Some video games take years to become classics and enter the popular consciousness, but Portal, the puzzle game from The Valve Corporation's Orange Box game bundle, seems to have taken only a few months.
With online memes popping up like "The cake is a lie" (referring to a promised in-game incentive that may or may not actually exist), and the game's clever, catchy closing theme, "Still Alive", it would be difficult to have been active on the Internet in the last few months without bumping into multiple Portal references.
There's a hole in the sky through which things can fly, as they say at Aperture Science, Portal's setting. Please join us after the break to see what people are doing in tribute to this ground-breaking game, with special note taken of the improbably-endearing "character" known as the Weighted Companion Cube.
But beware... there are plot spoilers just ahead. There's cake, too. All you have to do is pass through the portal.
Portal crafts(click thumbnails to view gallery)
The context of Portal
The Orange Box was released in the US in October, 2007, for XBox360 and PC, and in December for Playstation 3. Also in December, our sister site, Joystiq, selected Portal as their Game of the Year. If you'd like to see what all the fuss is about before reading the following spoilers (or if this article gives you the conviction that you need to play it), Portal is currently available for $19.95 as a download from Valve's Steam service. There's also an introductory video that gives an overview of the game.
Portal is part of the Half-Life game universe, but familiarity with Half-Life and its sequels is not required.
In Portal, you play a woman named Chell who seems to be taking part in a technology company's weapon test. The weapon in question is a Portal Gun, and its job is to create wormhole-like teleportation doorways: shoot a hole into one surface, and into another, and you can go into one hole and come out of the other, even if they are on walls that are perpendicular to each other. Subsequent holes make previous holes disappear. The resultant physics may surprise you.
Supervising your test is GLaDOS, a computer entity which is very probably malevolent. GLaDOS begins with a friendly tone, but eventually displays a callousness and unreliability verging on the psychotic (possibly owing something, in spirit, to another infamous artificially intelligent villain).
At one point in the game, Chell is given a Weighted Companion Cube to care for and use, with GLaDOS's admonishment that the Cube's safety is very important and that it is a faithful companion, making it sound for all the world like a beloved pet. The Cube is a big crate with prominent corner panels and a pink heart on each face: it's the cuddliest large box you've ever seen.
Chell keeps the Cube with her through the level, and indeed, it is necessary for that level's completion. However, before moving on to the next level, GLaDOS tells Chell that the Cube must be euthanized and that ethicists hired by Aperture Science have determined that it's not immoral to do so. Try as you might, you can't move forward in the game without incinerating your poor, loyal Cube.
When you've done the deed, no matter how long it takes you, GLaDOS will reply: "You euthanised your faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations."
And that kind of emotional manupulation is one of many reasons why GLaDOS is not a nice A.I.
Alas, it is not part of our mission statement here at DIY Life to help you win -- or cheat at -- a video game. Now that you understand what Portal is and where the Weighted Companion Cube is coming from, it's time to take elements out of the game and into real life. Since making your computer over as GLaDOS is probably one of those things that will sound like a good idea at the time but will end in your exhaust vents "somehow" releasing a deadly neurotoxin, you're probably here for the crafts.
The Weighted Companion Cube may be gone, but its memory lives on. Almost immediately following Portal's release, a fandom for the Cube began to develop, including a number of things to make and do. The remainder of this article will be devoted to them, but before we get there, here are a few more links about Portal in general and the Weighted Companion Cube in particular.
There seems to be a new Internet rule: as soon as something new and cool becomes popular, someone will make a paper model of it. (They will also catch up on anything old and cool, but that's a subject for several hundred other posts.) So it stands to reason that by the end of October, 2007, there were several paper models of the Weighted Companion Cube and a few of Portal's associated elements.
