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Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

the international journal of

computer game research


Michael Burden
Michael Burden (BSc,
MA) finished his thesis
on the cultural impact of
algorithms in video
games and web sites
while writing this paper.
He has previously
worked for two video
game companies (the
defunct Igamol, and
Ubisoft), as well as
authoring video games
for research, and is now
performing analytics at
BioWare. His one-yearold son is already trying
to join his video game
Sean Gouglas
Sean Gouglas (PhD) is
Director of
Interdisciplinary Studies
in the Faculty of Arts at
the University of Alberta
and an Associate
Professor in Humanities
Computing. He is also a
theme leader for
Canadas Graphics,
Animation and New
Media NCE. His research
focuses on universities
and the game industry,
as well as women in
gaming. He is amused
at the irony that his coauthor is now analyzing
metrics for a large



volume 12 issue 2
December 2012


The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as

by Michael Burden, Sean Gouglas

The videogame Portal is an algorithmic exploration of human struggle
against algorithmic processes that have superseded their original
intended purpose. The game explores the search for freedom from
such computational processes. The freedom presumed in the portal
gun - which allows access where there was none - is circumscribed by
creating pathways that only open back into the maze of the Aperture
Science Facility. The promised reward for completing the algorithm is
freedom, but the promise is made by a master chained to the very
facility it controls. Both GLaDOS and the player are bound to complete
the algorithm. There is no escape.
Portal extends this tension, perverting the traditional relationship
between player and protagonist. Each test requires inputs to
complete, with the companion cube serving as a necessary but
disposable means to that end. What the companion cube is to Chell so
Chell is to the player - she reappears after each failed test like a
weighted companion cube dropping from a chute.
Harmony between the game mechanic and the story ensures
emotional resonance between Chells suffocation in the workings of
the system and the players own frustration in moving through the
game. Unlike other artworks, Portal not only communicates emotion
but also allows for play to achieve it. Thus when the narrative pushes
Chell to complete the tests by being incinerated, the players own
yearning to escape the confines of GlaDOSs control reaches its own
breaking point, synchronizing the goals of both player and
protagonist. This aesthetic of play speaks directly to the relevance
artistic videogames hold for {INSERT AUDIENCE HERE}.
Keywords: Portal, Art, Algorithms, Testing, Videogame, Aesthetics

"We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes
us realize the truth."
Pablo Picasso: The Arts (1923)
"The cake is a lie."
Portal (Valve, 2007)

Algorithms, the step-by-step processes that permit simple and
complex computation, provide powerful shorthands, allowing control
and exploitation with the promised certainty of reliable outputs. In
everyday life, algorithms surround us, and we increasingly give
agency to algorithms that are too complex for our understanding:
1. Algorithms control financial trades without oversight, as
humans toil on the ground serving the algorithms needs
(Slavin 2011)
2. Algorithms refine exposure to information, serving as
gatekeepers to that information, creating and reinforcing
perspectives (Pariser 2011)
3. Algorithms determine whether to receive an email or silently
trash it (Brownlee 2011)
4. Algorithms shape the development and release of books and
films (Wakefield 2011)
5. Algorithms keep aircraft in the air (mostly) (Heasley 2011)



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

Algorithms are optimized for defined inputs and repeatable processes.
However, unless the algorithm matches some fundamental law - if it
only holds to a temporary pattern in the social construct - then
eventually the reliable results of the algorithm will be invalid and
untrue (Martin 2009). Algorithms are unable to adapt to change, and
we are limited by the parameters of the machine and the way it is
designed to process those parameters.
Algorithms, however, are more than just instructions that run
software. As algorithms are used in and applied to social situations
they become forces that shape and persuade. Bureaucracy is just one
well-known example of the tyranny of ceding control to Kafkaesque
algorithmic processes. Rigid testing protocols of a quality assurance
lab would be another.
All videogame mechanics at their most fundamental level are
algorithms (Sicart 2008; Hunicke, Zubek, LeBlanc, 2004), which
Manovich (2001) sees as an explicit hallmark of videogames. The
game world is an algorithmic simulation of physical existence.
Videogames uniquely combine the qualities of game play, world
simulation and narrative (Lindley, 2003). As such, videogames provide
a fruitful medium for the exploration of what it means to be a human
in a world increasingly dominated by algorithms.
GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence that serves as the antagonist in
Portal (Valve, 2007), is a collection of complex algorithms unified in
single purpose to test for testings sake - and the algorithms have
gone mad. Chell, the test-subject protagonist, is nothing more than a
necessary algorithmic input. The experiments within the Aperture
Science test facility act like algorithms, taking their input and
producing output: pass or fail. Death for Chell is just a failed test - a
mark recorded amongst the other data for later statistical analysis in
the search for Taylorist efficiency. As GLaDOS has lost all external
context beyond her own functioning, Chells escape from the algorithm
is necessary for survival.
This paper argues that the increasingly algorithmic nature of everyday
functions and interactions creates an opportunity for self-reflexive
videogames to be especially relevant as an artistic medium it is our
embeddedness in an algorithmic world that is a natural fit for
videogame mechanics and affordances. To make this argument, we
examine four points. First, critical engagement with specific
videogames is more important to the general acceptance of the
medium as art than meta discussions about the potential of the media
to be art.
Second, through a close reading, we assert the art-worthiness of the
wildly successful videogame Portal. Given the games almost universal
acclaim, holding Portal up as art may seem like plucking low-lying
fruit. However, extended critical discourse of the game is lacking
most game pundits and theorists instinctively acknowledge its artworthiness without dissecting in detail its artistic integration of
mechanic, narrative and theme. The key mechanic1 - a gun that
shoots portals or tunnels that allow physical movement between
unconnected spaces - explores the meaning of freedom when trapped
in the algorithmic processes of what we perceive as reality.
Third, we argue that Portal explores what it means to be within a
game and to escape from that game an ironic function as Chell can
never leave the game and the player cannot escape until he or she
has completed the tasks laid before them by the designers. The
restrictions of space and agency become the mechanism of the
games functioning, subverting most of the genres well established
tropes: the training level becomes the game; the princess rescues
herself from the castle; the player dances behind the curtain as well
as on stage. The central narrative is the main characters search for
answers and escape while serving as the experimental subject of an
algorithmic machine focused on testing purely for testings sake. The
games chief conceit rests on the computer gone awry, presaging the
algorithmic control and growing dominance of metrics, analytics and
surveillance in modern society. Portal explores these issues by
subverting the proceduralist, quality control mechanism by which
production and truth are obtained. Identity and subjection are mixed



