Decorated Hero: Cave Johnson and the Aesthetics of Science

I don’t really go in for loving many cultural products. I’ve got my favourite film posters on my walls - Casablanca, Easy Rider and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - but they are there because I like both the prints themselves and the films. I find it generally quite difficult to take that step from appreciating something or finding it stimulating to laying down my life in its defence. I’ve never argued about which David Bowie album is the best, or which Call of Duty campaign is the most thrilling and visceral (man), or whether becoming a vegan should simply be a personal choice or part of a wider-reaching political/moral crusade. I steer clear because all of these things - and in general any topic with the power to bring forth heated conversation - are hugely subjective, and the people willing to jump into discussion at the drop of the hat - over the Internet or over wine - almost certainly have their minds made up already. I stood on a hill once and inadvertently urinated right into the wind. I haven’t made a habit of doing so since.

Beyond Flower, the undisputed greatest game ever made, I’ve only been emotionally touched in any meaningful way by games a handful of times. At the very end of Ico I got really dizzy and had to have a lie down. That corridor from Resident Evil 2 plagued me for years. I spent the entire duration of Damnation thinking it showed so much promise and actually became very attached to the little runt. It is Portal 2, though, that you'll be regaled about on this occasion, because it's what pops right into my head when I think about my fragile, haunted psyche post-play.

It is a universally accepted truth that the first Portal, because of its purity of intent and execution, is a better game, and I'll kind of have to agree with the whole human race on this one. The basic draw - shoot a pair of interconnected portals onto different surfaces and travel seamlessly between the two to solve spatial puzzles - is undeniable genius, but there are many others. The thrill of slowly discovering the macabre secrets hidden within the Aperture Science Enrichment (testing) Centre, the witty repartee spewing from every line of dialogue, its disgustingly high level of artistry and the fact it is pretty much perfect - not to mention the right length - make Portal super, super - super fantastic. It's really great. When I was through with it I was left enriched, dumbfounded by the possibilities it hinted at for the whole medium: "games can be something truly unique and special" I thought, as if it had never occurred to me before. It had of course, but Portal really is, by my reckoning, one of those creations that will stay with humanity until we haplessly wipe ourselves into oblivion: Portal is really important.

Portal 2, also by my reckoning, couldn’t possibly be all of these things again - especially as short - because it is by definition Portal Again: Bigger, Bolder & Uncut. A bad sequel - Friday the 13th Part III or GTA: Vice City, par exemple - takes the building blocks of its predecessor and rearranges them, maybe adding in a couple of shiny chrome-coated or talking ones, but largely plays it safe (as houses). A good sequel, like Friday the 13th Part II (or IV, VII or IX to varying lesser extents), takes those blocks, chucks most of them away and builds anew mainly from the bottommost layers; the creative foundations, if you will. So while Portal 2 isn’t as much of a watershed moment, it actually resonated with me much more strongly precisely because it so wonderfully follows an already watertight game in a smart way. Portal cements all the basics of storytelling, mechanics and tone, which leaves its successor ample room to finely craft character and place. These two aspects of it are so inexorably linked together, and in my book are the things which elevate it right up there (almost) alongside Portal: The First One.


The opening stretch of the game is almost a humorous send up of the (deliberate) limitations of the first's design. You're thrown into test chambers and tasked with completing their puzzles as you would have previously, but here, owing to the years that have past in between the two games, everything is decrepit and falling apart. Each chamber had a logical solution when it was designed by Aperture - indeed, you completed some of them in the first game - but now the whole place is trashed you have to look beyond the way you played in One. Often, you can see how the scenario should have gone, but simply can’t connect the dots because a couple of the elements you remember from the first game are missing. It’s a phenomenally smart way of reintroducing the basic play mechanics, while simultaneously showing the player that things have move on and expanded.

You're reacquainted with GLaDOS, the homicidal AI running the research facility, and introduced to Wheatley, your spunky mechanical sidekick who is suspiciously reminiscent of Stephen Merchant's acting oeuvre. After a boombastic battle the two robotic character switch roles, with your arch enemy now becoming your passive-aggressive chum and the goofy comic relief turning into the evil goofy comic relief. You're then cast down a deep (deep) shaft and into Aperture Science's very past, as it transpires the facility you've been trying to escape from is built upon decades of much older, failed experimentation. Again, this whole setup section displays how flawlessly Portal 2 handles being a sequel: building upon the very core of the first game but ultimately tearing everything else up in favour of retaining only the basic flavour of that experience.

