Name: GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System)
Game: Portal (2007)
In her own words: “You’ve been wrong about every single thing you’ve ever done, including this thing. You’re not smart. You’re not a scientist. You’re not a doctor. You’re not even a full-time employee. Where did your life go so wrong?”
If you haven’t played Portal, this article will ruin it for you. Either way, read on, because if you haven’t played it, you deserve to have it ruined for you. Where did your life go so wrong?
I love playing games. It’s how I relax. Games are the youngest, fastest-growing artistic medium on the planet and their technological and narrative potential thrills me. Most of the time I spend playing games I look back on with satisfaction, both for the experiences I’ve had and for supporting a vast, innovative industry that provides millions of jobs around the world.
There are times when even though I have a controller in my hand, I am not playing games. Games are playing me. These are the times when I get sucked into an online game, trying to clamber to the top of a leaderboard. The times I play Bayonetta yet again, willing myself into the trance-like state required to master its rhythmic combat and earn a platinum trophy on every level. More than ever, these are the times when I play puzzle or arcade games, those solely crafted around “The Loop”, an endless, hypnotic cycle of challenge, accomplishment and reward.
Such games can neither be won nor finished. You can get better at them but, like Tetris, they eventually catch up with you and obscure your vision with falling objects. Without a narrative resolution, a finite number of secrets to discover or a final boss to defeat, these games can easily consume you and give you nothing back.
Super Hexagon may be a magnificent achievement and an example of pure game design at its best, but it’s also sadistic. Not because it’s hard, but because after spending hours getting to the point where you can survive for 60 seconds on its easiest difficulty (experiencing a certain euphoria as a result) you can turn it off and realise that you’ve gained nothing. No insight. No time spent with wonderful characters. No sense of exploration or discovering a rich, unique world with a solid fiction or thought-provoking history. No matter how well you play, the game always wins.
As a child, I loved what many of us now refer to (perhaps a little sniffily) as “casual” games, because I had time to appreciate them. In those days, Sundays and car journeys dragged, so anything that killed time was welcome. Now, lunch hours pass by in a flash, weekends vanish in a swirl of pints and housework and holidays end with the gnawing anxiety that I didn’t make the most of them. If I’m going to spend a few hours a week playing games, they need to mean something to me, and though they may be compelling and beautifully designed, most casual games don’t.
In fact, they’re worse than meaningless, at least to me. Now that I need every minute just to keep up with work and the people I care about, throwing those minutes away on something that doesn’t broaden my horizons, improve my general person, build relationships, create happy memories or earn money is actually self-destructive. Unlike (good) story-based games, casual games do none of these things, and so make me feel as though I’m voluntarily chipping away at my most valuable resource, time, while the game taunts me with both my folly in playing it and my inability to beat it.
It wasn’t until I played Portal that I was finally able to exorcise this feeling. Famously thrown into The Orange Box alongside behemoths Half Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 with characteristic Valve nonchalance, Portal explores the sense gamers often have of being subservient to a game, and is thus is one of the medium’s great narrative triumphs.
Cast as Chell, a mute test subject sealed deep underground in the mysterious Aperture Science laboratories, you are given a “portal gun” and asked by an oddly-pitched synthetic voice to make your way through a number of challenge rooms. Upon completing each one, you progress to the next. There’s no back-tracking and the rooms get progressively more difficult, so at first there’s little to distinguish Portal from the likes of Chip’s Challenge. Its deceptive structure tricks you into thinking that you’re engaging in a fairly standard puzzle game, albeit one with an exceptionally clever use of physics and 3D space.
The voice belongs to GLaDOS, an A.I. overseeing all of Aperture’s activities. At first, she is merely clinical, acknowledging your success in the tests with dispassionate, seemingly automated phrases such as: “Unbelievable. You, [SUBJECT NAME HERE] must be the pride of [SUBJECT HOMETOWN HERE]”. With such lines she does a good impression of those blank on-screen notifications that acknowledge your progress in everything from Tetris to Pac-Man, colloquialisms once written by a human but forever rendered impersonal due to their being delivered by a computer. Conditioned to acknowledging and obeying this kind of communication through years of casual or puzzle gaming, you quickly lapse into goldfish-eyed subservience to GLaDOS.
Although for the majority of the game GLaDOS is just a voice, she is present everywhere. Almost every test chamber features blinking cameras that follow you around the room and frosted glass windows behind which you can only imagine scientists making notes on your progress (you later discover that there are none because GLaDOS has killed them all). Within the fiction of the game, this puts pressure on you to perform, because you don’t want them thinking you’re stupid. More importantly however, it evokes the sense of being watched that a lot of players have while playing puzzle games.
Such a feeling is common because the lack of narrative in most puzzle games means that many players, consciously or subconsciously, create their own in the form of a trial or contest in which their accomplishments are lauded and their failures derided. This adds an emotional stake to what is inherently an emotionless, purely quantitative experience.
