Hell Hath No Fury Like A GLaDOS Scorned

"The difference between us is that I can feel pain. You don't even care, do you? Did you hear me? I said you don't care. Are you listening?"
- GLaDOS, Portal

Let's get this out of the way: Portal is brilliant. You know it. I know it. Consider this admission our common ground, a way for us to circumvent 1500 words singing Valve's praises that would've normally filled this space, which you've already read a dozen times over, to which you would've nodded knowingly and I would've smirked and we both would've walked away from our computers not much smarter and hungry for cake.

But when I finished Portal, I didn't ponder its brilliant play mechanics or physics engine; all I really thought about was calling my mom and telling her that I loved her. Because as good as Portal is, what's more important is what the game's about: Mothers. Daughters. Women.

Which is strange to say, considering an unobservant player could conceivably play Portal without ever realizing its protagonist is female, since the game's first person perspective prevents direct personal observation (and certainly Chell's silence provides no hints). Of course, this is less some feminist victory than a convenient narrative device. Chell's gender is irrelevant, yes, but she's not really a character, just a vehicle for the player to experience Portal's gameplay. She's a shell (pun intended?), a player avatar displaying no discernable emotions or personality.

Technically, GLaDOS has no gender either. GLaDOS is just an object: All bits and bytes, silicon and ions, 1s and 0s. Just because you program a computer to emit soft, high-pitched sounds doesn't make it female.

And yet, when I confronted GLaDOS for the first time, I remember feeling distinctly disappointed: this cluster of metal grapes, this tangle of hanging wires and LEDs, was this what had been cooing to me the entire game? This"… This"… machine?

Sure, logically, GLaDOS is genderless. But empirically? She's more female than all the Chells in all the infinite Portal loops combined.

Whether its designers intended it or not, Portal evokes complex questions of gender identity: What exactly is femininity? How is it achieved? And what makes Chell - human only in the most superficial sense - female, while the sentient, gab-happy GLaDOS is not?

Or is she?

Strip away the crazy for a moment: What was GLaDOS programmed for? To run the Aperture Science Testing Chambers, yes. But more than that, GLaDOS is your constant companion, informing, rewarding and sustaining. Her soothing voice calms you down when you awaken in your womb-like glass cage. She comforts you through the claustrophobic loneliness of the Testing Chambers, keeping you engaged and distracted from feeling too much fear over the testing hazards. She is your rock, your comfort; even when she turns on you, she never really abandons you, never leaves you alone among the darkness and the metal. There's really something to be said for that.

Indeed, GLaDOS represents the Ultimate Mom, an electronic mishmash of idealized "mother" traits. Nurture. Comfort. Empathy. Love. And yet, as a computer she also lacks restraint, taking each of her characteristics to their logical and most extreme condition.

That is, in the face of danger, GLaDOS won't just comfort you; she'll downplay or even lie about testing hazards to make you feel better. And she's not just nurturing - GLaDOS is so obsessed with facilitating your progress that she becomes a controlling, hypercritical nag. Even her empathy programming has stretched and transformed into a canny knack for emotional manipulation.

GLaDOS's problem isn't that she malfunctioned. It's that she works too well. Perfectly, even. She's simply too good at carrying out her programming, and that über-Mom persona was clearly more than the lowly Aperture Science researchers had bargained for.

Despite this, GLaDOS is still just a cluster of ideals, fundamentally an approximation. When does a carbon copy of a woman become a woman? If it looks like a mother and talks like a mother, is it still just a cluster of wires and metal?

As loathe as I am to attach any inherent characteristics to gender, I'd be naïve if I didn't acknowledge that we've always associated certain connotations with the sexes. Maleness typically connotes aggression, force, fire and destruction. Femaleness evokes tranquility, flexibility, water and creation.

That last one, creation, is especially important, as a woman's existence is inextricably linked to her creative power (it's one of those Big Secrets we girls learn upon menarche). Regardless of whether I ever put my uterus to its factory-intended use, it exists, and its mere presence affects my hormones, body composition, mood levels, even my brain patterns. In essence, my uterus affects everything that makes up Me.

