One of the early stages in Portal is displayed. Note the use of lighting effects and color to direct the player to what is most important in this room - namely the switches and the door they have opened.

Thinking with Portals: The Potential of Games as Art


One of the early stages in Portal is displayed. Note the use of lighting effects and color to direct the player to what is most important in this room - namely the switches and the door they have opened.

This paper was originally written for a linguistics course at VCU. In it, I analyze the aesthetics, atmosphere, and level design of the video game Portal as a form of communication and argue that it is this type of game design that further define great video games as an art form. Also included is a comparison to several other texts studied in the class. Any questions about what I’m actually on about are welcomed.


The first thing you see in Valve Corporation’s 2007 video game Portal is a blank, white ceiling with a single, bright light – maybe an office building, maybe a hospital. Then, a glass window slides open from the center, revealing that you, Chell, were inside a pod of some sort. Immediately visible within the glass room is a toilet and a small table, on which are a coffee mug, a clipboard, and a radio cheerily playing what could be described as an advertising jingle. An on-screen prompt tells you that pushing the “X” button on your Xbox 360 controller (though this is different for users on the PS3 or a computer) will allow you to pick up objects. So, for example, you can place the clipboard straight into the toilet.

On the wall outside of your room is a timer, and after sixty seconds, the game begins by opening an orange and a blue portal through which the player may travel in order to exit the room. This is the first of 18 more levels which teach players how to play Portal until the game’s climactic finale. Because most of it serves as a tutorial, Portal is unique both in its use of level design as a form of communication and how this forms a lean and complete experience. Finally, Portal serves as one of the finest arguments that video games can be considered art, and it will be analyzed in this paper as such.

The first few moments of Portal find you struggling to understand your surroundings.


Twenty seconds into the game’s beginning, the voice of the the computerized test monitor, GLaDOS, mentions during her introduction that “although fun and learning are the primary goals of all Aperture Enrichment Center activities, serious injuries may occur.” This is precisely how Portal itself is structured, though the serious injuries come later. The most important concept to introduce here, however, is the portal. Kim Swift, one of the coders of the game that went on to become Portal, Narbacular Drop, states in one of the floating “developer commentary nodes” that “it’s absolutely critical that players quickly wrap their head around what a portal is.” This was accomplished by placing the first two portals in the game near each other so that Chell can see herself while looking through one. To further illustrate the concept that the player is not traveling through a wormhole, the radio provides “audio continuity”.

With basic portal travel understood, the player can move into the next room, which introduces the concept of placing a box on a button to keep the next door open. The only instructions here are a small pop-up that explains how to pick up the box (in this case, “X” on an Xbox 360 controller) and the opening and closing of the door when you stand on it. When opened, GLaDOS informs you that, if you want to board the elevator to the next test chamber, any foreign objects – like the cube – are vaporized. This is also implemented in order to provide a sense of completeness to the chamber and to make it so players cannot create portals between test chambers when they are granted that ability.

At the beginning of test chamber one (of 19), a giant screen is illuminated, displaying current chamber and out of how many, as well as whatever possible dangers Chell will face in the chamber – in this case, none. This chamber, however, features a stationary orange portal and a blue portal that moves between three positions – a box, a button, and the exit door – so that the ideas of “what a portal is and how it works” are concrete, according to developer Robin Walker, and that “stumbling around will almost always lead to a dead-end.”

The second chamber introduces an automated portal gun that can create blue portals. As developer Jason Brashill points out, players needed to be stopped in a hall above the gun in order to see and hear the gun firing so that they understand the purpose of the device once they take the gun themselves. This is reinforced when GLaDOS congratulates the player for grabbing the gun and explains that it opens blue portals. Before giving Chell the ability to open orange portals, several puzzles must be completed for the explicit purposes of dissociating entering and exiting portals from their colors, associating boxes with buttons, introducing energy balls which the player must direct from a firing mechanism into a switch, surfaces that can’t hold portals, conveyor platforms, a hazardous liquid that – if fallen into – kills the player, and more. Each concept is introduced and tested in some way so that the player never has to complete a puzzle in a way that hasn’t been explained before.

