Tag Archive | Portal

GLaDOS, the Voice of Postfeminist Control

Warning, spoilers ahead. Image borrowed from ElderGeek.

Much has been written about Portal, it has won at least seven “Game of the Year” awards and has been ranked as the “Best Game of all Time” by Gamesradar. Perhaps because both the hero and antagonist are women, it has also been the object of several cultural critiques. One blogger writes, “GLaDOS [the game’s villian] is the archetypical oppressed woman.” In an article published by GamePro (a mass-market game review magazine) GLaDOS is considered a “feminist icon.” Although “feminist icon” is a bit extreme, GLaDOS does have a lot to do with feminism. When seen in light of Rosalind Gill’s (2007) essay, “Postfeminist media culture,” GLaDOS, and her wry, disembodied voice, hold striking parallels to the immanence of surveillance in today’s world.

GLaDOS and Chell. Borrowed from gryphonworks @ deviantART.

At their core, the games in Valve Software’s Portal series are relatively straightforward: you are put in control of a female character named Chell, who is attempting to escape from the Aperture Science Laboratory complex. Equipped, mainly, with a portal gun (think Yellow Submarine, “Hole in My Pocket”), Chell traverses precipices, laser drones, acid pits and everything in-between.  As she navigates and manipulates these obstacles, a disembodied Orwellian voice guides Chell from one puzzle to the next.  This is the voice of GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), a self-aware computer who runs the joint (at least in Portal 1) and is keeping you around for further “testing.” Where Portal is claustrophobic, just you and GLaDOS, Portal 2 is a little more dynamic. A third character, Wheatley, is introduced. In both games, however; there is an inescapable feeling of surveillance and scrutiny. GLaDOS’s monotonous voice is everywhere, the robotic platforms of the Aperture complex are the only appendages of her body to be found.

What to make of the GLaDOS’s character? Although she is helpful at first when guiding Chell through the early tests, GLaDOS quickly adopts a sarcastic tone – putting Chell down, and belittling her mistakes. G. Christopher Williams of PopMatters reads into the backstory a bit. He points out that GLaDOS is modeled on the personality of the Aperture Science CEO, Cave Johnson’s, wife: Caroline. In the second game there is a tape of Johnson elaborating:

Brain Mapping. Artificial Intelligence. We should have been working on it thirty years ago. I will say this—and I’m gonna say it on tape so everybody hears it a hundred times a day: If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place.
Now she’ll argue. She’ll say she can’t. She’s modest like that.
But you make her.
Hell, put her in my computer. I don’t care.

GLaDOS, then, has a bit of a history. Within this history there is a glass ceiling.  GLaDOS has had a dampening sphere installed to limit her “irrational thinking,” and curb her “misbehavior.” Tellingly, this sphere whispers terrible ideas to her in a babbling male voice. At the end of Portal 1, Chell destroys the dampening sphere, and GLaDOS is free to get revenge on the society that has caged her. At this key moment, the tonality of her voice shifts from accommodating to sultry.

This change in voice accompanies a change in disposition. As Chell continues her adventures in Portal 2, GLaDOS returns with a set of suspiciously cutting remarks. Several barbs are made about Chell gaining weight, being unintelligent, and being adopted.  In the sequel, GLaDOS is especially critical of Chell’s body. These pot-shots figure perfectly into Gill’s  (2007) hallmarks of postfeminism: 1) the increased self-surveillance of the female body, 2) the increase of surveillance in new social sectors, and 3) a focus on the psychological transformation of one’s self, or interior life. Chell, the avatar, isn’t being judged on her weight (or lack thereof). Instead, GLaDOS’s remarks cut to the player, who recognizes that neither they nor Chell fit GLaDOS’s ideal. Although, in the narrative, GLaDOS typifies an extension of invisible and disembodied surveillance into new spheres of life, her comments act to foster self-surveillance in the embodied player.

