harveyjames (harveyjames) wrote,

Venus in Chains

In which I tell you about a discovery my pals and I made concerning the videogame PORTAL.

Warning: Spoilers ahead
I don't play a lot of videogames these days, but if games were better, I probably would. And if games were all as good as Portal, I'd be like one of those kids in who play so much they forget to eat or sleep and eventually have to be peeled from their computer chair by doctors. Portal's one of the best games I've played for a very long time. In addition to the teleport gun-based shenannigans from which the game gets its name, it's a near-perfect marriage of production design, narrative, and gameplay. The whole thing is over in a few hours, but by the end you'll have become so involved with the game's little world you'll probably be thinking about it for months afterward. As far I as I've noticed, the average ratio of the time spent playing Portal weighed against the time spent thinking, talking and writing about Portal is probably around 1:16000.

Although it starts out as quite a benign series of puzzles, the game slowly reveals itself as a twisted love story between you and the insane computer AI 'GlaDOS' who controls the test facility you're sent through like a rat through a maze. As she becomes increasingly dangerous and abusive, you eventually have no choice but to escape from her test program. A confrontation between you and her becomes inevitable. Here's writer Erik Wolpaw being interviewed for Rock Paper Shotgun:

"Tell us about GLaDOS.

We wanted an adversary personality that hadn’t been done to death. I mean, GLaDOS does yell a lot and shoot rockets at you, which I guess is fairly traditional, but she’s also kind of supportive and funny and sometimes she’s a little sad and even scared. You get to know GLaDOS over the course of the game and, hopefully, you feel like your actions are really putting her through the wringer emotionally. We give you some quality time to luxuriate in all the emotional pain you’re causing her, which, I think, is a lot more satisfying than simply throwing a bomb into her exhaust port or whatever. That’s not to say she doesn’t get a few zingers in herself, though. She says some very hurtful things and, honestly, by the end, it’s pretty clear that this sick relationship is unhealthy for both of you."

Eventually, you find GlaDOS in a giant antechamber.  She turns out to be a whirring mass of tubes and high-tech parts reminiscent of something Chris Cunningham's late 90's work. "Well. You found me," she says. "Was it worth it? Because despite your violent behaviour, all you've managed to break is my heart."

Just the other day, super video game smartyman "Spitfire" from Game-ism.com noticed that there's more to GlaDOS than we all originally thought. After hearing the developers say "[we planned GlaDOS to look like] Botticelli’s Venus hanging upside down, but we decided to go with something else and use some feminine lines within the structure,” a lightbulb went off. He took another look at the design for GlaDOS and saw that far from being a random mass of tubes and wires, she does indeed resemble a human being hanging upside down. He saw GlaDOS as a woman bound and gagged: 

People have been trying to interperate the meaning of Portal's story since it was released, so if this was an intentional piece of symbolism, what did it mean for the story? That rather than killing GlaDOS at the end of the game, we are instead freeing her from captivity?

Just to make sure Spitfire hadn't just screen-captured GlaDOS from a flukey angle, Kirkjerk from The Gamer's Quarter made this video of a full 360-degree walkaround of GlaDOS. As you can see, her pelvis, torso, and head are distinct from every angle. He also made this video of the very end of the final battle. It looks a lot like Glados' arms are coming free!

By that point I was convinced GlaDOS was intended to look humanoid, but I thought the bondage idea might be a bit of a stretch. Minkee from The Gamer's Quarter forums drew the picture to the left, which made it clear that whatever state GlaDOS is in is pretty much open to interperatation. For example, babies gestate upside-down, too! Could it be a foetal position she's in, and you're helping her be born again? You know how screenwriters love to use being rebirth as a metaphor for spiritual redemption and all that jazz.

I decided we needed a better look at GlaDOS, and so the next logical course of action would be to look at her in a 3D model editor. I don't actually own the game myself, so I enlisted the help of a bunch of Portal-obsessed schoolkids at the Facepunch Studios forums to hack apart the game and take pictures of GlaDOS in her raw, unanimated state. This is what they came back with ((thanks Snoobel):

At first I thought it didn't really give us much we hadn't gleaned already. In particular, the middle image was almost disappointing, looking as it does like a random cluster of tubes, apparently confirming  my worst fear that we were reading too much into nothing.

Flipped upside down, it looked at least a lot more humanoid, and you could see our 'torso' and 'pelvis' more clearly. I also noticed another arm we hadn't noticed before. Just half an arm, though! Why was that? That's when it hit me:

"[we planned for GlaDOS to look like] Botticelli’s Venus hanging upside down, but we decided to go with something else and use some feminine lines within the structure.”

I put two and two together:

And got this. Now this might seem like a bit of a stretch for some people, but speaking as an illustrator, it's pretty clear to me that the figure on the right is inspired by the one on the left.

-the incline of the head is the same. This is especially clear in the rear view.

-the angle of her right forearm is the same.

-the proportions between the head, torso, pelvis and legs are the same.

-the angle of her left back-arm is the same, and can be seen to be bent at the elbow.

-the general line of the body flows in the same way.

-It would also appear that the TV screens take up proportionally the same space as the seashell does in the painting. They start at her 'feet' and reach up/down to her knee.

-oddly enough, the angle of the pelvis is an exact mirror to that of Venus. I suspect this was in an effort to further disguise or abstract the model from its source material.

So what does all this mean? Well, I wondered about it for a minute or two. I even started to ask Yahoo Answers the "what does Venus' pose symbolize in Bottichelli's Birth of Venus? She has one hand over her breast and one over her nether-regions-" but the answer sort of came to me as soon as I'd typed the words 'breast' and 'nether-regions', it's pretty self-explanatory.

I don't think the reason for these design choices is anything complex. Venus is the goddess of love. I suspect that it's probably something as simple as that GlaDOS's love for the main character is a twisted one, and they wanted her physical appearance to be emblematic of that. She's an inverted Venus, a living monument to a sick relationship. At the same time, she looks foetal, curled up, fragile. So when you finally penetrate the facility's core and find her within, she looks very beautiful but at the same time very vulnerable, robbed of the power over you she once had, and that makes it all the more difficult for you to destroy her. I believe this must have been the developer's intention during at least one stage during development.

In fact, the tone of that sequence is quite light, so it's difficult for a player to feel quite that depth of emotions during that section. Most players won't notice GlaDOS' resemblence to Venus, a foetus, a bound woman, or whatever, so really these homages within GlaDOS' design can only inform how players percieve her on a subconscious level. I can't remember if I felt much remorse or sympathy for GlaDOS when I fought her, although I probably would if I played through this game again. I'd be interested to know what other people thought when they played the game.

Anyway, that's it. Thanks to all the people who helped out with this over the last day or two, you're all linked within the post. I hope this discovery will help to inform further discussion on Portal! Thanks for reading! 


Greng at the Select Button forums made a major new discovery: 

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