Greetings, test subjects! And welcome to another edition of Sound Test, the feature which explores the often overlooked beauty of video game music. Do you ever think back to one of your favorite gaming experiences? Chances are, the accompanying music to this game resides in your memory with equal, if not more, potency than the visuals. And with gaming often being the perfect avenue for musicians to flow ultra-deep with their creative juices, there’s a high possibility that some of the best and coolest music you’ve ever heard is from computer games.
My name is Ash and I would like to reminisce over one of my all-time favorite soundtracks to one of my all-time favorite gaming experiences; 2007’s Portal and 2011’s Portal 2, both of which were developed by gaming trailblazers, Valve, and were available during the height of the XBOX 360’s and PS3’s popularity, as well as PC.
‘So what’s that effect makes your voice go all wobble-pitchy like a robot?’ That was the first question I had digging into this tunnel of research. With terminology like that, it’s a surprise that I’m not teaching music at university. Anyway, the answer to my question is broader than I thought…. You actually hear it in lots of places.
But it was rarely used better than in the case of GLaDOS. Does it matter that she was a fictional AI program? You be the judge. And that leads onto another question: What did Valve’s cerebral, brain-calorie-crunching, dystopian puzzler, Portal have over its equally cerebral, yet decidedly more gung-ho cousin, Half-Life? The answer is the soundtrack. Chances are that, if you’ve heard “Still Alive” and I then mention the title “Still Alive”, then… There you go. You’re singing it in your head now, aren’t you?
Such is the beauty of Portal‘s music. True innovators of sophisticated entertainment often know the value of ensuring that the accompanying music is a simple catchy juxtapose of that sophistication. It’s the best way of making that staggering world accessible and inclusive. Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” which opened 1996’s visually bewildering Toy Story springs to mind. Though I’ll admit that the world of Aperture Science isn’t quite so universally appealing.
It was essential that the music of Portal was as distinctive as the Portal games were distinctive. It wasn’t just a cunning puzzler. Those so immersed in its atmosphere may even forget that it was a puzzler at all. It was a blackly comic take on the failed post-apocalyptic relationship between humanity and technology. Players found themselves imprisoned within the glossy catacombs of the Aperture Science test chambers, operated by dysfunctional and highly narcissistic AI programs who had bled out all reasoning following the near-full destruction of mankind, to become the ultimate emotional parody of their human creators.
It would have been enough for players to solve endless portal puzzles room by room, but the biggest addiction was burrowing further into the story and uncovering the dark secrets behind the facade of ‘thinking with portals’. Music was an important part of this journey, as was the increasingly imbalanced narration of head AI program, and you-the-player’s supposed superior, GLaDOS. By the end of the first game, both of these elements were to come together in amusing fashion, in the form of “Still Alive”. The song is easily obtainable now, but at the time, you had to finish the game first to be able to hear it.
GLaDOS, your articulate, ruthless, and deeply troubled female guide through the game was voiced by Nashville-based opera singer, Ellen McLain. And it was with good reason that this vocally adept, and regular contributor to voice acting in the Valve game catalog, was tasked with undertaking GLaDOS’ voice. Due to Valve‘s exemplary direction, McLain‘s development of GLaDOS’ character was integral to Portal‘s identity. And it turns out that the answer to my original question was, that ‘wobbly-pitchy like a robot‘ thing is actually a relatively simple voice synthesizer. As I said already, lots of artists use it.
This effect alone, however, would not have harnessed the flippant, passive-aggressive persona of GLaDOS if McLain hadn’t put in the footwork beforehand. “Still Alive”, which was written by in-house Valve composer Jonathan Coulton and sung superbly by Ellen McLain, shattered any residual notion that Portal was a game exclusively for serious intellects. “Still Alive” was in fact clever enough to possess the serious intellect quality, albeit in a disgruntled ironic fashion. But ultimately it was a bubbly and intuitive pop number, addictive enough to have gained online replays numbering no less than tens of millions, as well as a string of re-imaginings.
