At one point about a year ago, I was thinking of writing a Sexualized Saturdays post on Portal, but when I discovered that our own BrothaDom had already written that article, I cursed the whole “great minds think alike” thing and moved on. But something about Portal kept refusing to let me drop the idea of doing an article on it and I think I finally figured out what it is: GLaDOS is, arguably, an unsung feminist icon.
Much of the media discussion of Portal centers around the awesomeness of Chell as a groundbreaking example of “female as generic default” for a game protagonist… because she is! But, mostly in Portal 2, there’s a whole lot more narrative devoted to GLaDOS’s backstory and the way it changes the emotional tone of her relationship with Chell. Along the way, we get a narrative about who and what GLaDOS really is, which takes her from being little more than a gameplay mechanic to a truly deep and memorable character. The main story arc in which that transpires is one in which Chell and GLaDOS confront a patriarchal system that has turned them both into pawns in an infinite game and where the cycle of violence brought by abuse is a central theme.
(TW: Discussion of abusive relationships and violence against women.)
The success of Portal was largely connected to the nature of how GLaDOS simultaneously encouraged and antagonized players. While the innovative mechanic of the portal gun and the unique gameplay it offered were the driving force behind Portal‘s massive popularity, early testers responded very strongly to GLaDOS, remarking that they felt motivated by her and that she added heart to what could have been a dry, if brilliant, puzzle game. That early praise led to her being changed from a minor character in the game’s intro to its primary antagonist. Reviews of Portal almost universally mentioned GLaDOS as a major part of the game’s entertainment value and she has been named by many as one of the most influential video game characters of all time. Given that Portal really only requires the most minimal backstory, the reception she received as a character is remarkable. It has been noted by fans, as well as at least one reviewer, that the experience of playing Portal made them feel a form of Stockholm Syndrome towards GLaDOS. As a result of that connection and the enormous popularity it helped bring to Portal, the sequel focused on her extensively, and her story is the most compelling part of Portal 2.
But, before we get into that, there is a key difference between the attitude she shows towards Chell in the two games. In Portal, GLaDOS goes from mock support to sardonic opposition and even violent anger, but the emotional impetus behind it was GLaDOS’s desire to run her tests. In Portal 2, however, she blames Chell for putting her through centuries of silent torment after her defeat in the first game; before, it was business, but now, it’s personal. Her attitude towards the player when she is first encountered in Portal 2 could best be described as “passionate hatred”, and yet, that Stockholm-ish bond grows stronger to the point where you prefer her company to your apparent ally, Wheatley. Which is good because the most memorable chunk of the game has you forced to team up with her in the name of mutual survival as Wheatley threatens to kill you all.
After forcing GLaDOS into a potato battery (as an act of humiliation) and taking over her job running Aperture, Wheatley has become addicted to testing and is so preoccupied with it that he is allowing the facility’s main reactor to go critical. It is during that part of Portal 2, in the abandoned facility with potato GLaDOS stuck onto your portal gun, that we begin to learn who GLaDOS’s personality was originally based on: Caroline, the personal assistant to Cave Johnson, founder and CEO of Aperture. We learn this through the old recorded test prompts (read by J.K. Simmons in some of the funniest voice acting in video game history) at the same time as GLaDOS does. As she figures out what the implications of the recordings mean for her and remembers some of Caroline’s life, her demeanor towards Chell changes as well. She no longer has an all-consuming need to test while she is in her potato battery form, and thinking about her identity requires her full attention. She becomes genuinely supportive and even trusting of Chell, at one point saying “You know what you’re doing, you’ll be fine” in a totally non-sarcastic way. By this point, the player has likely gone from needing to protect GLaDOS in order to ensure their own survival to actively caring about her and wanting to console her. Due to the brilliant voice work of Ellen McLain and the unique nature of the voice itself (she read the lines like they were coming from a speech synthesizer and then the lines were processed to sound more robotic, giving it a very unique cadence) hearing GLaDOS’s tone go from “calmly murderous” to “shaken but supportive” is particularly emotionally compelling.
The more we learn about Caroline, the more tragic GLaDOS becomes. Caroline was Cave Johnson’s secretary and, implicitly, his lover, and she was entirely devoted to him. That devotion was so strong that she served as an enabler for his horrifically dangerous, often outright sociopathic, crackpot experiments and ultimately also led Johnson to name her his successor as CEO of Aperture after his impending death. As we hear more and more of this, GLaDOS becomes increasingly distraught and starts to actually rely on Chell for advice and emotional support. Throughout all these moments, they are still constantly running tests in the Aperture Science Facility while trying to stop a homicidally incompetent Wheatley from killing them both. GLaDOS is alongside Chell in the exact position she put Chell in during the first game. Further, GLaDOS literally knows more about Chell than Chell knows about herself, and Chell now knows everything about Caroline. The result of this bonding experience is that, for a moment, GLaDOS and Chell see each other as capable, resilient women in a very tough spot who are fighting to hold on to their independence; they actually relate to each other as sisters-in-arms against a man (Wheatley) who is abusing them for his own pleasure at the risk of all their lives.
