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.
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.
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.