How Portal portrays science

Portal presents a world that indulges in the idea of science. The facility of Aperture is a place of endless testing and research, where every placement and movement is calculated and pre-determined. It’s walls are endlessly white, it’s environments are sterile and void of any character or sense of human touch. This is how Portal, though Aperture, presents science to us. Science is shown as something straight, efficient and consistent.

Portal 2 is different. It presents a world whose walls are scratched and dirty, overgrown with vegetation. It shows cracked tiles falling into the underground ocean, rooms filled with broken machine parts, turret bots assembled and disassembled. Aperture turns from the straight and sterile into mess and malfunction. And through Aperture, Portal 2 presents science as confused, uncertain, and perhaps even purposeless.

It’s a trickle down effect. Aperture carries a warped view of science, a mindset imposed on by its founder, Cave Johnson, and his successor GlAdos. Cave’s tapes, played throughout the old test chambers, permeate the facility with science rhetoric, but are void of substance or context.

At Aperture we do all our science from scratch; no hand holding.

I’ll be honest, we’re throwing science at the walls here to see what sticks.

Worst case scenario, you miss out on a few rounds of canasta, plus you forwarded the cause of science by three centuries

Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not. You ask: why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: why not marry safe science if you love it so much.

Cave’s use of science is vague. It demonstrates no understanding of what science is or how it works. Instead, science becomes a rhetoric, an umbrella term for all things grand, precise, and trustworthy. The idea that the science itself could be a “cause” to be “forwarded,” implies a kind of science that acts purely for its own sake, in an endless circle, a void. And that’s what Aperture becomes long after Cave’s death: a facility that acts purely for itself, performing endless tests conducted by robots in isolation and irrelevance.

Cave’s humourous, outlandish one-liners turn his ignorance into something conspicuous and caricaturish; it criticizes and makes fun of his nature through humour. His diction also paints him as an everyday man. His level of understanding is closer to the typical layman or the occasional science consumer, rather than one who should be running a research facility. Cave, then, seems to reflect more on us as the public that absorbs science media and culture throughout our lives. His ignorance and sensationalization of science becomes a reflection of the publics.

The People

It’s a known phenomenon among scientists that the general public doesn’t understand science very well. Many people surveyed by the Pew Research Center don’t understand basic science–for example, only 46% were aware that electrons are smaller than atoms, 47% understood that lasers work by focusing sound, about 60% knew that Pluto is, in fact, not a planet anymore, and 61% were aware they’ve recently found water on Mars. When the Charlton research company performed a health survey in the U.S, they found that 66% couldn’t name a working scientist; most of those who could chose Stephen Hawking. 84% couldn’t name their government agency that funds science. 62% couldn’t name the government agency whose job it is to prevent diseases, and promote health.  And 50% couldn’t name the agency that funds medical research, an agency paid by the public through taxes. Those aren’t textbook questions; they’re basic knowledge of how science functions in one’s society.

Despite this, the public, like Cave Johnson, has high regard for science (at least in the U.S.)  Most of those surveyed believe that science has a positive effect on society, and that scientists contribute to the well-being of society. Most believe that scientific research is necessary and should be government supported.  Our culture is engaged with the idea of science, since it is a part of popular media such as speculative fiction, high-grossing films, AAA games and popular literature.

In 1994, Alan G. Gross discussed two ways in which science is communicated to people. The first was a deficit model, a one-way flow that “implies a passive public;” practitioners don’t try to persuade people of the value of science, but act as though the public is already persuaded; they refrain from convincing or building trust. The second was the contextual model, a “two-way flow” that stresses the “interaction between science and its publics;” public trust is built, not assumed; the needs of science and the needs of those who aren’t fully engaged into science are better integrated.

Aperture Testers are intimidated, deceived,  and taken advantage of. There is no communication or building of trust, only condescension and the belief that their experiments are worth the pain caused to others. This is the “one-way flow” that Alan discusses. It’s a mindset that’s assuming of its own importance, and lacking the need to justify itself. But Aperture acts in isolation. What’s different here, is that science is an interaction between two forces: those who communicate science, and those who consume it, though scientists, science media, general media, and pop culture. The way we interpret science is influenced by those who communicate science to us.