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

as an increasingly hostile and ever more perverted Milgram
experiment is inverted and repeated.
And finally, we examine the tension between the confines of a game
(its rules, controls, levels) and the expressive freedom of art to
challenge rules. Play engages the audience in different and potentially
complementary ways as compared to the intellectual and emotional
engagement of art. Through play, the game provides an artistic
comment on both the human condition and the medium.

The Art of Videogames

The debate over videogames as art has been contentious, although
the discussion seems to have diminished in the last year or so. Most in
the gaming community seem convinced that games can be art, and
there seems less opposition elsewhere, although perhaps still no clear
consensus. Still, the matter continues to hold interest (Muzyka and
Zeschuk, 2011), as does the debate as to whether any authority can
bestow the label 'art' on a medium. Some see such a blessing in the
National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announcement that it will fund
videogames as art (Bogost, 2011), the Smithsonian American Art
Museum's 2012 exhibit on 'The Art of Video Games,' (Smithsonian,
2012), or Roger Eberts exasperated concession Fine - Go play with
your toys (Stuart 2011)2.
Although perhaps too narrow an assertion, there appear two
motivations for considering videogames as art. The first, which seems
to be driving the public debate, is a search for legitimacy or relevance
for a popular medium. This motivation has trickled into the academic
discourse as some seek to convince their somewhat skeptical
colleagues and administrators of the intellectual authenticity of their
object of study. This debate, we believe, will lessen and ultimately will
be settled by inertia as the critical discourse around and about games
becomes increasingly enmeshed within the mechanics of academic
legitimacy: grants, publications and curriculum.3 In time, an imagined
sufficient quantity of anointed artistic games will reach the
consciousness of enough people that widespread acceptance will be
There is persuasive evidence that such a quantity has already been
met, with developers exploiting the affordances of videogames to
construct art or embed an artistic message. For example, Daniel
Benmerguis Storyteller (2008) seems an intentional artgame with the
interactive nature an essential element. A commercial game with
artistic merit such as Portal is different. It is produced with profit in
mind, despite the artistic freedom allowed its creators.4 Such
videogames employ the procedural rhetoric within games to expose
their world to the exploration of the audience (Bogost, 2007). A
growing critical mass of games exploring such issues present the case
for games as art simply through their excellence: Ico (Team Ico,
2001); Flow (Thatgamecompany, 2006); The Marriage (Humble,
2007); Passage (Rohrer, 2007); Flower (Thatgamecompany, 2009);
Braid (Number None, Inc., 2008); Graveyard (Tale of Tales, 2008);
Everyday the Same Dream (Molleindustria, 2009); Limbo (Playdead,
2010); and Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012). Like film before it,
games are or will be viewed as art and therefore a legitimate object of
study within a broader university community simply because standing
against this tide will be too difficult.
The second reason, which is more problematic and therefore more
interesting, builds on and lends weight to the first. In participating in
the debate on whether games are art, game theorists and critics gain
access to both a forum for discussion and a critical intellectual
apparatus in the examination and study of games. The debate itself
creates a discursive headspace for game study. Other forms have
made this journey before: film, graphic novels, pornography, etc.
(Carroll, 1998). Each has travelled the road in a slightly different
manner, negotiating and altering as appropriate to the mediums
affordances the various critical tools needed for effective engagement.
However, if calling a videogame art opens up these critical



