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HARVEYJAMES™
1983 TOWARDS TOMORROW
Venus in Chains 
9th-Apr-2008 11:19 pm

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! 

EDIT:

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



HOLY SHIT, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
Comments 
(Deleted comment)
10th-Apr-2008 01:34 am (UTC)
Yeah yeah, I mention it at the top of the article!

I don't subscribe 100% to the bondage idea, though. For whom is she bound? Apeture science isn't really big enough a character in the story to be a worthy aggressor to GlaDOS and for that to be satisfying from a narrative point of view. For all the player knows, she is Apeture Science.
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
(Deleted comment)
10th-Apr-2008 02:31 am (UTC)
I haven't played Portal (though I'd like to), but I loved this post. It was very interesting to me. Thank you for writing it.
10th-Apr-2008 02:53 am (UTC)
Thanks man

I should really put a spoiler warning up there! Sorry!
10th-Apr-2008 03:08 am (UTC) - WHEN VIDEOGAMES BECOME LITERATURE WOW JEEZ
Wow, I'm really surprised at the amount of research you've done on this. This was a great read, thanks so much for posting it!

I haven't actually played portal, but I know just about as much as person can about the game without actually playing it. Most of my friends are pretty enamored with it, I'm passing the link around if that's okay. :D
10th-Apr-2008 03:15 am (UTC) - Re: WHEN VIDEOGAMES BECOME LITERATURE WOW JEEZ
Absolutely, please do!
10th-Apr-2008 03:18 am (UTC)
I CAN'T BELIEVE I'VE NEVER PLAYED THIS GAME. What is wrong with me?
10th-Apr-2008 03:24 am (UTC)
What! but you must!
10th-Apr-2008 03:43 am (UTC)
Okay, that is just brilliant. Bravo!
10th-Apr-2008 02:50 pm (UTC)
Hey, finally got around to friend you on LJ, my oversight.

I'm trying to parse those 3 images from the model...
especially against http://kisrael.com/m/2008.04.08.glados.jpg
It seems like sometimes the left arm (the one more folded)is bent a different way? Or am I just getting confused by the rotation/flipping?

Heh, "Kirkjerk from The Gamer's Quarter"

10th-Apr-2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
This post is full of win. :)

I didn't see the human figure in there until you pointed it out, but when you did, she didn't really look beautiful, bound, or fragile to me...She looked sinister, sort of like a Geiger alien or a ninja...

Or a sock monkey. : D
10th-Apr-2008 09:16 pm (UTC)
It's entries like these (AND TURTLES) that really make me happy I friended you!
And omg SOCK MONKEY! (he scares me)
12th-Apr-2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
This post is reminiscent of the Central Computer from Rez. They should team up and fight crime!
12th-Apr-2008 09:13 pm (UTC)
I'll team up with YOU and fight crime
13th-Apr-2008 05:28 am (UTC)
Can we hang out sometime?
13th-Apr-2008 04:00 pm (UTC)
Certainly!

My address is James Harvey, Stafford, England, The World, please come round at any time
15th-Apr-2008 07:25 am (UTC)
I also have never played Portal but really enjoyed reading this! I liked the way you went about investigating this as well as the way you wrote it up in the end. Not only an interesting topic (and pretty exciting discovery! I bet the Portal team are really pleased, I would be) but a great read.

Another great thing is that I now know who you are and have added you so I can keep enjoying your stuff - bwahaha.
19th-Apr-2008 06:52 pm (UTC)
Haha man I thought it was just the guys I play with that didn't notice GlaDOS was a woman (or at least woman shaped)! I noticed it almost immediately O_o. I thought it was either like the bondage thing, or just a creepy upsidedown person.. either way it was chill inducing xD. A little part of me was kind of sympathetic, now that you mention it, o rI at least wanted to know more about her. That's awesome that she's based on Venus though! Nice article :D
19th-Apr-2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
22nd-Apr-2008 04:36 am (UTC)
Thank you for this brillant write-up! I actually tried looking for the female shape spoken of by the producers a few months before reading this, but I was too distracted by the orbs. But now it's obvious that I was looking at it wrong, because it's definitely there. Thanks for sharing!
22nd-Apr-2008 06:18 am (UTC)
Thankyou for reading!
22nd-Apr-2008 08:36 pm (UTC)
Perhaps she is bound in the sense that the course of action she is forced to take (ie against the player) is destructive, where as love is inherently constructive.
22nd-Apr-2008 10:06 pm (UTC)
Good theory, tell it to Spitfire at game-ism.com, I'm sure he'll write an essay about it!
23rd-Apr-2008 06:23 pm (UTC) - Why flip?
Anonymous
I notice you mirrored the image of Venus to achieve the match-up that you show. But actually, I think you get a more convincing match if you don't - you just need to look at the white-plated portion of GLaDOS as her front, rather than her back. The curvature of the solid masses is actually a better analogue to the shape of a human body - especially the spine - when viewed this way, and it allows both arms to be interpreted as bending the right way. Interpreting the white as the back has her prominent arm with the elbow pointing uncomfortably forward.

Also, you regarded her other arm as being only half-present. But if you look at the white plated piece as her forearm, it's a whole arm, bending in the correct direction. It even gestures toward her breast, though it doesn't cross over as far as in the painting.

The only thing that doesn't match up as well is her face, which is more recognizable in what you've labelled the Front view. But then again, she is hanging upside-down, so it's not unreasonable to suppose she's holding her head at an awkward angle to look at Chell.

Another neat thing to come out of looking at it this way: the roundness of the lower white plate, emphasized by the circular pattern of the Aperture Science logo, suggests the belly of a pregnant mother-to-be (as opposed to just very voluptuous hips)
23rd-Apr-2008 06:43 pm (UTC) - Re: Why flip?
YES. Awesome, awesome, awesome. You're absolutely right. And this positions Glados's HAL9000 eye on her face, rather than just a weird nipple on the top of her head I was trying to avoid mentioning.

Good spot! ... I wish I was able to go into a model editor to get better angles on GlaDOS and change the position of the head. I think you've cracked it!
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