Features and Columns · Movies

Pixel to Projector: Portal

By  · Published on August 31st, 2010

The cake is a lie.

Anyone who is a fan of puzzles, sentient computers that can kill you, and guns that create inter-spatial portals – well, you’ll dig Portal. In 2007 Valve gave gamers an exceedingly unique playing experience by not only tying our brains in knots with deeply involved gameplay that required significant forethought, but did so with the kind of suspense, pacing, and twisted humor that lends to a strong Pixel to Projector candidate.

The Game

Portal is a puzzle/action game set in the Half-life universe, the story taking place in a secret research facility owned by Aperture Science, Inc. The game follows Chell, a mysterious woman who wakes from stasis to find herself a human lab rat in the Enrichment Center of Aperture Science. She is led through a series of increasingly deadly tests by the dangerously off-kilter (though at times, hilarious) sentient computer GLaDOS. Chell must use inter-dimensional portal technology in the form of an experimental gun to overcome the complicated test chambers she is forced to enter to complete the experiment (with the promise of cake if she succeeds, of course) perhaps find out who she is, and even more importantly – escape.

With a disembodied computer voice and one completely silent character, you might be inclined to think that there isn’t enough atmosphere in the world to give the first hour of a film based on this game enough juice to get people through without looking at their watches – but as this video suggest, there is plenty to keep an audience on the edge of their theater seat, digging their fingers into arm rests.

The physics behind the portal gun and what can be done with it would be a huge part of making this an absolute blast to see transitioned to film. Portal is stuffed with action, suspense, and strangely – the character development comes not so much from Chell, but GLaDOS, which I think is a unique and fun direction to run with for any screenwriter. That Chell gets so little built around her frame so far as character is concerned only makes those moments when she learns something new that affects her that much more potent.

As the game progresses and the mood changes, so does the atmosphere. Locations become less sterile, more chaotic, and much more turret infested – some even talk in the later stages. It’s sort of awesome that Valve was able to make something that is actively trying to kill your face sort of adorable…

What it needs to make it film worthy

From the writing on down to the visuals, I feel like Portal is almost perfection. That said, instead of listing what needs to be done to make this excellent specimen of game film worthy, I’m going to list what needs to be avoided completely – because I feel like it already is.

For those that have played, you may think that Chell needs more of a voice; some hook for viewers to grab onto. She is completely silent for the whole of the game – and I like it that way. She is an enigma, and seeing as a sequel to the game is coming next year, I submit that there is a reason for this. Many would argue that without giving her a background, or stated motivation, that there will be no reason for an audience to connect with her. I’ll argue that from the time she steps into the world of Portal, and into the crosshairs of GLaDOS, that she immediately turns into a character anyone would have sympathy for. She’s alone, in an environment built to kill her, clearly confused, and still has the strength and motivation to press on, survive, and kick a little ass. She’s automatically a hero. Giving her lines could almost certainly only lead to too much exposition, and that’s never a good thing. Leave Chell a mystery; she’s more fun that way.

Also, I suggest still keeping it lean. The game itself is notoriously short, one of the few complaints you’ll find in reading reviews. For the purposes of a film, I feel like a slim ninety minute offering would be the perfect way to introduce us to the world, and leave us wanting more. Basically – get in, get out, and leave a trail of crumbs to the next offering.

Leave the Weighted Companion Cube alone. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that studio executives and even some writers love sidekicks – and what better sidekick than the most popular inanimate object in the game (and perhaps all of video game history) than a cube covered in hearts? Seeing as Chell is so alone, apart from initially sparse

interactions with GLaDOS, I could definitely see the awful brainstorming session that spawns the idea of making the Weighted Companion Cube more than just a functional piece of puzzle solving gear – particularly considering what you have to do with it later in the story.

“Make the block a computer, with a personality – a buddy! It’ll be great; kids will eat it up – CHA-CHING!”

Nooo…don’t do that. That GLaDOS is trying to force emotional attachment to a cube that only serves as nothing but a piece to certain test chamber puzzles adds to the sad, sinister, out-of-whack atmosphere that makes Portal so special. Leave it sparse.