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

opportunities, so too would calling it a text or a cultural object. Each
label unleashes a host of interpretive tools that could be adapted to
the peculiarities of the medium, with a semiotic deconstruction or
cultural studies encoding/ decoding providing as reasonable a first
step as the assessment methods of art historians. And yet, this
process was already well in hand without resorting to art criticism.
Aarseth (2003), Gee (2005), Consalvo and Dutton (2006) and Bogost
(2007, 2008) have already provided such paradigms, creating spaces
and toolboxes for effective engagement with the medium, as have
Konzack (2002), Malliet (2007) and Myr (2008). Perhaps in a few
years, critical assessments of videogames may depend exclusively on
these efforts, and will not require at least some comment on the
medium as art. We are not there yet.
The core challenge in defining art-worthiness, identified by Weitz
(1956), is that any definition presupposes a limit on what new art can
entail, which will inevitably be challenged because that is a function of
art itself. Robert Sharpe, for example, asserts that difficult boundary
cases of art remain fairly intractable, and for this reason he suggests
that Berys Gauts cluster concept is perhaps best equipped to deal
with the idiosyncrasies of the concept (Sharpe, 2001, p.275). "Gaut
provided 10 points to evaluate an object as art, including possessing
positive aesthetic properties, being expressive of emotion, and being
intellectually challenging"(Gaut, 2000). A group of artifacts might
qualify as art without satisfying all ten points.
Another response is that acceptance of art is often institutional, where
art is art in light of things already adjudged as art (Carroll, 1998, p.
7). This acceptance of art into the art world as a key factor in
determining art appears in other critical works. Eaton (1983) suggests
that communities decide art, while Bailey notes the need for some
community to consent to an objects status as art (Bailey 2000).
Mandelbaum (1956), drawing on Wittgensteins discussion of game
and family resemblance, offers a useful analogy. New artifacts require
at least some genetic legacy to earlier generations of critical
discourse. The legitimization of film as an art form could serve as such
a touchstone for the legitimization of videogames. Henry Jenkins, for
example, finds such inspiration in a paper revisiting Seldes' The Seven
Lively Arts, finding significant parallels for videogames (Jenkins 2005).
For this reason, Shyon Baumann's analysis of the process by which
Hollywood film became legitimized as an art form is highly
constructive. Baumann identifies three major aspects: societal
changes created an art space for film to develop, Hollywood changed
bringing it closer to well-established art communities, and critics
emerged engaging in significant and extended critical discourse about
film (Baumann, 2007, p. 3).
There have been important approaches from within the philosophy of
art community to consider the art-worthiness of games. Smuts
(2005), for instance, considers the viability of videogames against the
major theories of art: having a manifest aesthetic, acceptance on
institutional grounds, aesthetic evaluation and the role of auteurs.
Smuts argues that each of these definitions can be satisfied by
videogames, of which a few candidates exist although general
consensus of masterpieces is still lacking. Tavinor (2009a) found
Smuts' individual arguments less than watertight but agreed in
principle that videogames could satisfy any definition of art. Correctly,
Tavinor identifies as a chief challenge the interactivity of games
(2009b). This is a useful caution as interactivity is the defining nature
of videogames much like pointing out that painting could be art if
only one could get past all the brushstrokes. Interactivity provides a
potentially unique opportunity for commenting on social and cultural
issues. Presaging Bogosts idea of procedural rhetoric, Zimmerman
It is clear that games can signify in ways that other
narrative forms have already established: through
sound and image, material and text, representations of
movement and space. But perhaps there are ways that
only games can signify, drawing on their unique status
as explicitly interactive narrative systems of formal play
(Zimmerman, 2004, p. 162).



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

Such a function is the mediums strength. By focusing on Gaut's
cluster theory, Tavinor shows how various videogames (including
Portal) can be used to satisfy each of the 10 required criteria (2009a).
In a follow up article (Tavinor, 2010), he argues the case for all of the
criteria using Bioshock as an extended example.
What can be taken from both Gauts and Baumann respective third
points is the need for engagement with the medium, including
exhibition, award and critical analysis. The quality and thematic
complexity of some modern videogames invites such critical
discourse: Braid explores issues of time and regret in a love affair;
Flow explores consumption, evolution and death; The Marriage
explores the fragility of relationships over time when balanced with
the personal needs of the partners; Limbo explores our deepest
psychological fears of death and longing; Ico juxtaposes the playful
adventures of a young boy against a young womans keen awareness
of their real danger.
Here, we critically engage with the game Portal, demonstrating that it
explores a multitude of themes about human existence and modern
life in intelligent and unique ways. This analysis does not explicitly use
the paradigm of either Gaut or Baumann as the scaffolding upon
which to assert its case that videogames can be art. Instead, this
paper provides a critical engagement with one videogame, which is
essential to both Gaut and Baumann. This paper (one among a
growing number of papers) takes up the challenge of the 2010 Art
History of Games conference, which asked the question: What about
videogames is artistic?

