The Portal games, as anyone who has played them will know, are delightful. They have a dystopian science fiction setting in the same fictional world as the more serious Half-Life games, but they manage to be hilariously funny at times, reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
So the games are clever and funny, but is that all? I think not. The games are called Portal and Portal 2 because they involve the player shooting portals into walls in order to reach the goal at the end of each level. Here is a demonstration of the basic gameplay:
I’m no physicist but it seems to me that what goes on in the games is almost, but not quite, impossible. It’s a simple idea yet impossible to wrap one’s head around. There’s a logic to it: shoot two holes and the first becomes a passageway to the second such that you can walk into n one and come out of the other, or simultaneously look into one and out of the other. But this of course can’t really happen and imagining how it might work could induce a headache.
The logic of Portal leads to the protagonist of the games, a woman named Chell, being able to see herself through the portals she produces. In the fiction of the games, she isn’t seeing herself as one sees oneself in a mirror or a camera, or as one sees oneself by looking down at one’s body; she is actually looking at herself as if from outside her own body. The portals are not screens or reflections, they are simply holes in the wall, and when Chell peers through them she can sometimes view herself in exactly the same way that another person could. This element of the game is more important to its value as a work of art than it seems, or so I wish to argue. The humour is great, the puzzles are fun, but the protagonist encountering herself means the game has something in common with not only Escher but some of the best surrealist art from Magritte and David Lynch.
I’ll come back to the question of what is so artistically interesting about a character meeting herself. First, here is the evidence that it is a theme that has been explored by Magritte and Lynch:
This Magritte painting is called Reproduction Forbidden. I won’t comment on its aesthetic worth except to say that I like it. The concept is quite simple and quite impossible: the protagonist looks into a mirror and sees the back of his own head, as if he isn’t looking at a mirror but through a window at himself, reproduced.
Now here is a clip from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Out of context this clip will make even less sense than it is supposed to, but just focus on what happens with the security camera:
Agent Cooper can see himself on TV standing somewhere that he is no longer standing, which is impossible because the video is a live stream.
But so what? What’s the artistic point of these weird impossible scenarios ? Well, here’s an insight into what Magritte may have had in mind. He once said:
I believe the world is a mystery, and that mystery cannot be spoken of in words. And therefore it can arouse neither anxiety nor hope… We are all a mystery. We are part of the world which is itself a mystery.
I think this explains the attraction of the surreal: things which cannot be made sense of. Surrealism is attractive in art because it generates irresolvable mystery which reflects the baffling complexity of the real world. David Lynch’s films do the same thing. Here’s a sample of what goes on in his mind:
I don’t remember my dreams too much. I hardly have ever gotten ideas from nighttime dreams. But I love daydreaming, and dream logic and the way dreams go. They are an influence because of just the way they are. One of the beautiful powers of cinema is taking that logic.
Dreams are often surreal or incoherent, and this is what Lynch and perhaps other surrealists try to reflect in their artistic creations. Magritte might also have appreciated the notion of “dream logic” as essentially the unsolvable mystery present in the world that he was describing.
In Portal, leaving aside the other aspects of the game (the sci-fi setting, the humour), the deceptively simple gameplay mechanic of creating an entrance portal and an exist portal wherever one likes, which meet up in an almost impossible way; this excellent idea for a game has the accidental or deliberate effect of causing one’s mind to fail to grasp what cannot be understood and this is perhaps an appropriate response to the world at large at least to some extent: it is at least sometimes appropriate to embrace the mystery of the world. Our minds are confined to our bodies and can never wrap themselves around the world. At least this is how the world seems, and good art might not tell us how things are but it does a great job of telling us how things seem.