Portal is not a particular musical game. At best, there are a hand full of moments when an instrumental motif pushes through the flat-surfaced laboratory atmosphere to the front. Those moments, of course, unfold an even larger impact.
Minimalism and counterpointing alone are no extraordinary feats, although Portal does master them very well. But far more, the game creates musical singularity shortly after its climax by the credits title song “Still Alive”.
This was a triumph
I making a note here: Huge success
It’s hard to overstate
Knowing portal means knowing the artificial intelligence GLaDOS and knowing GLaDOS means not wondering about the cynicism and absurdity of her language. The frosty-broken robot voice that sings about success, satisfaction and a little later also about murder and cake, is hers.
But actually, that cannot really be, since I defeated the antagonistic AI in a big-ass explosion just seconds ago. Shortly after I realized, that the promise of cake might be a phony one, GLaDOS sings to me from the machine grave. Bam, this is meta, I think, and also a little creepy but mostly hilarious and even totally in-character.
GLaDOS, or more accurately the voice of singer and actress Ellen McLain, warbles in a half human half pitched tone a kind of a children’s song. The song itself is written by Jonathan Coulton, a Singer/Songwriter from Seattle, who did not contribute to a Valve production for the last time. It resembles smooth pop rock from the nineties, maybe a little bit of OK Go, maybe some happy high school punk pop. Simple melodies, emphasis on count one and three, almost a Schlager. But foremost a song full of parts that won’t leave the head, compelled to bob with every beat.
We do what we must
Because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
While the song plays, the ascii-styled lyrics are animated next to the credits. GLaDOS might be a sadistic and manipulative bitch, but at least she explains why she does it: because she can. One of the many postmodern credos, one could think. Whoever is not willing to see cultural criticism here, be the first to cast a smartphone.
„Still Alive“ is the quintessence of a collection of contradictions: a machine with emotions, a resurrection, a Schrödinger’s cake, victim blaming, a lovely singing antagonist rewarding a successful boss fight. In the light of such meta chaos, it becomes almost unnoticeable how extraordinary the choice for a classic song in itself is, complete with A part, B part, bridge and chorus. Normally, credits roll with more or less bombastic scores. But not in Portal.
I’m not even angry.
I’m being so sincere right now.
Even though you broke my heart.
And killed me.
Potentially, GLaDOS stands for more than just her role in the game. When Coulton wrote the song, Valve provided him with extensive background lore to the AI, much more than the game is telling. The classical tale of a machine gone rogue often sticks to themes of morality (“this is a warning!”) and sometimes identity (“am I human?”) but seldom goes further. GLaDOS and Portal in contrast take this idea from the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and calmly contemplate about a world where almighty AIs are taken for granted and absurdities become normality, if you have the power to define both.
I’m doing science and I’m still alive
I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive
And while you’re dying I’ll be still alive
And when you’re dead I will be still alive
Sure, the obvious and perfectly timed meta humour is responsible for the fact that GLaDOS from Portal is more memorable than a large range of gaming villains. But this explanation alone would not suffice. GLaDOS’ nature is not only funny and cruel, it is also thoughtful, vulnerable, revealing, torn and, looking at the verses above, worryingly staggering on a thin line between egocentrism and a cry for help. As if it needs to cope with something traumatic. As if being „Still Alive“ is the absolute but consequential outcome. Just like the song itself is a consequential finale to an extraordinary game.
Portal was released in 2007 as part of the Orange Box alongside Half Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2. The idea of portals has its origin in a game by the indie team Nuclear Monkey Software, named Narbacular Drop with which the team won Valves interest. The company behind Half Life bought the talents and the rest is gaming history. The more expansive and costlier produced Portal 2 followed in 2011. Jonathan Coulton composed the credits song here as well, titled “Want you gone”, sung again from GLaDOS’ perspective.
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