Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum seems to espouse many of the techniques – both conceptually and artistically – employed in the futuristic video game Portal, released in 2007 by Valve Corporation (“Orange”). The similarities in both plot and character are immediately obvious, but perhaps more impressive are the analogous themes of psychological terror, which are implemented in strikingly similar fashions. They also both show parallels in more specific areas, such as point of view and the use of irony. Naturally, there are myriad differences between the two works, but many of them arise due to the inherent dissimilarity of their media. Even despite the remaining discrepancies, Poe’s influence on the designers of Portal is easily surmised.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” seems to focus relentlessly on the sensory torture and imminent doom faced by the protagonist (who remains nameless). He is being held prisoner by vague agents of the Spanish Inquisition for an unnamed and probably insignificant crime. He is placed face-to-face with his own death in multiple situations, but he uses logic to overcome these perils. Over the course of the story, he deduces that he is being watched, based on the repeated responses to his escapes of yet another danger he must evade. He is made to feel both helpless and hopeless, but he clings to the faint hope of his survival (as does the reader), until he is finally rescued.
Essentially, Portal follows the same template. The player controls Chell, a woman who awakens from “stasis” in a cell with glass walls. The camera is from her point of view, but through a complex move later in the game, the player can actually obtain a third-person view of Chell. She wears an orange jumpsuit, a numbered tag, and “heel springs” that allow her to jump and fall great distances but suspiciously resemble shackles. A robotic female voice, which the player comes to know as GLaDOS, informs Chell that she is “lucky” enough to be a “test subject” for Aperture Science, the fictional corporation continually alluded to throughout the game. Using futuristic “portal guns,” Chell must create intricate pathways to safety in a series of levels exhibiting extremely hazardous circumstances. For example, in one level, myriad moving platforms continually separate and rearrange above a pit of deadly goo, while fire, falling objects, and laser beams abound all around her. Although GLaDOS provides advice and even repeatedly promises “cake and/or grief counseling” at the end of the testing period, Chell (and, by extension, the player) soon suspects she is only one of many before her who have no chance of making it to the end. Indeed, at the end of the “test period,” GLaDOS defaults on her promises of cake and instead attempts to dump Chell into a pit of fire. The player guides Chell to avoid the fate of those before her, and for the rest of the game, a sequence of “behind the scenes” areas reveals that all the employees have been killed and that GLaDOS has completely taken over the facility. There are messages scrawled in blood on hidden walls through these areas, the most notable of which bitterly proclaims, “The cake is a lie!” To beat the game, the player must successfully install a “morality chip” into the mainframe computer. Once this is accomplished, the ending sequence plays, depicting cake.
At first glance, the differences between the two stories stand out. The most notable difference, of course, involve the settings. The two series of events take place hundreds of years apart. Another discrepancy lies in the nature of the captors; Aperture Science is a research organization using Chell as a test subject, while the man in the pit seems to be tortured for torture’s own sake. Along the same lines, GLaDOS initially promises rewards for completing the test program, while the man in the pit is meant to feel doomed from the very beginning. GLaDOS even helps Chell through some areas, providing hints and advice. These factors may seem to argue against a clear analogy between the two stories.
Upon further comparison, though, the parallels become clear. Regardless of setting, the tools employed by each protagonist depend on their respective environments. For Chell, the most logical escape strategy would use Aperture’s portal guns against them; for the man in the pit, the rats intended to steal his food and degrade his conditions were the clear solution. Both characters had to devise alternate applications for the materials intended by their captors to contribute to their downfall. Also, the captors’ motivations are more similar than they appear to be. Although Aperture Science purports to be using Chell as a lucky test subject, the player ultimately deduces that GLaDOS is actually evil and has been deliberately torturing the test subjects for many years and to no constructive end. Considering this, the fact that Chell is promised cake actually becomes analogous to the man’s receipt of salty food without water; they are calculated deceptions intended only to intensify the horror of the subject once he realizes the truth. If GLaDOS was only pretending to have benevolent intentions, then it follows that any “help” she gave Chell was according to the plans and whims of the computer. Indeed, although it is meant to be humorous for the player, GLaDOS repeatedly patronizes, taunts, tricks, and humiliates Chell under the guise of “Aperture Science Test Protocol,” which she cites frequently. These facts all emphasize the theme central to both “The Pit and the Pendulum” and Portal: mental torture.
