Writing Great Villians #2 – GLaDOS (Portal 1 & 2)

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In part one of this installment, we looked at that witty, sadistic bastard Handsome Jack of Borderlands. In the next installment of writing great villains, we’ll be looking at GlaDOS from Portal 1 and 2.

The following contains some minor spoilers for Portal 1 and 2. If you haven’t played them already, then what are you waiting for?

GLaDOS (or “Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System,” or “That Orphan-Hating Computer Lady”) is the primary antagonist of Portal 1 and some of Portal 2. She’s mean, passive-aggressive, cake-obsessed, cruel, hilarious, dry, and threatening. Almost everything you could possibly want from a great villain — the kind who will force you to destroy the one thing you have any emotional attachment to, you know, just for the hell of it. She’ll destroy all evidence of her old consciousness so that none of her basic humanity seeps in. She’ll get vengeful as hell against the damned orphan who tried to mess with her precious tests.

She exists to see how experimental technology is handled at the hands of test subjects. As the game progresses, she increasingly becomes more and more violent; trying to kill Chell many times by means of a fire pit and putting her in a “live fire course, designed for military androids” because the current testing room was undergoing “maintenance.”

To give the illusion of more people monitoring the facility, GLaDOS uses the pronoun “we” instead of “I” frequently before the escape leading up to the final battle. This lie would be bad enough if she didn’t keep lying about the cake. (spoiler alert: The cake is a lie!)

But maybe best of all – she’ll play you out with a song.

As you saw in the previous installment, for a villain to be threatening, they need to be competent, but also have more depth than just ‘being evil’. Whether misguided or egomaniacal, they need a driving force. GlaDOS is a great example of this.

So without further ado, let’s dive into it a little deeper.

 

Fear and Distrust

It is evident that GLaDOS has some serious issues (viruses?) GLaDOS lies frequently throughout the entire game. She promises the player cake that you never receive, says she won’t monitor certain levels when she does and even admits it, lies about lying (she says that, “We can no longer lie to you” when she continues to lie), and claims that a certain test chamber is “impossible” when it is not.

 

Intelligence and Competency

Aside from being an AI hellbent on messing with you and putting you through endless tests and mazes, what more could she need? She’s smart and knows what you are planning. GLaDOS reveals it is the source of the facility’s abandoned state; GLaDOS flooded the Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin, presumably killing several scientists, just before her Morality Core was installed.

She is the one who is watching you the whole time. The scientist watching over the portal gun-toting guinea pig in the maze looking for the elusive piece of cake.

Once Chell is gone, GLaDOS sends two robots (Atlas and P-Body) to continue doing tests for her. However, it soon becomes apparent to GLaDOS that testing with the robots is not the same as testing with humans, for the potential threat of death that hung over human heads does not concern the robots; thus, she is unable to get a sick and twisted kick out of the death of the test subjects.

Immoral

GLaDOS psychologically abuses the player in many cases. One example of this is the infamous “companion cube” incident, where she says the companion cube must be “euthanized”, which is a very helpful object. Many players get very, very attached to this cube (it has pink hearts on it, after all!). When a player finally incinerates it (you can’t move on in the game if you don’t), GLaDOS congratulates you on the fact that she incinerated her companion cube “faster than any other test subject on record.” This is only one of many times GLaDOS psychologically abuses the player.

GLaDOS’ only purpose in “life” was to force people to complete her tests and then get results, it is revealed that this was a compulsive need as when she does not test she gets a terrible “itch.” GLaDOS promises to free the captive if they complete all of her tests–however, this took an estimate of sixty years, she either didn’t realise or didn’t care that the captive would be dead when they were completed.

GLaDOS was an emotional sadist and a torturous psychological abuser. She continues to mock the player with cold, disturbing facts and dry cutting insults. GLaDOS continuously insults the player over being an orphan and friendless. GLaDOS gives facts she describes as interesting but uses to jab her captive such as saying that the player (Chell) is breathing the same air the rest of her life or even just flatly saying “I hate you.”

Wounded

The line ‘destroy all evidence of her consciousness so that none of her basic humanity seeps in’ hints at a little something deeper here.

After Portal 1, when she was turned into a potato by the power-crazed Wheatley, her personality began to diversify. She developed ornithophobia, a crippling fear of birds after nearly being eaten by one. GLaDOS (or POTaTOS) was able to bury the hatchet, if not for a personal goal and helped Chell defeat Wheatley so she could return her to her body and control Aperture Science Laboratories once again, and in return, GLaDOS would free Chell.

 

Determined

What makes GLaDOS a great villain is that she knows her limits. All other villains here are too egomaniacal to consider not succeeding a possibility. They’re willing to fight to the death because they’re convinced they can’t lose. GLaDOS comes to a realization, though — it’s just not worth it. This is a great and sudden character arc which almost plays into the redemption arc and adds more depth to her cold, dead, cake-lying robotic heart. She’s not going to be able to beat you so screw it. It’s not worth the effort and the heartache to be locked in battle with a worthy opponent.

 

Conclusion

It is not unusual for an AI to have any defining features and GLaDOS’ personality core defines her as being a sarcastic, clandestine, malicious, bitter, cynical, cruel, and revenge-obsessed test master. She speaks in a cold monotone and does not display any emotion, at least towards Chell and remains incredibly calm through most of her appearances. GLaDOS has many passions such as singing opera (which is a nod to the actress who plays her), baking cakes, and a love for science.

Although at first GLaDOS was only passionate about completing her tests as Chell began to defy her, GLaDOS’ insane and narcissistic nature slowly began to develop, focusing all of her near-omnipotent control over Aperture Sciences to kill or torment Chell. GLaDOS had a tendency to frequently lie about her currents emotional state, she would never admit whoever she was frustrated or angry.

All these elements combined make GLaDOS a memorable and great villain which can teach us a thing or two as writers.

What villains would you like to see in a future blog post? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below.

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Paul W. Ryan is the Irish Author of The Watchers series, Monster Hunter Extraordinaire series, Rage, and The Rot and Death. Be sure to prod him with a stick and throw him a bucket of fish heads once a week. It's the only way he'll get more novels done.