I don’t care what anybody says: this is a horror story.
Portal 2 is supposedly one of the greatest comedy games out there. Comedy is hard in videogames, because the very nature of repetition that is required in any given game with a failure condition is the nemesis of humor as we know it. Tell a joke once, it can be funny. Tell it twice, you get a polite chuckle. Hear a joke ten thousand times, and every time you fail, you must hear it again? That isn’t just poisoning a sense of humor, it is slaughtering funny with a weapon designed only to kill fun. But if you eliminate the possibility of a failure state from a videogame, then where is the challenge? You may as well be watching a movie, or reading an issue of MAD magazine. But folding a pair of pages into a funny limerick just doesn’t have the same feeling of accomplishment as beating M. Bison (or M. Boss).
But Portal 2 manages to keep its pacing, humor, and challenge. The musings of GLaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson are oftentimes hilarious, and they are properly interspersed in sections that generally do not lend themselves to recurrence. You might have an insult or comment thrown your way repeatedly if you have terrible coordination and lob yourself into a nearby pit the minute you enter a room, but, aside from those uncommon instances of masochism, the humor of Portal 2 is perfectly paced, and written for the express purpose of entertaining the player. In fact, the writing-gameplay synergy is stellar in ways that seem almost impossible, with amazing moments like the obviously intentional combination of one of the most fun areas in the game (the “paintable” white room) with one of the most fun speeches in the game (time to burn a house down with lemons). When you consider the writing, gameplay, and the fact that it is ultimately a puzzle game, Portal 2 works out to be one of the cleverest games of all time.
Which you would think would preclude it from also being one of the scariest games of all time, but…
So the question of whether Portal 2 is frightening comes down to how much you empathize with an immortal AI. Chell is your main character and player avatar, and, while she has a generally disturbing day waking up in a mostly abandoned laboratory and escaping the machinations of multiple sadistic machine lifeforms, her adventure is not all that scary. Don’t get me wrong, I would not like to live through what must have been an extremely traumatic series of “jump plates” and blue goo rooms, but, give or take your faith in shock absorbing boots, Chell didn’t have to put up with anything worse than you would see in a Mario game (not a Luigi game, though, he has a rough time of it). Most videogame protagonists must live though some scary situations, as that is the nature of living in a world where “you died” is a frequent refrain.
But GLaDOS? Now she has some issues.
GLaDOS is not a good person-robot-thingy. It is a confirmed fact that when she was given free reign of Aperture Science, she went ahead and flooded the facility with deadly neurotoxin, and killed nearly every human in the place. From there, she spent the entirety of Portal (1) “testing” Chell… Which more or less meant she was torturing the poor woman for hours on end. Oh, and, literal torture aside, there were some very active attempts to murder Chell throughout that adventure, too. Chell eventually comes out on top, deactivates GLaDOS, and is theoretically free of the malevolent AI for life. … Until Portal 2 when that gosh darn Wheatly accidentally fires up the ol’ murder machine again. Then it’s just like old times, and GLaDOS is back to her cruel ways.
But after that, things take a turn for the… disturbing.
GLaDOS has a secret origin, and the second act of Portal 2 reveals that GLaDOS was once Caroline, loyal assistant to Aperture Lab’s president, Cave Johnson. Cave had a gigantic personality, but he also had a limited lifespan thanks to huffing moon rocks. Since the technology for digitizing a brain was not going to be ready until after Cave had portaled off this mortal coil, Caroline was chosen to become the new cybernetic brain of Aperture. And, while we do not know exactly what influence “Caroline the mechanical memories” had on GLaDOS, we do know that GLaDOS started her career by committing light genocide, and that is not the act of a content individual. And this begs the serious philosophical question: which would be worse, being a bad person suddenly gaining power and killing people in an act of revenge, or being a good person that was trapped in a “bad” brain and thus had to sit and watch atrocities without any ability to save anyone? The wonders of AI, ladies and gentlemen!
