So, here we are again, dear Portal fandom. Today I am here to bring you something nobody asked for — a good, long chat about our favourite sassmaster AI.
If there is such a thing as fighting for a character's reputation in a fandom, that is what I have been doing for GLaDOS since the day I completed my first playthrough. She is one of the most misunderstood characters I know, if not the most misunderstood. What may the reason for that be?
Well, it is not hard to understand. Such is the fate of complex characters, aka those characters whose story and personality naturally include contradictions, doubts, morally grey areas. For audiences made by people like us, sadly used to clichés due to a ridiculous overexposure, it is just too easy to grab a character with so many layers and shove their whole existence in just one of them.
That is how supervillain!GLaDOS, offensively-clichéd-mental-illness!GLaDOS, omnipotent-evil-goddess!GLaDOS and many, many more were born. Now, let us all be honest with ourselves, and take a long, hard look at the character they came from.
Obvious, isn't it? They suck. No surprise in that.
The true story of this character, the one that exists under a pile of gross generalizations, is beyond ethical and emotional judgement. It is told in the background, and it nearly passes unnoticed; despite this, it involves most of the strongest human conditions, such as death, revenge, hatred, misunderstanding, fate, irony, love.
It is a tale that I, for one, deem worthy of a different kind of attention. The post you are about to read is the result of over three years of speculation, thoughts and writing — I will try to write, as concisely as possible, the ideas I experimented with in several meta posts and about one hundred stories.
Without further ado, esteemed test subjects, here is everything I will ever have to say about GLaDOS.
Comedy equals tragedy plus time.
While everyone here knows I am GLaDOS' biggest, most Stockholm-syndrome-stricken fan, this post is not at all meant to be apologetic.
Mass slaughter and psychological torture are not acts that can be excused. Not on GLaDOS' part, nor on the scientists'. (Note: let us always remember that they tortured and killed her first.) At the same time, we cannot say that any of them acted for the sake of pure cruelty.
Because, like every other excellent tale in this world, Portal 2 is not in black and white. There is no sharp border between evil and bad — everyone has their share of responsibility in a chain of events that is beyond anyone's control.
In other words, Portal is a subtle and great tragedy, turned into a comedy for us detached players through witty writing and sass. As a tragedy, the real-life counterparts of its themes and events will be treated with due respect.
Also, while most of this post will require personal interpretations due to the nature of Portal itself, I'll try to keep the fact as neutral and objective as possible, referencing any sources.
I decided to divide the post in paragraphs based on GLaDOS' relationship with several people and things of importance. The way she relates to the rest of the world is, in fact, the main source of information about her we can ever have.
Let's move on, then, to the last connection we put into focus plot-wise, and yet the most relevant.
GLaDOS and Caroline
I've heard voices all my life.
The reason why I chose to talk about them first could seem obvious, but it is not.
What makes it so difficult, but so essential, to analyze GLaDOS and Caroline's relationship is that, while nobody knows the truth, giving it an interpretation is the key to understanding the rest of both their characters.
It is hard to talk about GLaDOS and Caroline as separate entities, but it isn't any easier to consider them as a single one. Because, in a way, they are and aren't the same thing at the same time. A sort of Schrödinger's cat in characterization.
In my opinion, the closest approximation we can get to the truth is based on the same principle. They are two distinct characters, and the GLaDOS we slowly get to know in-game is the outcome of a fusion between the two.
Among the many possible interpretations, I have always strongly suspected that the "true" GLaDOS, pre-transfer, was nothing more than a basic but independent AI, and that it was Caroline to give her a personality after the transfer. This way, GLaDOS became a combination of computational intelligence and human emotions and feelings.
What could these feelings be? The spectrum is wide, naturally. If we pay attention, we can see at least one example of pretty much every human emotion in her. But there is a clear predominance of some of them.
Annoyance, rage, contempt, intolerance, hatred. And there could even be, deep down, a never quenched thirst for something GLaDOS seems to enjoy very much:
Look, even if you think we're still enemies, we're enemies with a common interest: revenge. You like revenge, right? Everybody likes revenge. Well, let's go get some.
Coincidence? Could be, but I am not that convinced.
