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.


Gnome May 18, 2010 at 2:46 pm

this guy has no idea what he is talking about, his whole theory is made of assumptions, which could go a hundred different ways, and by the end of it, he’s just trying to prove it by simply assuming she’s an android already. You could apply this entire article, more or less, to try and prove that Gordon Freeman is an android. It’s really quite sad and lacks any formal method of research

Knight May 24, 2010 at 10:13 pm

ok i know this is old and all but,two things occurred to me, one from the game,

(GLaDOS: Because despite your violent behavior, the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart)

and one in the comments

(Donovan // Apr 16, 2008 at 6:27 pm

Possibly, the companion cube is GlaDOS’ “broken” heart, in the sense that destroying it shows that you are capable of murder, which would upset a parent, but the constantly sarcastic GLaDOS is glad that her “heart” is broken and thus you are capable of killing her.)

what if? (and stay with me on this one) what if, the companion cube IS GLaDOS’s heart? i know its a long shot, but think about it, this part of the comment i quoted above: “Possibly, the companion cube is GlaDOS’ “broken” heart, in the sense that destroying it shows that you are capable of murder” combined with the fact that its covered in hearts and is surrounded by “love” its possible that the cube is a representation of GLaDOS’s heart.

Gal May 31, 2010 at 7:54 am

I agree with all 3 parts of your analysis of GLaDOS and the whole portal ‘story’. The penny drops after completing Portal… coincidences like the ones in Portal don’t just happen by accident. As for not being an android, how could a human step on those platforms that raise and lower out of the hot acid in the earlier test chamber?
One eerie thing I cannot explain is the busted pipes above the place where GlaDOS pretends to try and incinerate you. How did the pipes break?

Kate June 2, 2010 at 4:06 pm

These are absolutely fascinating, I love seeing all these theories and opinions. And while I agree and dispute some myself, I feel the need to remind everyone that this is still a game. And while a game needs characters, plot, and a level of depth to be good, there are still basic structures needed in a game.

Most games I think of use tutorial segments at the beginning, getting progressively harder up until the final boss, and are careful to include tools or skills to defeat that final boss very early on. It’s just basic gaming structure. You can’t expect the player to be able to defeat the final boss without having some clue or previous experience in doing so.

So while the whole glados-teaching-chell-to-kill-her-purposefully is very interesting (and not necessarily wrong), the game would have not been released had the whole “teaching” process never happened.

And, I must say, I thought the companion cube was cute and a great tool, but am a bit sad to admit I had no particular feelings towards it :/

Ivan June 24, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Did anyone said that when GLaDOS says “The only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart”
it may mean that GLaDOS is saying that he Companion Cube is her heart?
Or, i just got things wrong?

kel July 8, 2010 at 6:01 pm

What about the images shown in GLaDOS’ screen?
There are a lot of pictures of farm stuff, cakes and pliers, animals, a couple of signs (‘stop’ and’exit’), cake, toys, more cake, and just a few science-related pics.

Llols August 30, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I totally agree with you too…. but looking at other facts… you die from nuerotoxin you cant be an android, and a clone might be a possibility when she says the line: “i have your brain scan its backed up in case anything horrible happens”

Jawz September 5, 2010 at 6:21 am

There’s a youtube video of a Portal TFV mappack and you see a room full of Chell clones floating in orange liquid, but that’s a fanmade thing so it can’t really prove anything.

But I loved this analysis, I used to play the game without reading between the lines. I always thought GLaDOS just wanted to test the portal gun and eventually kill you…I never thought about Chell’s origin, or the Ratman, the WCC, or Cave Johnson. How were he and Chell linked to each other, how did Chell even end up at the Enrichment Centre? Only a poorly thought out game would just say that Chell was some random employee’s daughter, she has to be linked to something that plays a big part in the history of the Enrichment Centre, because Portal is certainly not a poorly thought out game. As for GLaDOS, I totally agree to everything said in the analysis, that she cares about Chell but doesn’t want her to consciously know about it. I have a theory about the WCC. It probably isn’t correct, but it’s still an interesting thought.

GLaDOS wanted to see if Chell could love.

She loved Chell so much but if she could not love her back, then there was no point. If she didn’t love the WCC, then she couldn’t love GLaDOS. If she was completely isolated, stuck in this never-ending cycle of tests, with nothing or no one to love, she would have nothing to live for, and would simply die in the fire. If she loved the cube, she could love GLaDOS. She would be motivated enough to escape the firepit, and that could be why the pit is there in the first place. Even though, technically, the tests are finished in Chamber 19, the firepit is also a test. A different kind of test.