I'm not saying we women are defined by our body parts, or that we're baby factories who are worthless without children. But there's a good reason pagans celebrate and venerate the female birthing power, and why God - whose first act in Genesis was The Creation - gifts Eve, not Adam, with the power of childbirth. It's the most important power humanity possesses, this power to sustain and grow the species. As a woman, I am creation. I am life. Can GLaDOS say the same?

Chell certainly can; even as a shell of a character, she still possesses that creative capability. I refer, of course, to her Portal Gun, which, unlike most weapons, is not an instrument of destruction but a force of creation, life - even rebirth. Each portal created is a new possibility, a new opportunity, and with every portal you step through, you're born anew.

Unlike Chell, GLaDOS certainly has personality and character to spare, but does she possess a similar feminine power of creation? My first instinct is no - after all, she's a computer, one that likes to employ decidedly destructive methods, like rockets and neurotoxins.

And yet, as the end of the game reveals, the cake was not a lie; it does exist, and GLaDOS explicitly tells you she's the one who makes it. What's more, GLaDOS also hints that she's behind Cube production, and at the endgame you see the faithful Companion Cube you destroyed somehow reborn. Is this enough evidence to suggest that GLaDOS possesses a proto-power of creation, and thus is, anatomy aside, genuinely female?

And what of that Companion Cube? In your first encounter, he (GLaDOS reveals the Cube's gender when she singsongs "he would have been there, but you murdered him") is helpless, lost, alone. Just like you, in fact. She instructs you to cart him around, to "take care" of him, and inevitably, that cute little heart sparks warm and fuzzy feelings in your own. And then, under GLaDOS's order, you must rationalize and carry out his destruction.

In essence, through your interactions with the Cube, you've mirrored your own nurturing-yet-destructive dynamic with GLaDOS - and what's more, she wants you to do it, to see things from her eyes. Your surrogate electronic mommy guides you through her thought process and teaches you not only the motivation behind what she does, but what she thinks it means to be "mother". And when you do eventually destroy her, this bundle of cores and circuits scrabbling for sentience, you deny her what she's been programmed to love most of all - you. It's enough to break a computer's heart.

Perhaps to men, this situation sounds foreign, but this is a classic mother-daughter archetype given digital form, a Campbellian role reversal all women must eventually confront and overcome. Portal's the first time I've ever seen it realistically portrayed in a videogame. Or, for that matter, explored at all. Forget the Portal Gun. Mommy GLaDOS is the game's true achievement.

Now that Portal 2 has been officially confirmed, I have high hopes for this series. Not just because Portal's brilliant - remember we moved past that - but perhaps, the franchise could be a watershed moment for gaming, one that continues to explore gender dynamics and inspire intelligent dialogue on the subject - something the medium sorely needs. I'm tired of arguing about Lara Croft's boobies. Finally, Portal has given me something meaty, something smart and sophisticated to debate.

And cake. Don't forget the cake.

Comments

Indeed, GLaDOS represents the Ultimate Mom, an electronic mishmash of idealized "mother" traits. Nurture. Comfort. Empathy. Love. And yet, as a computer she also lacks restraint, taking each of her characteristics to their logical and most extreme condition.

You forgot Passive-Aggressive and Conniving.

You forgot one important metaphor in the game - GLaDOS give's 'birth' the Chell by introducing her to the world outside.

You are awoken in her insides - the facility being her body, nurtured and given all the abilities to survive in the outside world and finally, through goading and pushing, are expelled out of the womb into the light (as clear as a birthing or passing away/on metaphor you can get) which ejects you onto the floor outside of the facility.

It's possible that GLaDOS killed herself (in some form) to birth Chell into the outside world and could be analogous to a mother sacrificing her life for the good of a child - or even death through childbirth.... though there's only the imagery to suggest such thoughts could be entertained.

Like i said in my original Portal thread i believe that the relationship between GLaDOS and Chell is highly indicative of a mother-daughter dynamic.