Now, what is repressed through the Personality Cores is mostly GLaDOS' human part. This is what personality means, by and large. And burning the cores at the end of Portal, alongside the little side effect of killing her, has the result of making her whole again — still attached to the chassis, but with significantly less disturbance. What had been silenced for a very long while is suddenly let loose, and Chell's actions are the trigger to a series of events that will bring GLaDOS back to her origins.
In other words, back to Caroline.
Her exploration of Caroline's past and fate is what brings us enough information to prove our point. What GLaDOS says towards the end of the game is what gives me reason to believe Caroline and GLaDOS are not the same thing, but aren't two separate entities either. Focus on GLaDOS' goodbye to Chell, and then take these lines from Want You Gone:
Now little Caroline is in here too
One day they woke me up
So I could live forever
What we understand from GLaDOS' point of view is:
- Caroline is something GLaDOS recognizes as "in here", but clearly other than herself;
- GLaDOS was awakened, so she could live forever. Not Caroline. Even so, Caroline is in there too;
- GLaDOS did not delete Caroline at the end of the game, unlike what she stated in front of Chell. Or, more likely, she couldn't.
After collecting all of these facts, here are some hypothetical but meaningful conclusions we can draw about GLaDOS' relationship with Caroline.
- GLaDOS is a single entity, whose emotional part and conscience were imported from a human being (Caroline). The part which originally came from Caroline is something GLaDOS rejects, or claims to reject, and refers to as "Caroline". However, it is an essential part of her existence, and therefore cannot be removed, despite her desire to.
- There is a high likeliness that the defining negative emotions of GLaDOS' personality may be the same emotions Caroline herself felt by the time she died (Sir, I don't want this), and that they were strengthened and iterated by GLaDOS' awful history with the scientists in the years to come.
If you have any doubts about this being the most likely interpretation, I recommend you read this extraordinarily intense line with care:
I've heard voices all my life. But now I hear the voice of a conscience, and it's terrifying, because for the first time it's my voice.
It is not Caroline's voice. It is not a foreign, external voice. It is hers.
And yet, that is the very same thing she later refers to as Caroline. Or, more in detail:
"You know, being Caroline taught me a valuable lesson. I thought you were my greatest enemy. When all along you were my best friend. The surge of emotion that shot through me when I saved your life taught me an even more valuable lesson: where Caroline lives in my brain.
This is where, once more, GLaDOS puts a distinction between parts of herself that are inseparable, despite her will. In her words, when she recognized her conscience (or human part, as we were saying) as her own, she was Caroline. And now she isn't anymore.
But that is her point of view — of course, it is not necessarily true nor false.
Although just a hypothesis, this idea will be useful in the paragraphs to come. Whatever the shape they took might be, I find it hard, if not impossible, to believe that all of Caroline's existence and experience could have been just erased from GLaDOS' own life. If not everything, at least strong traces stayed. And this leads us to the most prominent aspect that connects our two (and one) mighty ladies: their empire.
GLaDOS and Aperture
Oh, my facility.
One of the most peculiar things we notice in GLaDOS' attitude — and it only happens after her downfall, when se has no reason whatsoever to put up walls of lies between her and Chell — is how strongly she feels for the facility she is in charge of.
She refers to Aperture as my facility three times, and all of them occur when she sees the effects of the devastation
carried on by Wheatley. She is clearly unhappy to see her work of years treated like that.
If you think about it in a different perspective, it could make perfect sense for her to hate the place. She has been tortured and humiliated all her life — she would have every reason to hate being in charge. And yet:
The body he's squatting in - MY body - has a built-in euphoric response to testing. Eventually you build up a resistance to it, and it can get a little... unbearable. Unless you have the mental capacity to push past it. It didn't matter to me - I was in it for the science.
GLaDOS loves science. She loves it equally in or out of her chassis, conditioning aside. She cares about it so much that even the jarring, daily torture of the testing euphoria stops mattering against it. And if our previous theory about Caroline's feelings is right, we can imagine a long past, back and back through the decades, in which Caroline slowly took the whole weight of Aperture upon herself for the love of science.
If you put it this way, Caroline condemned herself to an eternity of bearing that burden. We know almost for sure that she didn't want to and wasn't ready, but she did. And against her will, by those hated people we will talk about later, GLaDOS was woken up, so she could live forever.
