The cake is a lie
The cake is a lie is a metaphoric catchphrase that originates from the 2007 video game Portal.
The idiom sends the message that the promise of a reward is simply a false motivator, and that there actually is no reward in the end.
It’s like when you tell your kid that if he behaves nicely he will get ice cream later, but you have no intent whatsoever to actually give him ice cream. The ice cream is a lie.
The cake is just a trick to lure you into doing something that more often than not will lead to disappointment, and maybe even downfall.
Origin of the meme
Portal by Valve Corporation is a problem solving game that was launched in 2007.
In the game, you are the character “Chell”, and you are given orders by the AI GlaDOS, usually involving tasks and challenges with a portal gun.
In the beginning, GlaDOS is friendly and encouraging, repeatedly promising you cake if you accomplish the tasks. However, after a couple orders, GlaDOS becomes more and more hostile, and rather than encouraging and motivating speech, it threatens you and degrades you.
Eventually it turns out GlaDOS wants to kill you. When you escape, you find the graffiti of previous test subjects stating “the cake is a lie”, repeatedly written on the wall.
Spread of the meme
The phrase started spreading as a joke between Portal players, but as it gained popularity it spread to other platforms and became an idiom for unattainable goals.
Portal writer Eric Wolpaw said in an interview with Gamasutra that he is extremely tired of the phrase and with the word cake in general.
After it was seen in Portal, World of Warcraft adopted it for one of their achievements called “The cake is not a lie”. In another video game, “Hanna in a Choppa”, you can find the idiom scribbled on a wall.