Portal 2 and the Legend of Prometheus

“Prometheus was punished by the gods for giving the gift of knowledge to man. He was cast into the bowels of the earth and pecked by birds.”

This line is spoken by the Oracle Turret, an easter egg character in Portal 2. It shows up after, to give a brief recap, you’re on the run from GLaDoS, the murderous AI that runs Aperture Science who’s super mad that you killed her in the last game. It spouts off some other lines that allude to the plot at varying levels of directness, such as the first mention of Caroline or stating that you should not, in fact, make lemonade. This one is different, though, as it’s the only one that doesn’t seem to be making any explicit reference to the story.

The Portal wiki would have you believe that it’s a simple reference to the fate of GLaDoS. She is, after all, cast into the bowels of the earth not long after you hear this, and indeed pecked at by a bird. But if you think I’ll be satisfied with that, I’m not sure why you think we’re here. Before we hit the road, let’s get some background on the actual legend of Prometheus.

An easy thing to forget about Greek myth and mythology in general is that there was rarely only one version of any given story. Most of these started from oral traditions, after all, emerging from an explanation for natural phenomena, communicating some sort of lesson, or just telling an interesting story. So when we refer to these legends, it’s often more about the broad strokes and the feelings associated with it.

A common element between tellings is that Prometheus had a fondness for humankind, while Zeus, and the other gods in general, were either indifferent or outright hostile. In Plato’s version, Prometheus created man, but his idiot brother Epithemeus forgot to give them any notable qualities to help them survive, prompting Prometheus to steal fire from Haphaestos’ workshop. In Hesiod’s version, humanity already existed and discovered fire on their own, but after Prometheus screwed with Zeus’ sacrificial offerings, the king god took revenge by targeting Prometheus’ pet project and taking the fire away, leaving them cold and defenseless. Prometheus then took the fire back, which, big surprise, made Zeus even madder. In both versions he chains Prometheus to a rock for his liver to be eaten by a bird every day, while simultaneously devising his plan to ruin humanity even further with Pandora and her, uh, jar. Yeah, apparently it was a jar.

If we’re trying to make a comparison here, the most obvious thing to do is attempt to see what parts of the different stories match up with each other. If we say that GLaDoS is Prometheus, then that obvious makes Wheatley Zeus, since he’s the one that punished her for her transgressions. We could even say that Chell fills the role of Heracles, as the mythical hero eventually saved Prometheus from his fate. But what about man? Two of the defining traits of Prometheus is that he disrespected some authority figure, and that he did so at least partially because he was trying to help someone else. That’s where the analogy to GLaDoS really breaks down, because her actions up to this point were purely selfish. Not that this means this comparison is invalid, but let’s switch gears and see if we can apply this comparison to anyone else.

Okay, what about Wheatley? This way we actually do have an analogue for man, that being, well, man, and more specifically Chell. She had but lost the power of fire, or portals, to Zeus, now played by GLaDoS. Wheatley helps her get it back, and in retribution for this he’s… straight up murdered, geez.

Nah, he lives, but like Hesiod’s Prometheus, Wheatley’s crimes are layered. He isn’t satisfied with disrespecting a superior once, he was to do it twice. And in return, he’s banished. Not to the bowels of the earth this time, but to space, but the effect is largely the same.

So GLaDoS works as the best match for Prometheus in the more literal sense, and Wheatley works best in terms of his role in the story. But here’s a curveball: what if there’s a third match, when we consider the all-important tone and imagery of the legend, especially that tragic image of being cast down from an orderly and pristine life into the unpleasant depths below?

When you find the Oracle Turret, you’re on the run. You’ve left behind the clean metal and white concrete of Aperture Science, and you’ll essentially never be in a peaceful environment again until the end of the game. You’ve rebelled against an authority figure, and you’ve gotten yourself into some trouble as a result. That’s right, what if Chell is Prometheus?

Alright, I’ve been going at this for ten paragraphs now without really addressing the elephant in the room. That elephant being, well, you know, who the hell cares?!? It’s an easter egg! Would they really have put so much thought into this? Why am I even talking about it? None of these are invalid questions.

Putting aside the fact that these arguments aren’t giving enough credit to Valve’s great and frankly underrated writers who largely go unnoticed due to the more comedic bent of their more recent titles (relatively speaking), the real question is why do we even care about mythological allusion at all? What does it add to our gaming experience? What are we, a bunch of literature nerds? Well, first and foremost, if you even got this far into the video, that means you’re at least somewhat interested in these connections, even if it’s just for fun, and I don’t think that that’s unimportant. Analyzing and making connections is just the way that some of us relate to art, and that’s without me even getting all Roland Barthes on you. I imagine many of you won’t be satisfied with that explanation, but there’s more to it than that.