So what about the rest? Besides those two big poppy handles (we’ll move onto the second in a minute), the Portal games were fully loaded with a multitude of instrumental electronic licks, blips, and adrenalized technological outbursts, the majority of which were of the ambient, industrial, cyber punk, and dance, variety. To drink in the most potent swill of Portal‘s music, check out the Portal 2 Soundtrack: Songs to Test By (The Collector’s Edition to be exact). Hearing it from start to finish will take up four hours and nine minutes of your time. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be part of the Portal phenomenon to appreciate it. You can do anything to this record; write an essay, wash the dishes, pump iron, stare at a corner, do science… It doesn’t matter.
Anyway, the Collector’s Edition is the full package, with the fourth and final CD being composer Kelly Bailey‘s music for the original Portal. Skip back to CDs 1 to 3 and you get the epic Mike Morasky composition for Portal 2. As any player knows, Portal 2 was superior to its mini-game predecessor in every conceivable way. And in turn, and with full credit to Kelly Bailey‘s original, so was Mike Morasky‘s soundtrack. It retained the computerized ID of the first crafting, but rendered the soundscape a great deal more orchestral, with strings, pianos, and other instrumental nuances thrown into the balance. It fully emphasized the intricate, cerebral, scientific mess of the cannibalized and horrendously unsafe Aperture Science test chambers within the second game.
The music transgresses from soft beauty towards high-blooded intensity, towards the downright creepy (i.e. “Ghost of Rattman”), all in a futuristic cascade of troubled computerized philosophical angst. (i.e. “Turret Wife Serenade”). In completely locking in with the unfolding narrative of the game itself, it even takes on a retro minimalist quality, set to reflect the game’s heroine, Chell’s, inadvertent delve through the underground catacombs of Aperture Science’s decades-past and decidedly more primitive incarnations.
Through and through, the soundtrack is profoundly unique and never lacking in substance. It heralds a mastery in musical programming that given a little audible context, may well have served as a decent endeavor even without the game.
And obviously, sequel means sequel, and bigger means better. So if like me, you were goaded into thinking the end reward to Portal 2 wouldn’t also herald a Jonathan Coulton/Ellen McLain follow up to “Still Alive”, then shame on you, and shame on me too. I fell for it. But there it was, waiting for me. “Want You Gone”: what a tune! All the sarcasm, twisted wit, and adult-child tantrum-throwing of its predecessor, but set to an even catcher arrangement. It was perfect bow out to the reign of Portal. You know that feeling when the final emotion is upbeat, but you get that dueling sense of melancholy because you know it’s the end? For me, that is “Want You Gone” in a nutshell.
I find it hard to go any lengthy period of time without listening to it… It’s like eating cake.
Anyway, it’s been fun reminiscing over Portal‘s golden era. Quite sad that it’s all in the past, with just a small construction game app to keep the memory alive. Yes, I play that all the time too.
How do I describe Portal? Intelligent? Groundbreaking? Funny? Well yes, it was all of those things… But no. Those are not the first things which spring to my mind. To me, the key word is ‘layered’: the depth, the symbolism, the secrets, the emotional subtext… It is my firm belief that Valve harnessed these traits in a manner untouched by any other developers. The game was a ride like none other, and the soundtrack truly reflected this. Whether you’re soaking in the iconic poppy anthems or the murky synapses of the in-game music, you are on a journey so distinct, it can’t really be mistaken for anything else. It is music which represents a past-plus present-plus-future big-bang of slow burning, passive-aggressive, narcissistic intellect, misconstrued and replicated by artificial shells who tried to gather the meaning of life, but ended up as a demonic subvert of the exact opposite…
And that was before the machines got involved.
The Collector’s Edition of Portal 2: Songs to Test By is available to hear in its entirety on Spotify. You can check out some of Jonathan Coulton‘s other work on his Youtube channel. Portal and Portal 2 are still available to play on the Steam store.