player character as a mother would to a small child. She teaches you the skills that you need to negotiate the world, and tries to tempt you to do better with the promise of a cake and a party – it’s like you’re six. As the game goes on, she starts pushing you harder: grow up, do better, think for yourself. In Test Chamber 17 you have to incinerate your beloved Companion Cube; now, hands up everyone who remembers bidding a tearful farewell to a security blanket, favourite toy or other childhood staple when your parents decided you were too old for that sort of thing. It’s not an experience everyone will actually have had, but the concept is immediately familiar.

Growing up, wriggling free of your parents, giving up the security blanket; so far, so dull. As with the Tam Lin example, it shows that the basic mechanism of fairytale is to take an incredibly quotidian story – and then make it awesome by judicious addition of fantastic embellishments. And it so happens that the embellishments in Portal are particularly fantastic. A game about trying to convince your mum to let you go out on Saturday night would be possibly the dullest thing in the history of earth, but retelling the same story in terms of escaping from a top-secret research facility presided over by an insane computer, with the aid of a gun that shoots teleports? We’re in.

Now I’m sure it hasn’t passed unnoticed that I mentioned two types of fairytale, tropes from both of which inform the narrative of Portal, but that the ending of the game only resolves one set. The cautionary tale, which ends with the monster dead, is satisfactorily wrapped up. The aspirational tale, which ends with the transition of the protagonist to adulthood, isn’t.

Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and The Little Mermaid are all examples of the aspirational mode of fairytale. They share a bunch of tropes, naturally, but what we’re concerned with here is the ending patterns. Which basically consist of wedding bells all round.

In fairytale, the marker that tends to be used for the end of childhood and the assumption of adult roles and privileges is getting married. It’s a marker that’s still in fairly common use today, though it’s now more usually applied to established couples rather than individuals: engagement/marriage is seen as marking the transition from mere dalliance to real relationship. (I’m sure I need not point out the numbers of committed unmarriages and uncommitted marriages readily visible in real life.)

In that respect, Portal doesn’t resolve the aspirational aspect of its narrative. It ends too early, with the protagonist independent but not secure, free from the originating family unit but not yet ensconced in a new one. There is a significant chunk of the story not yet told.

So it’s with that in mind that I turn to the noises that have recently been emerging from the ether about Portal 2. Valve have released a video clip that begins with the closing screen of the original game; then you hear some robotic noises, a mechanical voice (not GLaDOS; more masculine) says “Thank you for assuming the party escort submission position,” and the picture begins to jerk as if you’re being dragged away backwards.

It looks as though Portal 2 is definitely happening, and we’ve already got at least one new element: this unseen robot is clearly neither GLaDOS nor a turret, which are the only things that speak to you in the original. Maybe it’s one of the military androids for whom Test Chamber 16 was supposed to be a training course. Whatever it is, it’s an unambiguous indication that Portal 2 is incorporating at least one more element above the minimalist setup of Portal 1 (which boiled down to you, GLaDOS, and some death traps). It might well indicate an expansion of the gameworld on a greater scale. New characters with whom the player can interact don’t seem like too much of a stretch to expect.

If the fairytale logic holds – and the patterning in the first game is very strong – we’d expect to see the player character ending the second game as a full adult, part of a new-minted family unit. Not necessarily a romantic one; it might well, the Half-Life/Portal ‘verse being the way it is, be more along the lines of The Squad or a group of Fire Forged Friends. Or maybe this time she’ll manage to save the Companion Cube. But the way the story has unfolded so far practically demands that incorporation, that co-foundation of a new family.

Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t put money on it – Valve have done so many out-of-left-field things that it’d be madness to bet on them doing one thing in particular – but I’ll be watching, and I’ll be very interested indeed.

* * *

Some recommended reading on fairytale theory:

  • Symbolic Stories (Derek Brewer): examines what I’m calling the fairytale mode in everything from the Old Testament to Mansfield Park, and does so in an unfailingly lucid and readable way.
  • The Uses of Enchantment (Bruno Bettelheim): tackles the purposes of fairytale from the point of view of child psychology, looking at what we as children get from the fairytale narrative.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    March 5, 2010 4:45 pm

    Made me LOL and think. Have to run. Will post real response later.

  2. April 14, 2010 2:34 am

    This was what I was thinking about GLaDOS: that she was an evil stepmother figure and that Portal was a fairytale!

    I’m plotting a fairytale-type story that parallels Portal, and the characters and events can be easily made more “magical” — Rattman as an actual rat who was once a man, the Cube as a prince, Cave Johnson as the father who died, etc.

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