The Memes of Portal: A Restrospective

Portal 2 will be out at some point next week pretty much everywhere. I have not played it yet, and even if I had I would not be able to talk about it, but one can only presume/hope it will bring with it a wave of new memes that nerds will repeat regularly for the next few years. But before we dive into that game we should take a minute or two to look back on the memes that put Portal on the map back in 2007, (Yes, it was the memes that made that game famous, not the awesome, innovative gameplay and the plot’s brilliant depth. You dicks.)

It’s strange to think about the old memes now. I didn’t realize just how much my anger at the repetition had ruined some of them for me until I thought once again about what they actually meant within the context of the game. Man, this game was brilliant, and there was so much going on in it that’s missed when you treat it like a meme generator. Let’s take a look:

(note:  These aren’t new insights. I’m just trying to remind you of how these things began so our minds can be right going in to Portal 2.)

“The cake is a lie.”

That sentence makes me shudder now that it’s merely treated as a funny thing to yell, but that does a disservice to it. Yeah, I’m sure some people would just say it because CAKE LOL, but the reason it stuck in my mind after playing the game was different.

Throughout the game, GlaDOS gives the player a single incentive for completing the Portal gun tests at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center: there is cake waiting for her at the end. But as you progress through the center, you encounter the scribbles of what appears to be a crazy person or persons that tell you, simply, “the cake is a lie.” Once the game has been completed we learn that the cake is not, in fact, a lie, and it is waiting in a dark room somewhere in the building.

As you go through the game, the scribbled messages fit in with your perception of GLaDOS — that she wants to kill you — but is it really that simple? It certainly appears that she wants you to hop on a sled that heads straight into a furnace, but does she really want you to do that? She had previously attempted some mind games; the first laugh-out-loud in the game for me comes when she admits that she had been trying to trick you when she told you that an earlier test was impossible. The companion cube is another example of this (we’ll talk more about that later). Is it not convenient that many of the rooms you enter after leaving the “course” are also built like test chambers?

And why are the scrawlings of a crazy person given such credibility? They are obviously wrong, since there is cake, so maybe they’re just more of GLaDOS’ mind games. Maybe there never was another test subject hiding in the building. Or maybe the other test subjects simply couldn’t handle the stresses of the psychological portion of the test.

I initially latched on to “the cake is a lie” because that sentence neatly sums up the way GLaDOS messes with you throughout the game. It’s brilliant. But you assholes ruined it.

The Weighed Companion Cube

Most Portal-inspired merchandise is related to the Companion Cube; there are earrings, fuzzy dice, plushes, storage containers, soap, mugs, rings, cufflinks, stickers and an endless variety of clothing items. But, again, simply viewing the cube only as a funny joke — which it is — doesn’t do justice to its purpose within the game. The companion cube is a joke, yes, but it’s also a trick. GLaDOS gives you a cube — one that is identical to those you see throughout the game aside from the pink hearts decorating its sides — gives it a name and tells you that you have to carry it with you in order to make it through the next few tests. She tells you that the cube has feelings and is your friend, and then she forces you to toss it into an incinerator.

The bitter scribble-scrabble on the walls indicated the author’s deep resentment over the forced incineration of the companion cube. We all talk about the cube as if it’s a character; the Half-Life wiki even refers to it as one. Even though it is actually just an inanimate object with hearts painted on the sides, it is psychologically irresistible as GLaDOS gives it the attributes of a living thing, and it is the only “living thing” in the game that doesn’t take steps to harm you.

People tend to gravitate toward those who treat them well, and in the context of Portal, the cube is the only thing that treats anyone well. It doesn’t lie like GLaDOS, and it doesn’t try to shoot you like the turrets; it just travels with you through Test Chamber 17, earning its name. To us it’s a joke, but to the isolated humans within the game it’s something more, even though it’s ultimately just a psychological trick and a very prominent subset of “the cake is a lie.”

Still Alive

YAY, we get to play this song in Rock Band! And we’ll laugh all the way through it! Despite the lyrics being written out on the screen for you as GLaDOS sings it, none of the folk I’ve ever spoken with about it have discussed the implications of them aside from the part where GLaDOS says she’s isn’t dead, something I always thought was weird since it begins with a declaration that the events of the game went better than GLaDOS could have anticipated. The first seventeen words are basically a confirmation of the things I wrote in the first section of this article.

Thinking about this song in context, I am in awe. You defeat GLaDOS and then find out the cake is real, and then this song happens. It’s a denouement in song form, and, like the cake revelation, flips the entire story premise on its head  Or maybe it doesn’t. It could be another psychological trick. It feels like there’s some sarcasm in the second verse when she says she’s not angry at the player. What a mindbender.


GLaDOS has a funny voice, constantly lies and says things like this:

“The Enrichment Center promises to always provide a safe testing environment. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.”

“That thing you burned up isn’t important to me. It’s the fluid catalytic cracking unit. It made shoes for orphans. Nice job breaking it, hero.”

“I’d just like to point out that you were given every opportunity to succeed. There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the Companion Cube. Of course, he couldn’t come because you murdered him. All your other friends couldn’t come either, because you don’t have any other friends. Because of how unlikeable you are. It says so here in your personnel file: Unlikeable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikeable loner whose passing shall not be mourned. ‘Shall not be mourned.’ That’s exactly what it says. Very formal, very official. It also says you were adopted. So that’s funny, too.”

“Have I lied to you? [pause] I mean, in this room?”

It’s impossible to know just exactly what’s going on in GLaDOS’s computer brain, but the things she says indicate, on the surface, that she’s off her rocker a little bit. That she’s Erica Christenson in Swimfan. (Take that, Fatal Attraction.) That she’s a computer is part of the joke, yes, but that she’s a computer also indicates other things about her: that she’s operating according to some sort of plan, that she has a purpose for doing what she does to the player.  A crazy human may act at random, but a computer, even an AI, will have a stated goal.

That Valve has included Portal in the Half-Life universe — to the point where Aperture will play a prominent role in the next Half-Life chapter — means that the Portal series is more than just about neat puzzles and comedy, and the plot of Portal must be taken seriously. As GLaDOS must be taken seriously on some level.

The beauty of Portal is that it works on three levels: as an ingenius puzzle game, as comedy and as a many-layered mystery. The comedy is so prominent and effective that it deemphasizes the mystery, which in turn makes the mystery that much more dense. I don’t know if that’s how they planned it to work, but….

So are you psyched about Portal 2?

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2 Comments on The Memes of Portal: A Restrospective


On April 16, 2011 at 11:03 am

I’m excited… not BF3 excited, but still excited

Mark Burnham

On April 16, 2011 at 3:40 pm

If I remember correctly, one of the Portal 2 devs said specifically there won’t m be any “cake” nonsense in the game. So that meme is probably (hopefully?) completely dead.

But I have a feeling the cake will return, still. We’ll see…

Only two more days!