As the two women are bonding in their struggle against Wheatley’s ignorance and violence, the backstory on Caroline and Cave Johnson is filled in. The relationship between Cave and Caroline is a complex one, as are many abusive relationships. Cave valued Caroline’s intelligence above all else. He saw her as the smartest mind at Aperture and named her his successor. He even sacrificed his own chance at immortality to let Caroline live on as part of GLaDOS and run Aperture indefinitely. But, remember, the aesthetic of Portal‘s “science gone mad” is generally of the Wile E. Coyote variety. Cave Johnson subjected people to extreme danger and death in experiments that had virtually no chance of success and most seem to have had no real purpose in the first place. Caroline enabled all this, helping him engage in what essentially amounts to mass murder. His praise and support were, in all likelihood, genuine, but they ultimately served to create an unhealthy codependency that resulted in Caroline being unwillingly sacrificed to create GLaDOS. In fact, unused content seems to indicate that the physical process of Caroline being transferred into GLaDOS was originally intended to sound very much like a rape scene; so much so that Simmons refused to read his half of the lines for that very reason and McLain is reported to have cried while recording hers. Thankfully that actual content was cut, but the thematic parallels to intimate partner rape in an abusive relationship remained. Cave Johnson sacrificed himself to save Caroline, but in so doing he also forcibly bound her (some would say literally) to an AI designed with the same amount of homicidal lunacy as all their other experiments. That relationship and its emotional trauma was transferred into GLaDOS, as was her mentality as the CEO of Aperture; a mentality that Cave painstakingly cultivated in Caroline as they worked on their experiments. In addition to the codependence, this happened while they were engaged in a romantic relationship in which, partly because he was also her boss, he had massive psychological control over her.
As Chell helps GLaDOS, we see her presented as more of a clear victim in a lethally toxic relationship. We see her as a motivated and intelligent woman who is likely viewed merely as the boss’s girlfriend by the scientists in an explicitly patriarchal Aperture culture. But while we are learning about Caroline, GLaDOS is thinking more and more about who she is and what she wants. She is coming to terms with the trauma Caroline endured and reexamining what that information means for the person she is now. Eventually, GLaDOS regains her original form and is reconnected to the system that drives her compulsion to test rather than a potato battery. After thinking about Caroline and what her past represented, GLaDOS decides to delete Caroline. Crucially, however, she doesn’t delete her own memories of the time spent with Chell learning about her past. She knows who Caroline was and what happened to her; she knows how that is a part of her but she won’t be constrained by it any longer.
This breakthrough, while presented as potentially still being partially a case of the Aperture systems compelling GLaDOS to test indefinitely, does seem to demonstrate that GLaDOS has come to terms with her past trauma and accepted herself for who she is now. That process was made possible by the support of Chell, a woman she had previously been in a fierce rivalry with. But after this shared experience, GLaDOS now has come to see Chell as a friend, and we see an admittedly strange example of supportive female friendships being essential for survival in a world dominated by violent men. In a way, this mirrors the same cycle of abuse that GLaDOS is breaking free from and, in any event, the relationship between these two women has gone from toxic to one of mutual respect. That is, to me at least, what the ending sequence of Portal 2 is really all about.
In releasing Chell, GLaDOS makes a joke about them being best friends, her sardonic antagonism seemingly returning as she goes back to her life of testing. But the following sequence seems to indicate that it was more truthful than either of them care to openly admit. The “turret opera” scene is GLaDOS making a final point to Chell. By having an absolutely overwhelming amount of turrets surrounding the player, who is effectively rendered immobile and has no access to the portal gun, she sends the message that letting Chell go is not the “easiest option”; GLaDOS could very easily kill Chell in that moment, and the sequence begins with the implication that that’s what the apologetic little turrets are indeed about to do. GLaDOS clearly isn’t letting Chell go just because she “wants her gone.” While GLaDOS may have hated the part of Caroline that cared about Cave and Aperture, she didn’t forget the part of her that bonded with Chell. Instead of killing her erstwhile nemesis, GLaDOS has the turrets sing Chell an opera that appears to show strong affection, even maternal love. She sends Chell off with an ode that is beautiful, haunting, and literally operatic. She releases her into a sunny green field, even returning her beloved companion cube. The closing song also implies that while GLaDOS claimed to have deleted her, there are at least some parts of “little Caroline” that she chose to retain. While she goes back to her testing, she eventually begins to use robots instead of humans, implying that the most extreme of her homicidal tendencies may have been blunted by the experience. She also strongly implies in the closing song that she is no longer running these tests because of some obligation to the long dead Cave Johnson, but because that’s what she wants to do.
While GLaDOS may have initially been conceived as a one-shot joke, she became a character steeped in feminist concepts. GLaDOS is not only a symbol of a complex, resourceful, dominant woman, as many of our favorite villains have been, but one of female solidarity. Even though, clearly, questions regarding the nature of AI consciousness are a huge part of the character as well, I’d argue that GLaDOS is meant to send a feminist message. She went from a relationship with Chell that saw her making fun of Chell’s appearance as a way to discourage her to one where Chell provided her the emotional support to confront her own history of abuse. She went from being a homicidal antagonist driven by a history of violence to someone who has gained a respect for life after empathizing with the struggles of another woman against the patriarchal system (Aperture) that hurt them both. She goes from semi-voluntarily holding a woman hostage and psychologically torturing her to choosing to give that woman her freedom, turning instruments of violence into a soothing operatic farewell. I would argue, at the end of the day, the story of GLaDOS and her time with Chell represents two women coming together to fight the centuries old effects of a violent patriarchal system. To me, that makes GLaDOS one feminist-as-fuck killer robot; right through to the (no longer potato-powered) core.