At the beginning of Portal Chell wakes up in the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center. It is unknown to the player how she got there, but it becomes apparent through the course of the game that she is participating in a scientific experiment to test the effectiveness of new Aperture Science technologies, though it is never made clear whether or not she volunteered for the task. Chell’s task is to use the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, popularly referred to as the Portal Gun, to make her way through a series of puzzles. Throughout her time at the Enrichment Center she never audibly speaks, and no back-story is given.
Throughout the game the antagonist GLaDOS frequently places Chell in mortal danger, although it is unclear whether GLaDOS actually realises what she is doing or whether she is simply faulty and confused. GLaDOS attempts to spur Chell on, offering cake as the ultimate reward at the end of the testing process and at one point also pairs Chell with an inanimate metal cube referred to as the Weighted Companion Cube, attempting to make Chell form a close attachment to it. As part of the test Chell is forced to incinerate the Companion Cube to continue.
At the end of the testing GLaDOS attempts to incinerate Chell, however Chell manages to escape and make her way through the Aperture building to GLaDOS. GLaDOS attempts to kill Chell one last time using rocket turrets and a deadly neurotoxin, and reveals that she had flooded the facility with toxic gas before, purging the original Aperture staff. Using GLaDOS’ own rocket turrets against her she is able to remove the core units from GLaDOS and incinerate them all, destroying GLaDOS. As GLaDOS is destroyed Chell is launched out of the facility by the resulting explosion and lands, presumably mortally wounded, in the Aperture Science parking lot. In a new ending added to the game during March 2010 Chell is dragged across the parking lot back towards the Aperture facility by a robot.
Portal: Lab Rat
In Portal: Lab Rat, the first Portal web comic, it was revealed that Aperture employee Doug Rattmann was responsible for moving Chell’s name to the top of the list of test participants, thereby releasing her into the test facility soon after GLaDOS originally gained control of it. While, according to her files, Chell was the most stubborn and tenacious test subject and this is why she was rejected as a test participant, Rattmann said that he knew she could defeat GLaDOS on a hunch, and awakened her so that she could do so. It is also revealed that Rattmann saw Chell defeat GLaDOS and observed as the robot dragged her back inside the facility.
While Rattmann could have escaped the facility after GLaDOS’ death if he wished too, he chose to return to the facility to help Chell, who had been placed in a long term relaxation vault. Due a power outage occurring when GLaDOS was destroyed, however, the life support systems in the vault remained offline. Rattmann managed to restart the life support, but Chell was left in an indefinite sleep, with the system not knowing when to awaken her.
In Portal 2 Chell is eventually woken up centuries after the events of the original Portal by a personality core named Wheatley who wants to escape the facility with her. After a short “conversation” between them that confirms that Chell may have brain damage, Wheatley moves the relaxation vault across the facility, before the two are briefly separated and Chell is able to explore the ruins of some of the test chambers from the original game. When they reunite they enter the room with the now destroyed GLaDOS in it and Chell plugs Wheatley into a panel in the room so that the facility escape pod may be activated, however the two accidentally reactivate GLaDOS, who immediately begins rebuilding the facility and puts Chell straight back into testing.
While testing for GLaDOS Chell occasionally meets up with Wheatley, but eventually the two are able to properly rejoin forces and attempt an escape of the testing area. Being successful in doing so, Chell and Wheatley manage to sabotage GLaDOS’ neurotoxin production plant and turret production line before returning to her chamber. With her turrets and neurotoxin disabled GLaDOS is defenceless against Chell, who transfers her out of the computer mainframe and replaces her with Wheatley. After a few seconds of being in charge of the facility Wheatley turns on Chell and GLaDOS, compelled by an inherent urge the mainframe imbues in any personality core, to continue testing. He places GLaDOS’ core in a small computer attached to a potato battery, and drops the two down a shaft into the depths of a long-forgotten area of Aperture from the 1950s.
Chell is left alone after GLaDOS is carried off by a crow and she makes her way through the depths of old Aperture, discovering the previously abandoned projects that the company worked on and the legacy of former Aperture CEO Cave Johnson and his assistant Caroline. After working her way through a number of old test chambers she reunites with the potato battery GLaDOS and carries her on one of the prongs of the Portal Gun through the remaining test chambers, which mark the downfall of Cave and Aperture. She eventually reaches the modern area of Aperture where Wheatley tries to conduct testing on her again until she escapes his grasp. Not long after this Wheatley finds the robots that GLaDOS created for future testing after Chell killed her ( Atlas and P-Body), and decides he no longer needs Chell, making a series of consistently flawed attempts to kill her and GLaDOS.