Great article!

buzzvang wrote:
Indeed, GLaDOS represents the Ultimate Mom, an electronic mishmash of idealized "mother" traits. Nurture. Comfort. Empathy. Love. And yet, as a computer she also lacks restraint, taking each of her characteristics to their logical and most extreme condition.

You forgot Passive-Aggressive and Conniving.

Those are the logical and most extreme conditions of Nurture, Comfort, Empathy and Love.

Fantastic article, Lara. A++ in any FemLit class.

Bravo.

I hadn't really considered gender in the game until you brought it up. But then again, I rarely think about gender in games at all - because as I've recently pointed out, they're all about me anyway.

Part of Portal's brilliance (sorry) is that it never presses any of this stuff into the foreground. You don't need any of this to enjoy the game. And before anyone goes there allow me to nip the anti-postmodern stuff in the bud. It doesn't have to matter if any of this was intended. I don't buy into the exigetical argument that authorial intent doesn't matter, but I also don't think it's all that matters. This stuff is all there, right down to when GLaDOS tells me I'm adopted, denying me the mother I thought I had.

And shall we even get into the KIND of cake we're given? BIRTHday cake!

Brennil wrote:
buzzvang wrote:
Indeed, GLaDOS represents the Ultimate Mom, an electronic mishmash of idealized "mother" traits. Nurture. Comfort. Empathy. Love. And yet, as a computer she also lacks restraint, taking each of her characteristics to their logical and most extreme condition.

You forgot Passive-Aggressive and Conniving.

Those are the logical and most extreme conditions of Nurture, Comfort, Empathy and Love.

Fantastic article, Lara. A++ in any FemLit class. :)

Not sure I agree, if only for the difference in connotation between those words. How about Malevolent? Where does that fit into those four? Aside from the fact that Malevolent has "love" spelled backward in it?

I'm just saying that if I were to equate GLaDOS with a mother, it'd have to be Lucille Bluth.

Fantastic article Kat!

Great article! I recognized the mother-daughter relation, never saw the depth described here and in Duoae's thread.

Perhaps to men, this situation sounds foreign, but this is a classic mother-daughter archetype given digital form, a Campbellian role reversal all women must eventually confront and overcome.

I did not understand the Campbellian reference. So I went to educate myself and got useful clarification:

Also not to be confused with the type of character often played by actor Bruce Campbell, who is an average joe who gets in way over his head and has to improvise a way out of it which he makes by the skin of his teeth, usually after undergoing various setbacks and humiliations.

Unless that's what you meant.

Excellent, Kat. Now I can appreciate Portal on a whole new level.

Duoae wrote:

You are awoken in her insides - the facility being her body, nurtured and given all the abilities to survive in the outside world and finally, through goading and pushing, are expelled out of the womb into the light (as clear as a birthing or passing away/on metaphor you can get) which ejects you onto the floor outside of the facility.

Wow, interesting.

Rabbit wrote:

Part of Portal's brilliance (sorry) is that it never presses any of this stuff into the foreground. You don't need any of this to enjoy the game. And before anyone goes there allow me to nip the anti-postmodern stuff in the bud. It doesn't have to matter if any of this was intended. I don't buy into the exigetical argument that authorial intent doesn't matter, but I also don't think it's all that matters. This stuff is all there, right down to when GLaDOS tells me I'm adopted, denying me the mother I thought I had.

And shall we even get into the KIND of cake we're given? BIRTHday cake!

Again, wow. Didn't consider that.

I totally agree, Rabbit, even though I had to look up the word "exigetical." But I still want to know whether it was intended, and to what degree. It'd make for a fascinating topic of discussion with Portal's creators.

Duoae wrote:

You forgot one important metaphor in the game - GLaDOS give's 'birth' the Chell by introducing her to the world outside.

I tried to hint at that by describing Chell's glass cage as "womb-like", but yes, I 100% agree with your assessment.

Kolbo wrote:

I did not understand the Campbellian reference. So I went to educate myself and got useful clarification:

Also not to be confused with the type of character often played by actor Bruce Campbell, who is an average joe who gets in way over his head and has to improvise a way out of it which he makes by the skin of his teeth, usually after undergoing various setbacks and humiliations.