What could she do, if not feel a strong drive to save and continue a mission she devoted all of herself to?
At this point of our analysis, we have two important facts to be noted. One of them is she wants the humans out of it. Why, and why she needs humans as subjects anyway, we will see in a different paragraph. For now we will focus on the other fact: she want to be in control, and she alone. Why?
GLaDOS and Wheatley
Now that we have the chance, let's send a major point of my argument out of the way. I have always been convinced of this small fact: Caroline/GLaDOS is the true protagonist of Portal. Not for thoughtless reasons like Chell being silent/lacking a personality (LIARS!)/lacking character growth (LIARS 2 THE SEQUEL!), but because, each in their own way, all the characters that act in-game also serve as tools to lead her to a re-discovery of herself.
We will take care of this aspect later, when we get to the paragraph about GLaDOS and Chell — in fact, our dear co-protagonist is the beginning, the core and the end of the whole process. It was essential to introduce it, though, because the role Wheatley (passively) plays in GLaDOS' character growth is probably the only one in function of which he truly deserves attention.
I dropped a hint before: more specifically, this part of my essay is about her relationship with power. GLaDOS is often portrayed as an omnipotent monster who wants to inspire fear for the sake of being feared, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. Who confirms this? Wheatley and, dear subjects, Niccolò Machiavelli.
Now I will make use of the author notes of an old Portal story I wrote, Fortuna et virtute, inspired by the Prince and some of its chapters.
I always loved Machiavelli's masterpiece and I really appreciated its brief appearance in Portal 2, as it implies really subtle and intelligent aspects in the related characters' personalities.
The title means “Through virtue and good luck”. Virtue (that is, the ability of ruling with diplomacy and without being bound by moral laws, which often stand in the way of politicians) and good luck are the variables that a prince must keep in count when ruling. Long story short: to be a good ruler, one must have virtue AND must be helped by good luck. This is the implied contrast between GLaDOS and Wheatley; he has no skills, while she does, and vice versa with luck.
Funnily enough, another essential factor for success is the support of the subjects. Does it ring a bell?
In other words, the way Wheatley behaves during his own time in charge of things let us see, through contrast, the way GLaDOS does. It makes us realize, after bringing her down because the game told us to, just how much work and care she invests in the survival of this place; essentially, the circumstances led Aperture to be an extension of her will and her conscience. It is her world, and she her rightful ruler, essential and irreplaceable.
That is why GLaDOS doesn't crave for power. That would be a meaningless, all-human view of her need to be there. She needs to be there because Aperture is her creation, and when she goes down, so does it, and vice versa. No matter how much it pains her — she is ready to bear atrocious sufferings for the sake of keeping it alive. Wishing for power - and consequently for pain - is completely illogical.
For Wheatley, on the other hand, being in charge of Aperture makes it a big playground, and a way out of a lack of power he always felt oppressed by. Unfortunately for him, with great power comes great responsibility, together with a number of distractions he was not designed to handle, but to generate himself.
You know where the true irony of it all lies? It lies in the fact that Wheatley was designed to be an idiot, and GLaDOS was designed to be the greatest genius on the face of the world.
Which means, ultimately, that most humans are idiots.
It is a huge generalization, of course, and not to be taken literally; but the connection is evident, and has its reason to be. In the next paragraph, we will explore why this is completely true in GLaDOS' point of view, and try to understand why her experiences with humans were never good.
GLaDOS and humanity
It turns out most humans are surprisingly fragile.
The title of this paragraph is a double entendre of sorts. While it mostly analyzes the relationship between GLaDOS and human beings, we will also talk, for a short while, about her own humanity.
As we mentioned before, she eventually identifies her humanity with Caroline, and keeps refusing it all along. However, while twisted and painful, her relationship with it is much more consistent than she would want it to. I was truly surprised to hear a particular line of hers, from the beginning of Portal 2, when I first played:
Luckily I'm a bigger person than that.
She refers to herself as a person. Freudian slip or completely normal to her, this is a strong point that could prove my previous theory, of Caroline/humanity being an inseparable part of her.
I still don't blame her for refusing it with such insistence. As we will soon find out, the human world only gave her less than brilliant responses.
