Decadent

HK-47 and GLaDOS

Smartass A.I. Killers: Knights Of The Old Republic and Portal 2

All they want to do is laugh. And murder.

By Drew Toal • April 9, 2012

Video game coverage often exhibits a relentless focus on the future, which can make it tough to get a sense of how ideas have developed over time. That’s what inspired us to come up with Decadent, where we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so. In the debut of the feature, Drew Toal looks at a pair of games that feature artificial-intelligence bots with a penchant for wit and a taste for homicide.

Robots kill all humans. That’s the rule. When artificial intelligence rises up, humanity should run for the hills, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws be damned. The list of synthetic coups in pop culture is a long one: Dune, The Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, HAL 9000 in 2001, that Jamie Foxx movie with the super-advanced thinking fighter jet. That last project lost enough money to nearly sink the world economy and trigger planet-wide endgame on its own.

The trouble with rampant AI is that it’s usually more brutish than clever. Few of these thinking machines develop a sadism and cunning to rival that of their (former) human masters. While Terminator’s Skynet buries humanity under a massive global assault, it has no more personality than a Keurig coffeemaker. For that reason, HK-47—the assassin droid from Bioware’s 2003 role-playing game, Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic—deserves a special place in the annals of anti-human AI.

The game is set 4,000 years before the events of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Darth Revan has pushed the Republic to the brink of ruin. (Hey, it’s what Sith Lords do.) But before he can finish laying waste to the Jedi, Revan is supplanted by his ambitious apprentice, Darth Malak. (This is that other thing Sith Lords do.) In any case, things look bleak for the good guys of the Republic. The only bright spot is a young Jedi named Bastila Shan, who uses her “battle meditation” technique to improve the fighting capabilities of the Republic fleet.

The game gets underway in earnest when your character wakes up alone, on a starship and under fire. You don’t remember much, but a grizzled pilot named Carth Onasi convinces you to help him rescue Bastila on the planet of Tarsis. There isn’t much choice in the matter, what with the crippling amnesia.

Gunfight with HK-47 from Knights Of The Old Republic

Generally speaking, though, Knights did give players unprecedented freedom to choose. You acquire Dark Side points for morally reprehensible actions, and Light Side points for preening do-goodery. Simple. But no matter how trifling the issue, it always feels like something is at stake, and not just for you. Some of your fellow space travelers, like Bastila and Carth, frown and wag their fingers at your more ruthless tendencies. Others, like HK-47—the wise-cracking, homicidal droid whom you pick up on the desert planet of Tatooine—actively goad you into senseless bloodletting. You just can’t please everyone. Invariably you buddy up with companions who fit in with your character’s evolving worldview. My own role-playing philosophy has always veered toward “chaotic evil,” a choice that dovetails with HK’s brutal logic and hilarious anecdotes of murder.

HK-47 isn’t evil in the absolute sense, like Darth Malak, or Martha Stewart. It’s better to think of him as a personification of your character’s darker impulses, an ascetic Schopenhauerian hero unhampered by moral baggage. Although he has some concept of compassion—“Definition: ‘Love’ is making a shot to the knees of a target 120 kilometers away using an Aratech sniper rifle with a tri-light scope,” he posits—HK-47 is mostly content to indulge his primary function and kill offending “meatbags.” It’s an endless pursuit for him. “There are a lot of politicians on Coruscant, master,” HK says. “I could spend decades slaughtering them and still not make a dent.”

And yet, HK-47’s behavior goes far beyond the ken of a simple murderous automaton. He’s unimpeachably loyal, despite his perception of weakness in human species, and he has far more personality than any of the more wooden shipmates who join you in your quest. His colorful mouth offsets the gray mundanity of Knights’ principle human companions, who often threaten to bore you to death with condescending moral platitudes. As the game progresses, and it becomes clear that you’ve been misled by every miscreant in the galaxy, “good” and “evil” alike, HK’s steadfast devotion to your cause and ferocious cover fire make him your only dependable ally.

