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Seeing "the cake is a lie" memes in 2017 hurts me about as much as slipping on a linoleum floor and bashing my head on a marble counter top. If I had to choose between reviving the meme for another complete circuit or never playing Portal again, I'd eradicate the game from my Steam account.
I don't hate Portal or anything—it's my favorite game of all time. I even have a bad Aperture tattoo on my back. I've just heard that fucking catchphrase belted out with such frequency since Portal's release in 2007 that it's forcefully supplanted treasured memories and worldly knowledge, like my the sound of grandfather's voice or the equation for calculating the volume of a cylinder. "The cake is a lie" is good fun, but Portal is so much more than a cute combination of words.
It's a catchphrase that has since fallen into whatever meme obscurity is called. So, already bearing the scars, I set out to wrap myself in its cold, disemboweled corpse to examine its lifespan and determine what kind of irreversible changes a viral sentence about cake could inflict on videogames, for better or worse.
Portal writers Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek didn't set out to make Portal's cake catchphrase a meme—they were born before the '80s so they still don't know what memes are. They just wanted to write a funny game. For them "the cake is a lie" is just part of a clever plot device, a thematic anchor that offers a chuckle or two in its setup, reveal, and post-credits wink. Its viral potential was never even a consideration.
"We thought we should have a warehouse full of Hoopy t-shirts and mugs and posters…we would watch that hoop roll by over and over again," Wolpaw told Game Informer. "That was the part of the game we were most proud of, and nobody cared.”
Don't worry if the name doesn't ring a bell. As the innocuous hoop that falls from the sky after defeating GLaDOS and escaping an exploding Aperture, Hoopy isn't the most iconic character from the Portal universe. Chances are Valve didn't actually expect a chunk of industrial metal to become Portal's unofficial mascot; Hoopy is a classic Wolpaw-ism, a roundabout point made to illustrate how distant a creator is from how the public will perceive their work.
Between writers, animators, programmers, and everyone else juggling ideas and managing strict development pipelines, it's easy to imagine why they couldn't try for or predict the popularity of "the cake is a lie"—or any meme-able phrase. A forced effort to 'make a meme' would come off as crass and awkward. Hoopy with googly eyes and a shrill voice would be a grave mistake. Valve ended up demonstrating that the best way to make a meme was to not make one at all.
A deciding factor in Cake Meme's success can be credited to the year it blew up, a year in which some of the most legendary memes gained notoriety and cemented themselves near the head of the wacky, inexplicable semiotics parade. 2007 gifted us a kid in corpse paint that really likes turtles, a biting infant named Charlie, a prairie dog dramatically turning its head towards the camera because that's good fun, the hit single Chocolate Rain, and the practical joke that never gets old except it did in 2007: Rickrolling.
Somewhere smooshed between Tay Zonday and an errant turtle shell sits 'The cake is a lie.' It's a phrase that won't carry much impact to anyone that hasn't played Portal, but according to Don Caldwell, managing editor and meme specialist at KnowYourMeme.com, that's all it takes.
"It seems once a game reaches a certain level of popularity, the fan base is constantly looking to make jokes out of whatever quirky content they discover in the game." he says. "Catchphrase memes like these are easily spread across the entire web and have a very low barrier to entry for participating in their proliferation."
Through the sheer volume of players repeating the message, the underlying idea eventually caught on with people that hadn't played or even heard of Portal before. 'The cake is a lie' is straightforward enough: all your effort is for nothing. Once removed from its fictional context, the phrase carries the same pseudo-intellectual weight as any quote from the Matrix.
And like "There is no spoon" or the more recent "You know nothing, Jon Snow," early use of "the cake is a lie" indicated a wry state of knowing. For Portal players, the phrase represented a shared experience, and for everyone else, a clever way to flag down false sources of motivation.
Shortly after Cake Meme peaked, as most memes do, it quickly outpaced itself and became so far removed from its original context through repeated use that its purpose was lost in the noise. Memes co-opted the catchphrase by haphazardly smashing together One Nerd Thing with Another Nerd Thing. "The cake is a lie" itself became a lie.
According to Caldwell, memes without an attachment to a specific image are easier to distort and deploy. "Catchphrases like this tend to wear out their welcome a bit quicker than other memes, as they get repeated ad nauseum across chatrooms, discussion forums and comment sections across the internet." Caldwell tells me. "The same thing happened with 'I took an arrow in the knee' as well. People got sick of it really fast."
Interest nearly dropped off completely in early 2009 before spiking on July 6 of the same year. Caldwell attributes the renewed interest to an xkcd comic referencing the tired phrase, a sentiment that returning Portal 2 writer Erik Wolpaw wholly endorsed. "If you thought you were sick of the memes, I was sick of it way ahead of you." he told Gamasutra three years into his hell child's life.
Discovered after its release in 2011, Portal 2 still contained one overt reference to cake via a door labeled "Cake Dispenser". The reference is the likely cause of another spike in search traffic and roused some short lived interest in the meme again. After 2011, "the cake is a lie" flatlines.