It is known to anyone that, after a past of humiliations she doesn't remember but keeps traces of, GLaDOS was constantly restrained and tortured in her psyche. The scientists wanted her to be something she wasn't. And they began controlling her as soon as she came into existence, for a period that knew no end — not even when she was in charge for a while, remember the Personality Cores — until Chell came to free her in the most painful possible way: she killed her.
Naturally, there is the small detail of GLaDOS being basically immortal. Which made it even worse. And it took her another death, a descent into the hell of her past, not to mention an alliance with her *greatest enemy*, to finally get to an independence that was still halved by the eternal need to test. Who put the testing euphoria in her chassis? I'll let you guess.
There is, on GLaDOS' part, a more than justified hatred of humans. Even so, mass slaughter and emotional torture of all humans is still a pretty extreme example of revenge. Where exactly does it come from? There are many reasons for that, and most of them concern her lack of human ethics.
First off, one of the most important pieces of information we learn in Portal 2 is that Aperture's skewed ethics were not born with GLaDOS, like it may vaguely seem in Portal, but are at the foundations of the whole company. The signs in old Aperture, which definitely came before her; the way Cave Johnson tells us the tale of his long years as CEO; Lab Rat. All of them clearly show us that, in Aperture, crucial matters like work ethics, security and regard for human lives were just about as important as a rotting banana peel in a trashcan.
Now, take a newborn computational intelligence with no perception of human morals and feelings whatsoever, upload in it a regretful, angry and desperate human conscience, then show her the way Science is done in Aperture.
No, don't start killing people yet, GLaDOS. I want to enjoy the outcome properly. I am getting popcorn.
Dark and inappropriate jokes aside — yes, I know she killed countless innocent people — you can clearly see it cannot be a coincidence. I have all sorts of reasons to believe she picked up a great deal of her twisted ethics from the spirit of the company. For this, I have always said GLaDOS is a true daughter of Aperture.
Secondly, there is a very important detail I need to repeat: GLaDOS is a computer with a human conscience she didn't develop. Caroline was just planted in her like that, mostly with her raw emotions and personality traits, but without the morals and the experiences that led to them. So, it just makes sense for GLaDOS not to get it. Her situation is, after all, pretty simple:
- She knows humans are the cause of her pain;
- She doesn't have human ethics;
has examples of humans that behave according to the exact opposite of human ethics.
What is the result?
- She wants revenge.
- She learns what makes people suffer, from petty to heavy insults, by studying her own sufferings and her human knowledge; then she masters the art of throwing it right back at them, making them weak. In several cases, she does that in a hilariously detached way, due to her artificial nature (Did you know humans frown on weight variances?)
And then, of course, there is the icing on the nonexistent cake: objective experience and knowledge showed her that human beings always get in the way of science and good things of all sorts. Wheatley is an extreme example of this kind of illogical stupidity. Naturally, not being human, she cannot understand why.
Besides, let's be honest. Human beings kind of suck sometimes.
More like almost all the time.
At the same time, we find out she needs them for testing. Their suffering and emotional response is essential for her to to feel good. That is the most intimately human part of her, and the one she wishes she didn't have to deal with the most.
Let's take a look, now, at the two humans who stand out against a sea of worthless life, changing, for better and worse, the course of her existence: Doug and Chell.
GLaDOS and Doug
And now there's just you. All the others are dead. What makes you so different?
We know very little of Doug and GLaDOS' relationship. We have nothing more than Lab Rat and the dens to give us information. However, the little we know about this character with exactly zero seconds of screentime is more crucial than what we know about individuals with much more space in the games, like Cave or Wheatley.
Besides being the one who directly causes the events of the games by awakening Chell, Doug is so important, to our cause, for one more reason. He is, even before Chell, the first person GLaDOS cannot control.
His parallels and contrasts with Chell are already neatly drawn in the comics. Actually, we can guess much of Chell's own character by looking at him and at the way he trusts her, for reasons unknown to us. They are both free spirits who walk paths of their own, refusing to mindlessly listen and believe. Doug stays in the dark and pulls some strings, Chell stays in the open and acts. Although they never meet once, they both exist in function of the other and cannot do without each other to play their role in the story.