Unless that's what you meant.

Heh, no, I meant Campbellian as in Joseph Campbell, of Hero With a Thousand Faces fame. Although I kinda like yours better now.

The Fly wrote:

But I still want to know whether it was intended, and to what degree. It'd make for a fascinating topic of discussion with Portal's creators.

Me too. If you're reading this, Portal crew, please feel free to jump in anytime.

KaterinLHC wrote:

Let's get this out of the way: Portal is brilliant. You know it. I know it.

Certis doesn't!

KaterinLHC wrote:

Indeed, GLaDOS represents the Ultimate Mom, an electronic mishmash of idealized "mother" traits. Nurture. Comfort. Empathy. Love.

So does it say something Freudian that I made my Windows audio theme out of GLaDOS and the turret voices?

I know in my own writing I go back and read stuff and have no idea what I even meant. I can't imagine it's much different for anyone else!

And I thought she meant soup.

KaterinLHC wrote:

Heh, no, I meant Campbellian as in Joseph Campbell, of Hero With a Thousand Faces fame. Although I kinda like yours better now. :)

No, Kat! Don't give in to the chin-wag! I got your Campbellian reference and enjoyed it. Don't sink to the level of zombie army sophisms!

Haakon7 wrote:
KaterinLHC wrote:

Heh, no, I meant Campbellian as in Joseph Campbell, of Hero With a Thousand Faces fame. Although I kinda like yours better now. :)

No, Kat! Don't give in to the chin-wag! I got your Campbellian reference and enjoyed it. Don't sink to the level of zombie army sophisms! ;)

I think you meant: "It's a trick. Get an ax."

It's really awesome how your article coincides with today's XKCD comic:

IMAGE(http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/advanced_technology.png)

We are sexy, sexy Von Neumann machines.

Wow. What an amazing article, Kat! You obviously experience games on a different level than I do because I have no idea where you came up with any of this. I see it now, but never saw it while playing.

I have to disagree with your inclusion of the finale featuring the cube and cake as part of the narrative. I never took that scene as a legitimate setting somewhere in Aperture Science, but more of a stage bow after the final note of the play has been sung. Meaning that the cake is still a lie. That's my interpretation, anyway.

Mixolyde wrote:

It's really awesome how your article coincides with today's XKCD comic:

I thought the same thing while reading. That comic kills me.

No No you have it wrong. Chell is the mother, GLaDOS is the child playing mother. A young sentience created by humanity / Chell's compatriots.

Mixolyde wrote:

It's really awesome how your article coincides with today's XKCD comic:

IMAGE(http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/advanced_technology.png)

We are sexy, sexy Von Neumann machines.

My thoughts exactly, and yoink!

Oso wrote:

My thoughts exactly, and yoink!

That line is the alt tag on the image on xkcd, not mine originally. As much as I appreciate the yoink, please properly attribute the quote. It is, indeed, a fantastic line.

Good timing for the Portal article. I had just been thinking about Jonathan Coulton's latest blog-post, where he mentions playing Still Alive on Rock Band with a bunch of Harmonix folks. What does it mean that JoCo only scored 95% on vocals? If someone else scores 100%, does that make them more Coulton than Coulton?

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned that the project lead designer was a woman, Kim Swift. She's in charge of what is largely a boy's club. To turn stereotypes on their head, she was in charge of the overall project, while it was a bunch of dudes (Erik Wolpaw, Chet Faliszek, and Marc Laidlaw) that created characters and dialog that gave the game its female theme and overtones.

When it comes to gender politics, the best signs of progress in our culture is the fact of a person's gender becomes less important than the person's achievements. I think Chell's femininity has a similar effect to that of the character Demi Moore played in A Few Good Men. I.e., Sorkin's script and casting instructions did not specify the character's gender, but Moore's craft made the role extremely powerful and used her character's gender to full effect as part of the actor's craft.

That is what we have with Portal. It is not a novelty, not "look, a game about girls! Rather, we have a deep, moving, poignant, and powerful game that draws heavily upon the parts of our humanity traditionally considered to be female. The novelty this approach is completely overwhelmed by its quality.

