The Story of My Portal Tattoo

by Thrasher on July 22, 2011

Hey everyone – thank you so much for the awesome comments! I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Since I forgot to link it, here is my friend Sean’s awesome blog about dealing w/brain trauma: Please take a visit and a read.

The Cake is a Lie Portal TattooSo, You Want To Know About My Awesome Tattoo…

Portal is a pretty significant game to most of the people I know – In the few years I’ve worked in game development, I can’t remember there ever being as much of a collective excitement over a game as there was for the release of Portal 2. People wore Portal tees and sweats leading up to launch. Our mailroom package table was covered with Amazon deliveries on release day – all of them Portal 2 pre-orders. Even people at the company who didn’t consider themselves “gamers” in the same sense as some of the other devs were jazzed about this release.

A few weeks ago I got a Portal-inspired tattoo. But I obviously didn’t get a Portal tattoo because my friends and colleagues love the game and its sequel. So why then?

Normally I don’t divulge the “meaning” behind my tattoos. I have a polite stock answer for strangers who ask me about them, or the occasional pushy, but well meaning, relative who wants to try to make me regret the multiple illustrations decorating my body, but usually the actual story behind each piece is something personal. After all I get tattoos not because I want to look awesome, or colorful, or any of the other reasons people have thrown out at me to explain them, but because I’m commemorating pieces of my life. It’s kind of like a scrap book that uses my own skin as the medium (and doesn’t get tossed into the attic or under my bed after it’s made).

I’m not the type to think something up on a whim and get it tattooed on me. Granted I do have a number of pieces that certain folks would probably consider “silly” like my zombie prom queen (pictured here below), but I generally put some amount of consideration into the drawings permanently etched in my skin. The Portal tattoo, however, was something that I thought of and immediately knew I wanted. The concept hit me, early one morning, after I’d digested several blog posts about Portal 2. (One of my favorite’s being Your Critic’s )


The Cake is a Lie Portal TattooSo here’s an admission that I need to get out of the way before I go any further with the story:  I had never played Portal until this past March. Yes, that’s correct, the woman who just tattooed a bit of Portal lore on her, didn’t play the game until shortly before the release of its sequel. Whoa.

So here’s the deal – in February I was heading home from downtown Boston when it started to snow. I missed my bus and realized I had just enough cash in my wallet for the short cab ride to my home. I hailed one, hopped in, started chatting with the driver, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up on the floor of the cab, unable to breathe, or move, in more pain than I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I don’t want to go into details about what happened, but I was banged up pretty terribly (thankfully no one else involved in the accident was hurt). Miraculously, I didn’t break anything, but I did hurt my ribs, back, neck, and a few other things. My brain also got scrambled about pretty badly from getting hit in the head (the EMTs told me I was thrown into the divider between the back and front seats). For the next few weeks I couldn’t move much – and even a month later, was still enduring trips to the ER for rib muscles that just did not want to behave (and still don’t, all this time later).

At first hanging out, sitting on my butt, and watching Food Network in all of my spare time didn’t bug me so much. But after awhile I started to get really really fed up with my inactivity. I was also struggling with some quirky memory loss following the accident and trying not to let anyone know just how crazed, depressed, and frustrated I felt by the whole experience.

Around this time I was preparing for PAX East, specifically for a panel I was moderating that tackled gender and video game culture. My fabulous partner in crime, friend, and all around after-car-accident care-taker, bought me a copy of Portal and insisted I give it a go. “I want to know what you think of the protagonist and of the way that the villain is voiced,” he said, adding, “also I bet you’ll really love the puzzles.” So I played the game. And finished it. And played it again. And again. I tried doing speed runs. I bought the XBLA version just to have a different set of achievement points to go after. The weekend I got Portal 2 I sat down and played through the entire story in one sitting (much to the annoyance of my cat Elvis). My mood and recovery (and memory) started to improve.

Shortly after my first full Portal playthrough I was visiting my neurophysician. We were talking about some of things that I’d been having trouble with since my accident. One of the most maddening things about getting a big old bonk on the head is discovering things that you didn’t know you had forgotten. I forgot things that I knew the day of the accident: some of my account passwords, the plot to Catcher in the Rye,* the outline I had written for my panel at PAX, etc… My doctor told me: “it’s not really that you’ve forgotten, it’s just that some of the things you know are kind of hidden in different places now – you’ll find that as you recover, you’ll unlock them.” In many ways, I felt like playing through Portal, helping Chell navigate test after test, uncovering the Rattman dens, and ultimately defeating GLaDOS, was symbolic of what was going on in my own mental space as I recovered from the trauma I’d been through.

There are of course a few other things that make Portal meaningful. Video games are important to me, plain and simple. I make my livelihood working o them – and I’d like to, one day, be a lead designer on a major title. For me, Portal and Portal 2 also evince what are, in my opinion, my favorite elements of playing games. That is, they’re fun, accessible, inventive, witty, and offer many incentives to replayability.  I also appreciate the importance that Chell plays in the pantheon of video game protagonists as both a woman and a woman of color. Finally, as an aspiring designer, both games have taught me an incredible amount about puzzle, narrative, and character design. In fact, given the chance, I could probably write a dozen different blog posts all focused on particular aspects or influences of Portal – but this post is about my tattoo, so I’ll get back on topic.

My Portal tattoo is still healing at the moment, but even in its current state its already brought me, and a number of folks, a good measure of joy. I often wear sleeves, but when my arms are uncovered, I find that folks often want to comment on the brightly colored pieces of Americana style art decorating my arm. The lovely slice of birthday cake is no exception. A gentleman in the video store was tickled to the core that I had a big slice of cake on my arm, as he himself had a sweet tooth; the gals at my local feminist sex shop** rejoiced in our shared geekdom at the text; a fellow artist at the shop where I’m tattooed high fived me on the video game reference while another got a giggle out of “the cake is a lie” and my wonderful artist, and friend, Dan, was happy to mark a milestone in my recovery and help me patch one of the last big blank spots in my sleeve.

I wish I had a more profound reason for choosing the cake from Portal, the first, but I don’t – simply put, cake fit in with the theme of my other tattoos and I thought it worked better than a heart that said “Wheatley” or a little turret dude.

The Cake is a Lie Portal TattooSo there we go – the story of my Portal tattoo. If you’d like to know more about some of my nerdy and fabulous tattoos, you can check out this old interview on

And, if you’d like to know more about the amazing folks who do my tattoos, head on over to

Thanks for reading!

PS – check out my friend and former boss, Sean Baptiste’s, blog about recovering from brain trauma. He writes some amazing stuff about video games and the role they play in his recovery. Plus he’s one of the most excellent people I know.

*not that its essential to know that – but I also forgot the names of a bunch of She-Ra characters! I’ve relearned them, but those are straight up facts one needs to survive.

**(what, you don’t have one?!)


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: