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It's difficult to write comedy, especially in video games. It’s largely an issue of timing. Comedians and writers can set the pace for humor by directing the audience’s experience. There's a cadence to Slaughterhouse Five that carries Vonnegut's comedy, and any brief viewing of some of George Carlin’s best material shows how his jokes rely on rhythm as much as content. Since a game relies on player interaction, of course, the timing that writers and comedians utilize diminishes in effectiveness. Still, no matter the title, people always try to find something funny (usually in the form of a glitch) to throw up on YouTube and give us all a laugh.
There’s no shortage of funny games, nor is there a dearth of different types of humor, and games built specifically to be funny must have some type of philosophy of humor at their cores. The Monkey Island series works clever puzzle design into its mechanics, as well as no shortage of wit and wordplay. Saints Row, however, goes for puerile exploitation instead of subdued irony. This year even saw the release of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, a game that made fun of its own craziness by parodying 1980s cyberpunk aesthetics with modern mechanics. Each title and series approaches comedy differently, but there is one series that uses humor more effectively than any others this past decade: Valve’s Portal franchise.
To recount the story of how the original Portal was the best video game surprise ever and how the franchise has such a devoted, vaguely-cultish following would prove superfluous. Everyone already knows that it’s funny, but finding a locus for the game’s humor is a bit more difficult. Why is it funny? What makes GLaDOS’ passive-aggressive remarks and Wheatley’s bumbling antics so amusing? If I had to pin down a central philosophy for Portal’s approach to humor (and I do, because that’s what this article is about), I’d point to its malfunction, not as a puzzler, but as a horror game. In other words, Portal and Portal 2 find a comedic center by “failing” to be sci-fi horror games.
There are as many theories of humor as there are types of jokes, each as joyless to read as the next. From Aristotle to Žižek, philosophers have always had some sort of fascination with comedy, and the varying explanations for why we laugh range from a release of unconscious tension (Freud), to a need to laugh at baser forms (Plato). The most relevant to my argument comes from Igor Suslov, who proposed his “Computer Model of a ‘Sense of Humour’” in the early nineties. Essentially, he explained how information processing and the potential for glitch mirrors how we psychology process a type of biological incongruity and laugh to “reset” our systems (really, it’s a theory in dialogue with work from Hegel, Bergson, and others, but it’s too much for me to keep straight). Laughter is a biological mechanism meant to acknowledge and then move beyond something that doesn’t quite fit together, without us all having angsty, existential crises.
The world of Portal, however, has an existential crisis of mammoth proportions. Though Suslov's theory of humor is more akin to discussions about how software glitches or malfunctions can lead to laughter, Aperture Science fits the mold as a system in a state of constant error. A team of scientists at Aperture wants to science harder than any have scienced before. GLaDOS, a cold yet weirdly nurturing AI, goads you into performing tests meant to …test something? Chell, trapped like a rat in a maze of lasers, toxic chemicals, and eventually the ruins of an even older lab, silently performs these tasks in a way that even the other characters (er...AI?) acknowledge to be strange and out of place. What we encounter, then, is not unlike the information model Suslov posits. Aperture puts forward a facade of scientific integrity and value, but from what we know of its fruits (sociopathic robots, mantis men, lunar poison) few of their experiments could be considered successes -- hence some funny.
But there's something darker at work in Portal, much more so than hilariously bad science--Chell's scenario is something straight out of the sci-fi horror playbook. She wakes up in a disturbingly sterile cell to perform tasks for a disembodied voice with vague promises of "cake" if all goes well. Strange, macabre scribblings dot the walls, revealing desperation and madness beneath the facility's sterile veneer. Tests become increasingly dangerous throughout the game, culminating in an attempt on her life via furnace and a timed battle against GLaDOS where failure results in a flood of neurotoxin. It's a dark setup that becomes much darker in Portal 2 when barely-functioning machinery keeps trying to maintain the testing facility. It's the perfect setup for a horror story. In fact, Wheatley reveals that ghosts haunt the deepest recesses of the facility...kinda:
Here, the game recognizes its horrific setup, only to dismantle it. The atmosphere--the treacherous walkways, the ambient noises from darkened recesses, all tell the story of a twisted place, but the story the robot tells completely unravels the tension that the atmosphere builds. The gameplay doesn't pause or force the player to watch a cutscene, allowing the player to explore what should be a terrifying environment as Wheatley verbally undercuts the visual aesthetic. Portal's visual language clashes against the dialogue in ways that make it humorous, and we laugh because we recognize this incongruity. Aperture Science turns from a haunted house into an amusement park funhouse--just without any actual creepiness or sleeping drunks.
