I first played this game back in 2011, when I was unemployed and looking for a distraction. I replayed it again in 2015, after my Mom passed away from complications from years of chronic illness. It was, like before, a distraction from my grief and depression, for which I soon begin going to therapy (and have been since). And now, in the Year of Our Lord 2020, I finally loaded up Portal 2 again and have been having a blast replaying it relentlessly.
But, boy, does the game feel different in the context of COVID-19. Because, when you examine the story behind all the puzzles and portal-fueled acrobatics you get to enjoy, there’s an argument to be made that the game has an interesting commentary on failures in leadership.
You, as test subject Chell, return to Aperture Science to try and find a way out, much like you did in the last part of the first Portal game. But you’re not alone this time. You have a brand new AI companion, lovable and talkative Wheatley, who tries to help you navigate the maze and death traps of the Enrichment Center–which soon leads to confronting a reawakened GLaDOS, the rogue AI who runs the facility and whose demise you brought about.
In the course of escaping her test courses, you end up swapping Wheatley into GLaDOS’s place—and learn that your lovable idiot is now a power-mad administrator. With GLaDOS and Chell putting aside their differences, they fight their way back into the main control hub, while Wheatley lets every safeguard collapse and the facility burn itself to pieces because he needs to see more tests run with Chell’s portal gun. By the finale, using everything you’ve learned, you’re able to remove Wheatley, reinstall GLaDOS, and get what you (Chell) always wanted: a chance to leave the Aperture Science labs and see the world outside again.
Now, it’s not a simple analogy. It’s not as crass as saying, “Wheatley is George W. Bush in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2020!” It’s not as straightforward a metaphor as “We are all test subjects under capitalism, being forced to run through endless challenges with deadly consequences for failure!” But I’ll be honest. Replaying this game in 2020 feels a lot different than it did even five years ago.
For one thing, there’s the way GLaDOS, as deceptive and obsessive as she is, knows what she is doing when put in charge. It’s a sad state when some of us are willing to vote the lesser of two evils because we miss competent elected officials, even ones backed by a strong donor class and corporate interests.
And when we see Wheatley in charge, we learn that he has two key triggers: A) he can’t stand being called a moron (although he is), and B) he needs his “test solution euphoria” (a.k.a. the thrill of winning) or else he’ll go crazy and violent the way GLaDOS did. And isn’t this not too dissimilar from the reactions we see from alt-right protestors and a new wave of conservative politicians, who don’t care that the country is burning down so long as they get a few more “wins” on their side by the end? Isn’t Wheatley’s self-inflated ego and resentment of being dismissed not something we’ve seen in populist rallies and trucks adorned with giant flags?
All that would be difficult enough. But now, consider the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Consider the failure of local, state, and national governments to contain its spread through contact tracing, mask orders, social distancing, test access, reliable healthcare, and new economic policies. Consider the way in which some state governors and our own President downplay the serious impact of the pandemic in favor of crowing of their own success (and, in doing so, how they reveal their own lack of information about the virus’s infection rate). It’s much like sitting in a collapsing facility, watching Wheatley project himself on a monitor, insisting that, no, in fact, the facility is not about to face a nuclear meltdown as the reactor goes critical and fires spread everywhere.
There’s a temptation to cling to power, no matter the reality we’re facing. There’s a temptation to insist that, even as the evidence hurls itself in your face, your plan must be working because you’re the one who thought it up. Compare Wheatley’s reaction to a crisis to the way GLaDOS handles things. Something blows up, and he ignores it because he doesn’t want to admit he has no clue what he’s doing. But when a door fails or the power goes out, GLaDOS (as villainous as she is) actually tries to fix the problem and briefly leaves you (as Chell) alone to do your work.
Don’t mistake this for another crass political metaphor. I am not—repeat, not—suggesting that we need an omnipotent GLaDOS entity to replace our totally incompetent Wheatley leadership. If anything, a Wheatley in charge can only make bad decisions that leads to imminent collapse. GLaDOS in charge means we get a far more efficient and well-informed brand of horror to look forward to, with so many creative outlets for her own sadism and obsession with portal testing.
But consider the finale of Portal 2. After everything you’ve been through, GLaDOS understands your character Chell a little better. This is a human being that she’s tried to murder with turrets, incinerators, missiles, and deadly neurotoxin—and none of it has ever worked. So, taking stock of her options, she decides to simply let you go. She respects your deadly ability to endure and disrupt her traps that she can’t afford to control you anymore.
Now that is an interesting twist on leadership. When faced with numerous setbacks, GLaDOS doesn’t keep trying to fix one bad decision with another, or to refuse blame for anything going wrong. She looks at the problem, weighs the risks and benefits, and makes up her mind with the vast knowledge at her disposal. By letting Chell go, she acknowledges her power and is willing to change tactics to get what she wants as the facility’s controlling intelligence. If given a choice between trying to torture Chell or preserving the Aperture Science labs, she’ll take the latter.
Surprised, aren’t you? I am, too. I didn’t expect to be defending a decision by a power-mad AI in a futuristic science lab as an act of political courage, but here we are.
The lessons from Portal 2 can be summed as as such: a) Don’t let a Wheatley take power, and b) Keep a watchful eye on any GLaDOS in charge, which is something the long-dead Aperture Science engineers had never quite managed. They used a fragile safety system and blind loyalty to Cave Johnson’s whims, unable to see how they were setting themselves up for failure. And in the same way, Chell’s decision to put GLaDOS back in charge meant she is the ultimate arbiter. She resolves the stalemate between the two AI. She distracts Wheatley long enough to let GLaDOS take control, and she earns her freedom because GLaDOS knows she can’t beat her.
So, really, there’s a third lesson in all this: Be like Chell. Keep moving. Always look for a way out. Stand up for yourself, and learn to see the bigger picture.
That’s how we make it out of the Enrichment Center. That’s how we make it out of 2020.