The POTAToS Code: What Portal 2 and its secrets mean for the Half-Life universe (Spoilers)
by Greg Mengel
Portal 2 is full of secrets. Full of 'em. Enigmas fit into riddles which rest peacefully within conundrums all tied together by Gordian knots. They're like Russian stacking dolls delivered to Earth from The Twilight Zone by a faceless man in a Riddler suit. All at once intriguing, engaging, hilarious, tedious, and incredibly, wonderfully weird, these mind-teasing allusions and conspiracy theories currently hold the complete attention of millions of gamers across the globe in an international digital noir.
The problem is, there are just too many secrets floating around the interweb to keep track of. Discussions overlap, discredited theories get reintroduced, progress gets impeded by a lack of organization, and deciphering whatever message Valve is trying to send us gets confused. Any hints Portal 2 might contain about the Half-Life universe get lost like a child in a museum who foolishly relinquishes the grasp on his mother's hand.
Now that Valve has successfully released Portal 2, most of its fans expect the company to turn its focus back towards Gordon Freeman and the fight against the extraterrestrial Combine. We all know it's coming - the question is simply when. Fortunately for us, the cavernous depths of Aperture Laboratories offer not only a buffet of robot witticisms, but also a bountiful cornucopia of Half-Life Easter eggs, to feast on.
Before we go on, know that this article is ABSOLUTELY FULL OF SPOILERS. They're everywhere. They are the house in which this article was raised as a child. If you're allergic to spoilers, then you should leave. Now. Just close your eyes, put your fingers in your ears, turn around, and run as fast as you can, belting 'Oh, Britannia' with all your lungpower. Stop after five minutes, or whenever you run into something heavy that knocks you unconscious. It's the best way.
And here we go.
We're going Borealis to the future!
Imagine that title was said by Doc Brown of Back to the Future fame.
Found amid Portal 2's labyrinthine halls are a handful of distinct clues hinting that Aperture Science's portal research may have led them to the uncharted waters of time travel. Besides driving Steam forum users absolutely crazy as they attempt to nail down an exact Aperture Laboratories timeline, this creates a world of possibilities.
Could Chell's period of stasis have been manipulated, meaning that her emergence onto the Earth's surface at the end of the game at an undisclosed year? Is the "horrible secret" of the Borealis that Eli Vance fears a time machine?
It isn't a stretch to link portal technology to time travel. Stephen Hawking is one of many physicists who believe that a traversable wormhole through spacetime is theoretically possible if an exotic matter with negative energy density could be found to stabilise it. In Portal 2, Cave Johnson reveals that the stabilizing agent in Aperturian portals is a condensed essence of moon rocks, which makes up the white-coloured liquid that allows Chell to create portals on walls of any substance. Sounds like a good enough stabilizing agent to me.
If the Borealis is indeed a titanic time machine (or at least holds one), then the reasons Vance fears it suddenly become clear. Taking out the combine is one thing; doing it whilst navigating the tightrope walk that is avoiding major paradoxes is another. It may be possible that the Borealis contains something else entirely - many believe it could harbour 'super portal' technology, an anti-matter weapon, or some sort of megalomaniacal AI. I'm not convinced.
Adding time-travel to the Half-Life universe - hell, to any story - will make it infinitely more complex and difficult to manage. That said, if any writers have proven they have the industrial scientific umbrella necessary to pass through such volatile narrative weather, it's the writers at Valve.
The Great Chell Hunt
Let's be honest... we don't know when Chell was kicked out of Aperture Labs into the wheat fields of northern Michigan. It's a mystery. When she is awakened from her cryogenic dormitory at the beginning off Portal 2, an automated voice tells her that she has been in stasis for 99,999 days. If that number is to be trusted, then the game takes place roughly 276 years after the events of Portal, which occurs shortly after the Seven Hour War in which the Combine overwhelm humanity and form the dystopian apocalypse setting of Half-Life 2. If it's not to be trusted, then Steam forum users guess the level of degradation of Chell's stasis chamber shows that the time between games may have been as short as 27ish years.
I personally doubt that Chell was in stasis for over two centuries. Why? Because according to the Half-Life wikia "...it has been stated by Gabe Newell in an October 2007 interview that Chell has importance in the overall Half-Life universe, and will eventually have a fairly significant relationship with some of the other characters that we are already familiar with."
For Chell to have a 'fairly significant relationship' with any of the series' current characters, she'll need to be alive in the same century as they are. Maybe getting her there will somehow involve time travel...
That said, there's also a chance that Chell was never even actually set free.
