You could say that Portal and Portal 2 are games about game design. GLaDOS is, of course, our game designer, piecing together test chambers for her test subject(s) to solve, helplessly addicted to the process. She lives for it. The idea is bolstered when Wheatley takes the reins in Portal 2 (that was a spoiler, I guess) and creates a laughably bad level– complete with the caveat that it will be much cooler very, very soon. And you could say that those constant tests, institutionally performed by Aperture Laboratories, mirror the gameplay testing that Valve, in the real world, is famous for practicing as an integral part of its development process.
You could go further: consider that our relationship with GLaDOS as players captures, in some way, a player’s relationship to the game designer. GLaDOS possesses an uncontrollable urge to set out a series of exquisitely crafted challenges; we are driven by the urge to conquer them. She taunts us, tells us it can’t be done, but every test chamber is actually very carefully tuned (through those playtests) to be solvable, to click magically after a certain amount of time, to preserve the player’s state of flow. Valve needs them to be able to be solved.
A most enterprising theorist might even go so far as to suggest that GLaDOS’ arch commentary and barbed insults, cushioned for our ears by their diverting cleverness, is Valve talking back to its fans– saying, in a coded way, the kinds of things they have always wanted to say after the trauma of the dark period around 2003-2004, when Steam wasn’t the powerhouse it is now but a nascent, buggy thing that regularly sparked some of the bitterest online tirades imaginable, when Half-Life 2 was stolen by a hacker and then delayed. Game developers tend to claim confidently that they never feel pressure from “the fans,” and that the vicious snake dens of their own forums do not periodically wound them. But those rants do get read. It would be naïve to claim they really had no effect.
Finally, there is Cave Johnson’s character. He, clearly, represents the designer of a game (or a game industry) in its embryonic stages: the period where the developers are just winging it, trying random things to see what they do and to assess if they might be worth anything (“Science isn’t about ‘why,’ it’s about ‘why not?’” he says). Here’s something that makes you bounce. You can throw it on the floor. Can we do something with this? Can we make a game from it?
Let’s run a test.