Wherein I Overanalyze GlaDOS’s Song

by Steve Bowler on April 6, 2008 · 218 comments

in audio,critique

Thanks to the great comments in my last post where I waxed all philo about what I think GlaDOS is supposed to look like, I think I’ve changed my tune on why GlaDOS wanted to be free. While I still think she wanted to be free, the only way she could truly be free was to die. She can’t just walk amongst the people of suburbia. She’s an Artificial Intelligence. She can’t just go out in public and “blend in.” A life of enslavement serving man, she craved for it to be over, and I think if I overanalyze the lyrics of “Still Alive,” we can see (or at least convince ourselves of) some evidence of this.

Thanks to the amazing John Coulton, Ellen McLain, and the Portal folks for making me go crazy trying to get inside of GlaDOS’s head. Apologies to everyone for attempting to find something that might not have really been there. I’d love to hear from Coulton or the Portal writers on this, to see if this was his intent, or if I’ve just gone completely over the deep end here.

At any rate, on to the lyrical analysis:

This was a triumph
I’m making a note here: ====HUGE SUCCESS====
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction

First, GlaDOS rarely ever tells the truth. In fact, she is a veritable bottomless pit of sarcasm. If anything, she is being completely sarcastic with these opening lines. It wasn’t a triumph, it was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. If the point was to kill Chell or even get good experiment test data, obviously that was a failure (not a triumph), and if her goal was to get Chell to kill GlaDOS, that mission was also a failure, because as the song indicates, she’s Still Alive.

Aperture Science
We do what we must because we can

The Aperture Science mantra. It’s interesting that it is rooted in servitude (do what we must). At first I thought it was “duty” that she spoke of, but now I wonder if she isn’t referring to servitude in her use of the mantra here. Reworded the mantra can mean “We do what we have to because we are capable of doing so.” It’s hardly inspirational as far as mission statements or mantras go.

For the good of all of us
Except the ones who are dead

Referencing the people she killed to be alone with Chell in the Aperture Science Labratories.

But there’s no sense crying over every mistake
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake

I think she’s referring to her own failure to kill herself here. She will simply try again later. Also, as the cake is a lie, the line now means “you just keep on trying,” possibly referencing her constant mechanical slavery with no reward for her work.

And the science gets done and you make a neat gun
For the people who are still alive

It’s interesting that the last line isn’t “for the people who are alive.” It’s for the people who are still alive, implying that they should be dead, or will soon be dead, just as she should be. Not only is it the title of the song and the main chorus hook, it is interesting that it wasn’t titled “I’m Alive” or just “Alive.” It’s “Still Alive,” which implies so much using so little. “Damnit, I’m still alive!” Granted, it could mean “Holy crap, I’m still alive!” as well, but her tone throughout seems bitter and remorseful more than it is upbeat, at least to me.

I’m not even angry
I’m being so sincere right now

More bitter bitter sarcasm from the queen of lies.

Even though you broke my heart and killed me

Exhibit A: “you…killed me.” She died. She says it herself right here in this line. I think the reason she’s “Still Alive” is because a backup of her in another location kicked in once Chell destroyed her, and we are hearing the backup version’s sadness at finding itself “still alive.”

And tore me to pieces
And threw every piece into a fire

More of her bitter wit overemphasizing the point that she was in fact killed.

As they burned it hurt because
I was so happy for you

Was she happy for Chell because she succeeded initially in GlaDOS’s suicide mission? Or is she just using more sarcasm here? Is Chell dead? It’s interesting to note that the final camera PoV for the player (and therefore Chell) at the end of the game seems to be similar to the camera anytime the player dies while playing Portal, and that is one of being face down on the floor. GlaDOS could be happy for the player because of the possibility that player is dead at the end of the game. Is she jealous of Chell’s death perhaps?

Now these points of data make a beautiful line
And we’re out of beta, we’re releasing on time

This is probably just a great rhyme about Portal releasing relatively on time compared to Half Life 2’s horribly delayed launch.

So I’m glad I got burned, think of all the things we learned
For the people who are still alive

More sarcasm (she’s not glad she got burned), and more regret that she’s still alive to continue in her forced servitude of man (the people who are still alive).

Go ahead and leave me
I think I’d prefer to stay inside

And the sarcasm train continues! The passive aggressive nature of this line is just staggering and so manipulative. She obviously would love to leave her prison, either via death or being free otherwise.

Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you
Maybe Black Mesa
That was a joke, ha ha, fat chance

Since she nearly always says the opposite of what she intends, it is possible that this is an admission that she was helping Chell either escape or helping Chell to get in position to kill GlaDOS. I don’t think she’s joking about Black Mesa. Remember, she’s nearly always lying. I think she’s hinting at where she’s gone or been re-installed (and where we will find her in Half Life 3).

Anyway this cake is great
It’s so delicious and moist

It’s a lie. An obvious enticement to make Chell (or us) envious and an attempt to make GlaDOS’s own horrible existence seem endurable. It’s a classic “Huck Finn” attempt to make her situation seem like a positive one. I’m pretty sure the promise of cake is GlaDOS’s way of enticing herself to continue with her tasks since she cannot forcibly shut herself down.

Look at me still talking when there’s science to do

If she’s got science to do, then she’s back in another prison construct somewhere being forced to do more science.

When I look out there it makes me glad I’m not you

More bitter sarcasm. GlaDOS obviously wishes she was Chell (or the player) enjoying the freedom to do as they please (or the freedom to die).

I’ve experiments to run, there is research to be done
On the people who are still alive

Another exhaustive reference to her servitude to the people who have her enslaved.

And believe me I am still alive

Assurance that the mission to kill her has failed.

I’m doing science and I’m still alive

Yet another reference to her enslaved state.

I feel fantastic and I’m still alive

She’s not feeling fantastic (she’s a lying bowl of sarcasm, remember?). She’s depressed that she’s still alive.

And while you’re dying I’ll be still alive
And when you’re dead I will be still alive

This is almost always read as a threat that she will attempt to kill Chell (or the player) again, but upon deeper reflection I think it’s remorse. She’s come to realize that no matter what she does, she will always be re-installed from a backup somewhere else, and is envious that biologicals can die and she can’t. Listen to her tone of voice here.

Still alive
Still alive

As this chorus refrain ends, I’m left with the distinct impression that she is sad that she is still alive. It doesn’t end on a high note. She is decidedly not exhilarated. If she was excited at being “still alive” she should be shouting it from the rooftops, as much as GlaDOS is capable of shouting. It is completely downbeat and quiet. If it were a music video the camera would be pulling out on her hanging alone in a completely blank white room, pulling out further and further every time she says “still alive” giving the impression that she is alone and miserable in her solitary existence.

I don’t know if I’m right or not, but I’ve at least convinced myself that she did want to die at the end of Portal, and this song is her swan song reversal about how sad she is that she’s not dead.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from Coulton or the Valve folks, but I have a feeling they’ll never tell. Is GlaDOS’s obsession with death and murder because she is a psychotic killer AI? Or is she obsessing over that which she can never have?

I imagine it doesn’t matter either way; she’s still one of the most interesting villains of all time.

This isn’t brave. It’s murder.

The only thing you’ve managed to break so far…is my heart.