An Intimate Moment With the Computer

When Portal 2 was announced, mostly I felt anxious. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Portal. In fact, I think that Portal is one of the best games of 2007 (the only reason that I don’t say the best is that 2007 boasted what might arguably be some of the best games of all time — let alone a particular year — both Bioshock and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare were released that same year). Instead, what concerned me about a Portal 2 announcement is directly related to its quality. It is pretty difficult to follow up a title that is so well written and so well crafted and that created such an uncomfortable, yet compelling experience.

Game Informer recently featured a preview of Portal 2 that transformed my anxiety into anticipation though. It was largely just a short quotation from the game’s writer, Eric Wolpaw, that turned me around:

Portal 1 told a very intimate story . . . It was you and GlaDOS. We never even mentioned Chell. People pulled her name out of the model files. We wanted her to be you, the player — more so even than Gordon Freeman. We wanted you to have this very intimate connection with this AI that changes and evolves over time time, leading up to the point that you betray her and do the most intimate act you can do with someone — murdering them in cold blood. So we didn’t want to rebuild this relationship with GlaDOS. It starts where you left off. (Meagan VanBurkleo, “’Oh, it’s you . . .’: Portal 2, Game Informer, April 2010, 53)

Now I suppose that it is rather silly of me to assume that the writers of Portal wouldn’t “get” the game that they had created, but this quote reminded me that I had made this assumption and reassured me that I was wrong in doing so. Intimacy is indeed the core of the experience of Portal and part of what make it such a compelling experience. Clearly, Wolpaw understands this.

In storytelling, intimacy is a rather important element and certainly it is created in other media in effective ways to create drama. Intimacy between antagonists in a drama generally creates a relevance for conflict. For example, cliched though it might seem to be now that everyone and their mother has satirized it to death, the scene in Empire Strikes Back when Luke discovers that Vader is his father was magic from a dramatic standpoint. Luke’s battle with the Empire took on a more vital and personal cast at this moment that made you reconsider the nature of the conflict between he and Vader completely.

Such intimacy between characters in non-interactive fiction seems a simple enough trick though. In interactive fiction, in which a player is directly involved in the narrative as they are playing a role in it, such a feat seems trickier. Certainly, one can create an intimate relationship between a player and other characters in interactive fiction, but it is usually contingent on spending a great deal of time cultivating a relationship through regular interaction – Bioware is aware of this notion as evidenced by the complex relationships that build over 40 or 50 hours of play time in games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age. However, since “you” are one of the characters, it is still tricky to believe in relationships that don’t otherwise exist. I can buy relationships at a dramatic distance from myself, but I know that I feel nothing for a character on the other side of a screen.

The interesting thing about the intimacy that is generated in Portal is how rapidly it is created (Portal is quite short by game standards) between a protagonist who is largely faceless and voiceless (as Wolpaw says and the first person perspective of the game supports, “We wanted her to be you, the player”) and a less than human cohort. Unlike Luke, who is distant from me as a viewer but that I can relate to distantly as well — I know what it is like to have a Dad — the player seemingly has no relatable experience of intimacy to compare the dramatic relationship to, and besides that, even if the game were to suggest familiarity between Chell and GlaDOS like a familial or romantic relationship, the player is still the player, the fiction of feeling that familiarity would again seem to have no basis in reality. The illusion of intimacy is easier to maintain at a distance, harder when you yourself are involved and know better.

The sense of intimacy that Portal provides between the player and an artificial intelligence though, seems to me grounded on a familiarity of circumstance. It is the situation that the player is launched into that makes the relationship to GlaDOS so familiar in the first game. It is familiar because it is familiar.

From the moment that Portal begins, the player is launched into a world in which a computer will be instructing him or her to take part in a series of tests. These tests will challenge the player’s critical thinking skills as well as that player’s reflexes, and as the game progresses, possibly become fatal to him or her as the tests go on. If this situation sounds familiar, feels familiar to a gamer, that’s because it is. It is a pretty good description of playing a video game.

The metafictional qualities of Portal are what lend it its intimacy because it is a game in which reality and fiction bleed into one another in such a way. GlaDOS is just one of many countless authorities that have explained to me the rules of a game, how to control myself, and then pushed me towards a particular goal of the computer’s design. This is an experience that I have every time that I fire up my Xbox and describes the curiously intimate relationship between player and gaming system that emerges in single player gameplay.

Hell, I didn’t even know that Chell had a name or was female throughout Portal because, as far as I was concerned, the protagonist of Portal was always me, playing a game was too familiar an experience to ignore. I cared about Chell, not because I cared about Chell but because I cared about me. I cared about GlaDOS only because she was the one directing me. Oh, and then I really cared about her because she wanted to kill me.

If this all sounds like I am losing my grip on reality and confusing pixels with people, well, Portal‘s script seems aware of that too. This kind of emotive response to something that the audience knows is fictional is satirized by the Companion Cube segments of the game. That a little box representing a companion and intimacy with that companion (hence, its simple symbolic marker, the heart on the exterior of the cube) can evoke compassion in the player is tested when you are forced to eradicate your poor little cube “buddy.” I know that folks like to repeat the mantra that “It is just a game” to explain away feeling anything about what they do to symbolic representations of humanity, but when I went to see Disney’s Up in the theater, there was nary a dry eye in the house following the opening few minutes of the movie. Every adult and child in the theater was more than aware that an animated wife had passed away but that didn’t change the fact that an artificial representation of humanity and sorrow still evokes a very real response from anyone with a soul.

The really striking thing about the intimacy created in Portal is how it is derived from tapping into a very fundamental human desire to respond to authority (we follow rules as children in part to ingratiate ourselves to the person behind the voice of authority) and a very fundamental experience of gamers, who find themselves doing the same, listening to and ingratiating themselves to the voice of authority.

This is what I find particularly apt about Wolpaw’s description of the intimate relationship between the player and GlaDOS: “We wanted you to have this very intimate connection with this AI that changes and evolves over time time, leading up to the point that you betray her and do the most intimate act you can do with someone — murdering them in cold blood.” On the face of it, this description of intimacy seems nonsensical. Murder as intimacy? Again, though, the experience that he describes — a changing and evolving relationship with someone in authority over you that eventually leads to betraying them by violating their rules — is one that is an altogether familiar one. And this one is not merely familiar to gamers. It sounds an awful lot like the relationship between parent and child. Didn’t Sigmund Freud use a metaphor about murdering a parent in an effort to describe how children eventually would attempt to get out from under the wing of their parents? Nothing can be as intimate, perhaps, as loving someone enough to follow their rules and then needing to “kill them” in order to escape that “game,” which makes this game feel like something more like a really familiar relationship.