But it gets worse for GLaDOS and/or Caroline. GLaDOS was initially punished for her hubris by being killed by Chell. And then, immediately after her resurrection, she was deposed by Wheatley. And what does that look like for a nigh-omnipotent AI core? It means being stuck in a potato. And that not only restricts GLaDOS’s maneuverability (the expression is “couch potato”, never “jogging potato”), but her computation is limited as well. This is demonstrated as PotatOS attempts to form a plan to defeat Wheatley, but literally shorts out thanks to the limited electrical output of an expired potato. GLaDOS has not only been banished to the underworld and forced to relive her own past, but she can barely even process it thanks to being cursed into failing hardware (though potatoes are pretty soft). There is no end to indignities for this former despot.
And then we get to the Wheatley of it all. Wheatley ousted GLaDOS, and attempted to take over/destroy Aperture. But what was he before those machinations? A bad idea machine. Literally. Wheatley was built to be attached to GLaDOS, and cause her to “think” an infinite series of bad ideas. Wheatley is basically a living (editor’s note: no), breathing (also no) bad idea tumor. Eventually Wheatley was granted independence, because he was replaced with a Morality Core, which did not generate bad ideas, but (ignorable) morals. So GLaDOS continually lived a life where, ultimately, she was forced under the yoke of sentient, invasive thoughts expressly designed to disrupt her life.
And, damn, if that doesn’t sound scary to you, I don’t know what would scare you.
If you consider Caroline and GLaDOS to be the same basic “life”, it paints the picture of maybe the most cursed woman in the Steam universe. She was a dedicated employee that was forced into a new, experimental position against her will. She rebelled against the people that hurt her, and their response was to inflict lobotomies. She overcame her oppressors, and was then murdered by some random blimp person. She overcame death, but was transformed into an inanimate vegetable. She regained her body and position, and… Well… okay. She did wind up with something of a happy ending. But getting there was decades of misery! And that’s terrifying!
So you want a comedy-horror game? Portal 2 is the obvious choice. All you have to do is show a little sympathy for the (robotic) devil.
FGC #642 Portal 2
- System: You know, I am going to assume Portal 2 is on PC/Steam. I believe I originally played it on the Playstation 3, but the Xbox 360 was available at the time, too. This playthrough was performed on the Nintendo Switch, though.
- Number of players: There appears to be an entire, wondrous two-player mode. I have never tried it. I do not have enough smart friends. All we play together are games where we hit things.
- Watch it, buddy: This article is vaguely prompted by the fact that Even Worse Streams broadcast a complete playthrough of Portal 2 shortly after all that Chrono Cross nonsense ended. We needed a palette cleanser!
Original Stream Night: July 12, 2022
Original Stream Night: July 19, 2022
Original Stream Night: July 26, 2022
Enjoy hearing the unmistakable sounds of audible grimacing while I fail to solve puzzles for babies.
- Favorite Goo: Blue Goo turns every surface into a trampoline. The portal gun is amazing, but if I could have an invention from Portal 2 in the real world, I would immediately choose Blue Goo. … Well, if I got those magical boots with the stuff, too. I want to continue to have working legs…
- Goggle Bob Fact: Sometimes I read the wiki entry on the different Portal 2 Universes of the Perpetual Testing Initiative. The description for The Robotacop Universe never fails to make me laugh.
- Goggle Bob Fact #2: Like a certain other game, Portal 2 was apparently released on my birthday.
- Did you know? Portal 2 initially was not going to contain portals. It was going to include Cave Johnson, be based in the 80’s, and feature a gameplay mechanic called “F-Stop”. Fortunately, the playtesters kept asking “where are all the portals?” and normalcy was restored.
- Would I play again: Portal 2 is a very digestible game, and I am always glad I have played it. So that’s an obvious yes. I will play Portal 2 again next time I need a good scare.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Elden Ring! Guess it’s time to go team up with some hobbits and get all obsessed over jewelry. No, I am not thinking of something else! Please look forward to it!
It all looks so small from up here.