Rage against the Machine

The Game
Portal, written by Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, is a single-player,
puzzle-solving, first-person shooter released by Valve in 2007 to
critical acclaim and commercial success, with total sales in excess of
four million copies (Magrino, 2011).5 The player controls a female
human named Chell, who awakens to a bright overhead light in a
spartan glass cage. Movement is free but restricted - there is no
obvious escape as there is no door, only a pod-like bed, toilet, radio,
video screen, mug and clipboard. An unseen synthesized voice begins,
Hello 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 (Portal, Test Chamber
00).6 The lack of shared memory between the player and Chell
dovetails with the cognitive impairment of prisoner isolation (Travis &
Waul, 2003). The only focus, for both, is as test operant.
The primary game mechanic - and purported purpose for the tests - is
the portal gun (the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device or
ASHPD), which allows shooting separate sides (portals) of a spatial
connection into different locations. Thus shooting one portal at a wall
next to the player and the other, paired portal at a wall far away
allows the player to move between the two portals as though they
were two sides of an open doorway. Some might find the term
wormhole helpful. The portal gun, obtained in Test Chamber 02 but
not made fully functional until Test Chamber 11, is required to
complete the tests. This necessary instrument ultimately provides the
means for Chells escape.
The story of Portal is initially told through exposition and experience.
The player is within a contained environment (not unlike being a test
lab rat) and is presented with challenges that move the player into the
next confined space. While this reality is evident through experience,
exposition occurs in the form of a computerized voice in the tannoy
speaker system, eventually revealed as GLaDOS, which presents itself
as both the operator of the tests and, at least initially, the benevolent
female guide representing the Aperture Science research team.7
During the initial levels, the voice betrays a personality that is slightly
unhinged, blindly following some perverse test protocol: Please be



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test
protocol, but is an unintended side effect of the Aperture Science
Material Emancipation Grille, which may, in semi-rare cases,
emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel and teeth. (Test
Chamber 02)
Although the modulated voice and garbled syntax of GLaDOSs
introductory speech suggests that she is not quite human, the player
cannot be entirely sure the voice is a computer until Test Chamber 06
when null values in the database become manifest. GLaDOS praises
Chell for successfully navigating a difficult test chamber:
Unbelievable! You, {SUBJECT NAME HERE}, must be the pride of
Unlike the Wizard of Oz, or the Mechanical Turk before it, this quick
peek behind the curtain reveals not the person behind the machine,
but the machine behind the person. Tellingly, GLaDOS seems unaware
of her verbal mistake and how Chell might perceive these uninitialized
parameter errors. The algorithmic space created by GLaDOSs
programming is optimized and coded for testing and it runs
relentlessly regardless of consequence. She not only ignores the
interpretive consequences of her mistake, she seems completely
oblivious to them. The testing algorithms are always geared towards
reliability, even at the expense of sense (in logic terms, they are valid
but not sound). As the game progresses, the benevolent voice
masking GLaDOSs murderous intent cracks, then shatters.
A parallel dissonance colours the players relationship with Chell. The
first person perspective and the agency provided by such interactions
create a sense of connection between the player and the avatar in the
gameworld - she is more than an empty shell. Some players may
even assume that they are Chell - akin to Heideggers notion of a tool
being ready to hand rather than present at hand (1962, 1, III, 15). It
is possible for the immersion to be sufficient that players never realize
that Chell is an intermediary between the games actor and
themselves.8 Chells lack of backstory and her silence throughout the
game fosters this identification.
However, through a fairly simple arrangement of portals, the player
can glimpse Chells physical appearance. Obtaining these partial
views, in fact, becomes a game in itself, as the player seeks to espy
more complete views of the protagonist, never quite constructing a
complete image. This wonderfully Lacanian captivation with the self
obtained through mirror-like portals plants a troubling seed: you may
control Chell, but you are not Chell.9

Test Chamber 17
Each test chamber becomes more difficult, introducing increasingly
complex consequences made possible by the affordances of the portal
gun, while GLaDOSs prompts to complete these tests become more
insistent. Obedience to authority, particularly scientific-institutional
authority, permeates all aspects of Portal with the game serving as an
instantiation of the Milgram experiment an infamous experiment
that examines the willingness to obey an authoritative voice cloaked
in the mantle of science (Milgram, 1963). GLaDOS compels the player
to be part of the algorithmic process.
The player is placed in the dual role of the learner who suffers for
failing to complete increasingly more difficult test chambers, and the
teacher who punishes his or her recalcitrant student. Wearing the
cloak of the Learner, the player as Chell is at first enticed, then
goaded, then guilted and finally threatened to complete each test.
Constantly punished for each failure (usually with death) and
increasingly demeaned when successful.
As Milgrams Teacher, the player pushes the buttons that prod Chell to
complete each task, punishing her with each failure. These concurrent
roles crystallize the players identification with and separation from
Chell. GLaDOS serves the role of Milgram, prompting the teacher to
inflict greater and greater acts of barbarity: longer jumps, riskier falls,



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

fatal electrocutions.
In Test Chamber 17, the obedience to authority experiment is laid
bare, where both Chell and the player are urged, for the good of
science, to incinerate an inanimate companion cube in an Aperture
Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator. GLaDOS positions the
faithful companion cube, a large, heavy cube covered in pink hearts
that is needed to hold down buttons to open doors in some tests, as a
friend to Chell - a friend that needs to be destroyed to make further
progress in the experiment/ game possible. Chell and the player may
reasonably hesitate to incinerate the cube given its personification and
the fact that the fiery pit is called an Intelligence Incinerator. Such
hesitation leads to increasingly insistent promptings from GLaDOS,
the Milgram scientist, pressuring the player to conform to the required
process. GLaDOS insists (Test Chamber 17),

"Rest assured that an independent panel of ethicists has absolved the

Enrichment Center, Aperture Science employees and all test subjects
for all moral responsibility for the companion cube euthanizing
"Testing cannot continue until your companion cube has been
"Although the euthanizing process is remarkably painful, 8 out of 10
Aperture Science engineers believe that the companion cube is most
likely incapable of feeling much pain."
"The companion cube cannot continue through the testing. State and
local statutory regulations prohibit it from simply remaining here,
alone and companionless. You must euthanize it."
"Destroy your companion cube or the testing cannot continue."
"Place your companion cube in the incinerator."
"Incinerate your companion cube."

