The 15 Greatest Women in Video Games

3. GLaDOS (Portal and Portal 2)

GladosThe greatest video game antagonist in history, but far from a pure villain, GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) won over the gaming community with her wit, snark, and complexity via the acting of Ellen McLain. She appears as the unreliable narrator and sole voice of Valve’s Portal, in which she seems to be a disembodied recording that guides Chell, a female test subject and the game’s silent protagonist, through a series of deadly laboratory tests. However, GLaDOS is revealed to be an artificial intelligence that killed Aperture Science’s human staff with a neurotoxin, and it becomes clear that the purpose of the final test is to lead Chell to her death.

The sequel reveals GLaDOS’s true nature: when Aperture’s CEO, Cave Johnson, was dying (moon dust poisoning – long story), he forcibly uploaded the personality of his assistant and lover, Caroline, into his enormous science facility’s mainframe, with the intention of leaving the entire outfit in the hands of a competent thinker who already knew the ins, outs, and secrets of the company. But in a classic experiment gone horribly wrong, GLaDOS, her own entity, took control of Aperture’s testing initiative while the remaining staff clandestinely attempted to inhibit her with robotic “cores” that would weaken her various thought processes. Chell and GLaDOS join forces to retake the facility from a particularly ambitious core, who has plugged GLaDOS into a potato battery, and during their journey through the bowels of the century-old corporation, they discover that on one fateful Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, a girl named Chell, who happened to be the offspring of someone who once worked at Aperture, displayed unbelievable scientific prowess and aptitude at problem-solving. Sounds like a perfect test subject. Long story short, Chell and GLaDOS come to various understandings through conversations that they could not have while the latter was plugged into the mainframe, and once she is in charge of the facility again, GLaDOS deletes Caroline’s personality from her database and finally lets Chell leave. Portal is not only a subtly-done allegory about the cyclical nature of the Everyman’s battle against the Power Structures, but also a story about mothers and daughters.

The success of GLaDOS comes partly in how funny and sarcastic she is, and partly in the charming end credits songs belted out like a text-to-speech program doing karaoke. But the intricacy of her character is the reason she endures in our minds and in the gaming canon. She’s able to grow when she’s not attached to the mainframe, which forces her to continue testing subjects with the promise of euphoria as a reward. This rigid system is easy to understand. But when she’s out in the world, roaming the least shiny parts of Aperture with the woman who is technically her daughter, the complications of parenting, control, and identity come out in multitudes, complicated further by the fact that she’s an AI. In the end, when given the choice, she elects to revert to her old self, to take on her own identity entirely, and when she finally kicks Chell out of the proverbial house she’s wanted to escape for so long, giving her the freedom she’s always wanted, we (who have had this experience through Chell’s eyes) can’t help but want to call our moms. This relationship, the true core of the game (yes, this relationship, not the cake jokes) make the Portal duology one of the most unabashedly feminist works in gaming.




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