Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.
Every morning at 9 AM from now to May 29, John will talk to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth—and possibly out of his depth—about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? You’ll have to come back every morning to see!
Today John talks to Jon about “Want You Gone.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “Want You Gone.”
SCALZI: Hello, this is John Scalzi for Tor.com. I write science fiction, and so does Jonathan Coulton. The difference is, he puts his to music. And today we’re going to talk about, I think might be a first for you in your canon of music, a sequel song called, “Want You Gone,” from the video game Portal 2. So, is this your first sequel?
COULTON: I think it is. People ask for sequels of other songs of mine a lot. But, yeah, to my mind this is the only one that I’ve done. Except for the accidental sequels where I just have written the same song twice.
SCALZI: That never happens. That never happens. We never write the same thing twice.
COULTON: Right, and I was aided, of course, by the fact that this was a song for a sequel of the first Portal game, so…
COULTON: I had to do it this way. It’s not my fault.
SCALZI: Right. Did you find that there was a lot of expectation—when Portal 2 was announced, did people immediately go, Jonathan! Jonathan! Jonathan!
COULTON: Yeah, I mean, we had talked—I had spoken to Valve soon after the success of the first game and song. They had already been planning on doing a second game, and they had already asked me if I would do a song, and I had already said yes. So, it was part of the plan and certainly when it was announced I think people were—there was some anticipation about that. But that’s a very hard thing to live up to, because the first game and the first song were such successes, and such surprise successes, that I think we were all—from me to the writers to the—everybody who worked on the game, we were all a little bit daunted by the task having to come up with something that was even close to as good as the first effort.
SCALZI: Yeah. Well I think the first one really was lightning in a bottle because the video game was part of The Orange Box, right? And the big selling point for The Orange Box was the two other games. I mean the second chunk of Half-Life 2 and then—and my brain’s not working right now.
COULTON: It’s called…Oh, boy.
SCALZI: Yes, see, we were having—the one where you run around and shoot each other all the time.
COULTON: Yes, exactly.
SCALZI: Yeah, we’ll fix that in post. [Team Fortress 2 —Eds.] But the point is that I think Portal was kind of chucked in there as almost like a throw-away, because it was a very short game and they were just like, “Oh, we got you this stuff. Oh, and look, here’s Portal as well.” And then to have that sort of explode and be the thing that just, people really, really loved out of the entire Orange Box, I think nobody expected that, actually.
COULTON: Yeah, it took everybody by surprise.
SCALZI: So yeah, it’s one thing to, I mean, it worked because it was—everything from it, from the storytelling to the game play to the final credit song, let’s be honest about it, everything just worked perfectly. And in one sort of sense that was lightning in the a bottle, and there’s a difference between having everything fall together perfectly, and then trying to, you know—it’s like, “You stuck the dismount. Do it again.”
SCALZI: “And make it better.”
COULTON: And of course, even if we had succeeded in making something that was as good as or even better than the first round, it would have been a failure, because there’s no way the sequel can ever live up to expectations when the first one hits in as big a way as Portal did. So we knew going in. Once I made my peace with the idea that it was going to be a failure and a disappointment either way, I was a lot less scared about doing it.
SCALZI: I think that’s actually really important, I mean not in a sense of “it’s going to be a failure,” that you recognized that what happened the very first time is something that happened. And that there is no way to replicate that experience because you can only ever do one thing the first time, once, right?
COULTON: Exactly, and of course you have this, too, because you have written several sequels to—I believe you have a whole series.
SCALZI: Yeah, The Old Man’s series. Old Man’s War, and then The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale, right. And so yeah, and the thing for me was the first time I had absolutely no idea that Old Man’s War was going to hit like it did. I mean it literally came out on January first, right? With a whole bunch of other books and they sort of flung it on the wall with all the other books to see what stuck, and it actually stuck. And they were as surprised, I think, as the rest of us and they came back to me, they go, yeah, now we need a sequel. You know, it was never intended to have a sequel or to do any of that sort of stuff. And my way of dealing with it, quite frankly, was when I wrote the sequel I didn’t use the main character. I’m going to write completely different story. So in some ways it was running away from the issue of the sequel by doing something else entirely. But you didn’t actually have that luxury because you needed to get back into GLaDOS, so to speak.