So do we suppose that we'll eventually have an Operating System that can mother us? Encourage us? Help us eat better, make our beds and turn in our TPS reports on time?
IMAGE(http://img220.imageshack.us/img220/7576/officeassistantclipit20tl4.gif)
*shudder*

Well done. Remember, the Aperture Science 'Bring your daughter to work' day is the perfect time to have her tested.

Hilarious article, Kat. Huge success!

Mystic Violet wrote:

Well done. Remember, the Aperture Science 'Bring your daughter to work' day is the perfect time to have her tested.

That's my favorite quote from the whole game.

In essence, through your interactions with the Cube, you've mirrored your own nurturing-yet-destructive dynamic with GLaDOS - and what's more, she wants you to do it, to see things from her eyes. Your surrogate electronic mommy guides you through her thought process and teaches you not only the motivation behind what she does, but what she thinks it means to be "mother". And when you do eventually destroy her, this bundle of cores and circuits scrabbling for sentience, you deny her what she's been programmed to love most of all - you. It's enough to break a computer's heart.

I remember the debate over your Metroid piece, how some felt Samus was an empty symbol (counter-argument: "Thanks for ruining the moment, assholes"). Chell is not a blank shell because Portal is a maze designed for women and Chell is the reminder. You see it in the details everywhere, the companion cube, the cute little death turrets, etc. That's where the game's brilliance lies. I think it's reasonable to imagine women were the only subjects of the Aperture Science Testing Chambers. Women also saw through the lies, women popped the locks off the cage, a woman bested the system.

I find labeling GLaDOS's gender kinda creepy. The computer would say anything to trick you, pretend it was Godzilla if that's what it takes. Whatever purpose the Testing Chambers once possessed, whoever the mysterious creators really were, GLaDOS made the maze something monstrous. But I have to admit GLaDOS dressed the place with style. When was the last time you played a game that was charming? It wasn't God of War.

Huh.
I'm gonna go drink and mull this over.
Thoughts later.

Montalban wrote:

So do we suppose that we'll eventually have an Operating System that can mother us? Encourage us? Help us eat better, make our beds and turn in our TPS reports on time?
IMAGE(http://img220.imageshack.us/img220/7576/officeassistantclipit20tl4.gif)
*shudder*

No by the time such a thing exists, hopefully we will not.

Much of this was coincidental, so I hope you guys and gals don't disappoint yourselves when Portal 2 might not have as much interpretive depth. Because it'll answer more questions, some of your imaginations may be squashed for the original even.

PseudoKnight wrote:

Much of this was coincidental, so I hope you guys and gals don't disappoint yourselves when Portal 2 might not have as much interpretive depth. Because it'll answer more questions, some of your imaginations may be squashed for the original even.

That is certainly a possibility, but Valve has a very good technique down of writing a full story, then not telling large chunks of it. Certainly you are right that expectations can be built too high for any kind of sequal, but I trust the Valve track record. They know what they've got.

Kind of off-topic comment: Portal was the first game where I felt truly insulted. When the sphere says, "Ewww what's wrong with your legs?" that really made me want to punch GlaDOS in the vagina sphere.

So, can we all agree now that Portal's writing was more brilliant than BioShock's?

Excellent piece of writing and insight! You actually made me feel stupid for a second.
As I thought I was just playing a game! lol I mean this in a good way. As Rabbit says,
the game is about me and so I forgot about the 'main character' being female. I must
admit, in the beginning I was looking for the option to choose the male character.

But I love how you dissect the whole story and explain it a bit. Did the creators of the
game put all of that in there knowingly? I am curious.
It's funny how you explain things and my typical male reaction pops up right away.
As in the companion cube for example. I must destroy it, so I will. No further thinking.

The cake is being shown in the end. And yes, it has one candle... which means what?
Your first bday? Curious what you make of it.

Anyway, I am looking forward to Portal 2. Maybe now it will be all male then
Curious what they will make of it.

Would love to read more articles coming from you Lara "KaterinLHC" Crigger