In a 26/4/11 interview with PC Gamer, Portal 2 writer Erik Wolpaw shed some light on Chell's emergence to the surface:
There’s always that debate about ‘ooh we could pull the rug out from under you at the last minute’ which I guess we sorta did in Portal 1. I always feel that’s a little bit cheap, I feel you the player as Chell have earned a moment of grace, right?
We did three endings, it’s a long series of endings. We wanted to show you GlaDOS, show you Chell and then show you Wheatley – GlaDOS learns a lesson and promptly deletes it so she can set herself back to zero. You learn whatever you learn and you’re out and it doesn’t look so bad – but we know the Combine’s probably lurking out there somewhere. And you get the Companion Cube back – that could be good or bad, it’s not really clear. In my mind GlaDOS has given you the Companion Cube like “take your shit and go”, or the Companion Cube has been on its own adventure this whole time and just manages to escape at exactly the same moment you do, in which case it’s probably pissed.
When asked whether Chell would run into Combine just past those peaceful amber fields, Wolpaw had this to say:
The only qualification is something we’re just kind of saddled with – you know that the world to some extent has gone to shit, right? It’s not a happy world she’s exiting into. Although having said that we don’t know how much time has passed – maybe the Combine have been beaten back and the world is nice. If nothing else we want to give her as happy ending as we can, entering into the Half-Life universe. It’s a fairly bucolic scene, it’s very nice. She gets serenaded on the way out, that’s always pleasant. She does get a happy ending, there’s no point in being negative about it, I just can’t let go of the fact that we know where she gets that happy ending, and there could be some danger out there. I’m an adult, terrible shit happens to me all the time. I want happy endings for everyone, the kind I’m not gonna get in real life – I mean, we’re all gonna die, let’s face it.Yes, we all die, Erik. Only most of us aren't slaughtered by alien overlords minutes after being released from an underground laboratory where we were forced repeatedly to complete tests using a gun that defies physics by a sarcastic robot who is probably our mother. That's pretty unique.
Eli Vance ...of Aperture Science?
Somehow, there seems to be a connection between Eli Vance, the Gravity Gun, and Aperture Science. Here are some facts:
1. Eli Vance claims to have invented the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2.
2. Prior to GLADoS killing its inhabitants, there appears to be a Gravity Gun in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, along with an H.E.V. charger, shown in the comic Portal2: Lab Rat.
3. Chell's parentage is brought into question in Portal 2. Her freakishly successful 'Bring Your Daughter To Work Day' experiment and constant ribbing from GLADoS for being adopted tell us that her parentage must have been known by Aperture Science, and could very well have been linked to a scientist there.
4. Chell and Alyx Vance look kind of similar...
5. Azian, Alyx's mother, is something of a mystery at this point, as all we know about her is that she died during the Black Mesa Incident. She could very well have been a corporate spy for either Black Mesa or Aperture Science against the other. For that matter, so could Eli.
6. Or, if we'd rather not get into Chell's parentage (there's also plenty of evidence pointing to Cave Johnson and Caroline, whose genetic code is implanted into GLADoS, as Chell's parents), a collection of pictures found in Kleiner's lab in Half-Life 2 show of his former Black Mesa colleagues whom most fans believe once worked for Aperture, but defected. There's nothing worth noting in its scenery. Nothing at all. *cough*
Besides these scandalous mysteries, the last thing Eli said before he died was that he had something crucial to reveal to Gordon and Alyx about the G-Man. How did Aperture get ahold of Eli's Gravity Gun? How did Eli learn the 'terrible secret' of the Borealis? Is it possible that the G-Man is somehow related to Aperture Science?! Oy, what a tangled web. It seems as though Eli has a lot of explaining to do. ...err... had a lot of explaining to do...
One way or another, Eli's secrets will inevitably be brought to light.
Playing as Gordon Freeman and Friends
Though not found directly within Portal 2, news recently surfaced that Valve, whose single-player games frequent 'Top 100 Games of All Time' lists, is probably done designing single-player games. If this is true, then the next Half-Life will sport heavy cooperative play, and may look a lot like Left 4 Dead.
I don't hate the idea. Playing as Gordon Freeman, Barney, and Alyx wouldn't be terrible. In many ways it would actually do a service to the plot, giving players a chance to witness important character development first-hand, without needed to show it down their throats by way of excess exposition. But let's go a step further. Assuming the Half-Life universe's tangled web of a storyline somehow brings all four of them together, how about a dream team of Gordon Freeman, Barney Calhoun, Adrian Shephard, and Chell (each of whom has been the protagonist of their own game)? Talk about fan service.
