Friday, March 7, 2014

The Value of $60: Motivation and Rewards in Portal 2

Okay, so a LOT has been written about Portal 2 and it's almost 3 years old now (that's 300 in videogame years), but I just got to play through it for the first time a couple months ago and I knew I just had to say something about it. So here it is. Oh, yeah, and ***MAJOR SPOILERS***!!!

Definitions of the word game elude standardization and universal acceptance, but that has not kept many a scholar from trying. Among the more prominent attempts of late come from Jesper Juul and Jane McGonigal. According to Juul, “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” McGonigal’s definition is simpler; she claims all games have “a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation” (21). Both of these definitions highlight obstacles and rewards—supposedly, the fun of a game comes from the player “exerting effort” toward the goal and receiving the feedback indicative of the higher-valued outcome. Portal 2, the first-person puzzle-platform game released by Valve Corporation in 2011, actively challenges traditional game reward and motivations systems, and openly questions what motivates not only gamers but humanity in general. Time and again, Portal 2 invites the player to consider exactly what drives him or her both in and outside of the game circle.

By McGonigal’s analysis, feedback loops are one of the main features of games that keep players engaged for extended periods of time. Her prime example of a feedback loop in games is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. She quotes a friend in labeling the game as the “single most powerful IV drip of productivity ever created” (60), explaining that the clarity of each quest explaining not only a story but outlining a specific reward—as well as the feedback of immediately receiving the promised reward upon the completion of the quest—is essential to keeping the player engaged and “working” on the game for hours on end. In many ways, her analysis captures exactly what makes game feedback so powerful: clarity, immediacy, quantification, and reliability. McGonigal argues that life lacks all of those traits in its feedback systems and so players turn to games to feel that sense of concentrated productivity. While this argument is sound enough, Portal 2 presents an entirely alternate system of feedback while remaining highly engrossing for players.

A promotional poster found in Portal 2 promoting
Cave Johnson's promised $60
Portal 2 lacks nearly every aspect of traditional game feedback, and often the aspects it does maintain are subverted and/or unreliable. To begin, Portal 2 has no points, no in-game currency to collect, no “leveling-up” of the character, no kill counter, no grades or performance rating of any kind. The feedback the game does provide is a simple fail state—the player character, Chell, falls and dies, initiating a restart of the current test chamber—and the intermediary win state of passing through a test chamber. These test chambers at first appear like traditional platformer levels with a number appearing at the beginning of each level to indicate the player’s progress in the game overall, but the game purposely subverts the expectation created by that number as the robot Wheatley breaks Chell out of the test chambers to free her from the testing facility’s trappings. However, soon after Chell is “freed,” a series of unfortunate events puts her right back into a series of test chambers and the numbers start over. Several times throughout the game, the feedback presented to the player indicates that the game is nearing an end, but before that end is reached, circumstances change and a new set of test chambers emerges. This teasing of the player openly invites him or her to question just what they expect to receive at the end of the game, and why they keep pushing forward when that reward is consistently denied right before the player earns it.

These questions are further prompted by the game’s narrative. Throughout the game, different characters promise Chell different rewards for successfully traversing the test chambers: Wheatley promises freedom, GLaDOS promises survival, and Cave Johnson promises $60. However, each of these characters also takes a turn as the main antagonist perceived as creating the very obstacles Chell must traverse to receive the promised reward. Apart from the repeated denial of these rewards, the game also subtly asks why Chell continues to struggle for them at all. Cave Johnson’s $60 seem ridiculous immediately—first of all, his voice comes from decades-old recordings, and of course near-certain death while testing wildly experimental science deserves more than just $60 compensation—but it comes as no coincidence that $60 was exactly the typical MSRP for a new AAA videogame in 2011 (and still is, incidentally). Intentional or not, this reward serves to subtly jab at the player who is many ways living the same life as Chell: testing highly experimental technology in hopes of some kind of compensation worth $60, while having no promise at all that such compensation will actually occur through the experience provided by the game.

