June 7, 2011 § Leave a comment


The idea behind Portal is pretty obvious; a first-person puzzle game involving clever use of inter-spacial portals. However, this is merely the tip of the iceberg for a large number of gamers when you realise who the true star of the show is, and for once, it’s not you…

GLaDOS (Genetic Life-form and Disk Operating System) has become a thing of legends, and arguably one of the most interesting (and murderous) villains of the decade.  Her casual disregard for health and safety aside, she is a truly unique in the pantheon of video-game nasties in one simple way – You can’t help but love her to bits. Over the next two posts, I will try to explain why…

Note – These post WILL include Portal 1 & 2 spoilers, if you haven’t finished these games, I would strongly advise getting your finger out, the ending is the best bit. Regardless, do NOT read on if you don’t want it spoiled. You have been warned.

The first time you meet GLaDOS, she is a simple voice. A slightly matriarchal presence seemingly designed to make the bland and rather sterile test-chambers of the first Portal game a little less lonely. “You’re doing very well!” She peeps, as you progress through the simplistic puzzles that serve as Portal’s tutorial, learning how to use the portal gun and getting your head around the convoluted physics of bending space.
The shift from faceless-tutorial-voice comes shortly after this, with the ever so strange “Broken” test chamber, where she repeatedly states that you can’t solve it –

“Frankly this test chamber was a mistake. If we were you, we would quit now”

“Quit now and cake will be served immediately”

Of course you beat it, and she sings your praises, all the while you are starting to realise this glorified tour guide may not be as faceless as you originally thought…

An easy puzzle...

As the game progresses, she is always there, sometimes praising, sometimes sardonic or downright insulting. On a few occasions she even manages to be menacing, all the way to the stage where she tries to kill you… with a fire-pit, of all things. With some deft portalling, easily avoided, but by now she is less a character, and more of a force of nature, borderline crazy, morally broken. But still utterly resolute that she’s in charge and you are an expendable asset. A white mouse at the end of its useful lifespan and ready for the cat-box.

This translates beautifully into some truly standout moments. As you portal your way up the levels of Aperture Science, dodging turrets, missiles and pistons all under her malevolent control, she honestly seems to be thoroughly confused as to what you are doing; bombarding you with questions, cajoles, outright threats (“I’m not kidding, turn back or I will kill you”), appeals to your better nature, everything she can seemingly think of to make you go back and willingly throw yourself into the fire. It’s actually quite touching at some points –

“Someday we’ll remember this and laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Oh boy. Well. You may as well come on back…”

Of course, the character being simply a voice makes the dialogue emotion significant. And despite being synthetic and monotone throughout, GLaDOS has so much personality; it’s a true joy with each little sound-bite. And culminating with her destruction, even at the end she makes me smile –

“You’re not smart. You’re not a scientist. You’re not a doctor. You’re not even a full-time employee. Where did your life go so wrong?”

“Who’s gonna make the cake when I’m gone? You?”

"Can we talk about this?"

I’ve came to the conclusion that the first Portal is built around GLaDOS, as both a character and a motivation for soldiering on against increasingly difficult puzzles; attempting to survive her increasingly desperate attempts to kill you, before allowing you to essentially pick her apart. The comedy element is wonderfully understated, however I don’t think I’d label Portal as dark humour (as I know a lot of people classify it), as she isn’t exactly sadistic; simply not built to understand the idea that her lab rat has a mind, a will and a desire to survive. The game seems to grasp this and run with it, making the narrative akin to a scientist horrified his white mouse has bitten him, oblivious to the pain he inflicts on his subject on a daily basis.

GLaDOS isn’t evil, she is simply ignorant.

To be continued…


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