When Chell and the player finally burn the cube, as they must to
advance the experiment, GLaDOS informs them that she euthanized
her faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on
record. Congratulations." Even here, when the Milgram-like nature of
the experiment is clear, GLaDOS continues her testing, providing a
Taylor-like efficiency assessment of the players willingness to inflict
pain on the Learner.10
This scene serves two additional purposes. First, it trains the player in
steps necessary to complete the game in the final confrontation. As
mentioned earlier, Portal inverts many gaming conventions. In this
case, the tutorial level is, in fact, the game. Second, it foreshadows
Chells fate. As Chell treats the companion cube, GLaDOS treats

You are. The companion cube...

The last four test levels contain barely-hidden niches that lie outside
the extant test environment. In these it is evident that at least one
other person has navigated the test facility in resistance to the
system. These dens contain scrawls and drawings that provide
encouragement and warnings to Chell as she navigates the facility.
Later identified as the stenographic ramblings of Doug Rattmann in a
comic called Portal 2: Lab Rat, the scribbles depict the troubled mind
of a former Aperture Science employee trying to assist the
protagonist, a mind that is all too aware of GLaDOSs constant
surveillance and malevolent intent.
Clearly, Rattmann is insane, a state of mind that arose from his
conflict with GLaDOS, but his insanity now protects him as he



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

navigates the realm behind the curtain. Like John Murdochs
awareness of the experimental machinery of the lived space of Dark
City (1998), Rattmanns knowledge of the inner-workings of the
machine is to be considered insane by any reasonable measure - both
the cake and Shell Beach are lies of the system.
One scribbling, arranged in a concentric circle around photographs of
a family of personified companion cubes at the beginning of Test
Chamber 17, states the following: I'm not hallucinating. You are. The
companion cube would never desert me. Dessert. So long... Cake.
Haha. Cake. A lie. The companion cube would never lie to me. Hidden
from GLaDOSs gaze within these seemingly mentally unstable
ramblings concerning the ultimate reward of cake, is the concealed
yet ominous warning You are. The companion cube. The assertion is
more than simple foreshadowing of Chells incandescent death at the
hands of GLaDOS, it is Rattmans warning to Chell that she has
another companion in these tests in addition to the cube.
On the face of it, Chell serves the role of Milgrams Teacher,
tormenting and ultimately incinerating her silent companion cube at
the promptings of GLaDOS for the benefits of science. However, Chell
also serves as the silent companion to the player, who with reckless
abandon allows Chell to die multiple times en route to the games
completion, always confident that a new Chell will appear, like a
weighted cube dropping through the chute. Rattmanns scribbles,
therefore, warn Chell to beware the player. The game is a lie.
In this light, GLaDOSs cautions to ignore conversation with the
normally silent companion cube take on an even more sinister tone.
GLaDOS, who may have tested hundreds or even thousands of
humans, may understand the affect that isolation and hopelessness
have on the human psyche, and therefore deemed it necessary to
warn Chell of an unhealthy attachment to the cube. However, if
Rattmanns warnings are to Chell, then GLaDOSs warnings are to the
player: ignore your silent human companion should she object to what
is necessary to complete the test protocol - let her burn.

Test Chamber 19
In addition to the burning of the companion cube in Test Chamber 17,
other events foreshadow Chells fate: for example, in Chamber 13
GLaDOS states, When the testing is over, you will be ... missed; and
in Chamber 16 a message intended for a robotic test subject is
delivered to Chell, "Well done, android. The Enrichment Center once
again reminds you that Android Hell is a real place where you will be
sent at the first sign of defiance."
As Test Chamber 19s obstacles are completed, Chell is on a moving
platform in an enclosed tunnel. A sign indicates that Cake - which
was promised for successfully completing all tests - is around the
corner. Instead, the platform is headed directly toward a burning pit.
GLaDOSs homicidal intent and indifference to suffering becomes
remarkably clear. The cake is a lie and the reward for successfully
navigating the tests is death. The test subjects purpose is to produce
data; consideration beyond this is immaterial. Chell has fulfilled her
purpose as a test subject and, like the cube, is now expendable, ready
to be replaced by the next test subject. In Gramscian doublespeak,
where the subordinate class comes to view the oppression as natural
and expected, GLaDOS congratulates Chell on the successful testing
and imminent death:
Congratulations. The test is now over. All Aperture
technologies remain safely operational up to 4000
degrees Kelvin. Rest assured that there is absolutely no
chance of a dangerous equipment malfunction prior to
your victory candescence. Thank you for participating in
this Aperture Science computer aided enrichment
activity. Goodbye. (Test Chamber 19)
Science was advanced, with nothing of value damaged in the process.
This murderous intent brings together multiple narrative elements
foreshadowed in the game, but also emphasizes the appropriateness



