GLaDOS – Part 2 and its a long one…

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Still alive?

Okay, so we’ve covered GLaDOS’ beginnings as a character (briefly), and why she has become less a thorn in our side and more a knife sticking from our back. She is deluded, domineering, arguably insane and more than slightly homicidal…

But, and here’s the rub, she is utterly hilarious, unique and probably my favourite game character of all time. Lets look at Portal 2 now, and how Valve managed to make a disembodied voice so captivating even more so.

By the end of the first Portal, you realise how silly the whole concept is. A renegade AI, a full lab at her disposal and an unholy lust for experimentation and science. And you are her last white rat. It’s quite a tribute to the dialogue writers of the game how much sheer personality you can get from a single voice artist and some clever digital effects. But the credits have rolled, and you have just listened to “Still Alive”, and you’re thinking ‘that was awesome, more please’.

The biggest problem for Valve, I think, was developing the story, without messing with the structure or flow of the first game. And for that, you need another spoke for the wheel. Enter Wheatly; a self-aware personality core, like the ones you incinerated at the end of the first game.  Just as daft as GLaDOS was, but friendly, chatty, and funny as hell (in my opinion of course).

He serves as your tutorial/intro voice-over in Portal 2, as of course, GLaDOS is dead/down/whatever. He sets the mood cleverly, with some overtones of your extended hibernation, the inadequacies of the facility, and the real possibility of you having a very minor case of serious brain damage…

There is a wealth of exposition in these early stages, old tests re-imagined as vine-strewn and weather-beaten areas of decay; vegetation cracking wall panels and a sense of time wrought deterioration comes across, emphasising just how long you have been sleeping (the actual time-scale is never actually nailed down).  And when you finally reach GLaDOS’ chamber, the walls have fallen, and she looks pretty much as you left her: mangled and broken.

Of course, she’s still alive…

-“Oh, its you…”

Yup, she remembers…

-“It’s been a long time, how have you been?”

Maybe she doesn’t hold grudges?

-“I’ve been really busy being dead, you know, after you murdered me.”

Oh hell.

It’s an interesting reunion, kind of bittersweet.  Sweet in that this is obviously where it all kicks off again, and bitter because she squashes Wheatly.  Bit of a nasty start to the proceedings but lets face it: She is still nuttier than a squirrel with a basket full of live grenades. And no nuts.

The game goes back to the original formula, test chambers with a dry, sardonic overly. The difference is, before you were a plaything. Now, you are the sole focus of her somewhat overcharged ire – she is seriously pissed off, and really wants you to know it.

-“Well done. Here are the test results: You are a horrible person. I’m serious, that’s what it says: A horrible person. We weren’t even testing for that. Don’t let that “horrible person” thing discourage you. It’s just a data point. If it makes you feel any better, science has now validated your birth mother’s decision to abandon you on a doorstep.”

The fantastic thing about these early stages is of course, the place is a ruin. Broken walls, intruding weeds and rain that have darkened the clean, crisp white that we all remember. But now GLaDOS is up and about (so to speak), the facility is coming back to life; walls repairing themselves, debris being pushed out from your path, holes being sealed up.  One hilarious corridor has a huge bulge under the floor panels, where GLaDOS has quite literally swept everything under the rug. The animations are beautiful, and in some places Pixar-esque, with little robot arms manipulating whole walls of panels to form your next challenge. All tied into the idea that GLaDOS is the entire facility, instead of just the core.

Of course, even with all this style and Source powered cleverness, it is stuff we have all seen before. And in due course, you find that Wheatly is still alive, and you both hatch a plot to take GLaDOS down…

The “switch” scene, as I like to call it, was masterfully done. If you haven’t played the game, and are still reading, please PLEASE stop and go play/finish it.  This is the best bit, and you only get to enjoy it once.

Still reading? Okay…

The plan is simple: Swap Wheatly with GLaDOS’ master core, and Wheatly will get you out alive. Straight forward, if slightly difficult.

Of course, you pull it off, and Wheatly is now in charge of the facility. Not being homicidal, this is probably a good thing. And the icing on the figurative cake: GLaDOS is decanted into a potato.

Yes, a potato, and boy is she pissed. More than she already was, I mean….

It’s at this moment a few subtle facts about GLaDOS are given; for example, her personality is plugged into a number of devices designed to simulate pleasure when experimenting and testing subjects. Her desire to put candidates through their paces is seemingly hardwired into her interface with the Aperture Science facility, and not some by-product of her personality. And we have just replaced her with a total idiot…

-“He’s not just a regular moron. He’s the product of the greatest minds of a generation working together with the express purpose of building the dumbest moron who ever lived. And you just put him in charge of the entire facility.”


Driven by the same lust for testing as his predecessor, Wheatly recants his promise to help you escape and drops you both down a seemingly endless pit into the very bowels of the Aperture Science Laboratories… accidentally I might add, but still, he’s not the cuddly chap you have grown to love anymore.

The following areas (pre 1970’s Aperture Science, with all the trimmings) are the first time in Portal I have gotten stunningly stuck; instead of tightly controlled chambers with only one real solution, you are in a cavernous complex trying to throw yourself to the exits and quite frankly, I was disappointed.

