Warning: This post contains spoilers for Portal 2 and its accompanying comic Lab Rat. I encourage you to read the comic, which you can find here before you continue reading.
Last week saw the release of Valve’s much anticipated Portal 2. Already, the game has earned a great deal of well deserved praise. (For an excellent assessment of the game, check out G. Christopher Williams’s review of the game.). Put simply, the game is a joyful masterpiece, an absolute delight to play. Without veering far from the original game’s themes and system, Portal 2 adds several wonderfully implemented new puzzle elements, including laser beams, laser bridges, and a bunch of cool goop. Newcomer Stephen Merchent also voices a hilarious addition to the series in the form of Wheatley. While I adore the robotic British eyeball, I am also drawn to an even more tangential character, someone hidden away in the game itself behind wall panels and in secret rooms. Featured in the comic accompanying the game, and narratively playing a large role in the Portal canon, the Rat Man’s story and presence in Portal 2 enriches Chell and the play experience.
The vast majority of the Rat Man’s story is not actually in Portal 2 per se. Available online and in the “extras” feature of the game, the comic Portal 2: Lab Rat illustrates his contributions to the plot of both Portal and its sequel. Michael Oeming, creator of Powers and Mice Templar, was brought in to work on the comic in conjunction with Valve’s own team. Andrew Wicklund’s beautiful art graces the pages when depicting the Rat Man’s dappled mind and stands in wonderful contrast to Oeming’s illustrations of objective reality. Wicklund’s work also appears on several walls in Portal 2, her portrait of Chell most clearly highlighted during the first few stages of the game. Ted Kosmatka and the rest of Valve’s writing team worked on the Rat Man’s script itself. Unlike most comic tie-ins, Lab Rat is not outsourced. The developers lovingly shaped this story themselves, and it shows.
The comic itself is only 27 pages long, and it bridges the gap between Portal and Portal 2. Considering its availability, I would recommend everyone read it, whether or not they have finished Portal 2. To quickly summarize, Doug the mentally disturbed Aperture Science lab technician, having seen GLaDOS exterminate his co-workers, arranges to have Chelll pushed to the front of the testing queue, ushering in her victory in the first Portal. Seeing her dragged back into the facility at game’s end, Doug risks everything to save her, placing her in stasis until she can be awakened at the beginning of Portal 2.
In the Portal 2’s developer commentary, one game designer states the team contemplated including an additional human character in the game itself. They decided to scrap this idea fearing it may draw attention away from Chell and her relationship with GLaDOS and the facility itself — and rightly so. The Rat Man’s presence in the game is ephemeral. Like the hidden “the cake is a lie” scrawlings in the first portal, the rat man’s rooms are tucked away behind grates and panels and only accessible through clever portal maneuvering. Only the remnants of bean cans and painted walls mark his quarters. His removed presence does not detract from Chell’s own persona. The player is still unerringly represented as Chell. She remains mute, and no matter how many secret rooms that you might find, never comments on the Rat Man’s existence.
Nevertheless, the sensations of confinement and freedom are heightened by the Rat Man. His cramped and poorly lit shelters mirror the relatively tight quarters of the test rooms, themselves starkly contrasted with the immensity of the Aperture Science facility. Although both Chell and Doug resist GLaDOS, they are her prisoners. On the other hand, Chell’s mobility clearly exceeds Doug’s. With the help of a portal gun, leg braces, and an assortment of devices, players fly through the air, leap across chasms, and cross great distances in just moments. Doug in Lab Rat, on the other hand, must scurry between walls and dive out of the way of turrets. When leaving one of the Rat Man’s rooms, players may feel a sense of both confinement and freedom. While the surface may be far from reach, at least Chell is more free than the man hiding in the walls.
Similarly, the Rat Man’s abandoned enclaves serve as a reminder of Chell’s solitude. The only skilled survivor of GLaDOS’s testing fanaticism is gone and only his artistic renderings of Chell remain. The Rat Man’s devotion to his hallucinatory talking companion cube is heartbreaking and endearing in Lab Rat. Although the cube is not really sentient, it’s easy to feel a desire for the same sort of companionship. Chell must progress through the facility alone, save for the sterile pestering of deadly AI. This solitude is punctuated by the game’s final scene: Chell standing solitary amidst a vast and empty farm land. On sight of this open expanse, one might almost begin to miss the testing. Inside at least featured the ethereal presence of another.
Lab Rat also seems to speak to the player directly. As the embodiment of the player, Chell’s personal files revealed in the comic speak more of player behavior than character background. Noted on a graph, Chell was meant to be excluded from testing due to her overwhelming tenacity. Thinking back on puzzles solved, on the time spent experimenting with portal locations, trying to bend your mind according to the logic of portals, you certainly feel tenacious. Through the Rat Man’s relationship with Chell, Valve is praising and encouraging steadfast player behavior. The Rat Man trusts in you, the player, to never give up. While the story is tangential and optional, the motivation it provides is unique and valuable.
In one line of Lab Rat, the writers almost characterize Doug as a developer. He states, “There are moments when I can almost see the underlying grammar of this place. An impossibility, some mad architect’s opus — a relic from an age that never could have been.” His own imagination has run rampant, painting the facility according to his addled mind. A testing chamber is depicted predominantly, composed of separate puzzle pieces that he is both running from and constructing. Comprehending the facility and the game itself in its entirety is an impossible task. Although tinged with ill meaning, his assessment of the complex as beautiful and probably immortal could ring true for the game itself. Portal 2 is a marvel, and the Rat Man — accompanied by Valve’s gorgeous comic — only adds to the game’s charm.