Chell and GLaDOS eventually reach Wheatley’s chamber to face him down and GLaDOS devises a plan to attach corrupted cores to Wheatley, that way initiating a core transfer, and allowing GLaDOS to regain control of the facility. Wheatley claims to be able to win the fight, having studied the tapes of her battling GLaDOS and taking his own precautions to ensure he cannot be defeated in the same way, but using his own explosive weaponry against him, and attaching various corrupt cores, Chell is able to prompt the facility to allow a transferral of personality cores. As it turns out Wheatley has booby trapped the button for initiating the transfer with an explosive, but is surprised to find that Chell remains alive. With one portal on the floor of the facility, Chell shoots another portal through a hole in the roof created by the explosion, to the moon, causing Wheatley to be sucked out into the vacuum of space.
Chell herself is sucked out through the portal but GLaDOS uses the robotic crane she had been using to pass Chell corrupted cores, to pull her back in, and Chell falls unconscious. When she wakes up she finds GLaDOS back in charge of the facility, who gives a short speech about how it is easier to let Chell go free than it is to kill her, and sends her up to the surface. On the elevator ride upwards Chell is confronted with a group of turrets who initially appear as though they are going to kill Chell, but instead burst into music and Chell is serenaded with an Italian opera by the turrets as she leaves the facility. She exits the facility to be greeted by a wheat field on a sunny day, before the door behind her shuts, before being opened one more time and a slightly charred Weighted Companion Cube being tossed out to her.
There are a number of theories about the true identity of Chell which have become somewhat well-known among Portal fans. One story element that many of these theories rely on is that GLaDOS does not seem to have any information about Chell’s identity, only ever referring to her as “subject name here” and referring to her home town as “subject home town here”.
One popular theory is been that Chell is a clone and there are a large number of Chell clones allowing GLaDOS to repeatedly test the Portal Gun even in life-threatening environments. This would account for GLaDOS’ lack of information on Chell and why upon waking her she says “Hello and welcome, again”. Another theory is that Chell is an android, not only accounting for the unusual story aspects the ‘clone’ theory highlights but also explaining why Chell has springs attached to her legs and why GLaDOS releases Chell into a live-fire course designed for androids.
Some have theorised that Chell is the daughter of Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson or at least a clone of his daughter. This theory is largely based on the idea that the Aperture Science ‘bring your daughter to work’ day was the same day that GLaDOS was first activated. If a clone of Chell had run through the testing process before then that could mean that the ‘C. Johnson’ who graffitied their name across one wall in the Aperture building could in fact be ‘Chell Johnson’.
Despite the multiple theories as to Chell’s identity Valve have neither confirmed or denied any of them and continue to keep the character of Chell shrouded in mystery. The only exception being that Valve mentioned that Chell was not a clone (or at least not a part of a series of clones) during Giant Bomb’s own Portal 2 Spoilercast.
The first ending song from Portal 2 may, perhaps be a response to the fan theories as to the identity of chell, the song “Cara Mia” performed in Italian by Ellen McLain (GLaDOS) as the “Soprano turret” has lyrics referring to Chell as a child.
Chell’s appearance was modelled on that of model Alesia Glidewell. Her orange jumpsuit in the original Portal was added to give her a dehumanised look and convey the idea that she was a test subject. The springs on the base of her feet were taken from the model of the Combine Assassin, an enemy cut from Half-Life 2, and added to Chell due to many testers of the game wondering why Chell was able to survive seemingly fatal falls with no damage.
For Portal 2 the Valve team redesigned Chell and went through a large number of concepts before settling on a grey jumpsuit, to make her look as though she had been dressed by a computer. A white cap was also eventually added to the design and a concept render also included some areas of green colouring on her jumpsuit. Some time after announcing this new design the Valve team scrapped it in favour of Chell wearing her old orange jumpsuit tied around her waist and a sleeveless white top with the Aperture Laboratories logo on it. The new outfit gave Chell more physical freedom and was adopted to signify that Chell had evolved from being a test subject into the cause of the Aperture Labs destruction.