However, you do have GLaDOS stuck in a potato to keep you company, and the usual digitally monotone intros to the testing areas are now delivered by Cave Johnson, the original Aperture Science director, and something of an enigma, as he seems to be linked to GLaDOS in a few unexpected ways. More on that later.

The first areas down here are done solo, as a bird takes a shine to GLaDOS-potato early on and spirits her away. By the time you find her again, she is in something of a state, she quite clearly doesn’t like birds, which is fair enough as one is pecking at her when you find her –

-“Say, you’re good at murder. Could you – ow! – murder this bird for me?”

So, after being your overlord and omnipotent voice-in-the-sky, being a potato stuck at the end of your portal gun has taken a fair amount out of our big baddie. And that’s not the only thing on her mind; the Cave Johnson era areas seem to hint at what (or indeed who) GLaDOS really is. It’s all pretty vague, and a lot of stuff postulated on the internet is perhaps over-analysed.  But its obvious from voice clips of both Cave and his (possible) wife, Caroline, and GLaDOS’ reactions to both (some funny, some actually quite sad), GLaDOS is a digital version/copy of Caroline, someone who Cave Johnson (while dying of some ill-advised experiment’s side-effects) wanted to run Aperture after he passed away. GLaDOS obviously has no recollection of her beginnings, and seems to take this idea with some difficulty –

-“Look, you’re… doing a great job. Can you handle things for yourself for a while? I need to think…”

A compliment? Yikes…

It’s all subjective, of course. There are some theories that even attempt to reconcile Chell in the story as Cave and Caroline’s daughter (missing/ignoring the fact that Cave died in the Seventies, allegedly, although we never seem to find out what happened to Caroline…), and none of which mean much to anyone outside Valve’s story-writers department. My take on it is simple: GLaDOS isn’t evil. Under all that testing obsession, the disregard for life, the vindictive bitchy-ness, there is actually some humanity in there. Now, freed from her drives and personality modifying cores – she is actually becoming the woman she once was.

Together, you claw your way back up to Wheatly’s domain, and a steadily declining life-expectancy, as the facilities reactor is nearing meltdown due to his inability to regulate it. Now, it becomes a race against time to reinstate GLaDOS before the whole place goes up in a cloud of smoke. Its at this point I really had decided just how much of a masterpiece GLaDOS really was. The traditional bad-guy-becomes-ally thing has been done to death and beyond in so many games, but Valve achieved a masterstroke with Portal 2, in that, instead of cheapening the story and experience, it gave you a rare insight into what GLaDOS really is. The inner-mechanisms that turn behind that malevolent mind, the things that make her far from being the faceless monstrosity we usually deal with in games (despite her being literally faceless). Its rare, for me in particular, to enjoy dancing through hoops for an insane character in games, but with GLaDOS, it was a joy and a privilege.

The ending was one of the most memorable moments in a computer game in my entire life, and one that I could relive again and again, just for that final speech from GLaDOS. Bittersweet, humorous, but tinged with a sadness not just from the story, but also for the fact that its the end of one of the greatest games I have ever played, and the speech is delivered by one of the most cleverly constructed bad guys I have ever matched wits with, and who has just saved my life… –

-“Oh, thank God you’re all right. You know, being Caroline taught me a valuable lesson. I thought you were my greatest enemy, when all along you were my best friend. The surge of emotion that shot through me when I saved your life taught me an even more valuable lesson – where Caroline lives in my brain.”

A beep, another voice saying “Caroline deleted” and a tear from me.

-“Goodbye, Caroline. You know, deleting Caroline just now taught me a valuable lesson: The best solution to a problem is usually the easiest one. And I’ll be honest. Killing you? Is hard. You know what my days used to be like? I just tested. Nobody murdered me. Or put me in a potato. Or fed me to birds. I had a pretty good life. And then you showed up. You dangerous, mute, lunatic. So you know what? You win. Just go.”

And the final nail in the heart –

-“It’s been fun. Don’t come back.“

And that’s it. A long (and wonderful) elevator ride to the surface, serenaded by a singing choir of those loveable Turrets (which incidentally, when translated, is a song from a mother to her daughter, foil-hat fans), and you are free.

It is a truly wonderful game, not perfect in design nor (in some areas) execution. But these are minor faults when compared to the sheer enjoyment of the locale, and of the characters. Stephen Merchant is fantastic as Wheatly, and hilarious with his dry British wit. But the star of this game (and the last one) will always be GLaDOS, voiced beautifully by Ellen McLain (who also does the announcer in Team Fortress 2, fact fans), who brings so much character and wit to what to all intents and purposes should have been a crappy computerized voice. She (and Valve) have without a doubt created one of the greatest villains of all time, up there with Psycho Mantis and Sephiroth in the Halls of the Great.

I’m going to leave you now with the ending of Portal 2 in its entirety, if you have finished it, I’m almost certain you won’t mind seeing it again. If you haven’t, you are an idiot, but enjoy anyway.


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