One of the most difficult concepts, however, is what the developers referred to as the “fling,” which uses the momentum generated from falling to shoot out of a portal across a gap. Since the concept is difficult to explain, according to developer Greg Coomer, two repeated visual cues were used: a pushed-out section of the wall and a checkerboard pattern of tiles in a pit. This, combined with a small illustration in front of this first gap that shows a stick figure diving through the air, associates these cues with the fling technique.

It is these combined lessons that culminate at the end of test chamber 19 when the conveyor platform Chell is riding is headed straight towards a fiery pit. Using the portal gun, the player can survive and eventually make his way towards a final battle with the now-vengeful GLaDOS. In order to defeat her, players must hit GLaDOS with a missile fired by a turret (introduced late in the game), retrieve one of the three round data cores that drop from her by using a variety of techniques, and then placing each core in an incinerator on the other side of the room. No new play mechanics must be learned in order to defeat GLaDOS.


Portal’s developer commentary consistently makes light of the testing the game when through, which caused several puzzles to become simpler, reordered, or deleted altogether so that players didn’t become too confused by any one puzzle or found some workaround that didn’t teach that puzzle’s intended lesson. For example, in an early puzzle meant to show how a cube – and not just Chell – can move through portals. Instead, some playtesters would stand on the button, shoot a portal behind the open door, then use the nearby stationary orange portal to bypass the puzzle. This was solved by putting a glass door in front of the button, which the player can’t shoot through.

Because Portal is a puzzle game, its primary mission is not to tell the player what to do, but what he or she cannot do, the glass wall being a great example. And while Portal is far from the first game to ever teach with level design (like the thousands of two-dimensional platformers like Super Mario Bros. that that can be completed by “running right” until the end of the level), it’s especially remarkable because so much of the game exists to prepare the player for the last half-hour of gameplay. As Nicholas Schiller, a Washington State University Library Instruction Coordinater, writes, Portal “ uses scaffolded instruction and layers lessons in a structure that provides more intervention to players who need it most and then gradually removes the support as players demonstrate a skill level that allows them to stand on their own” (2008).

Successful completion of Portal requires players to understand all of the concepts covered so far in this paper, from how a portal to works to using that portal to create and maintain forward momentum. An interesting roadblock to understanding, however, was the environment in which Portal is set in. Originally a cluttered and dilapidated space, the lab in which Chell is tested became clean, white, and sterile as developers noticed that players tried to interact with the environment in order to solve puzzles, rather than with portals. This marriage of gameplay and level design resulted in one of the most interesting and literary stories and environments in gaming.


Twenty seconds into the countdown at the beginning of the game, the warped, computerized voice of GLaDOS greets the player. “Hello,” she says, “and, again, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center. We hope your brief detention in the relaxation vault has been a pleasant one. Your specimen has been processed, and we are now ready to begin the test proper.” She continues, but is interrupted as the lights short-circuit and the voice malfunctions, speeding up and using Spanish briefly before with a matter-of-fact “And back. The portal will open in 3… 2… 1…” At this point, the first portals open, allowing the player to escape the glass room and continue through the test chamber.

This introduction is vital as both exposition and motivation, whether it be to complete some fun puzzles or try to escape from the test. The most important detail here, though, is that while you are in a testing environment with human details – comparable to putting a stick and some grass in a jar to make a captured frog feel “at home” – it is immediately obvious that, since the only “personality” you are introduced to you is a malfunctioning, disembodied computer, you are part of a poorly-maintained test left to run on its own. The fact that Chell is just another test subject is reinforced by several pieces of dialogue where GLaDOS later refers to her as both “subject name here” and that she “must be the pride of ‘subject hometown here’”. That the test is no longer monitored by people but by GLaDOS is echoed by the numerous robot-like cameras and a person-less observation room in each test chamber.