Allusion makes for a good literary shorthand to communicate aspects of the story through metaphor. Let’s consider again comparing GLaDoS to Prometheus. Prometheus, whose name literally means “forethought”, is known not only as a creator and a clever individual, but also as a trickster. Tricks have similarly always been an aspect of GLaDoS’ character, all the way back to the infamous cake, up to the flawless trapping plan in Portal 2. It leads you to wonder, then, if this aspect is also reflected in her provoking of Wheatley. Historically, GLaDoS tends to get a lot more talkative when at a disadvantage, aiming to unnerve or mislead her opponent. This might have actually been the intention with revealing Wheatley’s past. It got her and Chell sent into the bowels of the facility, but what was her alternative? For all she knew, Wheatley would have kept them there forever. Her opponent had a weakness, so she exploited it.

This shorthand also works for foreshadowing, of course. Whether you picked up the connection to GLaDoS or Wheatley, this could clue you in to their eventual fates. It also makes you wonder, if Prometheus was eventually rescued from his eternal damnation, maybe Wheatley could as well? That’s something to chew on for the eventual continuation of the series. I know I already made this joke in the Armstrong video but it still applies, so…

It’s also a means of conveying a general feeling or characterization. You see this a lot with names, or other low-key details. You come with a lot of pre-packaged associations with these details, whether you realize it or not, and the idea of something or just its name is enough to evoke those feelings. Think about how Helios in Fallout: New Vegas just felt like the perfect name for something that captured the unlimited power of the sun. Or how anything named Atlas or Titan just feels strong and immovable. That’s why the delivery method of this easter egg works so well in the setting. It’s creepy, unsettling, and maybe a bit tragic. Combined with the setting and the line being conveyed by a character that teeters on the edge of the uncanny valley, it all but forces the mood onto the scene.

You might have noticed that I’ve applied these ideas to all three of our Prometheus candidates. Because the thing is, if you’re used to all your literary analysis practice being from a high school english class game of spot the symbol, it gives you a very limited idea of where these lines of thinking can take you. Not that one-to-one metaphors aren’t used and useful, but if you fixate on that you’re missing out on an incredibly complex world of meaning. As a first step, just think about how these aspects of a story invite you to think about them in different ways.

The legend of Prometheus is one of a fall from grace. Not necessarily one that’s entirely undeserved, but one that evokes sympathy nonetheless. Invoking this myth, when you think about it that way, gives you something of an emotional primer for the temporary fate of GLaDOS and the eventual final fate of Wheatley. Both of them largely bring what’s coming to them on themselves, but whether they instigated the chain of events or not, each were, at some point, rebelling against misdeeds done against them. We did kill GLaDOS, after all, and tore her to pieces, and threw every piece into a fire. Wheatley also went through all sorts of hardship, and was faced with a revelation about his past that he wasn’t prepared to handle.

We can still feel sorry for these characters without this mindset, but the point of any well designed window dressing in a story is to support and enhance the primary points. Before we might think “oh man, Wheatley is stuck in space. He was kind of a jerk, but man, that sucks for him.” But now we think “he was cast out for being too excessive in trying to set things right for himself. But really, so were Chell and GLaDoS. They all had similar experiences, and it’s kind of tragic that the circumstances pulled him away from the other two, because we can see in their case that the common experience brought them together.”

You also, you know, could not think that. If you’re, I dunno, a hater of humanity, and frankly who isn’t these days, your read on Prometheus might be that he was kind of a dick for messing around with Zeus for no reason, and his repeated violations of the status quo meant that his fate was kind of deserved. If you’re the kind of person who would think like this, you’d probably have a very different view on the story of Portal 2, seeing the sterile, orderly halls of Aperture Science as something desirable, turning the story into even more of a tragedy as Wheatley and Chell bust up the place.

And I’m not saying that as the typical “well you could also disagree with me and that’s valid too!” thing that people staple to the end of argumentative videos to not appear too authoritative. I’m saying that the point and beauty here is not that this little mythological easter egg is intended to convey a specific message, but that its very existence makes the story more complex in its own little way. The beauty of storytelling as a medium (and art in general, really) is how different people can take different things from it, and the more facets a story has, the more ways the audience can make connections and interpret things in a manner that is every so slightly uniquely their own.

Hopefully, this is where critics like me come in. If we ever move past listening to other people talking about a thing we like simply for the enjoyment of hearing someone else talking about a thing we like, they can be the ones who reveal these extra facets to us. It almost always comes with their own interpretation of the facets, but like I just said, you can choose to take it that way or not, and if nothing else it helps you connect with other people by understanding why someone gets this particular meaning out of that particular work. That’s what my whole pretentious tangent from the last video was talking about, with the whole “tapestry of views and interpretations” thing. It’s an entirely new narrative and topic of discussion as many different ways of thinking produce different results. The sparkle from the gem can be every bit as beautiful as the gem itself.

…aw man that sounds even more pretentious.

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