MASSIVE spoilers for Portal (and maybe very minor spoilers for Portal 2, right at the end). All images, including the featured image, were taken by me.
This is in many ways a follow-up to my previous article on Portal, an excellent game that you should all play. The spoiler warning above should not be ignored, however — if you haven’t finished Portal, what are you doing here?!
Honestly, I didn’t even plan to write a second article about this game, instead promising a review of the second game. However, upon actually finishing Portal after publishing the first article (I was pretty close when I was writing it but hadn’t quite got there, although I did remember the ending from my childhood experience with the game), I simply had to say something about the final section of Portal, as well as its excellent villain, GLaDOS, who really comes into her own during this last portion of the game.
So: after a particular point, at the end of what turns out to be the final puzzle level, GLaDOS gets Chell onto a moving platform and we shortly discover that it is leading towards a fiery pit. Before she starts roasting Chell in verbal terms at the very end of the game, we can see her go literal and try to actually incinerate her test subject. Chell (or the player), of course, isn’t having any of it, and manages to escape certain death through the use of — what else? — the portal gun.
This is such a great moment because it’s the point where all the structure just vanishes. You, the player, must try to navigate to wherever GLaDOS is: you must use the skills you’ve picked up during the puzzles, in areas where you really shouldn’t be. The sterile grey of the test chambers is replaced by the dark and dingy sewers and backrooms of Aperture Science. There’s no A to B solution: you have to be inventive, figure things out, in a place which is designed to stop you from succeeding. The only help you get, in fact, is the red scrawlings on the walls, left by previous test-subjects turned escapees, providing quick tips (like ‘Up here!’ or ‘This way’) to send you in the right direction. You feel like the last in a lineage of people who woke up in Aperture Science and eventually tried to get out, but where they didn’t manage to escape, you will.
And all the while, you have GLaDOS coming out with some absolute gems of voice lines, telling you to ‘assume the party escort submission position’ when the incineration plan doesn’t work out (because nothing says ‘party’ quite like having to lie on the floor with your arms by your side to be, uh, taken away); that you’ve gone in completely the wrong direction (when, of course, you have not); and, when you get to the final, final room, the place where GLaDOS is ‘installed’, she starts outright insulting you.
The final room is really where GLaDOS’s true personality comes through, mainly because the ‘boss fight’ (which is less of a fight and more of a timed puzzle, less complex than many of the later puzzles but it still might take a moment to figure out what you need to do) involves literally dismantling GLaDOS’s personality, by removing ‘personality cores’ and chucking them in an incinerator. Setting things on fire seems to be a theme in this game: first you have to destroy your beloved Weighted Companion Cube in an earlier level, and then, of course, GLaDOS tries to comprehensively get rid of you following the final test chamber.
It’s an ingenious ‘boss fight’, not because of the mechanics (although it’s great on that level: you must redirect a rocket coming out of a turret, using portals, to collide with GLaDOS’s body, causing a personality core to drop off. The core must then be placed into the incinerator, which opens via the pressing of a red button and is under its own time limit), but because of the storytelling, and in particular, GLaDOS’s dialogue. One core actually drops off unprompted shortly after Chell enters the room (much to GLaDOS’s surprise), and it’s not just any old core: it’s a ‘morality core’, designed to stop GLaDOS from doing awful and deadly stuff like, I don’t know, flooding the Enrichment Centre with neurotoxin. Because that’s happened before, apparently.
Chell destroys the core and then GLaDOS’s robotic voice suddenly changes, becoming a lot more sly and, well, evil. So, naturally, with the destruction of this thing designed to prevent her from completely stepping over into maniacal villain territory, she immediately starts up the neurotoxin, with the clear intent of killing Chell. Chell has six minutes to figure out the boss fight mechanics and then get all the cores into the incinerator before the room is completely flooded. The cores all have different characteristics: while one will ramble on, another will snarl and growl.
As I said, this part of the game isn’t even particularly difficult, but it’s so memorable because of how we see GLaDOS’s character shift. It’s really a testament to the talent of GLaDOS’s voice actor, Ellen McLain, that GLaDOS can be entirely calm as Chell is literally destroying her piece by piece; then insult Chell in the most horrible and personal ways — such as saying that it’s funny how her file says that Chell is adopted, or that she has no friends (after she ‘murdered’ the Companion Cube), or even that Chell is a ‘bitter, unlikable loner’ — and then start to panic just a little when Chell doesn’t stop destroying the cores, telling Chell that her behaviour ‘isn’t brave: it’s murder’. She gets furious and even petty, mimicking Chell’s voice towards the end; she comes out with bizarre laughter and static noises; and, notably, she says outright that she hates Chell.
GLaDOS is such a fantastically well-written villain because she’s been trying to kill you throughout the whole game in subtle and then explicit ways, but in this fight, we finally see some vulnerability and even a sense that she hates being trapped in the facility just as much as Chell does. Despite all that, she is, and let’s not beat about the bush, a completely awful individual with zero moral boundaries (her behaviour was questionable at best even before the destruction of the morality core), so you don’t feel too bad about what happens to her in the final fight.
So once GLaDOS is dispatched and the room collapses, we see the exterior of the now-destroyed Aperture Science facility, but Chell’s freedom does not last long: she is dragged back inside. This is followed by one of the few cutscenes in the game, with the camera whizzing through corridors very similar to the ones Chell escaped from the facility through, and it comes to rest on the famous cake, surrounded by dozens of personality cores.
Then, finally, we have the iconic credits song, ‘Still Alive’, which is GLaDOS essentially speaking to Chell — or is it the player? Still, GLaDOS assures you that she is not done, and we have an entire sequel to ponder this…