The trend isn't surprising: popular game memes come and go with increasing frequency. As Caldwell mentioned, Skyrim's 'arrow to the knee' meme drove us all to the brink of quitting games forever, Fallout 4's Preston Garvey became the face of awful quest givers, Adam Jensen never asked for his "I never asked for this" notoriety, and we've been told "It's dangerous to go alone" at a steady rhythm for decades.
Memes have since become their own industry. Games are harvested for sharable content the moment they release, diluting the chance for any one meme to last for more than a few months anymore. "The cake is a lie" isn't the funniest videogame meme ever produced, but we may never have another of the same scale as grassroots as Portal's baked deceit. May it rest in equally divided pieces shared among a dinner party, but may there also be a gluten free option available as well, also resting.
Great memes never truly die, I suppose. Jump to 2:45.
"The cake is a lie" lived like its subject: short and sweet. Its impact was dissolved in misguided overuse, a fate most memes share. Even so, Caldwell thinks while the cake jokes will become extinct in the next decade, he doesn't think we'll ever forget them. "Portal was embraced by the internet in a way that few games had been up until that point. If anything, Portal (and "the cake is a lie") proved that video games could have vibrant, creative online fandoms just like other forms of entertainment."
Now, those vibrant fandoms are the status quo. Even the smallest games have their own subreddits or Discord servers spilling over with fan art and community curated memes. From Dusk's soap secrets to PUBG's chicken dinner, we'll be entertained and overburdened with an endless cycle of exhaustive catchphrases and hackneyed JPEGs captioned with Impact lettering from now until the end of everything.
Begrudgingly, I have to admit that as irritating as "the cake is a lie" became, without it there would be no gentle aura buzzing around Portal's history. We'd look back on it as a great puzzle game with bold, surprising ideas, but we may not have a cultural touchstone for how it made us feel. And I may not have this dumb back tattoo that I still adore in secret, a browser history I can't erase unlike the memes I laugh at and share with alarming frequency.
Cakes are rarely the apex of humor, but Portal proves the memes that sprout from great games come from a gentle place, too.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, Portal 2 and other Source Engine games were all affected by a particularly nasty exploit until recently. Basically, by uploading custom assets into a custom map, hackers could use them to trigger a "buffer overflow vulnerability" which resulted in the victim PC being open to remote code execution.
"Valve's Source SDK contained a buffer overflow vulnerability which allowed remote code execution on clients and servers," OUP's statement reads. "The vulnerability was exploited by fragging a player, which caused a specially crafted ragdoll model to be loaded.
Multiple Source games were updated during the month of June 2017 to fix the vulnerability. Titles included CS:GO, TF2, Hl2:DM, Portal 2, and L4D2. We thank Valve for being very responsive and taking care of vulnerabilites swiftly. Valve patched and released updates for their more popular titles within a day."
For a demonstration of how it worked, this very short video tells you all you need to know. Death has never been so scary.
With Valve continuing down its path of never making another game ever again, it’s shed another one of its writers—an increasingly common occurrence. This time it’s Jay Pinkerton, who has been writing for Valve since 2008 and co-wrote Portal 2.
Pinkerton joined Valve after leaving Cracked.com, where he was an editor. He worked with Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, co-writing Portal 2. Wolpaw left Valve in February, while Faliszek left in May after working on Valve’s virtual reality projects.
You can also thank Pinkerton for a lot of the ancillary stuff that Valve churns out, like the comics and videos that expand Team Fortress 2.
So that’s almost all of Valve’s writers gone in a space of less than two years. The real surprise is that it’s taken this long, frankly. There hasn’t been a game for them to write for in a very long time, only the additional stuff that supports older games.
It’s still a shame, of course. Valve used to be famed for its writing. But on the plus side, there are now considerably more top-notch writers out there actually doing things instead of getting covered in cobwebs inside a broom closet in Valve HQ.
Erik Wolpaw, a long-time Valve writer who has worked on game series including Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead, and Portal, revealed today that he is no longer with the company. Marc Laidlaw, himself a former Valve writer, let the news slip on Twitter, while Wolpaw confirmed it in a status update on his Facebook page.
Wolpaw joined Valve in 2004, and has credits on Half-Life: Episode One and Two, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and Portal 2. Prior to that, he was with Double-Fine, where he co-wrote the outstanding platform-adventure Psychonauts, and before that he was one-half of the brilliant (and sadly defunct) gaming site Old Man Murray. He's currently involved in the development of Psychonauts 2, which was successfully crowdfunded in early 2016.
A reason for Wolpaw's departure wasn't given, but it does appear to be legitimate this time around. A report that he had left Valve also surfaced last summer, but in that case it turned out that he'd just called in sick for the day.
I've emailed Valve for more information, and will update if and when I received a reply.
Update: The report originally stated that writer Jay Pinkterton had also left the company, but apparently not.