These paper models are mostly pretty complex, for cubes. As with all printable paper models, you'll probably want to have as many of the following supplies as possible:
a decent printer
a cutting mat
a craft knife
a reasonably fast-drying glue you like that doesn't wrinkle paper too badly (I like Zig Memory System 2-Way Glue)
a bone folder/scorer, which you can use to make folding a lot easier and more precise
felt-tipped pens in a color close to that of the print on the edge of the design: use these to touch up the edges of the paper, if desired, for a more professional look
The most popular Companion Cube papercraft is the one by Moony, a poster on the 4chan Papercraft & Origami (/po/) board. It has small details, but shouldn't be too difficult.
Ted Fallenger's somewhat more detailed paper model of the Companion Cube requires a lot of attention, has many more pieces than Moony's version, and probably isn't for beginners.
A different paper model, almost as well-known, showed up on the TubbyPaws blog. This Portal papercraft shows Chell, a Storage Cube, and a set of portals in operation. Bonus points to the designer for referring to Portal as "a happy game about magic doors."
It's not a papercraft, but this LEGO take on Portal is essentially identical to the TubbyPaws model.
On the very large scale, there's the Companion Cube that Karen Chu made as part of her Orange Box Halloween costume. It's cut from foam core and chipboard, but she created the additions on the corners simply by enlarging and slightly modifying Moony's pattern.
Knitting and crochet
While it's possible to buy a Companion Cube, you can always make your own (or talk your favorite knitter into doing it for you, if you don't knit).
The Knitted Companion Cube site made a small, well-merited splash in the crafty blogosphere a few weeks back, and was the inspiration for this article. Wren's stranded color-work design calls for fine, "sticky" Shetland wool, and will familiarize you, in a relatively painless way, with techniques like using three colors per row and cutting a steek. (If you're going to cut into a piece of fresh fine-gauge knitting, you want the wool to stick to itself!)
If you don't want to use three colors per row, the pink parts of the design can be embroidered later in duplicate stitch, but this is one of those cases where it's probably more of a pain to do the duplicate stitching than to just carry and weave in the third color. A look back at our recent quick overview of color knitting techniques will give you some resources for this kind of knitting, if you've never done it before.
Craftster user TheDude06 (gender-neutral, as far as I can tell) also tried their hand at knitting a Companion Cube. The methodology isn't ideal, and the pattern is just a photo of a design on graph paper, but knitters with some experience should be able to complete this version. The amazing thing is that TheDude06 was a knitter of no experience when they designed it.
A cuddlier, overstuffed knit version of the Cube was made by a Scot named Fiona. She made a point of creating especially prominent corners, which have been missing from some of the other fibercraft takes on this concept.
A crocheted Companion Cube exists, but as a photo with no instructions. It shouldn't be too difficult for an experienced crocheter to figure out: it would be made in tight single crochet, as amigurumi are. Unlike amigurumi, it would be better to try to make this one in pieces than to tackle it in the round. It's a six-panel shape, not counting embellishments, and the seams help give it some structure. (See the last category in this article, below, for another take on this concept.)
Everyone is sewing Companion Cubes lately. The favored materials seem to be felt and fleece (modern fleece, not the knit fleece that's been used to make sweatshirts for years). The sizes people select seem to vary wildly.
Kidiron of the 4chan /po/ board designed a great Companion Cube sewing pattern that's probably the most popular, seemingly used by the majority of people who don't choose to draw their own version. Nataleeza from Craftster made this pattern up, and it looks great.
Another Craftster user, Avian Flight, created a fleece version of the Companion Cube that is about 6"x6"x6" (uh-oh). The pattern is included at the link, and in spite of the slightly worrisome dimensions, it will work just as well as Kidiron's pattern.
Craftster 's Anirtak used her own pattern to make a Companion Cube out of felt for her boyfriend, around 5" on each side. It was hand-stitched, and the general agreement from people who commented on it was that the hand-stitching "made it pop." Chilledsoup also developed a felt version of the Cube in a modest size. It looks like pink cord was used to create the pink lines on each section.
At the other end of the scale are a few over-sized versions of Portal's endearing regular hexahedron. Technically, the game's Cube is about waist-high. The next few items are definitely "oversized," but may not be quite that large... or they may be larger.
