The concept of time plays a huge role in the story and imagery of Portal 2. After an indeterminate length of time following Portal, we return as Chell, a captive test subject of Aperture Laboratories. In the first moments of the game, we are awoken by Wheatley, an AI who claims he will help us to escape. We have been kept in a cryogenic state since the events of Portal and, as explained by Wheatley, says GLaDOS was destroyed, followed by “a long chunk of time where nothing really happened,” and then we woke up. We could have been asleep for 5 years or 50,000 years, so we are completely unaware of the state of the outside world. Our only source of information is the unreliable GLaDOS, our previous captor turned unlikely ally.
Throughout the game, we explore various incarnations of Aperture’s labs, from their inception to today. It is as though time is frozen with these different eras existing simultaneously alongside each other. This adds to our feeling of limbo as we navigate the labs, not knowing where we are or even when we are.
Portal 2 boasts a compelling storyline for what is ultimately a puzzle game. Even more impressively, it does this with little dialogue. Our character, Chell, is mute, so our understanding of Aperture’s innovations and ultimate downfalls come largely from level design and the periodical recordings triggered while exploring. On these recordings is the voice of Cave Johnson, founder of Aperture Science.
Cave Johnson’s jovial yet disconcerting recordings give us an insight into Aperture Science’s goals and ways of working. In the labs of the 1950s, Johnson refers to the test subjects as astronauts, war heroes, and Olympians. He says, “You’re here because we want the best and you are it.” Here we learn that in the beginning, people at the peak of their performance were chosen to test. However, once at the labs, there was no hiding the unusual methods Aperture used in their experiments—and the outcomes of these most likely affected their declining standards in chosen test subjects.
As we explore the 70s and 80s versions of Aperture Science, we discover that the lab could no longer attract the high caliber of test subjects it did in its early years, resorting to desperate measures such as bribing the homeless and, finally, enforcing their employees to participate in testing.
“Who wants to make $60… cash? You can also feel free to relax for up to 20mins in the waiting room, which is a damn sight more comfortable than the park benches most of you were sleeping on when we found you.” – Cave Johnson
Johnson’s recordings map the passing of time not only through their degrading standards but through his degrading health. Coughing and spluttering he explains that testing is mandatory for employees, and even mentions phasing out human testing altogether. This suggests that Aperture has exhausted all options in their quest for test subjects. If they were phasing out testing humans in the 1980s, and it is suggested that Chell was testing after these events, where does this leave her? We know nothing about Chell’s background.
GLaDOS taunts her about her parents, but due to the AI’s unreliable nature, this means very little. Is Chell human or an advanced AI testing subject, and is escaping Aperture just another test that she needs to solve?
Time is presented as an important theme not only through the story but through the design of Portal 2. The rapidly deteriorating ruins of Aperture’s past laboratories are in stark contrast to the slick, modern, state-of-the-art testing chambers we are used to. It is as though Chell is a time traveler as she explores each distinctively different era. The metal walkways and bridges are falling apart, which requires clever usage of the portal gun to navigate. The waiting rooms at the entrance of each building are kept in relatively good condition compared to this. These act as a time capsule from each period, which helps us to understand the stature of the company and to chart its history.
In the original Aperture of the 1950s, the flooring is black and white tiles and the walls are clad with wood. Chunky machinery is present, but the waiting room is classy, with comfortable vintage furniture and a portrait of the young, dashing Cave Johnson in prime position on the wall. When we move to the 1970s section, the interior color scheme is orange and yellow. The space makes the test subjects feel comfortable and safe, despite what they are doing there. The posters are the biggest indication of era change, which shows happy test participants holding wads of money. The men in the posters are dressed in ‘70s fashion and don thick curly hair and mustaches—a stereotypical image of men’s style from the period.
As Johnson bids us farewell and we leave the 1970s testing area, we see 1982 painted on the concrete wall. As we push through the emergency exit door we are transported to the ’80s. Grey flooring and white walls give the labs a cold, clinical atmosphere, far less inviting than the stylish interiors of the previous labs we visited. Lots of tall computer units are in the room with flashing lights and hundreds of switches. Foldaway metal chairs are lined up facing a presentation screen, perhaps to show an initial safety video, showing how technology had advanced. Cave’s signature portrait is again on the wall, but he is looking far more aged and haggard. The space is purely functional.
The design of these rooms shows how, as time went on, the lab’s priorities had to change. What is the point of spending money on a comfortable, welcoming waiting area if your test subjects are either pulled in from the streets or unwilling staff members? It can be assumed that any funding that the company had was put straight into the science, as they no longer needed to keep up appearances.
Portal 2 uses time to tell a story of desperation. Obsessed with staying on the cutting edge of science, Cave Johnson gradually stripped away vital parts of Aperture’s infrastructure, compromising the safety of its test subjects in the name of scientific progress. The once-luxe interiors are now cold and functional, and Johnson’s recordings get gradually bleaker as time goes on. Humanity and soul have been surgically removed from Aperture—and perhaps removed from their test subjects, too.