Aperture Desk Job is full of unexplained details. Right at the start, as the camera pans down from the retrofuturist reception area to your lowly desk-based workstation, we see all manner of orange tubes, future Grady cores being trained to fool captcha image tests, a giant chicken, and what appears to be the origin point of Half-Life’s ammo boxes being constructed. But there’s also a pointed shot between the floorboards, showing us a pair of green praying mantises fumbling around over some electrical wiring and a rogue lightbulb.
On its own, this mantis scene is no stranger than anything else we’ve witnessed in the last 30 seconds. But as your journey through Aperture goes on, things start getting really weird, really fast. Over the course of the next half hour, we’ll see these mantises discover electricity, evolve into a society of tiny house-dwelling insects with their own carriages and courtship dances, and eventually a futuristic civilization who have mastered flying saucers and created an eternally self-sustaining power source. All in the same time it takes your supervisor core Grady to come up with a rudimentary prototype for what will eventually go on to become Portal’s creepy turret. But you, yes you, CHARLIE, had to go and ruin it all by dropping the giant metal head of corporate mega-bastard Cave Johnson through the floorboards. What might those mantises have become, if they hadn’t been so rudely crushed by your rampant disregard for their wellbeing?
This is the question that’s been pre-occupying me most since replaying it for this month’s RPS Game Club. After all, we know what did become of the mantis people, revealed in this telling soundbyte from Cave himself in Portal 2. In one of his infamous pre-recorded messages you hear walking around the Aperture Science Facility, he says the following:
“Those of you helping us test the repulsion gel today, just follow the blue line on the floor. Those of you who volunteered to be injected with praying mantis DNA, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Bad news is we’re postponing those tests indefinitely. Good news is, we’ve got a much better test for you: fighting an army of mantis men. Pick up a rifle and follow the yellow line. You’ll know when the test starts.”
My working theory is thus. While the timeline of the creation of these mantis men isn’t completely clear, at least not in relation to you destroying their futuristic quantum energy society with the giant metal head of Cave Johnson himself at the end of Aperture Desk Job, it’s obvious that some singular mantis, somewhere, somehow, has had its DNA spliced with an unfortunate human being elsewhere in the Aperture Science Facility, creating what I can only imagine is a truly terrifying nightmare vision that is the aforementioned mantis men.
If these are indeed man-sized mantises, then their superior size, horrifyingly large mandibles and general, inherent terror would naturally put them at the top of the natural mantis food chain, and I can only posit that the added corruption of their human tendencies would naturally lead them to eradicate the regular mantises in one fell swoop. However, the fact that these mantis men have been captured and repurposed as test subjects by wily Aperture scientists must mean that they’re not so dominant as to also wipe out their creators. And let’s be honest, if I was a scientist who’d accidentally created a new species of possibly very lethal mantis men, I, too, would want to destroy every last remaining mantis in the building so as to not case further havoc. Thus, we can only assume that the once bright future of Desk Job’s mantises was sadly snuffed out the moment you dropped Cave’s giant metal skull through the floor of his office.
Part of me also wonders whether the mantis men could have been some kind of Earth-equivalent precursor to Half-Life’s headcrabs. When you stop and think about it, there’s something very mantis-like about their long claws and their stubby little heads. Honestly, if you wanted to distil the ‘essence of praying mantis’, getting rid of their long bodies and crushing them down to their most potent, violent form, I think you could quite feasibly end up with a headcrab. Just look at this diagram image of a mantis’ maybe actual mouth I found on the internet somewhere. Mantis or headcrab? They’re basically the same!
Listen, I know Half-Life’s headcrabs technically come from Xen and all that, and that the general theory of their birth is that they’re spawned from those horrible fleshy sacks on legs known as Gonarchs, but hear me out. If Black Mesa scientists were regularly teleporting back and forth between Earth and Xen for their research, who’s to say that there wasn’t some evolutionary tampering going on somewhere, right? There’s also something quite mantis-like about the Gonarch if you ask me, if you squint from a distance of 100m, which only strengthens my theory further, if you ask me. Thus I am compelled to conclude that this scenario is entirely and feasibly possible. And YOU made it happen when you dropped Cave Johnson’s head through the ground, you monster.
Just think of what might have been if the mantis people had been allowed to flourish on their natural trajectory? What electrical wonders they might have created for us, such as the everlasting power source that ironically ends up keeping Cave Johnson’s mega head alive into the far distant future? Maybe they might have the ones to save humanity from the Combine, not that bespeckled Gordon Freeman and his gravity gun. Those Combine wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they were suddenly set upon by fleets of flying mantis saucers. They’d run straight back to Xen and their fathomably large empire and leave Earth well alone, I reckon. Laszlo might still be alive. The G-Man wouldn’t keep cropping up causing trouble… Heck, they might have even pacified GLaDOS and nurtured her into the ultimate benevolent AI who served the greater good of humanity.
But we’ll never know, because you dropped an enormous Cave Johnson head on them in your desperate scheme to get rich quick with your fragile porcelain toilet turrets. Honestly. Never trust your fate to Aperture’s dubious personality cores. They’ll lead you astray and change the course of history forever, and no one will be any better off because of it.