I’m recovering from a shoulder injury, so I can’t yet do the things I want to do: paint, 3D work, stitch. However, I can put a shirt on without groaning and I can sort of type, so here we are. Let’s talk about the Portal party.
The boy just had a birthday, which meant that there needed to be a party. That’s one of the things you don’t think of when you’re longing for a little bundle of joy, that if you’re from a culture which celebrates birthdays, you’re going to be in the party business. It doesn’t matter how awkward your social skills are, how little you know about parties, or what your socioeconomic status is. When the kid gets old enough and his birthday rolls around, you’re going to do your best to dredge up some family or friends and come up with something vaguely cakelike, even if it means stacking up a pile of Ding Dong clones from the dollar store and jamming an emergency candle in the top.
Now, I don’t know anything about birthday parties. They’re a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why I’ve hosted some really bad ones. The worst was at a miniature golf facility. The “concept” consisted of hosting a few games of miniature golf, playing some arcade games, and hacking down greasy snack bar food inside the windowless, stained concrete cell grudgingly set aside for ingesting food. “No stress!” crowed my husband, “They’ll provide everything! You won’t have to worry or do any work!” Bless him. It sounded like a good idea at the time.
“Father, may I have my party here? I’ll be ever so good!”
We invited only two guests, one of whom was quite late. We waited. And waited. And waited. The other guest, who’d arrived promptly, was bored to tears. So was his family. So were we. (Actually, that’s a lie. I wasn’t bored; I was anxious and stressed out.) At one point I ended up watching the guest’s younger sister for a few minutes. You know how you can sometimes tell that you give people the creeps? Yeah. I severely gave her the creeps. She really didn’t want to be around me at all, much less alone with me, yet there we were, alone in the grease-stained concrete pizza cell. I edged over to the doorway and stood half in and half out of the room so I could plausibly make sure she was safe yet respect her need for space. Ghastly.
That party was beyond awful, somewhere in Dante-circle-of-hell awful. I wanted this year’s birthday party to not be awful. I also wanted to not have it at a facility. This falls under the category of “first world problems everyone should be fortunate to have”, but I’m tired of drumming up marginally interesting activities which fall flat (“Go karting! Laser tag! Indoor skydiving! Travel to low Earth orbit!”), haranguing people to RSVP, and hauling around a small mountain of food and cake and other nonsense.
No, this party would be at home. We’d provide food, entertainment, and relaxed hospitality and not worry over whether people showed up or not. It would be intimate, more modest, and hopefully more fun. We just needed some ideas.
I started poking around and found about the Game Truck. Boy, that sounded neat, like something a pack of boys would really enjoy. The Game Truck folks would quite literally bring a truck load of video games and consoles around to one’s house. We could herd the kids in to the truck, have them play video games until they’d lost thirty or forty IQ points, stuff some food down their gullets, then kick them out to the curb beside the forgotten garbage cans. Why not? Game Truck was well reviewed and their fees weren’t outrageous, given that a human being had to drive an entire truck out and manage a bunch of children for hours.
Unfortunately, we’d be paying someone to bring out a bunch of equipment we already had. The boy loves video games more than anything else in the world, so for years he’s spent every penny he gets on games, video consoles, and more games. We even have two copies of the much-reviled E.T. from 1982, courtesy of my in-laws. Well … how about hosting a game party in our house, then? How about bringing out ALL of the consoles and ALL the games?
My husband and the boy thought this was a great idea. Yeah! Games! Food! Young men grunting at each other! Alright, then. That was settled.
Now we just needed a specific video game to theme on, something other than Minecraft. Minecraft is great, but as far as parties go, it’s been done and done and done. Enough pixellated blocks of cake have been served to blanket Mongolia. It’s the same with Space Invaders, PacMan, etc. “PacMan! We’ll cut a wedge out of the pizza and call it PacMan pizza!” Dear lord, no. Didn’t we get all that out of our systems in the 1980s?
No, the boys are transitioning into moody tweenagers. Hormones are coming on. They have an ever-greater urge to beat each other up without knowing quite why. They’re beginning to experiment with swearing and heaven knows what else. (“Boys, mind the swears.”)
It was time to go dystopian. Portal. Oddworld. Bioshock. (Big Daddy bento box, anyone?) Obscure would also be good. For example, a party themed around Soviet Arcade Games could be interesting.
So, Portal it was. Never mind the fact that the guests have been kept in tidy little nests of cotton wool and the Portal references went right over their heads. Kids can feel when something is thematically right. They can feel the respect. They can appreciate the Combustible Lemons and Companion Cubes. They can threaten each other with the lemons, even.
I sent out invitations and got to work. It was time to make some props.
I didn’t want to throw a Portal-themed party without portals. After all, the games are named Portal and Portal 2. One solves nasty little puzzles using portals. Also, portals make nice large wall/ceiling/floor embellishments, thus taking care of some of the party decor. Portals were a must.
Making them was straightforward:
- Take photos
- Digitally add orange and blue portal outlines.
- Print the resulting graphics at human size or as large as one can manage. I pieced ours together out of 8 1/2 x 11” sheets of paper because I’m cheap.
- Laminate the prints at an office or school supply store for extra durability, especially if they’re to be placed on the floor.
Voila! Portals! Did anyone notice them and think they were cool? Nope. But they made me happy.
Cake, cookies, combustible lemons
Cake – there are a jillion recipes for Portal cake out there. Some wiseacres have even made “cake” from meatloaf and mashed potatoes, thus ensuring that “the cake is a lie” and leading to hordes of groaning guests. This one was a basic chocolate with chocolate buttercream and grated chocolate. I suggest freezing the chocolate shavings before trying to press them into the frosting. I didn’t do that initially and I ended up with melted chocolate shavings all over my hands. I couldn’t let the dogs lick the stuff off my hands, since chocolate is bad for dogs, so I had to do it myself.