GLaDOS’s comments have even jarred some users in the Steam Users’ Forums (Steam is Valve’s online distribution platform). In a thread entitled, “Portal 2 Sexist,” one user, loodmoney, asked if anyone else found GLaDOS’s fat jokes off-putting. To this, another user, Killalaz replied, “GLaDOS is trying to discourage/dishearten the testers. Chell is a woman, what bothers a woman more than being called fat? Not much. . .psychological warfare so to speak.” Although Killalaz may be reading too literally into Portal 2’s narrative, he is right about one thing: to some extent, GLaDOS, and therefore Valve Software, is waging psychological warfare on us all. Later in the thread another user, BC2 Cypher, demonstrates the extent that attitudes of self-surveillance can work to mold one’s psyche, “I don’t see the issue he’re. I actually used to BE fat. Lost 72 pounds when I was 15. 232 – 160. It’s not like Chell is even fat. That is the joke.” The real joke, if there is one, is that so many players are content to reduce GLaDOS’s comments to a self-contained dialogue between fictional characters. What is heard, actually, relates directly to the way dialogue from Portal is internalized. In these forums, the voice of GLaDOS is reproduced; it mediates the bodies of some fans (by supposing an ideal weight), and surveils the bodies of others (by guiding the dialogue).

But, when I play Portal, I occasionally smirk at GLaDOS’s comments. They are cutting satire. If GLaDOS is a feminist icon, it is because she is a voice that everyone carries with them at all times. The voice in our heads, that causes us to judge and shape ourselves, while simultaneously passing unkind judgment on to others. GLaDOS is iconic of the postfeminist condition – a condition where surveillance is assumed and internalized. And, our bodies are shaped through the hyper-mediation of games like Portal, and characters like GLaDOS, as they replicate themselves in web forums, and in our own voices.


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The Role of Sound in Video Games: Pong, Limbo and Interactivity

Recently, I’ve been amazed by how well the sound design of the new Xbox LIVE game Limbo has been able to coax me into various degrees of panic. Visually, the game is monochrome – black, white and various shades of grey sink into and out of the television as I guide the main character, a little boy, through the landscape of his nightmares. Tension builds as sound is used to announce off-screen dangers as they slowly creep across the screen. The muffled thud-thud of a giant spider on the left prompted me to run to the right where I suddenly encountered the deadly scream of a buzz-saw roaring toward me. It’s scary stuff.  An ambient sound-layer is interrupted only by an occasional feedback crescendo or the rustling of the world’s many dangerous occupants. The soundtrack of Limbo says a lot about the game, which in turn says a lot about our culture. Video games are rarely the object of analysis for sound culture studies, this is fairly counterintuitive considering both their social impact and technological nature. Should sound studies take a closer look at video games – where would it start?

One option is to consider the game historically, as the convergence of several media discourses. First, there is cinema: The soundscape of Limbo borrows the formula that set the stage of desolation for so many low-budget horror movies. Consider the eerie silence of a horror movie like The Evil Dead and how there is a deliberate quiet within it’s conversation and music. These sonic memes are intended to invoke tension and surprise within the audience. Bruce Campbell, who plays the hapless protagonist, Ash, creeps through a similarly nightmarish landscape, inviting the listener into the soundscape of leaves, creaks, and screams. In a tradition, indebted to the aesthetics of Hitchcock, quiet soundscapes allow for broad dynamic shifts, juxtaposing safety and danger.

Another important discourse is that of video game history. Broad dynamic shifts in video games, have not always been the result of a deliberate horror aesthetic. Video games lacked sound until the release of Computer Space in 1971. A year later, the same creative team, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, would later found Atari and release Pong. Though Pong was a clone of an electric ping-pong game for 1966’s Magnavox Odyssey, Bushnell convinced Al Alcorn, the lead engineer, to hack-in sound. Silence, blips and beeps were for almost 25 years a result of hard technological limits in video games. As CD driven consoles were released in the mid-nineties, game sound was able to become more sophisticated, eventually integrating popular music seamlessly into games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater. Although game soundtracks were no longer constrained by the draconic limitations of console circuits (The Atari VCS was often unable to set its two lead voices to a similar scale – Karen Collins describes this more fully in her article “In the Loop”), game sounds still depend on the limitations of programming code. Limbo offers the latest technology, sound designer Martin Stig Anderson, has explained how advances in programming language have helped him to accommodate dramatic shifts in player control.

Game sound has always focused on the interactive, and Limbo is a great example of this development. Although games like Super Metroid and Portal have used ambient sound to emulate cinema, Limbo presents a living soundscape. Able to freely traverse the world, players can control the score of Limbo, a sign that music is becoming interactive in new ways. Is this a meaningful sign of technological convergence, or simply a reiteration of the existing aesthetic tropes?  You decide.


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