Leave Chell alone. Yes, from everything I can gather from observing her – she’s an Asian woman in her late thirties – she’s disheveled and not particularly attractive – just sort of plain. While this could very well be a design issue, I highly doubt it. One thing Valve is known for is the detail in which the lavish on the character models they produce. Even in the older versions of Half-life, characters look their age – and I have no reason to suspect they had issues with doing so in this instance. Chell doesn’t need to be made younger, sexed up, or whitewashed. Keep her as is. There is no reason to think the experience of Portal will be any less rewarding otherwise.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one ‘to do’ rather than a ‘do not’…

Leave us with the big Half-life payoff. Portal is a small corner of the significantly bigger, deeply established, and much loved Half-life Universe. What better way to introduce viewers to that world via the big screen than by edging us in using a fantastic story like Portal? The timeline is never made clear, but there are references to Black Mesa Laboratories, and changes in the world that may allude to a connection in events. Consider Portal the bunny slope to the black diamond run (skiing reference, look it up) that is the rest of that world. Perfect – perfect way to introduce the world that that franchise on screen. I’m gamer nerd/movie geek giddy just thinking about the possibility.

But who should make it?


My digging was not fruitful, but regardless – I would suggest that the writing team at Valve that put this game together most certainly be brought in under the watchful (but not dominating) eye of a seasoned feature film screenwriter. The dialogue for GLaDOS was top notch; these folks definitely knew what they wanted their game to be, and executed beautifully.

For my money, the best writer to oversee the Valve gang would also be my top selection as director.


Who better to handle the solitary feel, strange behavior/atmosphere of Portal than the guy who took a shot at (and I feel, succeeded) at bringing Solaris back to the big screen?

Steven Soderbergh has always taken odd projects and made them interesting and fun. I may be in a minority here, but I thought A Scanner Darkly was fun, inventive, and awesomely creepy. I brought up Solaris earlier because, simply by its nature, Portal is going to be brimming with quiet shots – panning through brightly lit, sterile hallways with turrets sitting silently, waiting for Chell to enter and end her life. Half of the atmosphere of Solaris came from the oppressive silence; the buildup to events and actions. That said, with the Ocean’s franchise on his resume, it’s clear he’s more than capable of presenting the audience with mile-a-minute action when it’s needed. I can forgive him nonsense like The Good German (which was still pretty, in all fairness) and The Girlfriend Experience for those abilities alone. As long as he sticks closely to the source material and brings his artistic eye to the film, Steven Soderbergh would be a fantastic fit.


Sorry Steven, but we’ve got nothing for George Clooney in this one.

Gong Li as Chell: Li is still young enough to pull off some of the physical shots, if not all if she were up to the challenge. Yes, I realize I said Chell should be kept is – a slightly older woman, plain; and Gong Li is far from plain. As stunning as she is, it wouldn’t take much in the way of movie magic to tone her down.After that, you’re left with the extremely expressive face of a supremely talented actress who has been in films where a look can say as much as a page worth of dialogue; Raise the Red Lantern being a powerful example of this in action. A silent character, perhaps even more than one that has many lines, needs an above average actor. I think she fits the bill nicely.

Ellen McLain as GLaDOS: If it ain’t broke…

Ellen is the original voice actor for GLaDOS, and there really is no reason to move beyond her. She’s intimately familiar with the character, and even the with distortion used to mask her voice, it’s clear her delivery is unique. Also, she’s already involved with Half-life, so win-win.

Will it be made?

I could see it, but only if the payoff for 2011’s Portal 2 is grand. The revelations and tying up of the story arc (or continuation of, if this is not the last we’ll see of Chell and her gun) will have to be hugely satisfying, and game sales as strong as the original. The key in this is whether or not Portal 2 can carry itself, as it was released in the Orange Box game pack along with Team Fortress and Half-life. If it has legs, and makes a lot of money – well, we already know Hollywood is sticking to what they know sells. It’s entirely possible, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. Still, as far as wishful thinking goes, I think it has a better chance than most longshots.

Chance of box office success

This is tricky, because your primary ticket holder will, of course, be fans of the game. It’s such a niche offering, that even the general gaming population might ignore it – and getting casual moviegoers interested may be an exercise in marketing genius. You have a female action lead that isn’t Angelina Jolie, and a game property that is loved mightily but still has a cult vibe to it.

I think this is a word-of-mouth movie, and if they handle the ending right in opening that doorway a crack into the overall Half-life Universe which would without question be big box office by itself – this could be a movie that dig strong numbers. Throw in DVD with tons of special features, and not only would it make some of its money back, but I believe it would end up being called a fairly significant financial success.

Next week, since I’ve all but beat you over the head with it, I’ll be tackling my biggest Pixel to Projector yet – Half-life, the movie. Valve hasn’t been giving us nearly enough Gordon Freeman these last few years, so I’m going to do it for them. Bring your orange crowbars, and fantasize along with me as I talk all things wasteland, Combine, and Headcrab!

Get your game on with more Pixel to Projector.

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