Tell me what you think :)

Jawz September 7, 2010 at 5:24 am

Ooh and another thing about the Chell clones:

If GLaDOS really did just want to kill Chell then if she was the only test subject there was, then GLaDOS could see her die over and over again.

Isn’t that mean :(

northrup October 3, 2010 at 2:14 am

When the morality core drops, the tone of voice GLaDOS assumes reminds me of my grandmother. I find the author’s interpretation of motherhood plausible. Likewise, it’s nice to see that video games are becoming enough of an art form to have literary interpretations and analyses.

The idea of Chell being “Chell Johnson” might not be too far off; according to (login and run the “notes” program), Cave Johnson experiences mercury poisoning from trying to develop “7 Deadly Shower Curtains”, and by 1979, is “incapable of being convinced that time is not now flowing backwards”. It is likely that he went totally out of whack, or at least enough to “bring his daughter to work” and either clone her or hold her in stasis (which appears to be possible, based on previews of Portal 2′s plot). Not exactly proving that Chell and Cave are relatives, but further indicates a remote possibility.

By the way, the verison of GLaDOS presented on uses both “dir” and “ls” to list the files on the filesystem. This implies that GLaDOS is actually a form of UNIX (or has a UNIX subsystem built-in). However, its executable files are in a .EXE format (run “ls” or “dir” and you’ll see two executables, NOTES.EXE and APPLY.EXE), so it must be a DOS as well. Food for thought.

Andrew October 9, 2010 at 1:24 am

For people saying GLaDOS is taunting Chell with the ending song, listen to the last “still alive” If it isn’t exasperated sadness I don’t know what it is.

Shade October 14, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Uh… Well, while some of this may make sense, with the addition of the second game, it really doesn’t.

Still Alive can’t possibly be about Glados being depressed about still being alive; after all, she is shut down until several hundred years later, when Chell wakes her up again. (This has already been revealed.) As no person could live for several hundred years, it’s likely that another clone managed to survive the destruction and was released from her pod; alternatively, Chell may have been caught in a Portal Storm (see Half-Life) and swept up in a time warp of some sort.

In any case, if Glados wanted to die, why in the world would she want to rebuild Aperture Science Labs? That IS what she’s doing for the entirety of Portal 2, after all…

Adorkable December 10, 2010 at 4:40 pm

To be honest, I think you read WAY too much into it. Not that I can blame you, as I tend to do that pretty often myself, but the whole android thing just doesn’t seem right to me. Although I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Chell might be one of many clones, it is possible.
However, what I completly disagree with is the ‘GLaDOS as Chell’s mother’ thing. GLaDOS is indeed obsessed with Chell, there’s no doubt about that, but seeing her as a daughter? Definitely not. She probably sees her as some kind of toy, perfect to manipulate and play with…until something unexpected happened.
When I was playing the game, I had the impression that GLaDOS had two reasons for sending Chell through that course.
1. Science. That course is a perfect way to test human beings. Their reactions to incredible physical and emotional stress.
2. Boredom. I really think GLaDOS has a hell of a time watching Chell struggle like that.
And all this leads me to exactly one conclusion:
Yes, GLaDOS feels trapped. She’s basically all alone with no way to escape. So, that course is her way of doing what she does best, science, and relieving her boredom by playing with her toy.
If Chell is indeed a clone, it’s probably safe to say that GLaDOS has formed some kind of emotional attachement to her over the years, which explains her obsession, but it’s not a mother’s love as far as I’m concerned.

CommanderSwede December 31, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Holy crud, GLaDOS made it all as a tutorial so you’d know how to kill her. lawl.

CommanderSwede December 31, 2010 at 11:40 pm

oh and to jake:
hasn’t your mom ever said “im right because im an adult?” shes not regressing, shes being a mom.

Keyblade Spirit March 5, 2011 at 12:16 am

One thing that I’d like to point out is that if you rip the audio from the final “battle,” there are two lines from GLaDOS that were dummied out. One says:
“Huh. There isn’t enough neurotoxin to kill you, so I guess you win.”
Followed by:
“HA! I’m making more. It’s going to take a few minutes though. Meanwhile-Oh look! It’s your old pal the rocket turret.”

Perhaps the first line is truth. In a moment of fearing her fate, GLaDOS is telling you that you’ve won so you won’t continue to kill her. However, she gets over it very quickly, and lies about how she’s making more to give you greater incentive to kill her. She then refers to the rocket turret as “your old friend,” implying that you think of the rocket turret being there as a good thing.

As you can see, this, had it made its way into the final game, it would most likely have been to humanize GLaDOS (with the first line which indicates fear) and to reveal her intentions a little more. Hell, just the fact that it was distributed with the final product could mean something.