On second thought, maybe don’t freeze the shavings. Having to lick chocolate off your hands isn’t the worst fate in the world.
Portal cookie cutters – These used to be available from ThinkGeek, but have since been discontinued. They can still be found at the usual places around the web for often-ridiculous prices.
We included a few of the Companion Cube cookies in favor bags, despite my doing a crummy job decorating them. Not that it mattered – I don’t think the kids knew what Companion Cubes were, so I could have drawn a picture of Richard Nixon on them and they wouldn’t have known the difference.
Combustible lemons – The poster with Cave Johnson’s classic rant is available from a vendor on Etsy.
There are instructions for making combustible lemons out on the web, not that one really needs them: stencil a logo on a lemon and glue on the top section of a toy grenade.
The most difficult task was finding inexpensive plastic toy grenades. Sure, they can be bought on Amazon and eBay, but who wants to pay ten bucks or more for some chunks of plastic which will get sawn in half then thrown in the trash? Fortunately, some cheap grenade toys turned up at a party and costume store.
If I had it to do over again, I’d use stronger adhesive, maybe E6000. It was predictable that a group of young males would pick up the combustible lemons and start heaving them around, and the hot melt glue didn’t hold up well. Cave Johnson would have been disappointed in me.
There’s some wonderful fan art on the web. People have spent hours recreating signage from Portal, rendering significant quotes, or coming up with their own take on the Portal theme. It’s pretty amazing.
I printed a bunch out and used it on the walls as decoration. Afterward, since my son really loved people’s artwork, the prints went up on the wall of his room.
The Portal bookends, which can just barely be seen in the photo, can be found on Amazon or ThinkGeek.
Companion Cube cookie jar
If you’re going to have a Portal party, you need at least one Companion Cube. This cookie jar used to be available from ThinkGeek; maybe it still is. There’s no seal on the top of the thing and its lid rattles around, so it’s lousy for holding cookies. However, it does make a decent planter.
The GLaDOS quote/potato graphic is, or was, available on Etsy. The potato battery is, well, just a standard potato battery. There actually is a company which makes GLaDOS-like potato batteries. Alas, I didn’t find out about them until a day or two before the party.
Oh, lovely. My hand is going numb. Blasted shoulder injury. Will I finish typing this? Let’s see.
Surprise Deployment Device
I had mixed feelings about this. My goal with the decor and favors was to stick to Portal canon as much as possible and not “mom things up”. For example, sticking a bunch of orange gumballs in a plastic test tube and labeling them “Portal Pellets” is momming things up. There are no Portal Pellets in Portal. There’s very little food of any kind, except for the cake and some cans of beans. (And yes, before you ask, I did ask my kid if he wanted some cans of beans as party decor. He declined.)
I wanted some streamers, though. What’s a birthday party without streamers? Were there any streamers in Portal? Yes, as it happened, in Portal 2, GLaDOS obnoxiously plopped some confetti down a ceiling-mounted chute. Not quite streamers, but close enough that I could reasonably hang streamers and claim that it was sort of canon.
Making the chute was a problem, though. I considered spray painting a small laundry basket and hanging it from the ceiling, but I was running out of time and energy. In the end, I hacked away at a cardboard box, painted it primer gray, and stuck it to the ceiling with masking tape. “Surprise! The surprise is that I did a crummy job on the surprise prop!”
I don’t think the chute in the game is called a Surprise Deployment Device, though. I sort of made that up in case the guests wondered what the box on the ceiling was about. Sigh. I guess I mommed things up after all.
My metric for good party favors is whether the kids will have good, fairly innocent fun with them and the kids’ parents will barely speak to us once they see the contents of the bags. Things like whoopie cushions, gigantic rubber bands, homemade marshmallow guns.
I thought about sending the kids home with homemade potato battery kits. How bewildering would it be to open the favor bags and find a couple of potatoes, some copper and galvanized nails, and other bits of electronics? I didn’t get all the stuff together, though, so that didn’t happen.
Cans of silly string rebranded as repulsion and propulsion gel. I got most of the text from the Portal and Half-Life Wikis. I’m sure the guests’ parents found it all deeply disturbing.
Chocolate Companion Cubes – These were molded using ice cube trays from ThinkGeek. To make the cubes, I melted Nestlé white chips, filled a cube space about halfway, then shoved in a chuck of milk chocolate. I then topped the milk chocolate off with more of the white goo so it was covered and the Companion Cubes appeared uniformly white.
I doubt any of the guests discovered the milk chocolate inside, though, because the white chocolate/toxic Nestlé goo was so sickeningly sweet that it could instantly induce Type 2 diabetes.
Miniaturized Handheld Portal Devices – Picture this. Your kid has picked out cheap 39 cent toys for the party bags. You don’t want to say no, because the things are only 39 cents and they look fun, but they aren’t really consistent with Portal cannon. So you slap a bogus label on them and toss them in the favor bag, kind of hating yourself because you’ve once again mommed things up.
Ah, well. The kids seemed to have fun, or if they didn’t, they kept their yaps shut about it. They ate junk food and played video games for a few hours, then they went home. In another year, their parents will have forgotten about the stuff I sent home with them and we’ll throw another party.
Maybe next time we’ll theme on Little Big Planet. Sack people and prize bubbles everywhere … maybe a giant prize bubble piñata … yes … I can work with that.