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

of the game mechanic for advancing that narrative ludonarrative
harmony (Hocking, 2007). Portals can only be affixed to visible
concrete walls. So far this has resulted in the cruel irony of a device
that can connect any space only permitting connection back into the
chambers that are Chells prison. At this key point in the game, about
two-thirds of the way through, the player might simply watch as Chell
moves helplessly to her fate. No icon or suggestion indicates that the
gameworld is offering anything more than this perverse, Kafkaesque
fulfillment of the testing protocol.11 There is no guarantee that the
player will notice in time a distant concrete wall behind and above the
fire pit. It is up to the player to fight for survival against the system
and recognize that the portal gun which seems shackled to Chells
arm - is in fact her means of escape. Although, ironically, the path of
escape and its reward trade the Test Chambers of GLaDOS for the
ongoing level restrictions of the game designers the player and Chell
remain slaves to the games story.
Unlike a film, a videogame can create a story that requires the player
to act, to instantiate Chells desire to stay alive. The gun stops merely
opening portals into other test chambers. The player takes the
initiative without knowing what the goal is. Self-reflexively, the game
cedes narrative control to the player, demonstrating the power of the
videogame medium, which Ebert indicated as a fundamental flaw of
story in videogames. It is, in fact, its narrative strength.

With her escape from the fire, the testing protocol is shattered. The
player collapses GLaDOSs Milgram paradigm, re-merging with the
protagonist in common purpose to escape the facility (but not the
game). This disturbance to the algorithm also reveals the final piece of
the GLaDOS story. At the moment of Chells escape, GLaDOS drops
any pretense of representing a team of scientists working for Aperture
Science. She uses the pronoun I for the first time to describe her
intent.12 The story is now clearly the struggle of woman against
Chell and the player then move through the infrastructure of the
Aperture Science facility, which to this point has only been revealed
through slips in GLaDOSs speech or the tiny chinks in the armour that
are Rattmanns dens. In Campbellian terms, Chell crosses the
threshold to see the dark, institutional inner workings in its entirety.
The portal gun opens a wormhole that deconstructs the facility and
shows visually, experientially and narratively, the belly of the beast.13
In the final showdown Chell confronts GLaDOS, who appears
enslaved, bound by tubes and wires to the very structure of the test
facility. The machine has escaped the control of her scientist creators
but has not found freedom. Instead, in Hegelian fashion, the master is
enslaved in her role as a master. She is imprisoned, perhaps even
more than Chell, as algorithmic constraints parallel her physical
imprisonment. In computational theory, the Halting problem means
that GLaDOS cannot know if she or any algorithm she sets in motion
will ever finish. To find out, she must test. This could be taken further.
For example, the Robertson-Seymour Theorem shows that the proofs
to many classes of problems are non-constructive. This means that
algorithms to solve such problems exist, but we can never know what
they are. One would imagine such a contradiction would force GLaDOS
to test. Relentlessly. In Portal 2, much simpler paradoxes play a key
role in advancing the plot.14
The boss battle is technically straightforward, in part because of the
training the player received in Test Chamber 17. GLaDOS is destroyed
by fire in a convenient Aperture-Science-Emergency-IntelligenceIncinerator, echoing Chells near-death experience. Psychologically,
the battle is more difficult. Shackled to the walls, GLaDOS appears a
tormented figure. It does not help that GLaDOS tries to reason with
Chell during the process, saying, "This isn't brave. It's murder.".
Although necessary to complete the game, there seems reason to not
kill the tormentor (Towell 2008). The experiment, however, must be



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

completed. GLaDOS releases a nerve toxin that will soon result in
Chells death, once again prompting, goading and ultimately forcing
the player to finish the test and win the game.15 Chell, the player and
GLaDOS are all seemingly free.
This ending shows that Portal is a winnable game. The winnability of
videogames is considered a reason, for example by Ebert (2010), to
consider them as sport rather than art.16 But, Portal does not keep
score; instead its integration of narrative and game mechanic drives
the play toward completion (Woods, 2007). On the spectrum between
competition and puzzle, Portal leans closer to the latter, separate from
competition-intense videogames (Aarseth, 2004).
Being a puzzle, Portal does gain its art-worthiness in a matter like
films: a specific objection might be that it has a linear plot. However,
in addition to the agency of the player in enabling that plot to take full
form (i.e., the players saving actions before the fire), the experience
of the plot by the player is uniquely suited to the interaction that is
only possible in a videogame. Leigh Alexander explains,
Even the simplest game is a series of mechanical
choices. Thats why players and designers are so
obsessed with the concept of choice in games; make
choice meaningful, make them affect what happens in
the gameworld. Just adding the element of interactivity
can make those narratives so much more complex and
powerful because you feel responsible for it (PBS
Portal takes the ability to make the player feel responsible for the
experience of Chell within the test regime of the facility, and pushes it
to extremes as, just like in the Milgram experiment, the test subject is
guided to the point of committing murder.