ElectricBlue22 from Craftster created this "life size" Companion Cube, which even has a zipper so that the filling can be replaced. She expects some of the filling to be compacted by people sitting on it, which gives some idea of its actual size. So far, it contains 11 pounds of fiberfill!
Over on Etsy, Philadelphian artist Diane Koss takes commissions for her hand-stitched Companion Cubes. They range in price from US $80 for a ten-inch Cube to US $350 for a genuinely life-size one. A photo shows Koss sitting between two identical cubes, which are at least large enough to be side tables in someone's living room.
Several tenacious and talented crafters decided to tackle real sculptures of Portal's Weighted Companion Cube.
Omega_red from the RIP Companion Cube site used polymer clay, which is probably the material of choice for people who don't have specialized equipment for sculpture or casting. The resulting sculpture was given two shades of metallic paint and details in red. A second attempt came out even better, and was rewarded by the recipient with cake!
Further down the thread at the last link, Pentapod also used poly-clay, but did all the details in clay, too. The unpainted version is pretty convincing.
If you'd like to try to make your own Companion Cube from polymer clay, Alice Fox has detailed instructions. You'll create an armature for the clay, watch it carefully while it bakes, sand it down, and paint it.
Megan Brunner and her husband's wood-working whiz of an uncle, John, collaborated on this wooden Companion Cube. It was hand-sanded, assembled, and detailed by Megan, after John's work on the foundational parts. She chose to leave it in natural wood tones.
Unless you have the aforementioned specialized equipment, as well as the required education, you will probably not be using a CAD program to mill a Companion Cube from a block of aluminum. Which is a shame, because this is probably the most convincing replica I've seen.
The cake is not a lie
After you've spent all that time making a Weighted Companion Cube and hauling it around, you're probably going to want some cake for your trouble. Mmm, cake.
The cake recipe given in Portal is suspect, as it contains "fish shaped volatile organic compounds, sediment shaped sediment," and "a 20-foot thick impermeable clay layer." Even worse, no baking instructions are included.
With its cocoa powder, coconut frosting, and cherry garnish, the Portal cake recipe sounds a lot like German Chocolate Cake. To make it look like the cake in the game, it will be garnished with piped whipped cream and maraschino cherries. A variety of recipes are available on the Web, if you don't want to make one from a mix. Here are a few:
Instructables user Arbitrarylogic attempted a straight replica of the Portal cake. My guess would have been a chocolate ganache frosting for the exterior, over coconut frosting and three layers of cake, but Arbitrarylogic went for covering the exterior of the cake with shaved chocolate and suggests four layers of cake. The results look like they're worth the attempt.
You might prefer to take a different tack entirely, and attempt to make a cake that looks like the Companion Cube. There's a big trade-off here, as it uses rolled fondant icing, which isn't universally regarded as delicious. That's all right, if you're willing to suffer for your cake to be beautiful.
A number of Portal-themed items have appeared on Craftster in the last few months. Many don't fit neatly into other categories: this is probably only the beginning of the outpouring of crafty love for the friendly little Companion Cube.
Perler bead Companion Cube coaster
: Plastic pixel-art panel that looks like one face of the Cube. Scroll down for a pattern you can use, though the photos are clear enough that it's not really necessary. Perler beads are also known as fuse beads.
Crocheted Companion Cube from Perler bead coaster pattern
: This one isn't up with the other crocheted versions specifically because it's so closely related to the coaster. It's done in tapestry crochet. The coaster pattern is appropriate because the stitches should have dimensions similar to those of the perler beads.
GLaDOS hair clips
: Ping-pong balls and hair clips, with some paint and glue, make a quick and easy GLaDOS cosplay concept. The balls are painted to resemble the eyeball-like core chips that Chell destroys near the end of the game.
Shrink plastic jewelry
: This shrink-plastic collection is on a number of gamer and geek themes, but several of the icons portrayed are specific to Portal
Instead of mourning your Weighted Companion Cube, you can try one of these projects: they might help you recapture the magic and deal with your grief. And maybe you shouldn't feel so bad to begin with. You may not have gotten the cake at the end of the Portal Gun test session, but it sure looks like the Cube did.