The Portal Gun has the most important mechanic of the game: making portals through shooting. This mechanic is easy and uncomplicated, but can be related to many outside themes, due to its consistency with other fictional and real technologies.
Useful or Less?Edit
Sometimes the most awesome things are also the most pointless things. Think on the Portal Gun for a second: in game it’s extremely useful, but what about out of game? What would you do with a Portal Gun? Maybe make one portal that you would use a lot, but you could never change? On a day-to-day basis the portal gun has maybe, at most, a quarter of the use that it does in game, especially taking into consideration how big and heavy it must be.
This theme of a really cool idea that doesn’t have a lot of real relevance is pretty common. If done badly it breaks our suspension of disbelief, however if done well it makes us wish it were useful. In literature it doesn’t happen as often with technology as it does with magic, partially due to the barriers of explaining crazy technology with only words.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the few books that succeeds in having a lot of wacky pieces of technology, some of which are very useful, some of which become more useful than normal (say, towels), and one in particular that is almost useless. Deep Thought is a massive computer able to tell the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. After 7.5 million years it says “42,” but cannot say what the Ultimate Question is, and thus the answer is obviously useless. But even if the “right” question had been asked, how useful would Deep Thought really have been anyway? First off, it took 7.5 million years the first time, and no one knows how long it would take to answer any other question. Second off, how would we know that knowing the right question would prove that the answer “42” was any more useful to daily life? And third, the machine couldn’t even figure out what the question that it was answering was, so it can’t be that great of a machine – yet it was still worshiped for 7.5 million years. Great use of time, guys.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has basically an entire sub-plot on how useless magic in. In fact, not only is magic focused on in several books, but one book, Sorcery, is completely dedicated to showing how useless it is, and how not only useless but incompetent the wizards who practice it are. Any book considered a “wizard book” (there are several types of books in the series: Death Books, Witch Books, Wizard Books, etc, based on what the book focuses on in the world) tends to be one centered around how this all powerful concept of magic actually has almost no power.
Impossible Movement DeviceEdit
How important is movement and space to humans? Portal is a game that centers completely on moving across space to get to another space to move across more space for no purpose other than to move from where you started. And people spend hours just moving across this fictional space.
The point is that movement is pretty important to us.
Almost all of humanity has been focused on two things: increasing communication and increasing movement power. There are very few things in the world that don’t fall into one or the other category (most of them involve food). It is thus no surprise that much of media also focuses on one of these things. Portal uses the Portal Gun to imagine a way to make movement easier and more convenient (though the actual usefulness of the Portal Gun can be argued, as seen here). There is also significant focus on teleportation; space travel and faster than light travel; or even time travel. Literature, specifically, though, has a lot less examination of movement over communication, as it is more difficult to analyze innovative ways to move through something that a reader cannot see. There are, though, exceptions.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, has the form of movement most similar to Portal of the pieces of lit examined here. In this book the method is called a tesseract, which in reality is a four-dimensional hypercube, but is referred to in the book as a fifth-dimensional phenomenon, and functions like a wormhole. The real science of it isn’t particularly important to appreciating the book, though (much like any science relating to the Portal Gun isn’t relevant to enjoying the game). The tesseract allows the main characters to essentially fold the fabric of space and time and go to other planets. This book originally came out in 1962, and was one of the first of its kind, being in some ways both a children’s and adult’s book, and also dealing with both evil and science in ways that hadn’t often been seen in novels prior to that point.
Howl’s Moving Castle, another Diana Wynne Jones book, looks at magical movement – something more commonly seen in literature, especially fantasy. Don’t get the book confused with the movie, though – while both are very good, their plots are radically different. The book looks at movement in portals, too, however it also looks at movement through several dimensions, and how closely not only the dimensions but the portals themselves might be connected
The last recommendation is the Norse mythology writings of the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. Particularly, focus on the Bifrost and the other bridges to the places of space. What is interesting to note here is that the culture writing these, one of many that has influenced current cultures quite a bit, views movement as so difficult, and such an important task, that even Gods need bridges to move from one area to another. How powerful must we consider movement to think that Gods need tools to conquer it?
Look, No Hands!Edit
Today, guns are the standard weapon of any movie, game, or television show. Even books, outside of the fantasy genre, revolve around these weapons. Likely this is because we consider them the ultimate weapons in many ways; they can shoot rounds fast, kill easily, and are very difficult to dodge. This standardization of guns may also be the reason that certain fantasy novels are so well liked -- they completely remove the reader from these modern weapons. In video games, an innovative weapon is one that isn’t a gun. Portal does this, in a somewhat mocking way, by giving you a Portal “Gun,” being something shaped like a gun, and called a gun, but with none of the purpose of a standard gun.
There are a lot of forms of weapons beyond guns, but it is important to find books that made guns non-essential within the narrative, as guns have been deemed non-essential within the narrative of Portal itself with the Portal Gun. The first book, Sabriel, states outright that guns are useless against the undead enemies of the north. Instead, like in Portal, Sabriel uses, generally, what seems like a harmless item, a set of bells, to defeat her enemies. Sometimes she also makes use of a sword, an instrument made common from its long history in humanity. Guns not only are useless but, oftentimes, violence itself becomes useless. One could make a similar argument for Portal -- there is no violence in the game until it becomes absolutely necessary.
The second series is the popular Harry Potter series. One of the big arguments made about the series, in fact, is whether or not the use of guns would have made the long wizard’s battle easier for either or both of the two sides. Whether or not, logistically, guns would have swayed the battle, has little bearing on the fact of the matter: wands replace guns. Within narrative, guns have no real purpose Wands have many more uses than the Portal Gun, or most any kind of gun, however, unlike the bells of Sabriel, their mechanics are very similar to one. They are used in very similar ways: held in one’s hand, outstretched, pointed in the direction of a desired attack. While there is no trigger to pull, one could argue that the spoken word is similar to, though takes longer than, pulling that trigger. So while the Harry Potter universe does have guns, and even acknowledges their existence, it has replaced them with something deemed more powerful and useful.