Jonathan Coulton’s “Portal” Credits Songs as Break-up Songs


The Album Art for “You Wouldn’t Know.” Click to hear the songs being discussed.

The Portal series of games is one of my favorite pieces of media ever produced. People described the first game as a sleeper hit from the Orange Box, but the crazy physics dynamic made it the one I was looking forward to the most, and given the other titles that says a lot. One of the most celebrated parts of that game (which was amazingly lived-up-to by its sequel) was the ending theme song, “Still Alive.” Written by Jonathan Coulton and sung by Ellen McLain as GLaDOS, this and the sequel’s song “Want You Gone” are both permanent residents of my music collection. Some may not know that the game Lego Dimensions has a kit containing Chell, the Companion Cube, and a turret (physical Lego build kits. It’s worth getting even without the game itself!), which opens up a Portal 2-based Lego game segment featuring Wheatley, GLaDOS and the Aperture Labs Enrichment Center. Complete with original voice actors, it also features its own song, which, while not canon, I consider worthy of being placed alongside the others for a few reasons. It has all the marks of legitimacy including being endorsed and licensed by VALVe, written by JoCo, and performed by GLaDOS. But what really seals the deal is that it, like the other songs, is a break-up song.

When GLaDOS sings “Still Alive” at the end of Portal, it is certainly the end of a relationship. While she may not have a physical heart to rip out, she is physically destroyed and Chell (unsuccessfully) flees the facility. In Portal 2, Chell and GLaDOS mutually separate themselves from each other. The Lego Dimensions expansion basically follows the plot-structure of a portion of Portal 2 and doesn’t fit into any real timeline of the series, but is still pretty fun. It also ends with GLaDOS being (somewhat ambiguously) destroyed. There are basic parallels between GLaDOS and Chell’s relationship and a break-up, and I believe Coulton was focusing on these while writing the songs.

In “Still Alive,” GLaDOS spends a good portion of the song describing how the player murdered her. She says “…you broke my heart and killed me/And tore me to pieces/And threw every piece into a fire.” While being murdered is rough for anyone, it’s not usually described as having one’s heart broken, especially by a machine without a literal heart. It does, however, resemble how one might feel in a bad breakup. She claims she is happy with this outcome with her dry sarcasm. Then, sadly and quietly she tells Chell to “Go ahead and leave me/I think I prefer to stay inside/Maybe you’ll find someone else…” then quickly shifts to how great her own life is again, how she prefers things this way: “Anyway, this cake is great/It’s so delicious and moist/Look at me still talking when there’s science to do/When I look out there it makes me GLaD I’m not you.” She even says “I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive.” She then adds two more lines “While you’re dying I’ll be still alive/And when you’re dead I will be still alive.” Highlighting her own immortality is a point that comes up regularly.

It’s the song of someone who has been hurt badly but denies the permanence (or even existence) of the pain. The claim that Chell is inconsequential, was never cared about, is gone now, and has done nothing worth noting especially in the face of GLaDOS’s immortality is a coping mechanism to deflect the fact that there is permanence there.

The title of “Want You Gone” alone is an obvious flag. At the end of Portal 2, the resurrected GLaDOS chooses not to kill Chell and instead banishes her (sets her free) to an unknown future. GLaDOS states outright “I used to want you dead, but/Now I only want you gone.” Similar to “Still Alive,” but now in a healthier stage, GLaDOS acknowledges the emotions she had for Chell (at least the negative ones) and that she has dealt with them, making peace with the break-up. She makes two more references to her longevity in this song: “One day they woke me up/So I could live forever/It’s such a shame the same/will never happen to you” followed by “You’ve got your short, sad life left.”

Though in-game GLaDOS’s justification for letting Chell live is that killing her is ‘hard,’ and that the easiest solutions are often the best ones, the fact is GLaDOS doesn’t spend much effort killing Chell. The incineration sequence towards the end of Portal, the ‘boss battle’ at the end, and some turret traps in between are the only instances where she is more inclined to kill Chell than to use her for testing. The first instance being somewhat poorly orchestrated (the incineration chamber was likely not designed to kill people but to rather process waste), the second is the only real ‘fight.’ GLaDOS is ill-prepared to kill Chell even then, having only a slow-acting neurotoxin and a single, relatively ineffective rocket-launcher at her disposal (the launcher itself is automated and GLaDOS is apparently unable to manually control or even activate it). All in all, I don’t buy GLaDOS’s argument that killing Chell is hard. GLaDOS never put her full effort into it except in one situation where she was, firstly, fighting for her own life, and secondly, severely hampered. It would be trivial to destroy Chell in any other circumstance, especially while she is sealed in the elevator as GLaDOS explains that she is hard to kill.

GLaDOS lets Chell live because she doesn’t want to kill her. The final chorus of “Want You Gone” tells Chell “Go make some new disaster/That’s what I’m counting on/You’re someone else’s problem/Now I only want you gone.” It’s almost something you’d tearfully say to an animal you’re returning to the wild. GLaDOS knows that she and Chell don’t have a positive relationship in the Enrichment Center, but even as she releases her she seems to be wishing her well, telling her to find a new purpose.

Finally, “You Wouldn’t Know” comes from the non-canon Lego Dimensions game, but as I have stated, fits well among the other two songs. The beginning seems to describe how well GLaDOS has been doing without Chell around to destroy her regularly: “Everything clean, nothing on fire/All by myself, finally.” She quickly goes on to say “It feels so strange not to hate you anymore.” This line perfectly lines up with the progression from the previous songs. In “Still Alive” she is in denial, in “Want You Gone” she acknowledges her feelings, and now she has dealt with them. As with a romantic break-up, however, this does not mean that the love nor the pain is gone, just that it has been processed. She says “I’m fine, just in case you think I’m not.” She remarks that she understands why Chell will not return to her in the future in a regretful tone, despite her claims that she ‘forgives’ her.

She goes on to say that Chell will regret leaving. GLaDOS has baked a real cake “yes it’s real – a cake I made,” reflecting a running gag in the series based on the popular ‘lie’ from Portal. She concludes “Too bad you let it get so out of hand/How much we had, finally I understand/But you wouldn’t know, would you?” The segment “how much we had” speaks the strongest, GLaDOS believes that she and Chell had something wonderful and Chell wantonly destroyed it as she rejected GLaDOS. GLaDOS may see this as a professional relationship, a personal friendship (Caroline in Portal 2 directly showed GLaDOS’s human side), or even little more than a tester/lab-rat relationship (in Portal 2 GLaDOS explains how her position as lab administrator gives her euphoric feedback for testing, and even says this was not her primary motivation as she was always “in it for the science”), but it was definitely something she believed worth having.

From Chell’s perspective, this would all probably seem insane. Chell was, from the beginning, a prisoner. Through the course of the games she does little besides surviving and escaping. The idea that she and GLaDOS had any kind of partnership would be laughable. But GLaDOS is a character who sees things her own way, and she would probably not realize Chell’s perspective without significant persuasion. She believes she has been foolishly rejected by Chell, and works through this emotionally over the course of the series. While it’s hard to say she “just needs a hug” or something like that, I personally find her to be a tragically sympathetic character.

But maybe that’s just me.

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