COULTON: Exactly. And we had talked about a couple of different options. We actually thought maybe we were going to have Chell sing a song and hear her voice for the first time, or we thought we might do a duet or, we talked about a number of ways of making it more interesting, but at the end of the day, I don’t know. This just seemed to make sense once we come up with a concept for what this is going to be.
COULTON: Because the first, obviously the first song is her. She’s kind of gloating. She’s gloating but she’s hiding her disappointments and maybe some hurt feelings, and she’s sort of Pollyanna-ish about the situation the first time around. And the second time around she’s a lot more, I think she’s a lot more wounded. And by the end of the game, you know, she really has come to—because of what you go through during the game.
COULTON: You know, you as Chell are locked in this struggle with GLaDOS but, you know you’re kind of working on the same team but kind of not, and she kind of comes to really hate you—
COULTON: —by the end.
SCALZI: It’s a bad breakup.
COULTON: Yeah, it’s a bad breakup. That was the thing that made it okay for me to write about from GLaDOS’s perspective again is that her perspective had really changed.
COULTON: And, in fact, she’s kicking you out. She’s like, “You know what, I’m done with you.” Which is a fantastic way to end a video game. It’s like, “Get out, player.”
SCALZI: You don’t have an option, it’s time to go.
SCALZI: But I think that that also means that—I mean, I was one of those people who came to Portal 2—because I play all the Valve games—very much of, “Okay, impress me.” And part of that was sort of talking out of school. And between Portal and Portal 2, I went to Valve’s offices to consult with them on a project, and I can’t give any sort of details because of the whole nondisclosure sort of thing, but one of the things that I saw at that time was a narration of Portal 2. And so I kind of saw something of what they were going to go with that. I was like okay, want to see how you make at that work, and, to my delight, actually they did make it work. And in that sort of sense, it’s almost like there are sequels that are—it’s like Iron Man and Iron Man 2, where Iron Man was awesome, Iron Man 2 was more of the same but, you know it was coming so, big deal. Right?
COULTON: Yeah, right.
SCALZI: And then there’s Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, where the first story is its own complete thing and it’s going to be hard to improve on that. So instead, they’re going to basically take a jog and do something else and that is in some ways a little bit darker, maybe a little more sinister, and in some ways not as accessible to someone who’s just sort of randomly starting off with it, but at the same time, for those people who’ve taken the journey before, they kind of go, oh, there’s more here. And in some ways I think that that’s kind of what you did as well with “Still Alive” and “Want You Gone.” Because, I’ll be honest with you, “Want You Gone” is not as immediately accessible as “Still Alive” partly because of that bitterness, but it’s one of those things that if you’ve taken that journey, the song actually has some deeper hooks in sort of your psyche, you know what I mean?
COULTON: Yeah. And I think that was for me an important aspect of it is because the—it was very important for me to play through the games and know what GLaDOS was dealing with and feeling, because she reveals a lot about herself in this game, unintentionally, in Portal 2. And you learn a little bit more about her backstory and you sort of get a sense of why she is the way she is and she becomes that much more of a tragic figure. I mean she was in the first one, but you didn’t really know why. And I think she comes across as much more vulnerable in the second game and so when she breaks up with you at the end, it’s, I don’t know, it’s a meaningful, emotional journey that you’ve been on with this passive-aggressive, murderous artificial intelligence.
SCALZI: And how often can you say that about a passive-aggressive, murderous artificial intelligence?
COULTON: Not very often at all.
SCALZI: Not very often. All right. We’re going to close up now. When we come back tomorrow, which will actually be Memorial Day, we are going to talk about a little bit about your latest album, Artificial Heart, and a little bit about the tour which starts June 1, if that’s correct.
COULTON: That’s right.
SCALZI: So, tomorrow take a break from your hamburgers, hot dogs, and everything else, and come talk to us. This is John Scalzi for Dor.com—for Tor.com, duh. And we’ll see you tomorrow.