Having recently completed the brief adventure platformer Stray, I was struck by how much the ending reminded me of Portal 2’s conclusion. Following on from this, I started realising how much the entire premise of Stray reminded me of that of Portal – not just narrative-wise but also how the game world is presented to the protagonist, and consequently the player.
The stories of both Stray and Portal are dystopian, both a reflection of human society gone astray. While both worlds reached their decrepit state through different means, the outcome is still the same. Dystopia is nothing new in storytelling, so much so in the literary world that dystopia is its own fully-fledged genre. Likewise, for gaming, various forms of dystopia have long been a popular premise. Half-Life‘s alien-totalitarian City 17, BioShock‘s heartless libertarian paradise Rapture, and Fallout‘s post-apocalyptic society are all high-profile examples.
So, what ties Portal and Stray together specifically? Put simply, both games give you that foreboding sense of feeling trapped. Then, at their respective conclusions, both games instil a sudden burst of freedom, almost like everything you just went through was worth it for that one decisive moment.
Chell is trapped in the decaying remains of the Aperture Science facility by the sardonic artificial superintelligence GLaDOS, who is intent on using her for testing purposes. The titular Stray meanwhile, has fallen several levels within Walled City 99 to an unfamiliar and dangerous world.
- ALSO READ – Stray Review
While the stray’s prison is less confined than Chell’s unfortunate circumstances, a powerful need to escape is imbued in both protagonists. For the stray, the robot companion B-12 guides your paws right from the very beginning of the game. B-12 is driven by a need to see the outside world as he regains his memory, and the cat is the one who ultimately sees this goal to its completion.
Chell is guided as well, her first escape was out of necessity as she flees GLaDOS’ attempt to dispose of her, but the second time around, the discarded personality core Wheatley plays a big part in shaping Chell’s motivations. Though Wheatley and Chell don’t stay friendly for long, the comedic deuteragonist acts as a voice for the silent protagonist’s motivations.
Both Portal 2 and Stray play out in a similar manner, the player is imprisoned from the outset and the rest of the game is a series of steps towards escape. The sense of confinement is compounded by the lack of fresh air and sunlight present in Aperture and Walled City 99. It doesn’t matter how large the two locations are in reality, without access to nature, they are both prisons.
Both Chell and the stray are silent protagonists; they don’t vocalise their need to escape themselves but instead, express it through their actions. This is a more challenging way of exploring a narrative, but one that can be even more rewarding as the player projects their own traits onto the characters.
Chell never verbally explains that she wishes to leave the testing program, she never does anything explicit that would make the player feel sympathy for her. But regardless, we’re all happy to see Chell escape at the end of Portal 2. The cat doesn’t say a word (unless meowing counts), but who can help themselves from feeling a sense of pride when he steps out of the Walled City?
But let’s return to why this comparison clicked in my head in the first place: that incredible sense of freedom that both Stray and Portal 2 give you when you see them through to the end. When GLaDOS places Chell on the elevator out of Aperture, the sound of birds tweeting greets the player before they can even see the outside world. The clear blue sky and the wheat fields as far as the eye can see are the perfect representation of what you’ve worked so hard for – the ultimate sense of freedom. With the sun overhead and a fresh breeze in the air – you can’t feel it, but you just know it’s there – you feel like you can go anywhere and do anything. Chell is finally free. Though, if the Combine from Half-Life is still in charge on Earth, that freedom could be a poisoned chalice.
The Stray ending plays out a bit slower, as you’re able to observe the opening-up of Walled City 99. You witness the sunlight pierce even the depths of the city, wiping out the companion-eating Zurks in the process. As you approach the overgrown exit of the city with the light beaming in the door, a sense of excitement builds. Upon reaching the outside, the camera moves backwards and the cat turns and stares at it. They’re looking at you, they’re thankful, but the outside is not for you to see, it’s for them to experience. You’ve earned the cat its freedom but you can go no further. It’s a proud moment.
Though the games are dissimilar in genre and even broader narrative, both Portal 2 and Stray have endings that paint the natural world as freedom itself. Their respective technologically-charged worlds were captivating and well-designed, but the ultimate goal is to return to nature. Both Chell and the stray achieved their goals, and we, the player, were able to achieve it with them, even if we ourselves never got to experience that freedom through their eyes.