Word of J.J. Abrams-led Portal and Half-Life movies first surfaced three years ago when the esteemed film director and Valve's Gabe Newell floated the idea at the DICE 2013 summit in Las Vegas. In March of this year, Abrams confirmed both films' existence "they're in development", he said however information has been thin on the ground since. When pressed by IGN at Wednesday's Westworld red carpet event, Abrahams confirmed he's meeting with Valve next week.
"We have a meeting coming up next week with Valve, we re very active, I m hoping that there will be a Portal announcement fairly soon," Abrams told IGN. "We are having some really interesting discussions with writers, many of whom...once you said you re doing a movie or show about a specific thing that is a known quantity you start to find people who are rabid about these things."
Which is pretty reassuring, given the fact Newell has spoken before about the poor quality of pitches he's received from Hollywood production companies over the years some of which were "brutally, the worse", as a result of "not understanding what made the game good."
Abrams continued: "As someone who loves playing Half Life and Portal, what s the movie of this, it s incredible when you talk to someone who just gets it, it s like, oh my god, it s really the seed for this incredible tree you re growing.
"I look forward to being able to talk about it and announce who's working on it."
As do I. Now, which Hollywood actors would best suit these roles, I wonder?
The Valve News Network—obviously, not a Valve-run news network, but rather a thorough YouTube channel dedicated to all things Valve—has released a new video, about Portal. The Unseen History of Portal delves deep into the making of the classic puzzler, presenting a bunch of unseen footage and little-known info in the process.
SEE Portal's origins as student project Narbacular Drop, WITNESS its evolution into a Valve property and into the Source engine, and BEHOLD what came after, i.e. cake. PC Gamer even gets a (very) brief mention—did our site really used to look like that?
Science has gone too far. One minute you're enjoying a spot of light testing, the next you're trapped in the infinite, unknowable void between dimensions, outside of space and time itself, staring at the side of your own head through a kaleidoscope. It's remarkable no one has tried it before.
YouTuber CrowbCat used the Portal 2 SDK to set up a test chamber in which two portals could be brought face-to-face. In keeping with scientific spirit, he jumped on in. Somehow, the game doesn't crash and the result is fun to pass off as part of the lore of the universe. In one of an infinite number of Portal timelines, Chell is lost in the orange and blue folds of the fabric of reality. What a way to go.
Joy to the world, the tests are run! The result is a spectacular three-minute Portal carol built in Source Filmmaker by Harry 'Harry101UK' Callaghan. The turrets—including the Animal King, naturally—have come together at this special time of year to spread neurotoxin to the tune of Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky's Carol of the Bells.
Callaghan did the voices and music himself, with turret rigs provided by August 'Rantis' Loolam, which is an exhausting array of talent and an indictment of my own sorry skillset. You can find his YouTube channel here, and the song is available on Bandcamp.
Portal Stories: Mel is a massive mod for Portal 2 that will be released on Steam on June 25. Representing four years of work by a dedicated team of modders, it contains five chapters, a custom story and original voice work, lots of new assets, and of course a buttload of new test chambers and levels to explore and solve. In other words, it's entirely new Portal game.
The mod begins with a little Half-Life flavor (a long tram ride) and then a scene reminiscent of Bioshock: a stroll through a town built by Aperture Science to house its employees. It's 1952, when Aperture is still a plucky startup with a bright future, and the facility beneath the town is filled with scientists, though unfortunately they're all out of reach so you can't actually interact with them.
Aperture being Aperture, it's not long before something goes horribly wrong. Having been preserved in a cryo-bed, you awaken to find the facility in a shambles. The environments are massive and incredibly well designed with tons of detail, and there are a few professional-looking cinematic sequences. The mod assumes you know what you're doing when it comes to portals: there's no slow build-up to the puzzle-solving as in the Portal games themselves. You get the portal device and are immediately faced with some challenging rooms to solve, and they remain tough for most of the game.
As a Portal player, I'm a bit more fond of the types of puzzles without searing laser fields and acid pits: I like to experiment freely without worrying about dying and having to start over. Many of the puzzles in Mel, however, are of the more fatal type, to be approached carefully and methodically. Gels, cubes, lasers, switches, turrets, and force fields are the main tools and obstacles you'll face in the sprawling and complex levels. Naturally, you'll engage in a showdown with a malignant A.I. near the end of the game.
As far as voice-over work goes, one actor provides a pretty good Cave Johnson impersonation, and another voices Virgil, the personality core who accompanies you through the majority of the game. I didn't find the humor particularly effective, and much of Virgil's dialogue feels like overkill as it's based around him encouraging you to find a way out of the facility. You'd be doing that anyway, right? At the very least, it's done with a lot of enthusiasm and an obvious fondness for the Portal series.
This massive mod is completely free if you own Portal 2, and provides around 6-10 hours of gameplay. Portal Stories: Mel will be available on June 25 via Steam.