Although more well-adjusted players are content to enjoy narrative-free games on their own merits (perhaps because when they start playing they’ve accepted that the time they’ll spend with such games will be just that, spent), the rest of us are prone to imagining that in the absence of any “actual” characters, the game itself is a character, assessing their every move and judging them accordingly. That’s why the setting of Portal is so inspired: It puts you quite literally in the position you’ve imagined yourself in countless times before, locked in a rat-run of challenge rooms and watched over by a calculating observer.
(Interestingly, the developers’ commentaries reveal that not only are the level designs the results of extensive playtesting – as many game levels are – which involved setting “test subjects” loose in Aperture’s chambers, but that each level is cleverly designed to psychologically condition you to behave in a certain way. Based on hours of research, the designers have used a set of visual cues and almost Pavlovian techniques to elicit the desired response to the player, resulting in the successful completion of each chamber. The commentary, which can only be heard during a second playthrough, makes for disturbing listening: it’s never nice to know how easy you were to manipulate.)
With her cold declarations about your progress (or lack thereof), GLaDOS taps straight into the dysfunctional tendency to imagine one’s self as a test subject, eroding your self-esteem and sense of autonomy as she does so. At least at first. After the first hour of dutifully scurrying, lab rat-like, through Aperture’s test chambers, things start to get a little weird. “The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible,” remarks GLaDOS at one point. “Make no attempt to solve it.” You do attempt to complete the test, of course, ultimately discovering that it’s not impossible after all. “Fantastic,” says GLaDOS when you succeed, in a voice that couldn’t sound less congratulatory. “You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.”
It’s not clear whether GLaDOS genuinely believed (or wanted) the test to be impossible or whether she was just testing your resolve, but either way, a discrepancy between her words and the reality of the situation begins to emerge. As this happens, you realise that she’s not just a well-characterised version of the sterile, omniscient puzzle game “voice”. Unlike the A.I. who just assured you of something completely untrue, those voices always speak the truth. When they tell you it’s “Game Over”, you have no reason to suspect otherwise, so you never search for evidence to the contrary. Instead, you simply go back to the beginning and try again.
GLaDOS’ possibly unintentional revelation of her own unreliability spurs you on to find the cracks in the rigid puzzle world, and it’s a very unusual feeling. Suddenly, here is a puzzle game world that can not only be beaten, but entirely circumnavigated. You can’t win back the hours of your life you’ve poured into casual games as a collective, but you can at least pry this one open and expose it for what it really is, a sadistic rat run controlled by a cruel mistress who only cares about you as an experiment.
In fact, you quite literally pry the gameworld open around the half-way point, when a misaligned tile in a test chamber reveals the den of one Doug “Ratman” Rattmann, a previous test subject. Ratman has similar hidey-holes throughout the chambers, each covered with graffiti that reveals not only his own fractured state of mind but also the deception upon which the Aperture tests are founded. “The cake is a lie” reads one message, something you may have suspected the first time GLaDOS promised that your endeavours will be rewarded with a party and delicious cake.
Another, far more disturbing cavern is plastered with pictures of Ratman’s Weighted Companion Cube, adorned with crude angel wings and a halo. This holds particular significance for you of course, having recently incinerated your own Companion Cube (“your only friend”, reminds GLaDOS) as part of a test. Having gone to significant lengths to make you empathise with the cube – it’s decorated with friendly hearts and saves your life on several occasions during your short partnership – GLaDOS then seems to take great delight in reminding you that you “murdered” it. “You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record,” she says in a voice that you struggle to believe is entirely devoid of emotion. “Congratulations.”
This is the moment that Portal gets personal. An unreliable authority figure is one thing, even if they are coldly judging your every move. One with a cavalier attitude to your well-being (“any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death,” she declares at one point) is another, but one who manipulates your emotions by making you murder your only friend deserves whatever’s coming to them.
What comes to GLaDOS, of course, is poetic justice in the form of a boss fight that sees you turn all the skills she’s psychologically conditioned you into acquiring – redirecting weapons using portals, using portals to create momentum and of course incinerating small, helpless objects – upon her. This brilliant boss fight is preceded by a thrilling escape through Aperture’s air vents and access tunnels during which GLaDOS desperately pleads, cajoles and threatens you into returning to the test chambers in exchange for “cake”. If Portal is a metaphor for puzzle games, then the entire last section in the game casts you as a hacker running freely through source code causing havoc as you go. The fact that you do this using tools GLaDOS has taught you to use makes it all the more satisfying.
In Portal, you beat the boss on your own terms. GLaDOS is not alone in being the object of a satisfying boss fight that provides a fitting narrative and mechanical climax to a well-paced linear game. But she is unique in the sense that in killing her, you’re destroying the very heart of a gameworld, that’s kept you, the player, captive as much as it has the protagonist Chell. In defeating her you may not have escaped the time-sucking hold of all puzzle games, but at least you get the satisfaction of bringing this one down.
As a personification of the kind of world that can hold you captive against your will, GLaDOS is a triumph. The fact that she killed her creators at Aperture with a deadly neurotoxin is apt; once out in the world, games frequently exhibit behaviours their developers did not intend. Whether it was Valve’s intention to create a game and an antagonist that so perfectly evoked the feeling of being trapped by your own compulsive behaviour doesn’t matter, to those of us prone to those feelings, Portal lets us experience the most delicious revenge.