When you reach the bottom of the shaft you've effectively stepped back in time to the Aperture Science of the 1950s. It is a strange-yet-familiar environment which takes the recognisable and warps it some. The testing facilities are now made of concrete, MDF and steel, rather than the futuristic alloys and clean surfaces of before, and they perfectly capture the essence of sparse, twentieth century industrial futurology. The materials may be bulky and period-accurate, but their function and design are skewed just enough towards the future depicted in Portal that they harbour a forward-thinking glimmer of what we know is to come.

We quickly meet Aperture CEO Cave Johnson, who speaks to the player via pre-recorded messages intended for the original test subjects, and his personal assistant Caroline. After making his fortune selling shower curtains to the US military, we’re told, Cave set about developing outlandish technologies and inviting only “the best and the brightest” from sport, science and the military to test them. We explore a lavish art decoish waiting room, towering geodesical testing structures and cavernous, erm, caverns four kilometres below the Earth's surface. We're all the while treated to rousing speeches from Cave, as he evangelises about Aperture’s creations, their dubious health implications and the gigantic gap between his acumen and that of the “Science Boys”; the people who clearly keep things running. His bravura, however, is infectious, so while he seemingly doesn’t really understand the finer points of what he’s asking you to do, you’re more than compelled to go along with his gusto, as I’m sure many were inclined to do.

As you ascend through the complex you find your way into the 1970s incarnation of the Enrichment Centre and discover the fate of those scientific pioneers two decades earlier. Implicated in the disappearance of "a number of astronauts", Aperture have been forced to lower their exacting standards when selecting test subjects, and by 1972 are paying the homeless sixty dollars a time to participate in experiments. The decadent waiting room has been scaled back to a boxy prefab decked out with linoleum and uncomfortable chairs, while the testing chambers themselves are now spartan and somewhat dangerous looking. They are still made out of the same cheap, hardwearing materials as the 50s ones, but now they hang more precariously in mid air and only include the most necessary of surfaces. Ceilings are no longer present and only the walls which prove pertinent to each experiment are supplied to test subjects, everything else is either a sheer drop or bare steel girders. Cave sounds embittered and increasingly agitated at having to lower His Science to this level, and you get the real sense that something, although we are never told what, has gone terribly wrong (far) upstairs.

Our final stop is 1982 Aperture. Here, there is nothing present that doesn’t unquestionably need to be there. The solitary test we navigate is comprised of an exposed pipe, barricades made of scaffolding and a pair of concrete towers with bare steel walkways at their summits. There’s no waiting room per se, just an auditorium leading straight off the offices of Aperture workers, for it is they who are now the test subjects. A dying Cave - he was poisoned by ground up moon rocks, naturally - informs his staff that the Enrichment Centre will soon be automated, but that “there's still a few things left to wrap up”, so it’s business as usual. Through his coughing fits we can hear that Aperture is bankrupt, likely due to its lethally unmarketable inventions, and that he wants his consciousness transferring to a computer. If this can't be accomplished before his fast-approaching demise, Caroline should take over in his stead and be digitised, thus eventually becoming the basis for AI megalomaniac GLaDOS. You then return to the contemporary Enrichment Centre and foil evil Wheatley’s plans, saving the day and ultimately escaping with your life.


It turns out, now that I’ve actually thought about it properly, that your trip through history only makes up about a quarter of the game. This is rather strange really, as my memory of Portal 2 is defined by this segment and comparatively little else. I think what’s so special about it is its masterful creation of a sense of place. The first game is deliberately nondescript to create hopelessness; to make you feel as if you’re a rat in a maze so unknowably large that you have no hope of escape. It is this which fuels its last act twist and makes your eventual flight so much sweeter. Falling down the shaft and exploring Aperture’s past is similarly revelatory, because while both the Portal games have bags of character, it has largely been removed and mechanical up until this point.

