Portal – “Still Alive” (Jonathan Coulton)

July 3, 2010

Portal (2007) is one of these games that sought to really redefine a genre – in this case, the first-person shooter (FPS). The game focuses more on physics-based puzzle-solving using two portals and doesn’t feature any testosterone-fueled shooting (and the protagonist is female). The game has a memorable AI with quirky humor that highlights the tension between technology and humanity. Oh yes, and it offers you cake. The ending serves as a nice machinima music video for the piece:

“Still Alive” was written by Jonathan Coulton, an independent musician who achieved overnight success, due in no small part to the success of Portal. Interestingly, Coulton points to “The Lil’ Bonus Room” from Skullmonkeys as a major inspiration for this song – and it looks like “Still Alive” may have the same level of longevity. The lyrics are sung by Ellen McLain, the voice actress of GLaDOS, the insane supercomputer, and her voice has been altered to sound like a computer. Anyway, you can buy the whole The Orange Box Original Soundtrack containing music from Portal, Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2 (or just this song) from Amazon for a piddling $6 (or $0.89). And heck, you can probably buy it through Steam, too, but I haven’t checked. Incidentally, Jonathan Coulton recorded himself playing the song, though it doesn’t sound as good as GLaDOS. Oh yeah, there’s also a Latin mix that plays on the radios in the game, and if you own a copy of Rock Band, you can download the song for free to play.

Unfortunately, the lyrics to “Still Alive” are self-referential, so if you haven’t played Portal, you’re missing out on a big chunk of its humor. And unfortunately, that’s a problem with a lot of vgm – it’s not specifically built to stand outside of the game, and so to someone who has never played that game before…well, it doesn’t really hold much emotional impact. At the same time, I still think “Still Alive” has some interesting commentary on the FPS as a whole through the juxtaposition of seriousness and light humor, cake and denial, the living and the dead – because after all, I suppose these types of juxtapositions of play and seriousness are inherent to the FPS.

On a final note, I must be one of the only people out there who was not completely floored by Portal. Maybe I just don’t like FPS games that much or wasn’t as moved by the humor as most people. Don’t get me wrong – Portal is a great game, but I’m intentionally suspicious when it comes to any kind of often so-called “innovation” occurring in the FPS genre. I suppose I’m more interested in Portal then through the existential issues about game narrative rather than its actual gameplay – namely, that the narrative of ‘cake as reward for play’ is really the basis of over 90% of all game narratives, albeit metaphorically (and sometimes it is literally as in Super Mario 64). I still think there’s a paper somewhere in there…


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