Seeing Chell: Portal and Seeking Approval

“Chell” by Quirkilicious (quirkilicious.deviantart.com).

There was a moment in the first Portal game that I remember with utter clarity. I had fired an orange portal at the wall behind me and then a blue one at the wall ahead of me. There, framed in the glowing, blue ring, I could see Chell’s back. As I moved, she moved. A strange, out-of-body feeling flushed through me and for a brief moment, Portal was so much more than a video game. It was a revelation.

The phrase “seeing yourself clearly” suddenly took on layers of new meaning. I was, of course, literally seeing Chell from a new perspective. More importantly, I started to think about how others might perceive me. What did they see when they looked at me? When they interacted with me?

In my own mind, I was witty and caring and generally fun to be around. Was that really true? Maybe others had an entirely different view of who I was and how I behaved. Maybe I was really a downer who made people uncomfortable or unhappy.

So I started paying close attention to what people said and how they behaved around me. I was looking for clues about myself.

In the game, Chell spends her time looking for clues about how to escape the Aperture Science Testing Center. The only feedback she gets is from the wicked and slightly manic AI named GlaDOS.

After Chell is awakened from suspended animation, she is subjected to multiple tests involving logic, spatial reasoning, and the threat of imminent death. At first, GlaDOS seems helpful, if a bit creepy. But at some point, perhaps after she gives Chell the following warning, you realize GLaDOS isn’t all that benevolent.

It says so here in your personnel file: unlikeable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikeable loner whose passing shall not be mourned.

Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an “unsatisfactory” mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!”

After the test, GlaDOS assures Chell that the there was never any real danger and the threat of death was a motivational tool. As Chell, I learned an important lesson—GlaDOS wasn’t to be trusted.

Which is applicable for real life. Looking to others for clues about how they view you is important, but it can also be a trap. It can be super easy to understand how people see you—but it might be less easy to see when their perspective starts dragging you down.

GlaDOS tries hard to get under Chell’s skin—cranking up the threats and insults. After Chell solves an “unsolvable” test, GlaDOS says, “Fantastic. You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.” Which sounds fine, except that GlaDOS had intentionally tried to cause the pessimism.

As the game goes on, GlaDOS turns up the heat—literally. When a test requires that Chell bond with a “companion cube” before disposing of it in an incinerator, GladDOS notes, “You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.”

At that point in the game, I was so upset that I replayed the level and waited a full twenty minutes to incinerate the cube to see if GlaDOS message changed. It didn’t. I should have known.

I had internalized GlaDOS’ message and thought of myself as a bad person because I’d been willing to sacrifice my beloved companion cube just to keep playing. I’d started out by seeing myself, but now I was letting someone else tell me how I should feel about myself.

It’s easy to cross the line from seeking feedback to seeking approval. Instead of looking at people to see who I am, I can start looking at them to see who they want me to be.

In this, Chell is a good role model. Despite the constant taunts and threats, she keeps fighting for her freedom and her life. In the final confrontation in the first game, GlaDOS unleashes the full scope of her nastiness:

“I’d just like to point out that you were given every opportunity to succeed. There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend, the Companion Cube. Of course, he couldn’t come, because you murdered him. All your other friends couldn’t come either, because you don’t have any other friends. Because of how unlikeable you are. It says so here in your personnel file: unlikeable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikeable loner whose passing shall not be mourned. ‘Shall not be mourned.’ That’s exactly what it says. Very formal. Very official. It also says you were adopted. So that’s funny too.”

It’s easy to cross the line from seeking feedback to seeking approval.

Undeterred, Chell continues her methodical assault until GlaDOS is destroyed.

Somewhere in her past Chell learned to weigh the opinions of others and apply them only when they were consistent with what she knew about herself. That skill involves spending time alone getting to know myself and having a close, trusted friend who can give honest feedback. For me, that person is my wife. She is loving in her assessment of me and willing to tell me both the good and the bad.

Sometimes it can be hard to hear the negative about myself. I’d like to believe that I’m a great guy. If the feedback gets too hard to hear, it helps me to remember that there’s someone else who sees me. As a Christian, I know that I’m held in God’s loving gaze and that His love for me is constant.

That doesn’t mean that I can ignore the negatives, but it reassures me that I have safety as I work on improving. The love of my wife and the love of God give me the courage to see myself clearly and to work on making the necessary changes.

Kevin Cummings

Kevin Cummings

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kevin grew up reading the ABCs—Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. Since then he's expanded his fandoms to include films, television, web series and any other geek property he can find.

He has been married to an extraordinarily patient woman for more than three decades and they have two adult sons. Kevin also has entirely too many DVD boxes with the words "Complete Series" on the cover. He enjoys exploring themes of faith through his fandoms.
Kevin Cummings