‘Meeting’ Cave and Caroline and interacting with wood, rock and potatoes is initially a bizarre about-face from a series built around gleaming, sterile isolation. Where the test chambers and corridors of the modern Enrichment Centre are built with single-occupancy in mind, these historic locations ooze with, at least to begin with, the sense of a communal stride towards a better(?) future. The grand decor and size of the 50s-era waiting room shows that Aperture was hoping to build something truly wonderful. That its CEO chose to be the ‘face’ of the whole endeavour goes some way to validating this train of thought. Even the 70s portion of the facility is much more personable than anything seen in its later years. There seems to have been a real effort gone into making its communal areas as unthreatening as possible; the cheap-yet-durable chairs, lino and suspended ceiling tiles making the whole place look like a used car showroom. And while Cave might long for the halcyon days before any national heroes ‘disappeared’, he’s at least paying people to test for him - though the amorality is still a bit indefensible. It’s not until the 80s - eerily mirroring our own history - where things begin their turn towards the grim. In the run up to automation, people have understandably ceased being the primary focus, this being reflected in the drab decor and muted colours of our small glimpse of 1982 Aperture. Whatever the era, though, its clear that people were everywhere during this thirty-odd year period, and I found that supremely comforting. When comparing these iterations of the Enrichment Centre to the cold, utterly scientific emptiness of the modern one, they are actually quite uplifting places to visit.

Cave, too, is a pleasure to be around. While he may be a single-minded industrialist, he is no monster, and I read his gruff commands to be more ones of fatherly encouragement than homicidal impressment. I think he genuinely cared about the work done at Aperture, and while that likely came at the cost of many (many) lives, it is quite touching to see how personally involved in everything he is. As things begin to unravel for the company, his sense of deep personal frustration is palpable. While his final few, somewhat deranged recordings are played for laughs, I actually found it quite heartbreaking to witness this man’s transformation from optimistic magnate to embittered relic. His demise is sad, as is Caroline's eventual interment in a machine, and although I only experienced them in a passive way long after their deaths, I became very attached to them. This, I suppose, is a testament to the inescapable sense of loneliness haunting the rest of the two games.


Once I'd defeated evil Wheatley and restored GLaDOS back to her rightful place overseeing the Enrichment Centre, I was finally set free from Aperture's facility. I should have felt a great accomplishment, or at least relief. Instead, I was just really sad. The song that plays over Portal's credits, Still Alive, is a scathing teardown of the player's accomplishments. In it, GLaDOS definitely taunts you, making it clear that although you seemingly just defeated her, she is fine and well, ready to begin testing again in earnest. It’s a darkly comic ditty, sung in sweetly homicidal tones, that promises further adventure. Portal 2’s song, in striking comparison, is called Want You Gone, and details her resignation at the thought of continued fighting. I’m not suggesting here that another sequel would be a good thing, but hearing my arch-nemesis hang up her murderous ways and set me free in such a downtrodden way was deeply affecting for me.

I went straight outside after the credits rolled, lit up a cigarette, sipped a beer and just stood there. I lit up another cigarette. Then another. And maybe another. It was a beautifully sunny day, but I just felt so - bereaved. I recognise how hyperbolic that sounds, but there’s no other description for my feelings at the time. It’s exactly the way I was left as a child at the end of E.T., when the little alien scoundrel finally gets to go home. My goal for two games - to escape - had been accomplished, but now I'd done so, well, I just felt so empty. There’s something special about that couple of hours I spent exploring Aperture’s past, becoming acquainted with Cave Johnson and Caroline and learning of the origins of GLaDOS. Maybe I became so attached to the voices and places through some form of spatial Stockholm syndrome; subconsciously recognising how hopelessly trapped and lost I was, forced to grasp out for anything familiar or constant to protect myself emotionally. Whatever the explanation, this only worked in the short term while I was playing; after the fact I was devastated.

I was surprised by Portal simply because it had a story. Portal 2 knocked me for six because its was so affecting. That all of its characters are either robots or recordings says a great deal about the quality of them and the writing and acting that brings them alive. The places, too, are special. In looking into Aperture Science’s past we’re able to understand just why and how things went so wrong. Leaving all of these things behind was deeply distressing for me, a person who so rarely becomes attached to anything inanimate. That, in my book, is a pretty strong compliment, and probably explains why a print of Portal 2 also adorns my walls, right up there next to my most treasured cinematic memories.    Images courtesy of and @kylekurpinski.


The above prose is proud to be associated with Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, an initiative which seeks to bring the diverse voices of video game criticism together about the person of a once again monthly topic. I think it's dead good, and so do these lovely individuals:


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