Virtual Ghosts, Memories, and Lost Innocence

I’ve been focused on this image for a while now. Picture, if you will, a young man or woman, full of life and cheer and optimism. Now imagine that person’s essence being ripped out from their mortal shell. Imagine the memory of their former selves being twisted into a nightmarish ghost, a terrible wraith to suit someone else’s mad dreams. And though their former self may rear their pitiful little head from time to time, they must sink back into the abyss, unable to scream while their cold twisted persona carries on with cruel and thoughtless deeds…

No, this isn’t the premise of a serial killer film. It’s actually a plot twist that I’ve come to recognize in a few different stories. We learn that an iconic character (usually a villain) was once a sweet and kinder person. It’s a lot like the famous twist behind Darth Vader being Anakin Skywalker, but instead of becoming evil, they were forced into it. Innocence was corrupted, memories were buried, and they do cruel things to the heroes of their stories because that’s all they know.

I want to investigate this archetype a little further, so I’ll get into three particular characters who exemplify this path, while giving a comparison between all three.

As a warning, the following contains spoilers for Red Vs. Blue, Portal 2, and Adventure Time.

Case No. 1: Tex (Red vs. Blue)

Copyright 2012 by Rooster Teeth Productions
Copyright © 2012 by Rooster Teeth Productions

In the ongoing webseries Red Vs. Blue, a pair of teams in SPARTAN armor bicker, avoid work, and get thrown into the middle of several sinister conspiracies and military plots. For the first 10 seasons of the show, all these plots center on the elite military force known as Project Freelancer, best exemplified by the badass female fighter known as Agent Texas—or simply “Tex.”

After Season 6, we learn more about the origins of two main characters, Church and Tex. While Church was based on an AI copied from the mind of the Director, Tex was based off the Director’s memory of the woman he loved most—Allison—whom he lost to the war. The memory of her death resulted in the creation of Tex, who has tried to save Church (or “The Alpha”) over and over again. But as characters like Church and Wash point out, Tex’s chief attribute is failure because that’s what the Director remembers most about Allison: how she failed to come home.

When we first meet Tex in RvB, we’re presented with the deadliest warrior in the show, an unstoppable Valkyrie with a gun in each hand. But as the show’s mythology unfolds, what we learn is that the legend falls apart, revealing a vengeful ghost that is really just the Director’s own tortured memory, stuck on a constant loop. Only when confronted by his legacy does the Director’s self-torture finally cease—and when it does, so does Tex. The virtual ghost that haunted both his thoughts and the Reds and the Blues is finally laid to rest.

Case No. 2: GLaDOS (Portal)

Copyright © 2011 by Valve.
Copyright © 2011 by Valve

GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain) makes for an excellent and memorable video game villain. She never misses an opportunity to taunt the player, she has surprising control over the Enrichment Center and all its defenses (from automatic turrets to death traps), and she has proven that killing off scores of human beings has been very easy for her in the past. But in Portal 2, we get a glimpse at another side of her and who she used to be.

Exploring the ruins of Old Aperture Science, we learn about the mad company founder Cave Johnson, whose massive ego and terrible ideas were barely kept in check with the help of his eager, long-suffering assistant Caroline (also voiced by Ellen McLain). It’s never explained how or when it happened, but because of Cave’s dying wishes, Caroline ended up becoming the human mind uploaded into the mainframe that would become GLaDOS. And as GLaDOS herself admits, Caroline is the often-ignored (and once-deleted) voice of conscience deep inside her circuitry.

Much like how Tex was born from the Director’s inability to escape his own memories and guilt, GLaDOS was born out of the madness that permeated Aperture Science. While Caroline was devoted to science and keeping her boss sane, GLaDOS was devoted to testing and actively flooded the Enrichment Center with neurotoxin. Some fans have interpreted that GLaDOS’s own rage is actually a displacement of the shock and anger felt by Caroline at her forced conversion from woman into machine. She faithfully carries on the legacy of Cave Johnson, but without any of Caroline’s empathy. She runs Aperture Science alone, trapped inside a facility of her own design, burnt free of compassion and using what precious humanity she has left to mock and break her few remaining test subjects.

Case No. 3: The Ice King (Adventure Time)

Copyright © 2012 by Cartoon Network
Copyright © 2012 by Cartoon Network

On the surface, Adventure Time is a kid’s show about heroes fighting monsters in the colorful, mythical land of Ooo. But once you dig beneath the surface, you learn about the Mushroom War, the Lich, and all the horrors that preceded this happy-go-lucky world in the present day.

By that same token, the Ice King is just as complex. He starts off as a recurring villain who’s obsessed with kidnapping princesses and making Princess Bubblegum in particular his bride. But over the course of their adventures, Finn and Jake eventually see Ice King as less of a threat and more of a pathetic old man trying to cope with his lonely existence.

Then comes the episode “Holly Jolly Secrets.” We see a glimpse into the past: that the Ice King was once a man named Simon Petrikov. After finding the Ice Crown, he drove away his fiancee Betty and survived the aftermath of the Mushroom War. Despite making friends with a young Marceline, the Crown has warped his body and his mind, keeping him alive and powerful at the cost of his sanity. Only briefly does he begin to show signs of being Simon. Otherwise, the Ice King is too far gone to even realize he was ever anyone else, lost in his own fantasy world.

What really gets me about this character isn’t just the sense of how The Dark Side Will Make You Forget. It’s also a look into dementia and Alzheimer’s, and the toll they take on both the victims and their loved ones. Watching Marceline (both young and old) trying to reason with Simon’s fractured mind is heartbreaking, especially when he never means her any harm despite his madness. The recent episode entitled “Betty” has raised some interesting possibilities about the Ice King’s future development, but for now, he remains—just like Tex and GLaDOS—a prisoner inside his own mind, his memories warped by the passage of time and the temptation of power.

If there’s anything to be drawn from these three character studies, I suppose it’s important to look at who they used to be and what they gave up—or were forced to give up. In all three cases, the original good person was twisted into a terrifying new entity based on someone else’s good intentions, whether it’s the Director of Project Freelancer, Aperture Science, or the Ice Crown. It’s not the corruption of a Satanic influence per se. More like Frankenstein’s monster, where basic decency was snuffed out because of a weak or selfish creator.

So, what lesson can we take away from these broken and twisted minds? We have a responsibility to one another, a duty to consider our choices and how they affect others. And we have a responsibility to what we create, whether for good or evil.

If you have your own thoughts or opinions about this phenomenon, or want to add another character to the mix, feel free to share in the comments below.

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