We had a chance to see Jonathan Coulton live in concert last Friday night when he made a stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan on his current Artificial Heart tour. He's a lot of fun in concert -- engaging, improvisational and self-effacing, perfect for a medium-sized venue like The Ark, full to bursting with a youngish audience suited to a self-made, record-contract-free Internet performer. He had great support from his opening act, John Roderick, and the Jonathan Coulton Orchestra, i.e. the skilled and funny Adam Bernstein on bass and a solid drummer whose name I can't remember (Coulton jokingly introduced him as Ringo Starr, and that initial bit of misinformation seems to be stuck in my head.) He played a lot of great material, including a new song that hasn't been recorded yet, and old favorites like Code Monkey and Re: Your Brains, all sounding really fresh with a proper band after years of hearing Coulton's solo studio work. And of course he was expected to play both of his songs from Valve's Portal games, which he did.
Coulton's voice is not GladOS' voice, of course -- Valve's monstrous, manipulative but clumsily charming AI creation owes much of her personality to actress Ellen McLain and a smidgen of digital processing. But hearing the songs live and unadorned made it clear how much Coulton's voice as a songwriter has contributed to the success of this character. GladOS' personality was established by the first Portal during the game, but our understanding of who "she" is was really nailed down by the closing song, Still Alive. And the richer, more sympathetic version of GladOS encountered in Portal 2 might not have been possible without the motivations and semi-human emotions captured by Coulton's work on both games. At the very least, Coulton's mix of witty lyrics, catchy pop music and knowing nerd appeal fits Valve's development ethos, and he was able to take what the writers had established about GladOS and create songs to match.
The net effect is that people who have never played Portal still have some idea about who GladOS is, and people who have played Portal now have some idea about who Jonathan Coulton is. Seeing the man behind the music as a guy on a stage reminded me that video games are delivered and made possible by technology... but what we as gamers, as human beings, are really responding to is another human being, engaging with us across a distance. Designers, artists, and now songwriters are doing what humans have always done -- telling us a story, showing us a picture, opening our perceptions to places we have never been, could never be. What games do well is engage us more directly -- we are not passively watching something, but participating in it. Coulton's songs are an integral part of the Portal experience, a reward for finishing the game, but also an expansion of the game's world and personality.
Here's the closest I can come to approximating the experience via YouTube...
Still Alive in-game:
Still Alive performed live: