SciFi Round Nine: Portal
Portal and Portal 2 are a couple of the best computer games I’ve ever come across. I heartily recommend them, especially if you like puzzles and snark. The basic idea in both is that you’re playing as Chell, a woman trying to escape from a laboratory controlled by a homicidal AI. To aid you in your escape… or scientific “testing”… you get a device that shoots portals onto walls in pairs. If you go in one portal, you come out the other one. Instant wormhole, just add portal gun.
As ever… here, there be spoilers.
Portal Guns Break The Universe
The main physics-breaking part is the Portal Gun itself. It turns out, Larry Niven wrote a very good essay a while ago, The Theory and Practice of Teleportation, which covers a lot of different ideas in great detail. I’ll just hit a couple of the main points about Portal’s portals, and then move on.
The first issue is conversation of energy and momentum. Put a portal on the ceiling, and one on the floor, so that when you go into the one of the floor, you fall out of the ceiling… into the portal on the floor… and this keeps going on indefinitely until something stops you, somehow. The problem here is that you can now accumulate energy until you hit terminal velocity — and then you keep dumping more energy into all the noise and heat you’re making while going that fast. You essentially get to move “up” in Earth’s potential for “free” when you go from floor to ceiling. But all that energy has to go somewhere, and a quick estimate suggests that this would raise the temperature of a room by a few degrees Celsius per second… which would rapidly cook Chell.
The other problem is momentum. Put both portals on the same wall. Throw a ball into one portal, and it comes out of the other with momentum in the opposite direction, without transmitting that momentum into any other object. Oops.
While portals you shoot are limited to light speed travel times, this does suggest a nice way of colonizing other planets. Or sending stuff to other places in our own solar system. I’ll leave the exact details to Niven’s essay, but it includes sending fuel through portals to break the rocket equation… but that’s if only if you have to have an artificial surface to shoot onto. Otherwise… fire, carefully, and wait.
At least there’s an explanation for why all this high-speed portal-hopping doesn’t kill Chell. In fact, this aspect bothered initial testers of the game so much that Valve added Long-Fall Boots. These are specifically designed to perfectly kill the wearer’s inertia so that they don’t go splat on the landing, and also ensure that you land feet down. Nifty, right? Totally doesn’t violate physics…
Your main antagonist in the first game and the first segment of the second is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). As you play, it becomes increasingly clear that something is wrong with the AI. This is even more clear after you get shunted from regular testing to the android live-fire test range. And then it gets worse.
How hard is it to program a non-evil AI? With a strong negative weight on harm to human lives? And then, rather than simply cutting off its access to the deadly neurotoxin, they just stick a module on GLaDOS to keep it/her from releasing the deadly neurotoxin. Oy. Why can’t we downweight killing humans? Or apply the Laws of Robotics? That last link is interesting — turns out, there are some real-world guidelines for robot construction. Obviously a robot? Check. Not designed to kill humans [by running them through deadly testing chambers for “science”]? Fail.
The other antagonist you meet is Wheatley. He’s friendly. He’s helpful. He’s also deliberately constructed to be a total moron (intended to keep GLaDOS in check) and undergoes an epic and hostile personality change when you replace GLaDOS with him. Oops. Nice job breaking it, hero.
Cave Johnson Failed Business Planning
Once Wheatley turns on you in the second game, you get to explore the deeply buried history of Aperture Science. Ignoring the problem of the absurdly deep mineshaft that’s storing everything, there’s a more serious problem: Where is Cave Johnson, CEO of Aperture, getting all the money for this?
Millions for moon rocks to make surfaces for portals… which were originally intended to be better shower curtains. Various other nasty things are tested by and on humans, with no regard for anybody’s safety. Cave’s idea of science is building random crap and seeing what happens, which ranges from bouncy repulsion gel (intended as a diet product — the food bounces right out! And does bad things to your stomach…) and things like turning people’s blood into gasoline. Or making them into an army of mantis-men. Among other problems too numerous to mention. WHY HASN’T THE GOVERNMENT SHUT THESE PEOPLE DOWN ALREADY??? Then again, this is all delightfully lampshaded by various signs (such as the one above), and we never see what the exterior used to look like, back in the day. It’s quite possible that there were protestors all the time outside the facility. Maybe even a demonstration dedicated to the missing astronauts…
Meanwhile, the game does demonstrate the increasingly dire financial straights of the company. Since they have trouble marketing their various deadly products. For instance: An ad for the long-fall boots. If you’re bored, you can even try looking for the ad about using turrets for guarding babies. It’s even worse. This is not a good business plan… which explains the lack of funding, but I still wonder how they managed to get any funds in the first place.
Cave’s other major problem seems to be that he thinks of science as throwing together a bunch of random stuff, and then seeing what happens when some poor sucker tries to use it. That’s not science. That’s cruel and unusual. And darkly hilarious for the player.
But anyway, Cave, you don’t know what science is. And don’t get near my house with those combustible lemons.