Oh, and I’d also like to draw attention to some of the things GLaDOS has said in the Portal 2 Trailers.
“We’re a lot alike you and I. You tested me. I tested you. You killed me. I-Oh, I suppose I haven’t killed you yet. Well, food for thought.”

What does this say? It says that GLaDOS seems to project herself onto Chell. She notes that Chell and her have a lot in common, and then goes on to very blatantly say that she has not done the one thing that will make her and Chell like the same person: She hasn’t killed Chell like Chell killed her yet. In fact, she’s so obsessed with Chell as herself that she makes note of that fact that, “We both said a lot of things YOU’RE going to regret.”

This shows that GLaDOS, for one reason or another, does consider her and Chell to be one in the same except for that one tiny detail of Chell not having been dead at some point.

Why does GLaDOS obsess over Chell as herself? Because this whole time Chell has been a copy of GLaDOS in a human body since very early in her life. Perhaps she was copied over while GLaDOS was still in early Beta, and thus would be able to develop a human’s perspective. This gives even deeper meaning to ,” And we’re out of beta, we’re releasing on time.” The Beta, after being obsolete for so long, has somehow surpassed the End Product. Chell IS GLaDOS, and GLaDOS realizes that she needs to perfect herself to become greater than the inferior beta version.

Lastly, GLaDOS says, “But I guess we can put our differences aside. For science. You monster.” She’s clearly stating that she wants to study Chell more, presumably to find out how her beta got better than her. Additionally, she’s also saying in the same way a mother would say to a teenager, “How DARE you be better than me! I am the “parent,” and that makes ME better than YOU, child.”

Any thoughts?

Kris March 12, 2011 at 12:52 am

Interesting article, it seems pretty convincing to me, but I’m wishy-washy like that.

IMPORTANT NOTE THOUGH; Technically, Chell would be a gynoid, not an android. I tell you this because gynoid is a cool word :D

shexlay March 18, 2011 at 4:34 am

hm, interesting article. its possable, though since there is a sequell comeing out soon, some of the therys may be shot out of the water lol. Or not who knows, though it would be interesting if you would do a follow up after playing through portal 2

shexlay March 18, 2011 at 4:36 am

wow i cant spell, sue me, i’ve been up since… yesterday

Sophie April 1, 2011 at 12:19 pm

It’s funny. I completed Portal the other night (finished at 3am and laughed my head off waking everyone up) and i actually thought “Chell” was a clone.

I guess i thought about it when you got out. Did anyone else notice, but, no one was around throughout the entire game. No bodies, no people, no nothing. The place was old and decrepit [stairs were falling to pieces]. That was the first thing that kinda hit me and made me start thinking, this person is a clone. I mean, seriously, no dead bodies? Even when you get to GLaDOS, she says “Deadly Nerve Toxin”. That would leave dead bodies. Unless, they decomposed. Which would explain the rusted stairs and lack of maintence. Is the place was abandoned, how old is Chell? Unless she was a clone, which, after a second playthrough today, i kinda hit apon. It is wonderful to see people looking at it like that.

To all those who are not convinced, play it again. Where are the bodies? You could argue they were taken away by that bot at the end…the party attendent bot, thing…thereby there is no trace of any bodies, but what about the lack of maintence? Furthermore, what about the broken pipe towards the end of the game? Who did that?

I believe Chell is a clone. I believe the place was abandoned *years* ago, and that GLaDOS revives another Chell clone after each failure. Whether or not GLaDOS wishes to die, I prefer not to say. I didn’t come to that conclusion through my play throughs, but I definantly say Chell is a clone. No doubt about that in my mind. Maybe, she was even the one who installed the Morality Core. Hence why GLaDOS used her as a Clone. (that is speculation on my part right now).

All that said, I think the author makes a sound argument. It does make a lot of sense, and I love these sorts of debate. No one is ever right, and no one is ever wrong; all of this is what the player develops using the material the devs give us in game. I loved reading this article. :)

Can’t wait for Portal 2!!

MBzaman April 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

I’ll like to comment how this theory is actually true because of how in portal 2 GLaDOS is actually Carline xD so congrats SPITFIRE on figuring it out based on just portal 1 :D

Tom April 22, 2011 at 4:58 pm

She doesn’t make you go straight to her, you break out, after SHE TRIES TO KILL YOU and explore the Labs trying to find her. You kind of pick up along the way she has locked you up for ages and you want to take her down so she doesn’t continue it with others.

Der B April 26, 2011 at 5:20 am

And your whole Thesis got thrown over by Portal 2. Except for the Clone part.

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