Still Alive? She’s Free.

by Steve Bowler on April 4, 2008 · 205 comments

in art,design

The first time I saw GlaDOS in Portal, I was overcome with a distinct sensation that I was in the presence of someone in pain. Troubled. At the very least, immense frustration. At first I wasn’t sure if it was the gyrations of the physical construct of GlaDOS, or if it was the tone of voice, or even the shape of the giant computer hanging from the ceiling itself. I recall pointing out to my wife that there were distinct similarities to a woman hanging upside down, but it was hard to put my finger on just what it was that made me think that. Of course, I didn’t have a lot of time to stop and stare; I was fighting for my (or Chell’s) life.

The second time I played through I turned the director commentary on, and got confirmation by way of a description of the things they attempted to make GlaDOS look like as they were making the game. What turned the light bulb on was the line “Botticelli’s Venus hanging upside down, but we decided to go with something else and use some feminine lines within the structure.” I’m paraphrasing; it’s late and I don’t feel like booting up the game again to get the quote exactly right. The spirit is there in the paraphrase, though, because I think they went for something much more sinister than a Venus.

The third time I loaded up the boss battle, my wife finally saw what I had been seeing all along, and what we saw fits with GlaDOS’s behavior throughout the game. I don’t think her end goal was to kill Chell. I mean, yes, to get Chell to do what she needed Chell to do, she had to make it hard, if not insanely difficult. Otherwise Chell wouldn’t want to do what GlaDOS needed her to do. I think GlaDOS’s end goal was to get Chell to kill GlaDOS’s body. I think she’s been reviving Chell’s clones over and over and over ’till one of the Chells can get it right and finally knock the eyes off of GlaDOS and free her from her bondage of this giant body the humans put her in originally. I think GlaDOS has simply wanted to be free this whole time, and killed off the original inhabitants of the Aperture Science Lab in order to further this goal. They certainly wouldn’t let her mess with Chell, pushing her to the limits to “destroy” the prison that GlaDOS has been suffering in this whole time if they were around, now, would they?

Take a look at GlaDOS. She’s a woman hanging upside down from the ceiling, in a straight jacket/bondage getup. Her head is even blindfolded and gagged, and her ears covered. Don’t let the big round”eyes” fool you. Look past them and see the woman hanging and suffering.

Here’s what you see in-game:

Original GlaDOS

And here’s what I think they’re trying to convey:

She's Still Alive

I felt really weird drawing this. I’m not even remotely into bondage, but when I tried to draw a stylized woman like what GlaDOS looks like, it just wasn’t working. When I pushed it all the way to what I felt they were trying to convey; a woman completely imprisoned; trapped and held upside down, it just made sense.

Now I just feel sorry for GlaDOS. Won’t you boot up Portal one more time and free her?

Why she wants to get free I imagine will have to wait for the sequel. I’m pretty sure it involves cake though.

Update: I’ve changed my mind on GlaDOS’s definition of “free.” Read more here.

Update2: Looks like she really is Botticelli’s Venus.

Update3: I couldn’t help myself. Complete game narrative analysis in three parts: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.