The depth and nuance of Portal 2's characters isn't just the best in the video gaming medium, but some of the best I've ever encountered. The writers of the single player campaign, Erik Wolpaw and Jay Pinkerton, have crafted a small ensemble of idiosyncratic characters, each of whom has well-defined and believable motivations. This week's analysis will look at the game's four major characters.
"It just goes to show: people with brain damage are the real heroes in the end, aren't they?"
Prior to Portal 2, I only knew Stephen Merchant from his writing credits on the original U.K. The Office series and The Ricky Gervais Show podcast, the latter of which portrayed him as the straight man of the three. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear his fast-talking, bumbling side as Wheatley, the incompetent AI core in charge of monitoring Aperture Science's human test subjects while they hibernate. Wheatley is the player's pseudo-partner for the first half an hour to 45 minutes of the game, reintroducing Chell to the Aperture laboratories, which have become dilapidated and overgrown with vegetation during the unknown amount of time that passed between the two games. Though wanting to be helpful, he repeatedly manages to screw things up, namely by inadvertently reactivating GLaDOS. Things get even worse when Chell switches his core for GLaDOS in an attempt to dampen the rogue AI, only for Wheatley to go mad with power and become the villain for the remainder of the game.
While you could argue that Wheatley's corruption has a lot to do with GLaDOS' core programming, it's not an entirely abrupt change. Indeed, some of the darker facets of his personality are glimpsed throughout the first act of the game. He speaks contemptibly of humans on a few occasions, and while he quickly apologizes for his remarks it's evident his bigotry is not so much a fluke as it is his disposition. He's also been convinced by his programmers of his own weakness and inferiority, warned against disconnecting himself from the management rail or using his flashlight lest he die. So when he's finally given substantial power it's not at all surprising that he would abuse it--Lord knows the victims of bullying can make formidable bullies themselves.
It's an interesting arc to see play out, all the more because of Wheatley's programmed incompetence. It's fitting that Merchant, the co-writer of The Office, voices this character seeing as Wheatley's actions for the latter part of the game exemplify the Peter Principle that defined David Brent. He says he's sorry in the end, but I'm not so sure; even I would fake an apology if it meant I could put some distance between me and a space-obsessed AI core. And unlike GLaDOS, whose corruption and sociopathic attitude toward testing was driven by amoral scientific curiosity, there's more than a little malice to Wheatley's motivations.
"Let us know if you feel a shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough or your heart stopping, because that's not part of the test. That's asbestos."
Oh Cave Johnson. Someone fused Howard Hughes and a 1950s TV dad and put the end result in a turtleneck, and it was glorious. While Johnson never makes a formal appearance in the game, being long dead, a mixture of portraits and prerecorded messages give us more than a good idea of what Aperture's eccentric founder was like. Johnson's messages act as a guide for the middle act of the game while Chell is trapped in the disused bowels of the labs, instructing the player on the use of the various gels. I should add that he's voiced by J.K. Simmons of Oz and J. Jonah Jameson fame, and his voice work in Portal 2 guiltily makes me wish he was my grandpa.
The player progresses through the decommissioned test chambers in a chronological fashion from the late '50s to the early '80s, tracking Cave's financial, physical and mental decline as well. A former shower curtain salesman with an infinite capacity for wonder and little regard for subject and employee safety, Johnson initially attracts war heroes, Nobel prize winners and Olympic athletes to his scientific endeavours but by the mid 1960s has to rely on hobos and, eventually, his own employees as test subjects, in large part due to the apallingly (and hilariously) dangerous nature of his experiments. He goes so far as to experiment on himself, ingesting a gel made from ground-up Moon rocks and contracting an incurable disease from it.
In perhaps his most memorable moment, Cave rails against the notion of making lemonade from life's lemons: "When life gives you lemons, don't make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don't want your damn lemons, what am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life's manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am?!? I'm the man who's gonna' burn your house down!!!" It's a funny monologue, but also incredibly revealing: we see a man at the end of his life, doomed by his own experiments, angry at life and at those he believes stole from him, and unable to change any of it. He's sad, but also a little frightening; I fully believe he would burn an opponent's house down, given the chance. And given that he has the mind of his own assistant Caroline transplanted into a computer, I'd say we have every reason to be scared of him.
"Most people emerge from suspension terribly undernourished. I want to congratulate you on beating the odds and somehow managing to pack on a few pounds."
Aperture's artificial intelligence program, GLaDOS, was the first Portal game's breakout start, the Abed to Chell's strangely silent Jeff Winger, and whose takeover of the facility was revealed through implication over the course of the game. After being accidentally turned back on by Wheatley in Portal 2, she starts up her experiments again, this time subjecting Chell to them as a means of revenge. Whatever formality and reserve GLaDOS possessed in the previous game was eradicated with one of the personality cores Chell tossed into the incinerator, her formerly misleading directions replaced with contempt and passive-aggressiveness, flat out taunting the player character for her adopted status and nonexistent weight problem.
But the AI's fortunes take a turn for the unexpected when replaced by Wheatley at the end of the game's first act. Humiliatingly attached to a potato battery by her successor, as pictured above, GLaDOS is forced to experience true vulnerability for the first time in her existence, as well as dependence on a living being in the form of Chell. Her relationship to the player character in the first game was that of a narcissist and her abused partner, but in Portal 2 the tables are semi-turned, with the two being forced to work together in the best buddy cop pairing ever. While she maintains her contempt for Chell's lack of parentage, reassuring her that this fact is terrible even while defending her from Wheatley's similar taunts, their partnership fosters mild respect for the player character in her, and ultimately lets her go in the end--though this is admittedly also because killing her would be practically too difficult.
In another interesting twist, both the player and GLaDOS herself are given a glimpse of the AI's former life as Cave Johnson's obedient assistant and possible lover, Caroline, who was forced into a neural transfer against her will. This aspect of her personality allows for something resembling a conscience on her part for the remainder of the game, though she promptly deletes it once Wheatley has been taken care of. In the end, she's back to her original position of power, allowing the computer to both learn from her experiences without having to compromise who she is. And that's probably one of the few cases of having one's cake and eating it too that I'm okay with.
I suppose including Chell is a little misleading, seeing as she says not a syllable during the course of the game and possesses whatever traits the player wishes to bestow upon her. So I'll just use this as an opportunity to say that Valve is maybe the only developer to get diversity right in the video game medium. While BioWare came very close in the Mass Effect series with the female version of Shepard, Miranda Lawson's personal ass-cam moved their progress back a couple of steps. And I really don't want to get started on other major franchises.
Meanwhile, nearly every major Valve release since 2004 has featured intelligent, multi-ethnic (Alyx Vance is Afro-Asian, Chell Latin-Asian and Rochelle African-American) and realistically proportioned player and supporting female characters. I suppose it says a lot about gaming culture--most of it negative--that the presence of these simple things is at all remarkable rather than commonplace, but Valve has to be commended regardless.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play through the game a third time. Feel free to give Valve your money by purchasing awesome merchandise from the game.