The downside of no more single-player Half-Life is that we'll lose out on the solo exploration that has been such an integral part of controlling Gordon Freeman in the past. As a mute protagonist, Gordon is made all the more mysterious by his ability to accomplish tremendous feats while saying not a word. There's a certain serenity that comes from taking a break from the action to solve a puzzle in an outdoor setting, in absolute silence, without any fear of human players with mics loudly discussing whose turn it is to teabag a Combine corpse two feet beside you. Corpse-humping always seems to kill the magic.
It's not over yet...
The first thing we've learned about Half-Life from Portal 2 and its ARG is that we've learned nothing. Socrates would have liked that, if his genetic code were placed in a personality sphere.
It's been just over a week since Portal 2 came out, and talk of newly discovered Easter eggs pop up in the Steam forums every day. As of yet, it seems that nobody has accomplished 100% completion of the game. There's no way to prove it will happen, but I have a serious hunch that we'll see something more when that does. My guess? A five second extension to the video found at the end of the game. Once Chell is on the surface and the hatch door behind her closes, she turns around and either sees evidence that she's in a grid, or notices a Combine Stider/Dropship/Gunship turning to see her, or being shot down by Rebels of some kind. Or maybe due to some sort of time travel she arrive at the surface just before the start of the Seven Hour War.
This is all incredibly theoretical, but I would not be surprised at all if Valve snuck in a collosal teaser like an extended ending to prepare us for Half-Life: Episode 3 or Half-Life 3, one of which is rumoured to be announced at the upcoming 2011 E3.
To summarise what we've learned:
- The Borealis could very well contain a time machine (or a similarly dangerous weapon that somehow involves super-portal tech).
- Chell is likely back on the surface, either centuries after the events of Half-Life 2 or a decade or two after it. An interview with Erik Wolpaw seems to hint that she has emerged into a world that "to some extent has gone to shit".
- Eli Vance somehow either knew of or was directly involved in a relationship between Aperture Science and Black Mesa that may have involved corporate espionage. This may directly involve technology used to create the Gravity Gun.
- Though discovered by recent news (and not an Easter egg), Valve may produce its next Half-Life title with no single-player mode (only cooperative)
- There is more to discover, as we have not yet heard of anybody obtaining 100% completion of all trophy/achievement challenges in the game.
Want more Aperture-centric Easter eggs, not directly related to the Half-Life story? I'll lead you right.
- Portal 2 and PROMETHEoS
- A sane person. Yep, definitely sane. No craziness here.
- If you believe we put a man on the moon
- Who needs mom when you've got science? Explodey science. Delicious, explodey science.
- The Passing of Wheatley
That should be enough for you to bathe in the enigmatic waters flowing out of the Portal 2 Valve for a few hours. There's only one way to finish this article off:
Footnotes - SOCRAToS?
 - (Did you see what I did there? Did you see it? Yeah? Did you? No? With the pun? And the pun-making? No congratulatory high-five? No celebratory fist-bumps all around? Not even a smile? Alright, okay. You're a jerk. I get it. I hope you choke on that pride. Like a chunk of haughty sausage. You know, not enough choking to actually kill you, but just enough to make you say "Oh wow, maybe next time I shouldn't throw away perfectly good karma." Gandhi would've laughed. At my pun. The man had loads of karma. Guy was swimming in it. He bathed in it under a Valve. He gave it away to his friends and family as Christmas presents. Or the Hindu equivalent of Christmas. Herds of adopted multi-ethnic children are to Brangelina as karma is to Gandhi. You should try to be more like him. Only, you know, without the painful syphilis. Might've been king of the world if not for that syphilis. That's what made him so skinny. Syphilis will just sit there, in your stomach, waiting for food to drop down so it can snatch it up and swallow it in its dreadful maw before you get any nutrients. It works sort of like that scene in Alien when the extra-terrestrial leaps out of the man's stomach, or like the scene in Spaceballs where they make fun of the scene in Alien. Not kidding. I saw it on television once. Planet Earth. Terrific show. It was kind of beautiful, really. Full of... nature. Kidding, kidding! You almost took the lawyers of the leash there for a moment. I saw it in your eyes. "Oh I'm going to sue this bastard for slighting Gandhi. I am going to sue him right in his stupid ...face!" It was in your eyes. Fierce. Like a shark, mated with a tiger. Shiger eyes. Scary. Well no need, I apologise. No, no, I'm serious. How's this for a deal - I'll stop accusing beloved world leaders of having crippling alien venereal diseases, and you'll stop threatening to sue me and my loved ones. That work for you? Good. Wonderful. Excellent. On with your day, then.)
- Greg Mengel
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