Doug is, in a sense, a pre-Chell to GLaDOS. He is the calm before the storm, which GLaDOS underestimates. In silence and alone, he prepares all the necessary conditions to the event that will trigger the whole series. He eludes GLaDOS' control, living the life of an unwilling mastermind and a survivor, and he is the only one.
Until Chell comes along.
GLaDOS and Chell
That would be funny, if it weren't so sad.
It is kind of awkward for me to spend more words on this complex, multi-layered relationship, after years and years of writing about it in all sorts of points of view. Still, it is an essential component in this long essay, especially because it is often misunderstood, and because the in-game text is not open to a single and well-defined interpretation.
Now, debating whether Chell is special or not would be kind of pointless — if the whole game is not enough, we can think of the fact that, after she is gone, GLaDOS cannot shut up about her to save her life. But why? The question GLaDOS asked in Lab Rat works for both Doug and Chell. What exactly makes her different from anyone else? What turns her into a nemesis and an ally, and sets a landmark in GLaDOS' story that will never be erased?
There may be several reasons, but a premise is due. The fact that, despite her being the player character, we never get to see Chell's opinions makes it possible for the story to have a variable chunk of casualties and misunderstandings between the two. The only things we know for sure, after all, are GLaDOS' words and the few landmark actions that Chell chooses without our opinion — escaping, picking up PotatOS, shooting a portal to the moon, going on the elevator.
Here is the inequivocable data about Chell we have at hand:
- she is stubborn to abnormal levels, which most likely was the reason for Doug to choose her as the last resort;
- she refuses to surrender to death or defeat;
- she is very good at testing;
- her intelligence always brings her to draw her own path and find a way.
Naturally, all of these qualities are enough to set her apart as an excellent test subject. A good enough reason for GLaDOS to naturally like her, considering her testing needs. At the end of Portal, however, she stops accepting whatever is thrown at her to make her way towards the origin of all her problems.
And this is where GLaDOS starts hating her, but not just that. She starts being afraid.
Genuine fear of being defeated by a human is something she hadn't felt in a long time, if not ever, at least in her conscious life as GLaDOS. Despite her multiple attempts to descourage her, Chell becomes the only one who makes it. And this, with the torture that comes with her backup system, is a pretty strong reason to hate her and need to kill her even more.
It snowballs in a pit of worse and worse and worse, naturally. As a result of her efforts, GLaDOS is killed once more. Still, Wheatley is there this time, and GLaDOS finds herself awake to watch him rise.
And he is gloating about his own success when she first speaks after her, well, murder. This is the first thing she says from inside the potato battery.
You didn't do anything. ... She did all the work.
I don't know about you, but the first time I played I thought it was pretty hilarious. To shut Wheatley up, she finds nothing better than acknowledging the efforts of the test subject who just killed her for the second time. But this is actually a pretty important turning point: GLaDOS foresees and understands that, for the first time, she and Chell are going to be victims and on the same side.
A little footnote: if you think of some other woman who did all the work and lived under the shadow of a man with a big name and a big image, the sound of this line has a touch of sadness as well.
Moving forward to their reunion, GLaDOS proposes an alliance against Wheatley, with advantages for both. Put me back in charge, and I will set you free. For real this time. No confetti. And we know for a fact that, without picking her up, Chell won't move forward. This means it is not up in the air. She necessarily agreed.
The reasons are unknown; it was more convenient for both, that is for sure, and picking GLaDOS up there to possibly discard her later was in any case the sensible option. But that's not all there is to it. For the first time, all power and control between the two of them is in Chell's hands. It could be her chance to get revenge on GLaDOS, to torture her, to truly make her face the perspective of eternal death.
But Chell never does any of this. She knows GLaDOS well by now, and she doesn't push her (their) luck. She quietly brings GLaDOS back where she belongs, always on her careful steps, and fights the last fight that parts her from her freedom.
Then, something unexpected happens. For a few terryfing seconds, both plus Wheatley seriously risk death. And instead of letting go of Chell, in what would have been a quick, easy way to get rid of her, GLaDOS saves her life.
It is the complete opposite of what she always wanted to do. She had the perfect chance, we could say. But something, in the GLaDOS that is the final result of the events of the series, awakens in her the need to keep her close.
