Portal: Still Alive and the Weighted Companion Cube Moment

The Story: Waking up from her stasis bed, Chell hears the voice of GLaDOS, a disembodied mechanical female voice (more below), explaining about the procedures and warnings for a new experiment for Aperture Science Laboratories. Chell is in a glass room with a bed, toilet and coffee table. From inside the cube, Chell sees a round door in the room leading to another area. After GLaDOS glitches a bit, she counts down and an orange glowing hole opens up in Chell’s room and she moves out, but oddly, seeing yourself doing so through a blue hole in front of her. Moving on, she encounters a large round, red pressure pad and a suspended plastic weighted cube nearby. Approaching the cube, it falls to the floor, where Chell picks it up and places it on the pad. This activates another door leading to an elevator where she rides it down and into a room marked 01.

Chell learns that she is a human test subject and must complete a series of increasingly difficult puzzles that require cubes, pressure pads and the specialized Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or portal gun for short. The gun fires either orange or blue colored portals that allow Chell to pass through walls and objects, effectively transporting from one place to another in three-dimensional space. Chell further discovers that the portals are in direct relation to the other so that the speed that one enters one portal will be the same speed exiting out the other. That means that momentum can be used to manipulate the portals to give Chell access to areas she would have no way of reaching otherwise. For instance, she might place a blue portal on a step below her and the orange portal high above her. By jumping down into the blue portal, she flies out the orange and lands in an elevated area. This technique become mandatory for her to learn as she is tasked with escaping chambers, all the while being taunted by GLaDOS, who assures Chell that if she finishes, she will get cake. Interestingly enough though, at one point on her journey, she finds a secret room where a handwritten message on a wall suggests something might not be what it seems: The Cake is a Lie.

Impressions: Packed as part of a bundle in Valve’s Orange Box (2007) release, Portal: Still Alive is a re-release of that puzzle game with an additional 14 more chambers and a fleshed out story. An entirely single-player experience, the game’s portal gun is the driving force and is used in very clever ways that put realistic physics to the test as players navigate the complex chambers and puzzles. Chell is able to used cubes in some areas to stack or send through portals, and many moving puzzles require accurate timing and precise jumps. Chell is equipped with spring boots that prevent damage from long falls but is not immortal as she is susceptible to toxic liquids and falling objects, energy beams, but mostly to the mounted robotic turret guns loaded throughout the facility who also have mechanized voices and announce when their perimeters are being violated. They are also at the whim of Chell’s portal though and can be used to solve puzzles, take other turrets out.

The game excels because of its freedom, something that isn’t so obvious at first, especially given the chamber-like levels that appear very basic and linear. Given the shear amount of (or sometimes very little) surface area you can use with the portal gun, the opportunities for creativity in escaping each of these test chambers seems limitless. The fun comes in seeing just how few portals it takes to accomplish it. There are clever obstacles and dangers that, if manipulated properly, are crucial for success and make completing puzzles incredibly satisfying.

But what makes this so motivating, and a nice way to add humor to a game that has potential for frustration, is the GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) character, who has a running commentary on your progress throughout, with much of it highly sardonic and even a little cruel as she clearly despises Chell, though she doesn’t exactly know why but since she is a higher functioning machine must have a good reason. Throughout the game, even as she berates your efforts, her promises of cake if you complete the trials are the highlight, a gag that has a marvelous payoff.

That Moment In: Portal: Still Alive

Chapter 9 Test Chamber 17: At this point, Chell has learned to use the portal gun and the objects within test chambers to successfully pass (escape) a number of highly challenging (often life-threatening) puzzles. Many of these chambers, including the very first, include a cube that allows the player to advance by weighting them on pressure pads or blocking incoming laser beams or even as a step. They have been countless and are entirely disposable, with each cube stamped with an Aperture Science Laboratories logo on each of its six sides. At the start of Chamber 17, the player is given another cube, but this one is different. Instead of the Aperture logo, each side of the cube is adored with a bright pink heart and GLaDUS explains that this is a Weighted Companion Cube, which will “accompany you through the test chamber.” She then adds, “Please take care of it.”

Using the portal gun, which has a gravity beam in which to hold items in a kind of grip, Chell picks up the Weighted Companion Cube and proceeds as normal. Meanwhile, GLaDUS continues to offer exposition, telling how a common symptom of these tests is the belief that inanimate objects are alive. She also assures the player that the Weight Companion Cube will “never threaten to stab you.”

A bit further into this chamber, the player can discover another secret room, or “den” where the never seen Rat Man, a surviving, but highly delusional and medicated scientist from the laboratory has set up crude cardboard beds and ominous scribblings. It is only accessible with the portal gun and inside, there are further rambling on the wall, this time about the Weighted Companion Cube. There are images of people with their faces covered by tacked on cut-outs of the cube, including a bikini-clad calendar girl, surrounded by a number of hand-drawn hearts. It is clear that the Rat Man has a high degree of affection of the cube.

Chell continues on. Through a series of traps and elevators, the Weighted Companion Cube remains crucial to completing Chamber 17 and when the last objective of the puzzle is complete, the door open and GLaDOS congratulates the player for a a job well done. And then she says the cube must be euthanized in order to proceed. A foreboding aperture-shaped door appears in the floor and  when the button is pressed, open to reveal a glowing vast red. GLaDOS instructs you to drop the Weight Companion Cube into the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.

Why it Matters: Much like everything about the premise of Portal: Still Alive, there is no escape, even when making a fateful choice. Based on what the player has learned to this point, most will try to discover the “trick” that GLaDOS has planned, that surely, the incinerator is just a ploy and there is something in the chamber that was missed that opens the real door. But there is no trick. No matter the hesitation, no matter the effort, the Weighted Companion Cube must be dropped into the pit for Chell to continue (and the game to progress). GLaDOS explains that the cube itself would rather die than be a burden. And no matter how long you wait, once you commit and carry your faithful companion to it’s doom and let it fall in the flames below GLaDOS remarks that you killed your cube faster than any test subject prior.

What does a few hearts do to change the experience of the cube? A lot. By making it different and assigning it a name (and given the fateful orders to take care of it), the Weight Companion Cube, despite its brief showing, is a remarkably endearing character that has lasting effect. Dispatching enemies in games is par the course, but when it comes to dispatching a “friend”? That changes everything, even if that friend is a voiceless inanimate piece of weighted plastic. We have only Wilson to look to for evidence. In a game full of awe-inspiring art-design and level creativity that features some of the more inventive and original gameplay in all of gaming, a few minutes with a decorated cube changed everything about the experience and shifts the player’s motivates from self-preservation to a bit of revenge. This is the final straw, and as Chell exits the chamber with her Weighted Companion Cube lost to the fires*, she, and we, move on with a new determination.

*or is it?