Lessons from Portal
Lesson One: Don’t Forget Who You Are
This is going to be a series of analyses of things I notice about Portal. There really are many things we can learn from what happens, many of which are important and applicable to real life. Suggestions are welcome but I make no promises.
Any and all analyses are my own opinion. Other people may make their own interpretations. Please do not tell me I am wrong. This is what I see and what I see is just as valid as anything you see.
With her reawakening in Portal 2, GLaDOS is completely as we remember her. She’s been in suspension, forced to watch the last two minutes of her life forever, an experience which would undoubtedly drive the average person insane. While GLaDOS is a supercomputer and so designed to do things ad nauseam, she is obviously affected by this. She does not allow it to bring her down, nor even to slow her down. She picks back up right where she left off: testing you until she’s ready to kill you. Even after all she’s gone through, she is undoubtedly still the exact same person.
Even when she is defeated once again, she does not let it get to her. With her core removed from the chassis and inside of the potato, she continues to behave as the person she believes she is: the person who is in control, who ultimately decides everything. She insults and demeans both Wheatley and Chell without reserve, even asking Chell to potentially sacrifice her own life with no benefit to Chell whatsoever. Though she does tone it down a bit when Chell finds her once again, the first thing she does is complain that Chell even showed up and goes so far as to tell her to leave. Her she is, at her worst and lowest point, and she still does not let up. She demands help from Chell that she doesn’t deserve, never for a second believing that she will not receive it. Many people in her circumstance would scale back their inclinations of dominance for a polite request for help, but for the most part, she does not. She is still in control, and in maintaining control of herself maintains control of Chell.
When GLaDOS learns that she is in fact not who she thought she was, and is instead based upon someone she barely remembers, she is shaken, and rightly so. She is forced to confront the fact that all she is, all that she wants to be, and all that she stands for may in fact be the result of someone else’s ambitions and dreams and not her own. It is an interesting question: how much of us is us, and how much of us could be due to the influence of someone else? This would break some people. It is a disturbing thought to consider that we may not actually be ourselves, nor the purveyors of our own destinies. And for her rest of the time in the potato, it is obvious that she spends a lot of time considering it. But in the end she makes an important decision:
She decides that it doesn’t matter.
She does behave more considerately, asking Chell for permission to kill Wheatley and such, and yet she still demands Chell’s help. Even faced with this new knowledge and the changes it brings, she still continues to assert herself as the leader and takes it upon herself to figure out how to destroy Wheatley when she really has no say in the matter. Even though Wheatley has all the power she once had, she still has the guts to trick him and then laugh in his face. She doesn’t care who Caroline is or was, or what her influence might be; she is herself, and that’s all that matters to her.
In her final scene, she confirms this: she sends Chell away while declaring the deletion of Caroline. Whether or not this actually happened does not matter. GLaDOS is telling Chell something else entirely. She is telling her that, no matter what, she is still herself, and not even the worst nor the most traumatic of things is going to change that. She might undergo small changes, such as her beginning to respect other people, but the centre of herself remains unchanged. She will allow nothing, not trauma or revelations of a past long forgotten or circumstances beyond her control, to change that. In the end, she and Chell split the prize, so to speak; Chell goes free and so does GLaDOS.
In contrast, once Wheatley is installed in the chassis he almost immediately loses sight of himself. Drunk with power, Wheatley begins struggling to be someone he’s not. It may not be a case of ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’; after all GLaDOS, while borderline sadistic, is not corrupted, regardless of what the system has to say. Instead, this may be a case of Wheatley becoming lost.
Wheatley was never made to be a leader, was never intended to be in control. Wheatley doesn’t even WANT to be in control. Once inside of the chassis, that is exactly what the system begs him to do. It directs him to be a person he’s not and never becomes, and this in the end brings his downfall. Wheatley allows the promise of what the power brings to destroy him without ever considering a way to use it differently. Neither the chassis nor the mainframe are in total control of the system, if GLaDOS’s sustained changes in mindset are anything to go by; instead of trying to go his own way and run the facility in a way that he can handle, he instead attempts to follow in GLaDOS’s metaphorical footsteps. Throughout the game, part of his goal increasingly seems to be to emulate her to the point where he has surpassed her: he constantly tries to one-up her, begins to employ all of her methods, and in the end he even gets stuck with a weapon he can’t turn off, reminiscent of her Rocket Turret in the first game. And this is why Wheatley ultimately comes out as the one who loses everything. He allows the power of the chassis and the lies he tells himself to destroy who he really is, and this is why Wheatley, who started out as the good guy, is the one who is dealt the punishment in the end.
We can’t all do what GLaDOS did. We can’t all be faced with life-changing revelations such as discovering we’re adopted, or that we didn’t earn something we thought we did, and get through them just like that. Some of us are more like Wheatley: we attempt to change ourselves in order to fit in or convince people we are who they want us to be. Some people change forever, completely and totally. But when you change you begin to lose sight of yourself. You lose sight of who you always wanted to be, and who you know you are, and that can be devastating. It can ruin your life. But GLaDOS shows us that we must do our best not to do that. Would she really have been better for it had she allowed the news about her origin to break her? No. No one is better for that. And so GLaDOS teaches us that allowing ourselves to break, to bend to the influence of others for short-term gain, does nothing but make us lose our way. Keep sight of yourself. Know who you are, and let nothing affect that. You must believe in yourself, especially when no one else will and when everyone is trying to bring you down. Trying to be someone you’re not will only make you miserable and lost at the end of the day. Remember who you are, even if people believe you are the villain. As long as you know that you’re not, you’ll be okay.