In the end, it’s not necessarily how much science we as a public know, but rather how it’s interpreted. If science is a tug between two forces, then wouldn’t that mean science is best interpreted as a two way flow as a conversation between those forces. When we see rovers land on neighboring planets, or mathematicians teach cardioids through notepad doodles, or documentaries where physicists describe their excitement towards finding new particles, science isn’t planting its feet in the sand and waiting for us to learn how to appreciate it; it’s adapting its language towards the way people engage themselves: through ambition, imagination, dedication, and passion. Here, science doesn’t assume it’s own righteousness, but acts to justify itself and convince others of its value.

Perhaps then, there’s a way a society can be in constant conversation with science. Portal 2 conversely, presents a world where science only speaks to itself. It’s quite lonely, really.


The roles of rhetoric in the public understanding of science

US Public Opinion: An Untapped

Resource for the Science Community

Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago


  1. Don’t you think Portal 2 spends more time considering the dangers of pursuing scientific advances with suspect ethics and greed? I interpret it more as a scenario where something goes terribly wrong with the scientific process, rather than science only speaking to itself.

    • patriciaxh

      Can’t both be true? He starts off saying it creates ‘mess and malfunction,’ the fact that he didn’t focus on that in this essay doesn’t mean it can’t also be true.

  2. Chris

    Portal 2 also portrays Aperture as a second-rate facility, lucky to win the most trivial of contracts (with the Black Mesa references). The joke is that Aperture specialize in crackpot science; badly-planned, badly-executed, ill-conceived, inefficient projects. The idea that such poor science could produce working technology is a joke in itself.

  3. 3n3rgym4n

    Even considering Portal or its successor to be seriously considering a discussion of real science at any point in the gameplay is either to demonstrate extreme ignorance or to be editorializing a trivial point. The game series collectively uses the concept of ‘science’ as seriously as Harry Potter fans take the concept of ‘magic’. It’s a plot device, it made things happen, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously in and of itself. Not only is it a significant joke in both the first and second installments of the game, it’s also justification for the existence of the facility. Besides, if we are going to take the so-called ‘science’ in the games seriously, crackpot though it is, an onlooker should be able to reason that what the game entails is only a fraction of the facility’s capabilities.

    • Hold on, you should separate your arguments here.

      First off, how does arguing that a portrayal of science in a pop medium is related to and has some effect on what people think of real science demonstrate “extreme ignorance” or is a trivial point?

      Why shouldn’t we take it seriously?

      And how are we supposed to speculate on anything in the game universe that isn’t already demonstrated in the game?

  4. I don’t think Portal 2 ever sets out to make any serious commentary on science. I think it’s a comedy, trying to be funny, and science merely alternates between being a plot point and a punchline (well, OK, it’s more of a setup for the punchlines). I don’t think that makes any of the commentary in this piece wrong (it’s a well written piece after all), but it’s harder to lament all the ways Portal 2 doesn’t positively portray science when you realize ‘positively portray’ wasn’t the point. Funny was the point and they nailed it.

    Cave Johnson’s dialogue is wonderfully written and some of the best material in the game. J.K. Simmons is a genius actor. That’s the point. Does it play to certain cliches about the ‘layman’s’ understanding? Surely, but it’s so outlandish hardly anyone could take it as serious commentary by the developer or even the character for that matter.

    Again, I think much of what’s said in this piece is spot on analysis. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much analysis to realize Portal 2 is joking at science’s expense.

    If I were to stretch and try to find some commentary buried in Portal 2, I would say they’re satirizing the lamentable condition of “one-way flow” that Zolani describes in the piece. If anything, the commentary in Portal 2 is similar to what this piece is saying (that science talking to itself is bad; I mean, just look at Aperture) — only Portal 2 is quite funny, really.

    • I didn’t read any lamentation of positive portrayal of science here. Why should science be positively portrayed, in your opinion?

  5. Switchbreak

    I’m entirely certain lasers don’t work by focusing sound!

    • They don’t! I misread it as an affirmative. There should be a “don’t” in there. Apologies ^^’

  6. I find this interesting in the context of popsci “nerds” and the general “science is good, religion bad” internet atheist bugaboos.

    Is portal a criticism or just a new twist on an old meme? Given that Half Life is engorged with wacky science and a reverence to the possibilities does portal represent sort of an antithesis of their point? Whenever the inevitable crossover happens I hope it picks up on this theme, with Chell being at least skeptical of Freeman’s sciencey chops.