The robot Wheatley "freeing" Chell in Portal 2
By contrast, Wheatley and GLaDOS’s promised rewards seem reasonable, but they too are questioned by details given in the game. GLaDOS promises Chell survival in exchange for successfully solving her puzzles, but after a time the player should start to question why Chell would want to survive at all. GLaDOS makes clear that her intention is just to continue testing Chell until she dies, and even if she does escape, Chell has no promise that civilization of any kind continues outside of Aperture Laboratories. No other living human beings appear at any point in the game, and Chell receives no reliable indication that other people are even still alive. Aperture Laboratories is run completely by robots now, Chell wakes up from stasis after a time so long that the computer has literally lost count and maxes out with a long series of nines, and the facility itself is completely dilapidated. GLaDOS mentions that she saw other humans at one point and teases Chell with the possibility of meeting her own family, but both claims serve only to taunt Chell in an attempt to break her resolve. Wheatley says at the end that there were other test subjects he set free before her, and in the cooperative two-player levels that occur after the events of the single-player narrative the player sees other human test subjects, but they are frozen, and in the Peer Review DLC GLaDOS admits to killing them all through testing. In the end, Chell has no promise that any other humans are alive at all—inside or outside of Aperture. Finally, this is reinforced by the final cinematic of the game with Chell coming to the surface in a large wheat field with no signs of human life anywhere around. Therefore, Chell fights to survive, but, the game asks, what is the point of surviving if there are no other humans left? These facts serve to undermine Wheatley’s promised reward as well. What purpose will freedom serve Chell if she comes out all alone with no civilization or hope of survival in the outside world?

All these questions Portal 2 poses for the player about motivation and reward come to their most interesting head as the game finally does reward the player for completing the game. Chell survives, yes, and is set free from testing, but the true reward of the game takes the form not of freedom, survival, or any sort of “happy ending,” but instead with song and dance. As Chell goes up the final elevator, the robots she leaves behind sing her a song in Italian asking why she must go, and as the final credits roll, GLaDOS sings a snarky and sarcastic song about “I only want you gone.” The dissonance of such frivolous and friendly acts compared to the constant antagonism of the game is designed to provide a rush of both relief and nostalgia for the player, creating a desire to immediately jump back in and continue playing. The final reward for the player of Portal 2, then, is none of the promised rewards of the game, but simply the relationship created between the player and the game’s non-player characters. GLaDOS’s song is a reward because GLaDOS, despite her denial of the fact, is the player’s friend by the end of the hours spent together teasing and outwitting each other. The bittersweet good-bye turns all discussion of feedback loops, valued outcomes, and quantifiable measures of success on its head because, lacking all of these, Portal 2 remains engaging for the player simply because of relationships built with fictional characters. One could argue that the development of these relationships is itself a feedback loop, but even so, it calls for a reevaluation of what kind of feedback is most valuable in a game—and life. Ultimately, Portal 2 suggests to the player that beyond winning, points, money, survival, or freedom, what we as humans value most is strong relationships with other individuals; or, to put it bluntly, love.

Portal 2 is a game by any definition, but its genius lies in questioning just what a game can do, what within and without of a game is truly valuable to a player, and what promises and rewards can really keep people going despite adversity. Portal 2 serves to prove that while life might benefit from adapting lessons from videogames, videogames can learn from and implement lessons from real life as well. Feedback loops do not necessarily have to take the form of points, levels, coins, and loot. Other value systems from the human experience can also be leveraged through videogames—and perhaps they should be leveraged, if the success of Portal 2 means anything for the medium as a whole.


  1. The real thing that keeps Chell going is the promise of cake. Sadly, the cake is a lie.

    Another strange but small incentive in Portal 2 is its placement in the Half-Life universe. Fans of Half-Life are drawn to Portal because they desire more insight into the world. Those small easter eggs such as the Borealis dock and Cave Johnson's references to Aperture competing with Black Mesa are big rewards to fans aching for anything Half-Life, especially since Half-Life 2: Episode 2 will turn 7 this year.

    Do you also think the trophy system in Portal (and common to most video games today) acts as a feedback loop?

    1. Definitely, trophies and achievements drive people to play games they would never play otherwise, and to play games longer than they would play otherwise. I think the more games get away from extrinsic motivators like that the better, though. When you play a game for a trophy and when you play a game to form an emotional experience it's two entirely different experiences. That's why Sony recently added the option to turn off trophy notifications in-game if you want.

      And yeah, the Half-Life connections are super interesting, and "lore digging" is another motivator in and of itself. That's the good kind, I think. It encourages exploration and immersion rather than just rushing through for trophies.