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.
The recipe for success
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.
An arrow to the cake
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.