His obsequiousness is a little hard to understand, given his oft-stated contempt for organic life. There is a disconnect here, and you can see him attempting to puzzle it through, like when he states: “Explanation. It’s just that you have all these squishy parts, master. And all that water! How the constant sloshing doesn’t drive you mad, I have no idea.” I suspect that he follows you because—to paraphrase Futurama’s Bender (with whom HK-47 shares much of his ethos)—underneath your soft, warm exterior beats the cold, mechanical heart of a robot. Behold, reverse anthropomorphism.

GLaDOS from Portal 2

Such robot-human empathy is absent from the halls of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. Portal and Portal 2 pit your mute, practically anonymous character, Chell, against the machinations of a sophisticated AI construct named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). When the game begins, you’re tasked by GLaDOS with simple tests that consist of getting from Point A to Point B. To aid in this battery, you’re soon instructed in the use of the portal device, which creates person-sized wormholes through three-dimensional space.

At this early juncture, GLaDOS seems to be a simple automated administrator giving basic test instructions. There’s no evidence that the voice is even a true artificial intelligence. Then the tests grow harder and more deadly, and it becomes clear that something is amiss. This disembodied voice belongs not to an ethereal bureaucrat, as you originally suspected, but instead a twisted robotic sociopath. As GLaDOS plies Chell with lies and promises of cake, she calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” Cloaking her lethal intent in the garb of sterile scientific advancement, GLaDOS has no intention of ever letting Chell out of the facility alive.

The only thing GLaDOS values is continued testing, but she takes your advancement through the testing center as a personal affront. She has nothing but contempt for your capabilities, and never wastes an opportunity to pummel Chell with sarcastic putdowns. It’s debatable whether this assault on Chell’s self-esteem is part of the testing itself or just a frustrated reaction to Chell’s continued success in overcoming GLaDOS’s obstacles. Where HK-47 kills with precision laser strikes, GLaDOS hurts with meanness (and deadly neurotoxin). For instance, at stage 17 GLaDOS famously provides you with a “weighted companion cube” for company and friendship. In short order, GLaDOS forces you to euthanize your new friend—a box with hearts painted on it—in the “emergency intelligence incinerator.” The AI giveth, and the AI taketh away.

When you finally portal your way into her lair, GLaDOS unleashes the full force of her petty wit. “There was even going to be a party for you. A big party, that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend, the Companion Cube. Of course, he couldn’t come because you murdered him. All your other friends couldn’t come either because you don’t have any other friends, because of how unlikable you are. It says so right here in your personnel file…it also says you’re adopted. So that’s funny too.” That’s a move straight out of the fourth-grade popular kid’s playbook. If Chell were less secure and more articulate, she’d be begging GLaDOS for the deadly neurotoxin right about now.

In Portal 2, Chell is revived by an “intelligence dampening sphere” named Wheatley. Voiced by Stephen Merchant, Wheatley is a bit short on brains and manages to accidentally reactivate GLaDOS. Her spiteful edge hasn’t dulled in the dormant period between games. Her latest fixation is Chell’s weight:

“This plate must not be calibrated to someone of your… generousness. I’ll add a few zeroes to the maximum weight. You look great, by the way. Very healthy. Try it now.”

“You seem to have defeated its load-bearing capacity. Well done. I’ll just lower the ceiling.”

“Look at you, sailing through the air majestically, like an eagle… piloting a blimp.”

Oscar Wilde is said to have claimed that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Had he been a guest at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, GLaDOS would’ve rewarded this observation by dropping the Picture Of Dorian Gray author into the emergency intelligence incinerator.

GLaDOS isn’t laughing for long. Chell soon helps Wheatley replace GLaDOS on the Aperture throne, and the consciousness of GLaDOS herself is relegated to a bundle of harmless transistors strapped to a potato battery. You’d think this state of affairs would give GLaDOS some measure of humility and understanding, but even in potato form she is cursed with super-intelligence. And her only company comes in the form of Chell (a “dangerous, mute lunatic”) and Wheatley (“He’s not just a regular moron. He’s the product of the greatest minds of a generation, working together with the express purpose of building the dumbest moron who ever lived”).

