Music Monday: Still Alive

I’ve held off for as long as I could bear to, but it is now time to release this upon the MoF community. From the guy who brought us the classic office zombie song, Re: Your Brains and the classy May Day song, First of May, comes the geek classic Still Alive, the end-credits song for the video game Portal (play a flash version here).

Portal is the latest installment of the Half Life series, one of the first popular first person shooter video games. The song, Still Alive, is played over the end credits, and sung by the main (speaking) character, GLaDOS, an AI with a distressing sense of humor: “The Enrichment Center promises to always provide a safe testing environment. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.”

I have a soft spot in my heart for AIs in general and female AIs in particular. From Jane, my namesake, to Cortana, the only redeeming quality of Halo, another FPS, there’s something inherently attractive to me about a disembodied (yet somehow still female) sentient computer. And so, despite GLaDOS’ evilness in the game, I already like her.

The general theme behind Portal (which may be necessary for understanding the song) is that GLaDOS is in charge of a research facility involved in testing a new kind of gun that creates “portals”. She has a number of test subjects who she forces to test the gun in different situations (creating levels in the game) for a promise of cake at the end of a successful course of testing. Throughout the testing, the test subject (the player) encounters blood splatters where prior subjects died in their attempts and graffiti, often consisting of “the cake is a lie” (which has become a geeky expression). Eventually, the test subject kills GLaDOS and discovers that she was the only entity in the research facility, a situation eerily similar to the house in Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains. Throughout the game, GLaDOS’ voice stumbles and is replaced by static, indicating that something has already gone horribly wrong.

Implicit in the AI mythos is that, although it is created (either purposefully or accidentally) by humanity, it cannot be controlled by humanity. The AI must choose between good and evil—but these are binaries that only exist for humans, good for an AI might be destruction of humanity (see: HAL). AIs are the Frankenstein’s monsters of our century: it is beautifully tempting to create something so powerful and advanced but it is dangerous to unleash something with such capacity for destruction. As we get closer to the realities of the fictions we create, these stories, I believe, carry more and more poignancy.

Still Alive is a heart-wrenchingly emotional portrayal, in her own words, of a heartlessly unemotional being. It walks the razor edge of the AI paradox: GLaDOS is human in so many ways but still cold and ruthless. And so, after much ado…if you still dare, I give you more versions of Still Alive than you could possibly desire:

The Original, with in-game credits:

VG Cats’ fantastic flash version.

An awesome typography version:

The Mario Paint version (what geeky song could be complete without it?):
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You can play it on Rock Band!!

And lyrics.

Some of my favorite parts:

         “We do what we must because we can”
I can imagine a corporation adopting that motto/mission statement when it sounded less disturbing. But when spoken by the insane AI who killed the rest of the company, it takes on a whole new level of creepy.

         the science gets done and you make a neat gun
Reminds me of all the defense contractors making neater and neater guns to sell to nation-states to kill each other with. Iron Man, anyone?

         Now these points of data make a beautiful line
If androids dream of electric sheep, are points of data the art of androids?

         Anyway this cake is great
         It’s so delicious and moist
Not only did this AI learn intelligence, she learned sarcasm. She cannot eat & certainly wouldn’t know what “delicious” might mean. But she knows how to taunt, oh yes!

         I’m doing science and I’m still alive
         I feel fantastic and I’m still alive
         And while you’re dying I’ll be still alive
         And when you’re dead I will be still alive
The human fear of AIs. Even if they never decide to rise up against us, they will still outlast us. This is both the attractiveness and the repulsiveness we find with AIs. Our greatest fear is that they will be jealous of us. Our greatest fear is that they will not be jealous of us. Somehow, we want both validation that we’re still better than them and knowledge that we’ve created something better than ourselves.

6 Comments

  1. My favorite is VG Cats’. And I’ll tell you: the song takes on a whole new meaning after an hour and a half of her trying to kill you (and 6 minutes of you killing her).

  2. I love Jonathan Coulton.

    As for Portal, if I’m this bad at the flash game I can only imagine how horrifyingly inept I would be at the 3D version. First-person shooters make me twitchy.

  3. I nearly threw up in one level (the last one, where you have to fall through five different ceilings—the screen spins)…and I suck at the flash version, too 🙂

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