This, of course, is where the true argument of influence lies – not in comparing simple aspects of plot, but in examining the stories’ effects both on the characters and on the reader. In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the man begins his account by expressing his own paranoia about his reliability as a narrator. “I felt that my senses were leaving me,” (Price, and Brossard 264) he says, giving an entire speech suggesting that the senses can be used horrifically against a man. Interestingly, this contrasts with Poe’s usual modus operandi in that the narrator candidly reveals his misgivings rather than attempting to reason them away. This is important here because it actually contributes to the reader’s trust in the man. In Portal, a first-person game in which Chell has no dialog, the player is essentially the character. As such, the player has both the utmost faith in Chell and genuine sympathy with her, as he experiences what she experiences. It is also important to note that the man in the pit is not the true protagonist in his tale; this role is not tangibly fulfilled in the story but relates to the plight of mankind as a whole against the forces of religious extremism. Likewise, in Portal, the antagonist is not just GLaDOS but also the entire concept of technological development unchecked. Thus, in both works, the feeling is one of the timeless struggle of “us” against “them.”
One aspect that still clearly separates Portal from “The Pit and the Pendulum” is the element of humor. Although “The Pit and the Pendulum” seems to have been a serious rewrite of his parodic short story, “A Predicament,” (Goddu) it is clearly meant to be interpreted more earnestly than the work on which it is based. The narrator’s terror is depicted lucidly and in chilling terms: “What boots it to tell of the long, long hours of horror more than mortal, during which I counted the rushing oscillations of the steel!” (Price, and Brossard 273) This contrasts rather starkly with Portal, which all in all thrives on its own humor. Although Chell’s plight is very real for her, the work is overall a true comedy. In fact, GLaDOS is almost the sole source of the game’s humor; both before and after the player learns of her evil intentions, her debasements of Chell are cynically comical: “Please be advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test protocol, but is an unintended side effect of the Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grid, which may, in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel, and teeth.” (“Memorable”) For certain areas in the game, GLaDOS provides Chell with “companion cubes,” completely inanimate blocks that are humorously personified and occasionally “euthanized” to prevent cheating. However, after Chell finds her way out of the test area and heads toward the mainframe computer, GLaDOS is very suddenly bereft of this humor: “You are not a good person. You know that, right? Good people don’t end up here.” (“Memorable”) The delivery of this line shocks the player and represents a true turning point in the computer’s attitude. It becomes clear from that point forward that, regardless of the game’s humor, Chell really is a prisoner, and GLaDOS is essentially the same as the Inquisitors in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
Portal and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” although different in numerous respects on the surface, must be related to one another. Both protagonists are subjected to psychological torment through sensory stimuli as the central idea. Both have a sense of impending doom, and both are made to feel insignificant and helpless. The parallels in plot, such as both stories’ characters outsmarting the torture devices using logic long enough to escape, may themselves be enough to suspect that Portal was influenced by Poe’s short story. There are differences between the two works, but many of them are due to the inherent mandates of a video game – entertainment, length, and struggle to achieve goals are key in a game but virtually irrelevant to the quality of a short story. Chell and the man in the pit undergo horrific trials inflicted by faceless foes, and in the end, their escape only means they live to be tortured another day. All these factors make Portal yet another work influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.
Goddu, Teresa A. “Poe, sensationalism, and slavery.” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 104. Print.
“Memorable Quotes for Portal (2007).” The Internet Movie Database. 9 Feb 2010. Web. 9 Feb 2010.
“The Orange Box – Portal.” Half Life 2. 19 Jan 2009. Valve Corporation, Web. 9 Feb 2010.
Price, Vincent, and Chandler Brossard. 18 Best Stories by Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Dell Publishing, 1965. 264-79. Print.