So it’s unsurprising that GLaDOS has become bitter. This is an entity who, in a bored moment, read the entire literary canon of the human race. And now her only diversion is to contend with halfwits. Loneliness, exacerbated by envy of the psychic, lower-order connection between Chell and Companion Cube, fuels her murderous impulse. She’s the real tragic figure here, confined to a solitary intellectual prison and beset by inferiors.

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  • AuroraBoreanaz

    “He’s not just a regular moron. He’s the product of the greatest minds
    of a generation, working together with the express purpose of building
    the dumbest moron who ever lived”.

    That is awesomely hilarious.

    I guess it’s about time that I check out Portal 2.  I think it’s one of the games in my stack of “bought but haven’t had time to play yet”.

    • Derek_Noakes

      I highly recommend checking it out. I rented it last year when it first came out, loved it, and just recently bought it now that it’s relatively cheap. I just finished my 2nd playthrough of the single player campaign, and am already to give it another go. Seriously one of my favorite games ever made.

      I’m going through the co-op with a friend now, and it’s really well done also. 2 sets of portals makes for some mind-bending puzzles. 

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        The co-op is really, really well-done. It actually made me better friends with my co-op partner, even though he lives 500 miles away from me.

        • Basement Boy

          I can scarcely express my deep LOVE for Portal 2, everything about it… but I’ve still yet to try out Co-op… (any AV Gameologicists want a newbie partner? That’s newbie to the co-op, I’ve spent many hours conquering the gameworld and extra levels)

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      The Portal games (and Valve games in general) have excellent writing. I only wish the second was a tad longer, and the Wheatley character was pretty annoying for me most of the time. 

      Also, KoToR is in my stack of games i have not played yet, but  I have trouble getting into it. I don’t like Star Wars really at all, but it’s supposedly a good game on it’s own. 

      • apathymonger

        I don’t think Portal 2 needed to be longer. I already fell some parts felt like padding (I much preferred the room/level format to the open areas).

        I loved the writing though, and as a Merchant fan, I liked Wheatley. I think the darker humour of the first game was probably better though.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          I enjoyed it very much, I just wish the puzzles got crazier and had room to expand. “Longer” wasn’t the right word to use at all, in retrospect. I always hated when people complained that the original Portal was too short because I felt that game was just about perfect in every possible way. So yeah, maybe not longer, but more puzzles. Though to be fair I still haven’t played through the coop.

          Either way, I vastly preferred the first one, which I rate as one of my favorite games ever.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         KotoR was pretty seminal, but I don’t know if you really need to rush out and play it, especially of you’re not into Star Wars. If you’re into Bioware stuff (KotoR taught me I’m probably not), their newer games are probably better at that, with less of the stupid arbitrarily binary good-evil stuff. In KotoR virtually every dialogue choice is either “No, I’ll help you, and you keep the money!” and “I will murder you and your whole family you fucking shitbird!”. And, of course, trying to be middle-of-the-road not only makes you conversationally schizoid, but screws you out of any of the higher-level dark or light side powers.

        • caspiancomic

           Yeah, I feel bad because back in the day my friend (with whom I share many opinions about gaming) tried to get me into KOTOR saying it was like this crazy transcendental role playing experience. But I don’t like Star Wars and Western RPGs have never really been my jam, so I ended up playing it for like an hour and never really getting into it. I know RPGs tend to demand 5 or 6 hours before they start to really pick up, but I just felt like there was nothing there for me.

      • The Guilty Party

        I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan. It’s alright, has its good points and bad points. But I love RPGs and tend to enjoy most anything Bioware has done, and I loved KoToR. So don’t worry about it being Star Wars-y, in particular, just judge it based on whether or not you want to play a decade-old Bioware-style rpg.

        • http://twitter.com/jleehenderson Jeremy Henderson

          Before jumping into KoTOR, you should know that it’s sequel was released unfinished (they apparently rushed it out to catch the holiday buying season) and is kind of a mess. There’s still some fun stuff there, but it’s a frustrating example of wasted potential.

