How Portal’s Turrets Model the First Step to Empathy

Screenshot from Portal 2.
Because Portal is an iconic video game series within geek culture, I felt like I knew almost everything about it before I started playing. I already understood the concept—a young woman, Chell, wakes up in a testing facility, solves puzzles at the instruction of a demented A.I., and attempts to escape Aperture Science. My foreknowledge made the learning curve seem really shallow, and I already knew about GLaDOS’s personality, having heard so many of her lines out of context. While I enjoyed the game immensely, none of it seemed particularly new to me—except for the turrets.

The turrets are the complete antithesis of GLaDOS. Whereas GLaDOS is out to get Chell, the turrets are just doing their job. GLaDOS insults; the turrets say please. GLaDOS lies and manipulates; the turrets are completely straightforward.

When I encountered them, the turrets hadn’t been programmed to encounter test subjects. Instead of the military androids they expected, they got Chell, and they weren’t quite sure what to do with her.

It’s a far simpler answer than I want it to be. I’d love something more complex that gives me permission to stay in a bad mood.

As the turrets tried to fulfill their job with limited information, Chell dropped them from the ceiling, hurled weighted cubes at them, or just picked them up and tossed them, but their tone never changed from polite helpfulness. As they shuddered and died, I was startled and intrigued by their words:

“I don’t blame you.”
“No hard feelings.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Why?”

The turrets didn’t seem to take Chell’s attacks against them personally. Rather than get angry at her, they asked her to stop. And when she didn’t, they didn’t hate her for it. They weren’t offended by her actions, and they didn’t treat her as an obstacle that kept them from succeeding at their job. Instead, they opened up their definition of success to include figuring her out. They didn’t know who she was, and they saw that as part of the problem. Even as they malfunctioned, they sought to understand her.

As Chell was hurt and alone, forced through this maze of rooms into their world, she disposed of the obstacles in her way without a second thought. However, they never became angry at her despite their differing goals.

Sometimes I wish I could be more like those turrets.

“Hurt people hurt people” or so the saying goes. Those who have been injured often lash out, trying to find an outlet for their pain. I can completely attest to this truth in my life, though I tend to be more passive-aggressive than confrontational. I hate conflict, so when I’m hurt, I avoid dealing with the source of the pain and retreat into a victim’s mindset. I treat others as if they are the source of my problems, not caring what their true intentions are.

And despite knowing what it’s like to be hurt, I struggle with sympathy too. When people around me are in pain, often I’m offended: “They have no right to bring their issues in here and make them my problem,” I’ll think, forgetting that I do exactly the same thing when I bring up my issues with others. I see them as an inconvenience when I want to focus on my own troubles. I might not notice their pain at all if I’m so focused on my own.

This is why I like the turrets so much: despite being relatively simple artificial intelligences, they are aware that there’s more going on than destruction, and they desire to understand it. They are better than I am at looking past offence to the true heart of the matter.

However, as much as I admire their desire to understand, the turrets don’t have the capacity to identify with the hurting, as they were never built for human interaction. If Chell had stopped to explain her motivations, they wouldn’t have understood.

Unlike the turrets, I do have the ability to understand. Humankind is (thankfully) blessed with the ability to empathize with those around them. As soon as I stop focusing on how people are hurting me, I can begin to see how they’re feeling pain too, and start to love them.

Those who have been injured often lash out, trying to find an outlet for their pain.

It’s tough to begin that process. Understanding others means letting go of the “right” to be angry about being hurt, and that’s really hard. It’s a choice every time—the decision to not let my feelings overcome my actions. No matter which side of the equation I’m on, whether I am one who is hurt, or if I’m receiving the effects of second-hand pain, the solution is the same: I don’t let my pain define me or keep me from being kind to others.

It’s a far simpler answer than I want it to be. I’d love something more complex that gives me permission to stay in a bad mood. But it’s impossible to heal pain while still holding on to it.

I never thought I’d model my life after a turret, but their response of looking past offence and attempting to understand is admirable. When I come across people who are hurt and lashing out, I don’t want my first reaction to be hate or blame, but to be like the turrets and ask “why?” Even more than that, I want to surpass the turrets’ limits. I want to listen. I want to empathize. I want to spend the time that is needed, because understanding is what breaks the cycle of pain and, in the end, brings healing.

Julia Hamm

Julia Hamm

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Julia Hamm has been exploring fantasy and sci-fi worlds since she could read, and has been making and building things for almost as long. She loves books that contain more ideas than plot, and has approximately six more hobbies than she has time for.
Julia Hamm