Writing on the Wall: The Secret Messages of the Half-Life Universe
In 1981, a French graffiti artist named Blek the Rat coated Paris in stencil renditions of rats scampering about the city streets. They had no explanation, context, or detail beyond an outline. They were everywhere. Before the infamous Banksy followed in his footsteps, Blek was obsessed with the creatures, intrigued by their ever-present role as the only other living things in cities besides people. He was amused by their tenacity as disease-carrying vermin with the potential to outlive us, so he painted them to remind humanity how unimportant we actually are.
In Portal, as you navigate puzzle chambers at the whim of a twisted, sentient computer, the only acknowledgment of other human beings is in the form of messages left scratched on walls tucked away from the white, clean surfaces of the testing rooms. They begin in Test Chamber 16, where you discover this first incarnation of a phrase that would be come infamous in the gaming community. The phrase aggravates gamers now, but the first time reading the words “the cake is a lie” is what brought us to the dark side of Aperture Science.
Like Erik’s rats, the message taunted us with our own mortality.
The man behind the graffiti is revealed in Portal’s extended universe comic as a mentally unstable scientist named Doug Rattman. He is the only survivor of the neurotoxin released by GLaDoS, but more than just a detached messenger, it’s actually Rattman who is responsible for Chell’s selection to be tested in the first place. After surviving the facility meltdown at the end of the first game and watching Chell being dragged back into the testing area, he returns to the facility to make sure she is set to begin testing yet again. Wounded after completing his goals, Rattman collapses into a sleeping pod and drops her file, which lists the one attribute which deemed her unfit for testing. An abundance of tenacity.
The comic’s details linger in the game world. In Portal 2’s Chamber 17, you’ll find a graph outlining Chell’s remarkable tenacity combined with a misquoted line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “The bell invites,” Rattman writes. “Hear the turret, for it is knell that summons to heaven or to hell.” While slightly altered, this is essentially the final quartet of a pivotal monologue, spoken by Macbeth as he ascends the staircase to murder the king of Scotland. As he speaks it, Macbeth fades in and out of sanity, ultimately giving into the inevitability of his role in the king’s demise.
Likewise, Rattman is obsessed with the notion that Chell is predetermined to defeat GLaDOS and escape. He paints prophetic images of Chell painted in glowing white and the computerized monster crossed out. In one room, he depicts Schrödinger Cat – the theoretical experiment of trapping a cat in a box containing lethal items, not truly knowing if it is alive or dead – leaping out of a box and painted in Chell’s distinctive jumpsuit colors. The cat is even leaping over the moon, hinting at the games finale. The moon symbols are everywhere too, etched in corners and ceiling tiles. For Macbeth, his fate was foretold by three witches. For Rattman, the future is in the equations.
But, the images show that Rattman is struggling to keep a grasp on his own sanity and he’s not winning. On a wall, he paints his deformed face with files and pages fluttering outward alongside the words “It takes your mind.” On them is the number 219, which corresponds with both the phone extension for an outbreak of rogue AI and Chell’s file number. On the same wall, he writes “Too many variables.” It paints a grim picture of his time spent in solitude, failing to stay calm and composed like Chell. In fact, Rattman’s cognitive breakdown makes him seem barely human. But, that’s entirely the point.
Chell can’t break. Hell, she doesn’t even speak. Like Gordon Freeman, she’s the tough blank slate on to which players can projects themselves. If she vocalized panic or insecurity, we’d lose that relationship. So, Rattman does it for us. We never see him, because Portal is meant to be an experience in isolation, grappling with our setting rather than enemies. But, by receiving the dictations of his breakdown through the graffiti, Rattman becomes our emotional proxy. His images are unnerving and compelling at the same time because he is the surrogate for the madness we can’t express.
This is Valve telling us a second story, through indirect means, and they have a penchant for it. In Half-Life 2, we had City 17 and it too is crawling with similarly compelling messages. In the early chapters of the game, we see simple things, like revolutionary posters with Dr. Breen’s face captioned with the lone word “Resist.” We see walls painted with demonized representations of the Combine soldiers. Most of the the freedom fighters working with Gordon were former scientists like him and in proper form, they tag surfaces with the equation for electrical resistance (R=pL/A) to signify their rebellion. Breaking the fourth wall, there’s even a hidden area code for a real city in West Virginia called Freeman.
This is what graffiti does: it’s a reminder from the rest of the universe. In real life, it’s a subtle indication that others exist within our environment. But in City 17 and the labs of Aperture Science, the messages are much darker. The striking images and messages insist upon us the reality of a universe that is combating lethal forces, succumbing to horrific deaths, and going mad beyond what we can see.
In Portal, we break from puzzle-solving to see the comical and terrifying madness that befell the test subject before us through unhinged, yet enlightening images. Our simple story of a lady who defeats a massive computer with science is littered with clues to secret origins, Shakespearean allusions, and deep backstory. Through these messages, we’re even allotted an expanded emotional spectrum. In Half-Life 2, our contained journey of boat rides and antics with our gravity gun is punctuated with images of subjugation and struggle. The walls are branded with messages that City 17 isn’t a playground, it’s a war-torn nightmare.
I highly doubt Valve intended to associate their symbolism with that of an obscure 1980’s graffiti artist, but the correlation couldn’t be more perfect. Erik’s rats were the symbols of the forgotten and downtrodden. While the citizens of France weren’t attempting to defeat a maniac AI or battle Combine soldiers, the message stands and in all cases, we can empathize with strangers without ever seeing them. Graffiti is means to assert to one person the existence of many and Valve’s usage of the medium creates empathy for more than just one man, but an entire universe.