  • Channel_8_News

    My all-time favorite GLaDOS quote

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMd3tKaJj5U 

    Makes me crack up every time.

    • flowsthead

      The lemons thing is probably my favorite quote, but that one is fairly obvious. I totally forgot about yours, and I almost started laughing at work. Damn that was awesome.

      • Emperor_Jim

        Cave Johnson is one of the greatest video game characters of all time, and you never even meet the guy.

        • Basement Boy

          I took me awhile to realize that awesome and familiar voice was the mighty J. K. Simmons!!

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        My favourite Cave Johnson line is definitely the bit about Mantis Men. Man, Aperture would have been an awesome place to work in its heyday.

    • caspiancomic

       My all-time favourite line in the Portal games comes from Wheately, when he starts trying to get in on the GLaDOS style mudslinging. “Fatty. Adopted… fatty. Fatty fatty… no parents.”

      Man, I just love Stephen Merchant, and I feel like this game played to his strengths perfectly. I think Valve just locked him in a booth with a microphone for like six weeks and just had him record dialogue the entire time, periodically sliding him Kraft Singles under the door so he wouldn’t starve.

      • Channel_8_News

        I don’t have a favorite Wheatley quote because I love them all. Stephen Merchant is brilliant in everything, Portal 2 specifically.

  • amy thompson

    Looks interesting..

    http://goo.gl/160Nf

  • HobbesMkii

    It’s odd how engaging snarky robots are in media, but how unbearable snarky people are in real life. It seems like that’d be the first thing you’d make sure to program out if you were a computer scientist.

    • whataworkout

       Snarky people with professional writing staffs behind them can be much better though.  Actually, they can be really insufferable too.  

  • BobbyBrownGoesDown

    Please insert girder.

  • Binsbein

    What about the Boring Robot characters unfairly marginalized by the Gaming Media Cartel? Who will speak for the Aigises and the Dogs and Cait Si….zzzz.

    • The_Asinus

      I just played through FFVII again (and, again, never used Cait Sith despite telling myself I wouldnt let him/it linger at its starting level) and I’m still kind of baffled by exactly how they conceptualized Cait. At some points it sounds like just the bottom part is remote controlled and that the cat part is sentient– or is the whole thing semi-sentient but under directives from Reeve? So it has orders it’s obligated to follow yet has freedom in choosing how to carry out those orders? I mean, when Cait gets crushed in the Temple, that monolog is pretty moving (localization issues aside), so why would Reeve bother?

      I don’t count any of the other post-Sakaguchi FFVII spin off stuff, I just wnat to understand what the hell Cait Sith is on the game’s own terms, damn it! I don’t know why it bugs me so much.

      • caspiancomic

         Yeah, Cait Sith is a seriously weird character on just about every level. Borderline useless in combat, confusing design that clashes with the overall tone, and all the weird Reeve control issues you mentioned. Like, is he remote controlling Cait the whole time? Doesn’t this guy have like, a desk job or something? Or is he employed by Shinra to spy on AVALANCHE? In which case his job is basically to stand around on the Highwind taking up space?

  • The_Asinus

    I had to skip a bit because I haven’t had a chance to finish (or really get started on) Portal 2, but GladOS had some of my favorite euphemisms for the horrors she hoped to unleash on Chell. “Victory Candescence” being among my favorite.

    • whataworkout

      Portal 2 is on my to-play list also, but the first one was one of the funniest games ever. 

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Portal 2 is more overtly funny. The original Portal is cleverer and has more black humour.

        • The_Asinus

          That’s what I noticed right away. I only played the first little bit and was more than a little annoyed and put off by how hard it was trying to make me laugh. It sounds like people really like Wheatly, so who am I to argue? And has so far just not worked for me. I don’t think he’s made me laugh because he’s like a clown or an over-excited improv comic.

        • dreadguacamole

           Wheatley’s supposed to be annoying, if that helps.
           Man, the guys at Valve can write. They (and Double Fine, and Obsidian, at least some of the time) are so much better than every other mainstream developer, that it’s not even funny. I’m kind of struggling to think of anyone else on their level.

