Thursday, May 26, 2011

Portal 2's Creation Myth

Portal 2’s narrative is a straight forward, linear story-line about rogue A.I.s with pathological designs and the human protagonist outwitting them to survive. Underneath this are parallels of another story that predates Olympic Games. Throughout Portal 2 Valve makes deliberate relations to the two Titans who represent mankind and portray the main character as the first mortal woman in Greek mythology, Pandora.

Wheatley is the embodiment of Epimetheus. Epimetheus represents humanity’s hindsight, its tendency for material concerns, and its often foolish/rash actions; he is often referred to as the Father of Excuses. From the very beginning of the game the player finds Wheatley blabbering, making excuses and throwing off problems on whoever seems most convenient. In the game he blunders and stumbles through any problem he has never encountered before and often only solves it if Chell is there to help him. However, in cases where he may reflect on past mistakes, he does the opposite of the above observations. This is most prevalent in the finale of the game, where Wheatley negates all of the weaknesses of GLaDOS’ downfall in the past Portal by watching the old tapes of the Chell destroying her. In matter of material, Wheatley is more concerned about his escape than Chell’s wellbeing: “Can you see the portal gun? Also, are you alive?”, he is immediately corrupted by the power he receives, and needs to test for the material high.

GLaDOS is Prometheus’ avatar. Prometheus brought man fire and art from the gods, is considered to be intelligent, and great in foresight. GLaDOS’ intelligence is undeniable in comparison to Wheatley. She shows foresight by preparing a trap for Chell when she escapes her grasp in chapter five. She can actively build new test chambers and juggle facility upkeep and problems Chell might cause. More importantly, she shows a lack of hindsight by giving Chell the Portal Gun, the very item that was her downfall in the first game. She asserts herself as Prometheus further by mentioning shortly after you receive the Portal Gun that she had a blackbox safety feature: in case of catastrophic failure “the last two minutes of my life are preserved for analysis. I was able—well, forced really—to relive you killing me again and again. Forever.” But she does not learn to dispose of Chell immediately after Wheatley’s blunders revive her. GLaDOS punishment for giving Chell the Dual-Portal Device is to be forced into a potato battery by Wheatley where she is cast to the very bottom of the Aperture facility and picked up by a bird and pecked at.

Chell represents Pandora. In the game she is paired with Wheatley, and in Greek mythology it is said the gods gave Epimetheus Pandora. All the gods gave Pandora a gift, this can be related to Chell’s traits in the game: her spring boots, the Portal Gun, a strong wit, and endurance. Pandora is also the first mortal woman, thus she has no parents; interestingly enough GLaDOS and Wheatley both accuse her of being adopted and an orphan throughout the game. Finally, Chell puts Wheatley in charge of the facility, unleashing havoc and destruction throughout the facility. This can be paralleled to the opening of Pandora’s Box.

These are not mere accidents or serendipity, there are other easter eggs hiding in Aperture. When Wheately sends you to the bottom of Aperture, where GLaDOS is pecked at, there is a building with the label of “TARTAROS”. This label fits, as Prometheus was cast into the bowels of Tartaros and had his liver devoured by an eagle every day. In the commentary in chapter eight one of the designers explains developing the reasoning to why GLaDOS can’t tell Chell the solution to the tests. “One solution we came up with was for the bird from act three to keep swooping in and pecking bits of her off your gun… Some of us though will always have a place in our hearts for the bird idea.” Finally, on the “turret redemption” line there is a rogue turret who once you help will tell you the brief story of Prometheus, wherein Valve makes an explicit allusion to the Greek mythos behind GLaDOS’ character traits.

Valve uses these parallels to create an entertaining and enthralling story. By inserting familiar archetypes into a futuristic setting, they have painted portraits of wonderfully deep and developed characters that are easy to love and/or hate despite (or because of) their obvious flaws. They have thrown these age-old characters into a complicated plot that draws players into really getting involved and the linear progression of story becomes shallow in comparison to the deeper narrative compared here:

In Greek mythology Prometheus and Epimetheus’ stories were the vehicles of the “creation myth” for man. Epimetheus, who spent all his gifts on other animals before he reached man and had nothing left. Prometheus, finding mercy on man, stole fire (the Dual-Portal Device) and art (science) from the gods and gave it to man, which allowed them the chance to walk upright. Punishment came in two forms. Prometheus was cast into Tartaros and had his liver pecked apart by an eagle every day, and man’s punishment came in the form of Pandora. Against Prometheus’ warnings Epimetheus gladly accepted Pandora and upon arriving she lifts the lid to Pandora’s Box.

Aside from opening a few doors, Wheatley doesn’t help Chell at all. He offers no solutions to puzzles, and Chell finds the single Portal Device by herself. And it can be assumed that all the humans in stasis under Wheatley’s care have died except for Chell. When they wake GLaDOS however, the A.I. gives Chell the Dual-Portal Device (fire) and forces her to test for the sake of science (art). When Wheatley does aid Chell in escaping, the two are joined (Pandora and Epimetheus) and shortly after Chell puts Wheatley in charge of the facility, unleashing havoc upon the facility. GLaDOS and the player both are both cast into Tartaros as punishment where GLaDOS is immediately found and stolen away by the bird.

Valve presents the player with the Greek’s creation myth for man. By doing so the story transcends its original shallow point and creates something much more meaningful. If the player removes most of the dialogue and takes a look at the character skeletons, their actions and personalities throughout the game, one sees that this idea was an intention during the first stages of writing. The game layers one story over another but doesn’t directly state it to the player. There are only hints, little x-marks on the surface to tell the player where to dig.

This idea actively involves the player in a quest for discovery. By doing so Valve adds an extra component to the game for its players and critics to resolve for themselves. It will take time to see what the designers’ reasons for layering the game as they did were, and any ground covered beyond is complete speculation for now.



Sources:

http://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanPrometheus.html

http://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanEpimetheus.html

Portal 2. Valve Corporation.

Presented by:

Whitney Cardona, Jacquelyn Tideman, and Johnathan McClintick

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