At the end of each test chamber is an elevator, which serves to signify an end to that test, to prevent any other objects from entering other test chambers, and to cancel any player-created portals, therefore creating a sense of both accomplishment and isolation, that there is no going back. This stress is reinforced by white padding that surrounds the interior of the cylindrical elevator, evoking a mental hospital.

The theme of overcoming a powerful, unknown enemy is a prevalent one in nearly all of Valve’s games. In Half-Life 2, this involves saving humanity from an invading alien force. In Left 4 Dead, your team must survive hordes of mindless, murderous people infected a highly contagious virus. In Portal, this begins as merely Aperture Science, the company in charge of the tests Chell is a part of. After the player escapes at the end of test chamber 19, however, GLaDOS emerges as the primary antagonist once the player realizes there aren’t any humans left in the facility, nor have there been for a while. As Chell escapes, GLaDOS becomes more and more panicked, shedding the cold, collected personality. When Chell destroys GLaDOS’s personality cores during the final battle, the computer becomes more and more irrational.

No longer restrained by Aperture scientist technology, GLaDOS has transformed for Chell from a passive third-party to an active aggressor. The player eventually learns that GLaDOS’ cores were originally installed to curb her sadistic tendencies, but not before they were all killed by a neurotoxin. The same gas is used to limit the final battle to five minutes, after which Chell dies. After destroying all four cores, both GLaDOS and the facility are destroyed, Chell briefly catching a glimpse of the outside world in the Aperture Science parking lot.


Portal, however, wouldn’t be Portal without its black humor, and one of the best of examples of this is the Weighted Companion Cube, a particularly great example of scientific and absurdist humor, but it also plays into some theories of power dynamics. While similar to other cubes in the game, it sports a pink heart on each side. In chamber 17, the cube must stay with the player at all times in order to climb platforms, deflect energy orbs, press buttons, and, unfortunately for it, progress to the next chamber. It’s unfortunate because the player must euthanize your companion cube in a pit of fire, after which GLaDOS congratulates the player for doing so “more quickly than any test subject on record.” GLaDOS also assures players that “an independent panel of ethicists has absolved the enrichment center… of any moral responsibility.”

This episode highlights one of the more compelling instances of the game driving players against GLaDOS (if they weren’t already), one of the key motivating factors in Portal beyond solving puzzles. Everything is painted black and white: GLaDOS is (quite literally) an unfeeling robot whose only thought when betrayed by her test subject is to kill her; Aperture is an evil, irresponsible company with no redeeming qualities; and every potentially optimistic idea or object is a thinly-veiled disguise for a testing variable, such as the companion cube or the promise of cake. About halfway through the game, this is made abundantly clear as the player beings to stumble upon hidden-away sections of the test chambers where a seemingly-crazed individual has scribbled out messages of “help” or that “the cake is a lie”.

These holes and passageways – which never lead out of the chambers – often reveal much of the disorder going behind the scenes, such as several broken security cameras, radios, wrenches, cans of beans, and more. When the player escapes the fiery pit at the end of chamber 19, he or she has done what Daniel Johnson of Gamasutra describes as exhibiting and penetrating Erving Goffman’s concepts of social engagement, similar to how a waiter would act in the restaurant versus in the kitchen (Johnson, 2009). When breaking out of the test area, Chell has “traveled from front to backstage and from backstage, right into the psychology of the antagonist” (Johnson, 2009), represented both by the degraded factory she now travels through and the anger and panic in GLaDOS’ language. As the player moves toward the scientist’s former workspace, she panics:

“You’re not a good person. You know that, right? Good people don’t end up here. Can you hear me? This is your fault. It didn’t have to be like this. I’m not kidding now. Turn back or I will kill you. I’m going to kill you and all the cake is gone.”

The irony being, of course, that she was going to kill you in the first place.


