Mario. Pac-Man. Donkey Kong. Link. Sonic the Hedgehog. Cloud Strife. Kratos. All of these characters are iconic. None of them are iconic because of their actual, you know, character.
When you think of Mario, you think of the primary colored perfection of his aesthetic; the blue overalls, the red shirt and cap, the yellow buttons. When you think of Pac-Man, you think of his elemental design, as simple as a pizza with a slice removed. Donkey Kong is an ape with a red tie. Link wears a memorable green tunic and hat, and wields a shield with a cool crest. Sonic the Hedgehog is blue and looks like no hedgehog on Earth. Cloud has spiky yellow hair and a big sword. Kratos has ashen white skin, red markings, a sharp goatee, and deadly blades.
We remember their look. We don't feel like we know them as people. We may assign a personality to a character from a classic game, but it tends to be the result of triangulating from their aesthetic and in-game actions. Since Pac-Man's defining visual characteristic is a mouth, and his defining verb is to eat, we might infer that Pac-Man has a ravenous appetite. Since Sonic moves fast and taps his foot if the player sets the controller down, we can determine that he must be impatient. Characters like Cloud and Kratos do have personalities that are established through text. Still, when you think of them, it's typically the elements of their visual design that come to mind first and most prominently. GLaDOS, the sardonic AI from the Portal series, meanwhile, is one of the few video game characters who is remembered because of what she says and how she says it.
When Valve announced that both Portal games were coming to Switch as the Portal: Companion Collection during last month's Nintendo Direct, the announcement trailer was accompanied by narration delivered by Ellen McLain, the actress who has voiced GLaDOS since her debut in Portal. GLaDOS makes a physical appearance toward the end of the trailer, in the security camera-like mechanical body she sometimes inhabits in the series, but, as in the Portal games, we hear her before we see her. When McLain reprised her role as GLaDOS (in all but name) as an AI voice in Cyberpunk 2077's "Epistrophy" side quest, it was instantly obvious that CD Projekt Red was doing a Portal send-up. There are very few video game characters that are instantly recognizable from their intonation and choice of words, but GLaDOS is one of them.
GLaDOS is defined by passive aggression. Though the character's actions occasionally become outright violent, her demeanor is always aimed to make Chell, Portal's player character, feel bad for the way she has supposedly mistreated her. In the Nintendo Direct trailer, GLaDOS says, "Sorry about the mess. I've really let the place go since you killed me." That's a perfect encapsulation of GLaDOS' character; though she attempted to dump Chell in a fiery furnace, she — robotic voice dripping with contempt — blames Chell for fighting back.
This is important because, over the course of the Portal games, GLaDOS takes multiple forms. As a security camera or as a mass of wires and TV screens or as a potato studded with mechanical parts, GLaDOS must be, recognizably, GLaDOS. Valve is good at this; at defining characters through writing and vocal performance alone. The G-Man is, of course, iconic for his eerie smile and smart black suit, but he’s just as well-known for his strange manner of speaking. Aperture founder Cave Johnson is seen via portraits as Chell explores an abandoned section of the lab in Portal 2, but it’s the combination of Erik Wolpaw’s writing and J.K. Simmons’ voice acting that makes Johnson a character. Half-Life: Alyx’s Russell shows up briefly in-person, but throughout most of the game, we get to know his character through a communication device in Alyx’s ear. Indie developer Campo Santo, which Valve acquired in 2018, created Firewatch, a game where a relationship between two characters developed entirely over walkie talkie. Maybe that’s what Valve saw in the smaller developer — the ability to fit into what Valve is already great at doing.
It's rare for video game characters to be defined by the ways they treat other characters, but GLaDOS is one of them. Having characters like her, who can be defined by their personality traits not just aesthetic and actions, pushes the medium forward.
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