The Clone, the Cube, and the Construct: Part 3

by Steve Bowler on April 15, 2008 · 125 comments

in combat,critique,design

All Alone

While I would like to investigate what GLaDOS says in this section (I invite players to unpack the audio and listen for themselves, or play through the final sections of the game again), I wanted to first explore what GLaDOS does throughout the game of Portal for this final critique and analysis of the game, as it’s probably the most important facet of the game and carries the most weight out of all of the designer’s decisions when making the title.

The Construct: Suicide by Chell.

One of the most amazing things to me that I found upon reflection after beating the game for the first time was how well the designers hid the learning process of the game in plain sight. By making the levels an unabashed and unapologetic tutorial section, players learned how to use the tools necessary to complete the game while staying engaged in the fiction. While this is standard operating procedure for pretty much any new IP (although rarely this successful), it is interesting to note that almost the entire game is the tutorial lesson, right up until you reach the end of course 19.

Even more interesting, however, is the idea that the designers used GLaDOS to do the teaching. We could brush this aside and say that it is merely a function of game design, but there was an important conscious decision made by the designers here. It is she, GLaDOS, and not bozo boxes (what some in the industry use to describe the pop up instructional dialog boxes), nor a narrator that guides the player as Chell throughout the test, giving hints and instructions as we make our way through the ever more dangerous obstacle course. This accomplishes two very important things:

  1. It maintains the illusion of immersion of isolation by not introducing foreign elements or individuals.
  2. It (intentionally or not) sets up the narrative that GLaDOS is teaching you how to kill her.

Many will pointlessly dispute the second point here, claiming that the game design requires the player to learn how to play the game, but they would be missing the point (by foolishly arguing that I take the game at face value). The fact that the player needs to be taught is not the issue. The decision to have GLaDOS be the one guiding the player is.

Not only does she hand you the tool that will allow you to reach her, and then educate you in its use (and even cheers for you like a Mother for her child learning to walk when you get it right), but she even instructs you on how to properly incinerate her once you find her. As if that wasn’t enough, she made sure to populate a course intentionally with live fire turrets so you would learn how to avoid them, and use that information to learn from the rocket turret you meet later. The very idea that all of these things combined could be just some kind of a happy coincidental game design accident is almost insulting, as the culmination of this learning process results in the “boss battle” where you take everything she has taught you and use it against her.

Is she surprised? Hardly. She taunts you by telling you that you’re heading the wrong way, and that you don’t even know where you’re going (you don’t; you think you’re escaping and she’s actually leading you right to her). And when you finally find her, she delivers one of the most amazing and revealing villain monologues I’ve ever heard:

Well you found me. Congratulations. Was it worth it?
Because despite your violent behavior, the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart

I love this line. So passive aggressive, so maternal. And possibly so telling. Is she informing you that she’s upset you haven’t killed her yet? The only thing you’ve managed to break, so far, is her heart? This implies that you’ve either failed at breaking more, or that she knows you’re about to break something else.

Maybe you could settle for that, and we’ll just call it a day.
I guess we both know that isn’t going to happen.

While there’s apprehension in the first line (something I touched on briefly yesterday, possibly due to her love for Chell, and possibly because even though she’s orchestrated it, she fears her own demise), there is acceptance of the inevitable in the second line. Not only does she know that you will destroy her (after all, she’s taught you how to do it and given you the tools to reach her), she literally leaves you no choice by stacking the deck against you.

You chose this path [we did??], and now I have a surprise for you.

What is interesting here is that this situation begins with a stalemate. You have a portal gun. She’s stuck hanging upside down and can’t reach you. Neither party has real means of harming the other. And yet, she drops her morality core. Throughout the game, whenever GLaDOS becomes emotional (specifically during the “Wheeeeeeeeeee” moment when you fling yourself, although there are a few others), she manages to short out electrical equipment. The fact that her morality core drops off of her at the moment where she attempts to deploy the rocket turret against you is no accident, despite her tone to the contrary. Did she know that would happen when she tried to kill you? She has orchestrated this meeting from the word “Hello” at the beginning of the game. It seems only proper that even something as accidental as this would still be just another pawn in her scheme.

She then baits and taunts you to the point where the only thing left to do is drop the eye through the incinerator (just like she showed you with the cube), if for no other reason than to shut her up. Of course, this breaks the stalemate, and she deploys the rocket turret. The same one she’s already taught you how to use against her.

She even drops nerve gas on you, in order to ensure that you have no choice but to use her rockets against her. You already know how to avoid them. You could theoretically avoid them forever (you are an android, after all), so she gives you a pressure device which forces you to resolve the situation she’s thrown you into.

One could even argue that we weren’t even playing a game at all here. We, the player (or Chell), has merely been walking through one giant elaborate suicide machine of GLaDOS’s design. She even laughs in our face at our own ignorance, telling us:

This isn’t brave, it’s murder. What did I ever do to you?
You don’t even care, do you?

GLaDOS comes right out and tells us that we’re not defending ourselves, we are here to murder her (the “What did I ever do to you” is a hilarious joke, or another passive aggressive maternal rewording of “After everything I have done for you”). But the most telling line is “You don’t even care, do you?” There’s so much weight in that sentence.

  • She’s remorseful that you haven’t seen through her scheme; you are unaware of the plan.
  • She’s sad that you don’t care that you’re killing her.

I think there’s even remorse that you and she have finally met face to face, and GLaDOS has made it impossible for there to be a joyful reunion, since she has designed you from the start to kill her. While you may have been the daughter of the CEO in a previous lifetime, GLaDOS has taken your DNA and turned you into an android capable of negotiating the impossible terrain it would take to find her and destroy her. The testing course isn’t there to test the portal gun. It’s there to test and teach you. She has taken your brain scan and downloaded the new knowledge gained from every new part of the maze you accomplish before you die, and installs it in a new cloned version ready to take on the course, each new replicant making it further than the last. It doesn’t matter how long it takes each try.

The only thing that matters is that you eventually find her, destroy her, and free her from her confines.

I’m not even sure if it matters that you survive.