Bready Player One: Lies and the promise of cake

Sara Elsam looks at Portal, a classic video game involving gravity guns and cake-based half-truths.

“The Enrichment Center is required to remind you that you will be baked,” says rogue artificial intelligence GlaDOS, as you traverse steel tunnels, fire fast on your heels.

“And then there will be cake,” she coos, metallic voice tinged with malice.

Portal is a 2007 video game that proved hugely successful with critics and consumers. So successful, in fact, that a cake, which featured prominently in the game, became a meme bearing the legend: ‘the cake is a lie’.

The cake in question looks like a Black Forest gateau, comprised of whipped cream layers, chocolate shavings, topped with plump cherries and icing.

According to the developers of the game, it was inspired by a cake at their local store, the Regent Bakery and Café in Washington, which still sells the infamous bake.

So how did a cake become both the central theme of a sci-fi video-game and a viral meme – a cake so popular that gamers pay upwards of £15 for an official bag of Portal cake mix online?

Within Portal, the evil AI GlaDOS – which guides players through the game – uses promises of cake (and complementary grief counselling) as the motivation to solve intricate puzzles.

Players strive on through the tests, ever hopeful for a delicious baked treat.

However, they eventually come to a room with ‘help’ scrawled on the ceiling in blood, while warnings on the walls read: “The cake is a lie. The cake is a lie. The cake is a lie. The cake is a lie.”

Players then realise that there may be no cake after all.

GlaDOS, it turns out, enjoys incinerating all ‘test subjects’ on completion of the course. There is no cake, or even grief counselling. Just lies.

This is the root of the internet meme ‘the cake is a lie’, favoured equally by nerds and ‘cool kids’ the world over. Its meaning has become the somewhat looser “your promised reward is merely a fictitious motivator”, according to Urban Dictionary:

Stuart McCorporate: “Our manager says if we hit these targets by Christmas, everyone will get a bonus!”

Rose McBusiness: “The cake is a lie, Stuart.”

But what of the cake itself?

According to a recipe recited by GlaDOS in the game, the cake comprises:

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

¾ cup of butter,

1 and 2/3 cups of granulated sugar

9 egg yolks

2 cups of all-purpose flour.

A curious mix indeed – one which, according to Stella Parks at food blog Serious Eats, leads to a distinctly chiffon cake:

“I was able to deduce from the ratio of ingredients (and lack of leavening agents) that the Portal Cake is, in fact, a chocolate chiffon. The chocolate and butter would be melted together, the egg yolks and sugar foamed; then the chocolate-butter would be drizzled in and the flour folded in last.

Parks went on to make “a cake that’s custardy-rich, with a sweet cocoa flavour reminiscent of German chocolate”.

She wisely ignored the suggested “garnishes” that came as part of the game’s recipe, some of which included: volatile malted milk impoundments, 1tbsp of all-purpose rhubarb, an entry called ‘how to kill someone with your bare hands’, and sediment-shaped sediment.

Ultimately, it turns out that the cake is not a lie after all.

The ending of Portal takes the player to a room containing the promised cake, lit up with a lone birthday candle.

“This was a triumph, I'm making a note here: ‘HUGE SUCCESS’," sings GlaDOS, with soothing guitar overtures rising in the background.

“It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction, we do what we must because we can. For the good of all of us … Except the ones who are dead.”

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