Lonely Humor in Portal

Everyone who’s played Portal knows its humor. GLaDOS supplied gamers (and subsequently, the internet) with memorable, dark quips of the Emancipation Grid—”which may, in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel and teeth” (Tanner 1)—and the promise of cake amidst incredibly dangerous test chambers. Moreover, within the game, humor is such an important part of the playfulness of Portal. The player experiences quality comedy then gets to dart across a room by shooting portals everywhere. Portal reeks of joy and fun, but on this play-through, I also noticed another essential part of the game that I never caught: the loneliness and creepiness of Portal’s game world. 

It makes sense that I didn’t catch that aspect the first go-around. I beat the game in three or four hours, and at that point, I was the kind of player that wanted to beat the game and progress through the story as quick as possible. I never bothered to explore a game or examine how the game was designed, other than it possibly hampering my progress. This time around, when I soaked in the world again with new analytical lenses and slower play, Portal became much more unsettling. Aside from the interactions with GLaDOS, the soundscape of Portal drilled into my head emptiness and the fact that nothing else was with me in this world. Other than the occasional button push or whooshing of the portals, all of the rooms buzzed mechanically and dully. Additionally, the context of having played this game previously and knowing that GLaDOS killed all of the scientists (hence, why Aperture is empty) unsettled me even more. Aperture is a dangerous abandoned facility where I play a character that is essentially the plaything of a rouge AI. That sounds like a horror sci-fi premise. Playing this game alone and slowly (with a frustrating touchpad) made my experience dizzying, to the point that I had to exit the game and do something else, usually to talk to someone. 

Yet, in that creeping loneliness, the humor of GLaDOS works very effectively. I felt lonely enough in the test chambers that anytime I heard dialogue from GLaDOS, I relished it. I loved the overt dark humor and slips of a deceiving, passive-aggressive AI. The humor really cut through the tension of loneliness and provided a space for latent social feelings to emerge. The obvious awareness of sinister things at work in the writing of GLaDOS’s lines and jokes helped me connect to an otherwise kind of foreboding world. Having a humorous antagonist along with great mechanics against a lonely atmosphere really fostered an interesting evocative competition between creepiness and playfulness. It also helped me appreciate the connection that so many players have to the delightfully crazy and murderous GLaDOS. 

Work Cited

Tanner, Nicole. “Top 10 GLaDOS Quotes.” IGN, 25 Mar. 2011, http://www.ign.com/articles/2011/03/25/top-10-glados-quotes?page=1. Accessed 6 Sep. 2016.