That she would put the blame on Caroline is clear, if we consider what we said about GLaDOS and her. What really isn't logical is what she says afterwards, after apparently "deleting" Caroline:
The best solution to a problem is usually the easiest one. And I'll be honest. Killing you is hard.
My first reaction would be, well, not really. After rejecting the perfect chance of an open portal to space, she still has Chell there, unarmed, weak and badly wounded. Sturdy as she may seem, she, too, has a fragile human body.
Killing Chell is objectively hard, yes. But killing Chell has become hard in many other different ways. And the turrets who start singing instead of shooting her send us this message more than anything.
It is maybe hard to just kill her now, lamely, after the major events they have been through. It is hard for GLaDOS to kill the one person who didn't abandon her in the worst of situations, and for once was honest with her. It is hard to kill someone who, as she deep down realizes, is not that different from her.
GLaDOS and Chell understand each other better than it shows. There is a whole subtle game of forces, of balances, of pushing to find out where the limits are. As in:
You tested me. I tested you.
Their relationship is all about testing, and it is not hard to realize that GLaDOS finds in Chell more similarities than anyone would have ever thought possible. There is a significant line in Want You Gone:
She was a lot like you.
does GLaDOS know what Caroline used to be like? Nobody alive knows anymore. It's a part of the past that is long dead. What GLaDOS can and does know about her is the part of her that is alive, in her own personality. So, logically, if Chell is a lot like Caroline, she is also a lot like GLaDOS, in the facts as well as in GLaDOS' own point of view.
Of course, Chell isn't actually a murderer and a torturer. She is, however, in GLaDOS' point of view; and she is in fact a victim, just like GLaDOS was.
But there is one more reason that probably keeps GLaDOS from killing her now. She would never admit it, nor reflect on that openly. However, it is undeniable — alongside the trouble and the eternal suffering that will come from the memories, Chell destroyed the Personality Cores and helped GLaDOS back to where she belonged. After it all ends, she owes her a part of herself and a part of her dignity.
In a way, Chell freed her first. And that is, to me, the ultimate, true and full explanation of this line:
I thought you were my greatest enemy, when all along you were my best friend.
GLaDOS and herself
When I delete you maybe
I'll stop feeling so bad
Now that we have said pretty much everything, it is time to put into perspective what GLaDOS really is, and especially what she feels about herself.
In the end, GLaDOS is a human computer gone wrong. She lives the paradox of having emotions while lacking a human ethical sense. She doesn't have the same perspective as us on a whole array of human experiences — pain, revenge and death included, because she cannot actually die. Her whole twisted logic comes from either Aperture's examples, her negative feelings and her lack of deep understanding of the human experience — talking about her as insane, crazy or other names is just superficial.
Her whole story, from start to finish, was a mistake. She tried to react at the best of her possibilities, and she did — because, as all readers should by now understand, all she does makes perfect sense to her. It is logical and it mirrors what she knows of the world. It is not ethical.
And whatever of herself eludes her understanding, like "Caroline", is to be thrown away and forgotten. Even if she can't, which I think is the case with Caroline (and probably Chell, since she mentions her a lot in the co-op campaign.) She keeps suffering and rejecting that pain, in silence, for the sake of the mission she gave her life for.
And that's devastating.
Conclusions: GLaDOS and us
It's been fun. Don't come back.
First off, thank you all for the effort you put in reading this eternal meta post. Your patience is rewarded with all my gratitude. Feel free to reblog and discuss as much as you want, but please don't repost.
I dedicate these thousands of words to all the amazing friends I have in this fandom. Special mentions: silverstreams, I hope this will cheer you up. stilliammemyself, for the constant motivation. thooz for his company. laughingpinecone and emberwhite, whose birthday is today. sadretro, who will always have the best GLaDOS to me. fuchsiamae for her beautiful contributions as our resident Caroline protector.
This whole post is made to be read and thought upon by the fans. It is an invite to keep in mind what little we have in canon, and to use its extraordinary flexiblity to create your own different versions, adding more and more complexity to your image of GLaDOS — especially in fanworks. She deserves that much, and it is our task to preserve her from flat, simplicistic generalizations.
With friendliness and gratitude, thank you all. Until next time.