Gaming Tropes
GLaDOS and Game Design
The agon of Portal is the challenge of each test chambers puzzle, but
GLaDOS is the source of that conflict. She created the environment
and challenges that Chell must complete, much like videogame
designers do for players. And like GLaDOS, designers remain (mostly)
unseen, experienced through the challenges and environments they
create.17 The game designers, GLaDOS, Chell and the player are
known through that creation. All are trapped in it.
Chell and the player wander the path laid out for them by their
respective designers, seeking the source of their imprisonment. Upon
finishing the game and revealing the designers schemes, both are
free to be in the world, having ended their trial. Chell destroys the
research facility and kills her master, awakening in the middle of a
parking lot surrounded by debris, sunshine, clouds and apparent
escape. Interestingly, shortly before the sequel was released the
original games ending was reversed so that Chell was not free but
dragged back into the system, an idea that had been proposed as the
original ending (Reeves, 2010). That ending adds more horror to
GLaDOSs first words, Hello and again.18
For the player, this openness is the end of the game and its control
over the player. There is, however, an end-title sequence
accompanying the credits in which a song provides a more
sympathetic view of the controlling GLaDOS character. The song is
perhaps a vindication of the game creators for their role, or just a
reminder that all is in jest in a game. Either way, the player may then
move on to whatever else needs to be done or play again, like a good
test subject.

The Game Mechanic

One of the beautiful aspects of Portal is that design and play of the
game fully realizes and then transcends many of the core notions and



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

tropes of videogames. The association between GLaDOS, game
designers and dungeon masters are not the only form of this.19 The
test chambers embrace the limitations of level design, restricting the
area in which the contest occurs, like Huizingas sacred circle
(Huizinga, 1955). A game level must be designed, often in the way
that a theatre set represents reality: by backdrops, false barriers and
other tricks. In Portal the limitations of level design are embraced: the
Test Chamber is unequivocally the extent of the level, without false
walls or landscape backdrops (although in the second half of the game
there are blocked doors).20 The only existence is the level and the
concurrent tension between Chells desire to escape and the players
desire to finish.
The agency of the player - their capacity to act - is extended through
possession of the portal gun, which allows space to be overcome and
the player to create their own spatial connections. But this comes with
heavy limits: it can only shoot onto surfaces that are already extant,
and only a particular type of surface that seems to reside only in the
test chamber - the promise of freedom does not lead to freedom
beyond the control of the game designer (GLaDOS). In Portal, the
guns apparent freedom always opens up into the same trap.
The game mechanic concerns being within the confines of the
constructed space. Ultimately, though, the player is able to move
beyond the testing environment, called the "Enrichment Centre," and
into the freedom of the facility behind. This backstage does not
replicate an entire virtual facility, only the space required to guide
Chell through the puzzles that lead to GLaDOS. As Chells life as a test
subject breaks down so does the completeness of the game designers
levels. The entire illusion shatters as both Chell and the player see the
scaffolding of the facade.
The question of a level without a game can be considered. A common
cheat in games is no clipping (the players avatar is not stopped by
walls in the virtual world and becomes as a ghost). This is to go
beyond the game designers construct to truly explore with freedom.
The portal gun embodies this idea, but the player cannot leave the
confines of constructed space. If you enable this cheat in Portal, you
can get anywhere, but what do you do in a space such as the cake
room without the game being present? Other games explore this
tension. For example, this idea is inverted in The Path (Tale of Tales,
2009) where the game only becomes a game when the player breaks
the only rule of the game: stay on the path.
A videogames exploration of procedure can also include natural
processes. In Braid, the game mechanic allows the flow of time to
disengage from the physical and draw closer to the psychological
experience of time; another medium might represent time like clocks
melting in the sun. Because time is a dominant process in human
experience, it is not surprising that the experience of the passage of
life over time is a frequent theme of artgames. The agency of the
player is crucial to accessing this experience.

The Algorithmic Experience

A reasonable direction to pursue in closing this paper would be to
return to the videogames-as-art question, running through Gaut's
checklist of ten points to see if Portal is, in fact, art. But this paper's
purpose is not about keeping score but to discuss the artistic elements
of Portal, contributing to the growing community of scholars engaging
critically with the medium. Portal's art-worthiness is in its exploration
of the increasingly algorithmic nature of the world.
Art, however, is an exploration of human thought and creativity - an
act of freedom. Algorithms, those cold, dry entities of the computer
age, are foreign to it, despite the beauty they may create. They
appear predictable, repetitious, automatic. Such qualities could be
considered strengths when applied to systems requiring efficiency,
repetition and redundancy - useful when people are considered as
abstract entities needing regulation and control. Here lies the tension
between our moral sense and the pressure to conform to authorities