The point of all of this is to create a bad guy that must be destroyed, echoing such well-known figures as HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a common technique to motivate the player (or in 2001’s case, the viewer), and it has a lot on similarity to how, for example, extremes are presented in Cass Sunstein’s book, Going to Extremes. However, it is safe to both the narrative of the game and its antagonist knowingly exercise Sunstein’s kind of thinking. Sunstein is frequently concerned with the power of an influential leader of the decision-making skills of others, for example citing a scam where a man disguised as a police officer gives invasive pat-downs (Sunstein, 2009). However, these attempts to persuade Chell are blatant and frequently ridiculous that the player can see right through them.

This goes against both the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments, which Sunstein spends much of his time analyzing. Because Chell has few options beyond completing the test chambers (such as doing nothing), it is hard to conclude that she is obeying GLaDOS merely because she is an authority figure or because of anything in particular she says, because much of it is so darkly funny and impersonal. Even the killing of the companion cube fails to elicit any true depression – and instead black humor – because the cube looks and behaves like any other cube. A large component of Sunstein’s version of group polarization and thought is that, when in a group, people will polarize to “extremes” (which he never clearly defines) unless there is a series of checks and balances to limit the power or thinking of individuals (such as cultural norms or actual government procedure). One of these checks is “consequences,” which, in the context of the game’s plot, is obviously death.

Death in a video game is obviously a strange subject, because, well, Chell never actually dies within the canon of the game, nor is there a “game over” screen that requires the player to start from the beginning. If the game’s events are comparable to the events of a book or a movie, then even death cannot dissuade Chell – or even the mysterious person described earlier who once found refuge within the test chambers.


Chell is a silent protagonist without any characters to interact with (GLaDOS only talks to her), but her character is somewhat developed because the game is played in a first-person perspective and the game never leaves that, making the player experience what Chell does. When done right, it can be incredibly compelling in Valve’s hands, most notably in the “tour” of the Combine’s human harvesting efforts at the end of Half-Life 2. It also makes the player’s actions feel more personal and involved, something that other works of art cannot do as well (yes, a great work of literature can reach into you and capture you, but you aren’t, for example, courting Mr. Darcy yourself).

It doesn’t seem so far-fetched, then to suggest the Portal model as a correction to Jane McGonigal’s solution to her assertion that “reality is broken” in her book Reality is Broken. Her solution focuses on massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) with a focus on developing solutions to real-world problems through a rewards system (i.e. leveling up) and teamwork. But while her solution to a reality filled with depressing and boring obligations is to rework it to fit in a gaming framework, a more reasonable solution is not to elevate video games beyond the status of other works of art but instead acknowledge that they can be as effective as literature, music, or art at communicating some kind of meaningful message and can also serve as a useful teaching tool for a variety of purposes.

This is not to say that Call of Duty: Black Ops is comparable to Sgt. Pepper (moreso American Idiot by Green Day), but more and more games are focusing not just on completing some goal but creating beautiful atmospheres, compelling stories, and memorable characters for qualities beyond their abilities. If a game like that has not yet been made, then there are at least titles like Portal that represent a complete package, a unified statement with nothing extraneous, something to say, and a structure worth of being a textbook example of game design. It doesn’t seem like a stretch, then, to say that a game as effective at being a game as Portal is could also tell a compelling story with memorable characters that have the same impact as a work of great literature. The Smithsonian American Art Museum will open an exhibit in 2012 celebrating “The Art of Video Games,” and Portal was one of of 80 games chosen from the past 40 years. If video games can fix reality, it will be as an artform and not as a replacement for our actual jobs, as an education tool but still fun, and as a shared cultural experience rather than an esoteric activity shared by a select few.

1. Johnson, D. (2009, June 11). Analysis: Portal and the deconstruction of the institution. Retrieved from of_the_Institution.php
2. McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.
3. Schiller, N. (2008). A portal to student learning: what instruction librarians can learn from video game design. Washington State University Library, Retrieved from
4. Sunstein, C.R. (2009). Going to extremes: how like minds unite and divide. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
5. Valve Corporation. (2007). Portal (The Orange Box). (Xbox 360).
6. Valve Corporation. (2011). Portal 2. (Xbox 360).

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