Still, like most haunted houses, Aperture has seen its share of tragedy. Though her sardonic remarks provide much of the game's humor, GLaDOS has a dark, disturbing origin. In Portal 2 the disembodied ramblings of Cave Johnson, Apterture's founder, reveal that he performed experiments in transferring human consciousness to a computer networks. Though the game is quite unclear (and there are more than a few theories surrounding Portal), it's largely accepted that Johnson's assistant Caroline at some point "merged" with the computer to become part of GLaDOS' AI, hence GLaDOS' bizarre, sad recognition of Caroline's voice. The story takes a disturbing turn, though, when players discovered an unused sound file in the game of Caroline protesting what most believe to be this experiment. GLaDOS' form even mirrors a bound figure hanging upside down from the ceiling, a visible manifestation of her mechanical confines.
Equally tragic is the story of Doug Rattman, a survivor of GLaDOS' first neurotoxin incident who goes mad with isolation, hiding in walls and maintenance sections. He's the man behind the cryptic warnings about GLaDOS' lies, and his presence, despite his absence (though his story appears in the comic, Portal 2: Lab Rat), haunts the darker corners of the facility. His madness unnerves us because he's the only human we have any connection to in the first Portal game--and also because of his pseudo-sexual relationship with the Companion Cube, but that's another topic. Coming across one of his dens provides not only hints of treachery but also a drastic departure from the light-hearted tone established in the early stages of the game. In fact, the game never explicitly states whether Rattman is alive In Portal 2, the player encounters more messages left by Rattman in his final nest wherein his usual incoherent ramblings are accompanied by The National's "Exile Villify":
The mournful piano drives a haunting song about desperation and slow descent into madness. This small area, which can be neglected, keeps Rattman present in this digital world, another ghost like Caroline and Cave Johnson whose voices sometimes echo on still-functioning machines. It's precisely this fear of being caught in this never ending cycle of mechanical confinement that drives Chell (and the player) to find a way out of the Aperture facility. GLaDOS -- and later Wheately -- want to keep Chell as part of this hell by forcing her to perform with machine-like repetitions, tasks and trials until she is worn out and broken. The prospect terrifies, especially considering how, now matter how much she tries, Chell will never truly escape because she's already part of a confining system: that of the game itself.
But Portal isn't a horror game, and it undoes all these tropes with its central tool, the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. Here, the game's masterstroke falls. It would be impossible to play for straight horror with a device that allows the player to manipulate the environment in fun, bizarre ways: infinite falls, crazy bouncing physics, redirecting propulsion and acceleration gels because why the hell not? Like all the best comedic works, Portal and Portal 2 uses its native medium to build humor. Cinema does it with visuals. Prose and poetry do it with language. Comedians do it with voice and overall presentation. Valve does it with play. I don't know of anyone who has played the game and not laughed at some unscripted nonsense that arose from experimentation. Sure the dialogue is witty and sharp, but it's the gameplay that breaks the game's facade of scientific horror to reveal how virtual physics can produce hilarious results. When we're faced with such incongruities, we cannot help but laugh.
Portal and its sequel build comedy by creating a world that's constantly fighting itself, and thus in a state of perpetual malfunction that is exacerbated by the player's ability to mess around. Valve's particular approach was to build an atmosphere that offered horror and inject humor through scenarios, dialogue and player agency that slacken that atmospheric tension. Really, though, the lesson Portal teaches about comedy isn't one of complicated theories about laughter--it's one about design and commitment. Video games have a lot to offer the world of comedy, but to be effective, humor has to be more than an afterthought. Whatever biological/social/mechanical function laughter serves, the Portal franchise has elicited more from me than any other in the medium, and that's saying something. Because, despite what my wife, friends, coworkers, and family tell me, I'm the funniest person I know.
So what do you make of Portal's humor? When does comedy work in video games? Let me know, and we'll get to talking.
--DavidDavid is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!