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

demanding the incineration of an unnecessary apparatus. The ability
of algorithms to perform sufficiently better in the regulation of human
affairs leaves us without the confidence of our own identity - those
who can see beyond the system's assumptions can only scrawl the
truth on the confined walls outside the official chamber.
Portal presents these tensions to us. It is the tension between the
cold, hard certainty of algorithms and the creativity and freedom of an
art. It is the tension between the algorithms simplification of complex
concepts versus the need for problematization and criticism. It is the
tension between a world without questions and the inquiry that art
embodies. It is the tension between knowledge that emerges from the
algorithms of the scientific method and the human knowledge
encountered in art. All videogames are algorithms, and therefore,
Portal is an algorithmic exploration of human struggle against
algorithmic processes. The games very nature is an adherence to
rules. Arts very nature is to challenge rules, to the point of defying
This leads to a curious challenge for videogames as art: the algorithm
must be obeyed. Perhaps most significantly, the game requires inputs
from a game controller, which are mapped to permitted avatar
actions. There is no game unless the player is tied to the controller.
Juul (2010, p.133) has shown the futility of resisting this demand
while playing (or technically, not playing) games like The Sims (Maxis,
2000) and Scramble (Konami, 1981). In Portal, if the player never
picks up the controller the game stays in the opening chamber, Chell
never leaves the Relaxation Vault; the game camera stays fixed on a
view of an open portal while the radio loops the same song. There is
nothing more.
Such controllers may be familiar to a generation raised on FPS games,
but they may be unwieldy to the uninitiated. Even if the audience/
player picks up and understands the controller, they still have to
demonstrate a certain facility to progress through the game. They
need to make portals hit their targets. They need to complete jumps,
sometimes against a clock. The games mechanism requires a
particular form of competence in the player. This takes training,
practice and learning. It is like demanding that the audience first learn
to ride a unicycle before they can see the play. This is not
performance as art, but action as necessary in order to have the
experience. But, it is still a barrier.22
Play is free activity but Portal only offers this in constrained doses.
Failure to play as the game requires will result in a failure to
experience the game at all. To participate in the algorithmic aesthetic,
one is required to act constantly and competently. This is a cruel
restriction - to showcase something defiant to display.23 Although the
output of the game is experienced visually and audibly, recording and
displaying a play-through of the game to be displayed like a film
would miss the point entirely.
It robs the experience of all those elements described throughout the
paper: the discovery that the tools for performance of the tests
permits escape, but an escape still bound to the test chambers (at
least until the final test); the dread felt as passage through the test
chambers unfolds a story as suffocating as the player's inability to
escape from the testing. These elements go beyond the aesthetic of
the game's output - beyond the aesthetic of its images, its sounds, or
the aesthetics of its story. This is the aesthetic of play.
The demand for competent input from the player is a barrier, but a
necessary one to emphasize a vital strength of the medium. The plain
fact [is] that it takes a player to play a game. (Koster, 2012). Games
demand physical engagement, but in asking more, more is offered.
Games may put up a barrier by forcing the player to pick up the
controller and jump through a few hoops in order to experience the
art object. But this is only so that control can be given to them, in
order to engage the audience directly: to reveal the world of the
artists imagination. Not to a passive, though intellectually engaged,
audience but to an audience that is engaged in play too.
To date most games have missed the opportunity to enhance their



Game Studies - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art

intellectual engagement in ways that are only possible as playful
engagement occurs. Portal is not one of these. The experience of the
algorithm Chells experience resonates because it is the players
experience too. Chells subjugation to process, her desire to act freely,
her hopelessness as she incinerates a silent friend these are not
transmitted to the player through the artistic medium but belong to
the player as their own.
Exploring the machine gone mad is hardly a new idea in science
fiction.24 However, the procedural nature of games provides a unique
opportunity to explore the increasingly procedural nature of such
increasingly prevalent technology. Interaction is essential to this
exploration. Trapped within the Aperture Science facility, subjected to
algorithmic constraints that frame all knowledge production as
process, Portal artfully explores issues well beyond the confines of its
test chambers.

The authors would like to thank their colleagues and three anonymous
reviewers for their assistance in drafting this paper.


Josh Weier, project lead for Portal 2, reflected on the importance of

the portal gun to the story by stating, I have my portal gun, and
everything is dripping from that (Francis 2010).

Interpretation - not a direct quotation.

To see a summary of such efforts in Canada, see Gouglas et al,


We might use the word auteurs with respect to Walpaw and

Faliszek, although the appropriateness of this label remains debatable
as it applies to interpreting games coming from AAA studios. See, for
example, Dermibas (2008).

It is not clear whether these sales were just the stand-alone version
of Portal, or whether they included sales of The Orange Box a
collection of games that included Portal.

Although Valve would later provide more backstory to the character,

in the game itself it remains unclear how long Chell has been in the
facility or, for that matter, if this is her first time being subjected to
such tests.

GLaDOS stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System and
is a homophone of Gladys.

As discovered by a third of the students who played Portal as part of

Wabash College curriculum (Klepek 2011).

This echoes aspects of Gees tripartite play on identities, where the

players action are active and reflexive of the character in the game players actions and choices not only move the character but alter the
possible future options presented to the character down the road
(Gee, 2007). In addition, with no other human characters in the
game, Portal skirts the uncanny valley problem that can hold
videogames back from conveying realistic emotions in the characters,
a limitation not traditionally faced in film.

The games designers have noted that the companion cube was
originally designed as a simple box (required to be carried to the end
as an additional challenge to the player), but that players often forgot
to bring the box. Erik Wolpaw, one of the games writers, learned from
government documents that isolation leads subjects to become
attached to inanimate objects (Edge 2008). Valve sells a stuffed
version of the companion cube, which is the most popular element of