        • ToddG

          @The_Asinus:disqus  I think watching Extras conditioned me to instantly laugh at just about anything Merchant says.

          Also, as others have alluded to previously, if you’re not digging the single player and have the option, I recommend giving the co-op a try.  Much more Portal 1-style humor and great (GREAT) puzzles.

        • The_Asinus

          @dreadguacamole:disqus & @BreakingRad:disqus  Yeah! Valve CAN write– that’s for damn sure. I didn’t mean to write that as dismissively as I did, I, seriously, just barely started (I just jumped out of the starting room; I only had time to take a quick look around). I was expecting GLaDOS and got Wheatly and was disappointed. I was really, really happy to read that GLaDOS is back in the sequel. I think at the time I was pretty bummed because I thought that this was the new GLaDOS and that I’d just have to put up with that the entire time. I’ll start it again soon.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @The_Asinus:disqus: To be honest, I also found Wheatley kind of irritating, but never so much that it soured me on the game. My problem was that Wheatley used to babble just a tad too much. But in any case, Cave Motherfuckin’ Johnson more than made up for any problems I might have had with Wheatley.

          @dreadguacamole:disqus: Totally off-topic, but the fact that your avatar is Dogen Boole wins you 1 million cool points.

          @BreakingRad:disqus: I love how exasperated GLaDOS gets with the robots, especially when you start doing the silly gestures, like playing rock paper scissors. One of my favourite memories of the game is playing rock paper scissors continuously with my co-op partner until we both got the three-in-a-row Steam achievement, and all the while, GLaDOS was complaining about how silly we were.

  • caspiancomic

    Cool idea for a new feature, doods. Although it does seem kinda… specialized. I was trying to think of a topic I’d like to see covered here and couldn’t really come up with something. Like, anything. Hopefully you guys have like a giant stack of potential topics for this one though, cuz I’d like to see more.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Maybe they could do a comparison of Commander Keen and Psychonauts, looking at the theme of children who want to escape the mundanity and restriction of their ordinary lives to do something exciting (i.e. save the galaxy or become a Psychonaut). I know that it’s a stretch, but it would feature two of my favourite games of all time side by side.

      • caspiancomic

         Man I really, really, really have to play Psychonauts. It was second in line in my “games I absolutely must play” list behind ICO, and now that I’ve buried that one- and now that it’s available for Mac through Steam- I really have no excuse.

        Pretty cool theme, by the way. While I’m at it, it would be nice in the future if this column could really compare and contrast the two selections. This article, while totally cool beans, basically just lists the two selections and offers up a plot summary of each game. The most interesting part for me was the suggestion that HK talked a big game but was deep down a pretty loyal soldier, while GLaDOS was just a big bowl of murderous Crazy-O’s with Marshmallows.

        • Basement Boy

          Played Psychonauts some time ago on PS2, now that I can Steam it on my Mac, I might have to give it a go-again. Quirky, crazy fun!

      • AuroraBoreanaz

        Oh, the Commander Keen games were fantastic!  Especially when they started doing the 2.5D graphics in #4.

        I miss the days of Shareware.  It was great when I was still in school and couldn’t afford to buy my own games yet.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          They actually started the 2.5D perspective with Keen Dreams (a.k.a “Keen 3.5″), but Keen didn’t have a raygun in it, so I wouldn’t consider it a proper Keen game.

          But yeah, the 2.5D Keen games were amazing. They’re still fun to play even today. 4 was great for all the varied environments, and 5 was great for introducing some strategy and puzzle-solving.  And 6 was…6 was really, really strange. Let’s just leave it at that.

          2 computers ago, I had them all running through Dosbox. Now, Keens 1 through 5 are available for 5 bucks total on Steam. So I might consider purchasing them if I get bored or if I exhaust my backlog of games. (It’s a shame they couldn’t just throw 6 and/or Dreams in there too. It must be for legal reasons.)

    • ToddG

      Pong vs Wii Tennis?

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      It’s tricky, especially when so many games have decade-spanning series that invite you to compare them with their own subsequent installments.

      Possible other themes to explore decades apart:

      Masked, Armored Space Soldiers – Super Metroid and Halo (Metroid is dodgy, though, since it also had its own installment in Halo’s generation)

      Ersatz Mascots for Systems without One – Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter

      Multiple (Funny) Characters with Complementary Skills – Maniac Mansion and Lost Vikings

      Grueling, punitive, Skinner-box gameplay – King’s Quest games and Dark Souls games

      Platformer Characters going JRPG – Mario RPG and the MegaMan X JRPG for PS2

      Gameplay as the Evolution of life:  E.V.O. for SNES and SPORE for PC.

      Testosterone Overload + Aliens – Contra and Gears of War

      I’m procrastinating from schoolwork – can you tell?

      • Basement Boy

        Especially when avoiding the laser-bots, many of the puzzles of the Portal games are really just great 3-D versions of something like “The Adventures of Lolo” (another old of fave of mine, though with *much* simpler graphics, characters and story.)

    • shriketheavatar

      I think it sounds great.  It appeals to both the gamer and the English major in me…

  • Hurdygurdenstein

    What was the “synthetic coup” in Dune?

    • AuroraBoreanaz

      I was wondering that myself…Paul and the Fremen were human…Harkonnen was at least mostly human…I’m lost.

    • Graphite

      I think it’s probably referring to the Butlerian Jihad, n part of the Dune backstory which resulted in the destruction of all thinking machines (including computers) and a universal ban on their construction. It’s what led to the development of Mentats to replace the analytical power lost in the abandonment of computers. 

      Actually it may not be “backstory” anymore given the new novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson, but I’m blissfully ignorant of their contents.

      • toastpup

        Either that (even though it’d be a backwards way of describing it), or the way bioengineered people like gholas and Face Dancers end up replacing certain prominent characters– although that’s not really their own coup, since that they’re just acting as agents for someone else.

  • Basement Boy

    Thanks for the Portal 2 writeup, but since you didn’t mention and I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending either (but AM, so be warned… SPOILAGE!!…) GladOS’s “softening” at the end, not only allowing Chell to live, but serenading her with the computeriffic send-off “Want You Gone!” 

    Such a tragicomic tune! I laughed and laughed then just fucking bawled and then laughed some more. Can’t recall being *that* moved by such video game greatness.

    Oh, and you had to love the other core personalities… especially the “Spaaaaace”-obsessed guy!

    Also, the Lab Rat comic is incredible, the lunatic art-style is appropriately mind-blowing.

  • TelephoneToughGuy

     Even just reading the quotes from Portal 2, after playing it a while
    back, still makes me laugh out loud.  What a great game.  This article
    made me think of the Claptraps in Borderlands…they weren’t necessarily
    inherently evil but some of the ones belonging to bad guys would say
    some pretty funny, mean shit to you if you came across them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1676468548 Pixie Solanas

    I can’t believe some of you dont “GET” Arthur Gameological III.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1676468548 Pixie Solanas

    THANKS for this.  After listening to the entire 10+ minute clip, I am now prefacing all statements with descriptors, and peppering my speech with “meatbag”.

  • biff

    I sincerely hope SHODAN is featured in one of these articles.

    • AuroraBoreanaz

      Oh HELL yes.  Probably the most awesome/horrifying AI enemy ever.

  • AngryRaisins

    There’s a mod to restore some of the cut content (that which was still present in the game code), which improves matters a bit: http://swfans.wikia.com/wiki/The_Sith_Lords_Restored_Content_Mod

    I’d say it’s definitely worth playing in any case, just don’t expect too satisfying an ending.

    • AngryRaisins

       (ok, this should have been in the thread discussing KOTOR 2, sorry)

  • Lord_Gaga

    The Portal series makes me think of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. I just get the feeling that Chell might be the last living human on earth, being kept alive for the entertainment of a sadistic AI that humanity left running when they blew themselves up.