The characters in what we might term the Aperture Cinematic Universe are a memorable bunch (as I have said before). Though GLaDOS rightfully tops the list another, introduced in 2011’s sequel spectacular Portal 2, became an instant favourite. Voiced by J.K. Simmons, doing a turn adjacent to his J. J. Jameson from Spider-Man, Cave Johnson is the founder of Aperture Science (which used to primarily make shower curtains before it evolved into being a death trap puzzle company), and he made an instant impression. And though Aperture Desk Job is nominally a tech demo for the Steam Deck, it also expands the Cave Johnson lore in a very satisfying way. Spoilers beyond for Aperture Desk Job, and Portal 2 if you haven’t played it.
Cave pops up in Portal 2 when you’re exploring the lower, older areas of Aperture Science, as voice notes recorded between somewhere in the 50s, 70s, and 80s – at which point he became incurably sick from rubbing moon rocks together, and the voice notes become increasingly emotional. One of his now enduring lines is that, in answer to the aphorism “when life gives you lemons”, he’ll “make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I’m the man who’s going to burn your house down! With the lemons! I’m going to get my engineers to invent a combustible lemon that burns your house down!”
This kind of thing is, of course, very funny, but the voice notes also reveal a cruel man engaged in human testing that kills a lot of people. It’s when he’s dying that he starts looking into artificial intelligence, as well as suggesting that his assistant Caroline should take over the company if he dies too soon to be turned into a computer. Caroline eventually becomes, at least in part, GLaDOS, the AI supercomputer that wipes out everyone in the facility with poisoned gas, before waking you to continue testing. There are unused voice lines from Caroline that suggest her incorporation into GLaDOS was done against her will.
So while Cave Johnson is written to be charismatic and funny, and kind of a caricature of a shouty 80s buisnessman, he’s also obviously a gold plated dickhead. You sort of assume he just died, which is why it’s surprising to see him turn up in Aperture Science in the form of an AI encased a giant, indestructible metal sculpture of his own head. I gotta tell you, though, I was absolutely delighted. Aperture Desk Job is a showcase in how Valve are very good at making video games (and I wish they did it more), and also how they never waste anything, up to and including an opportunity.
Aperture Desk Job takes place somewhere before the mainline Portal games. It doesn’t have to even mention Cave. And yet, here he is, threating to fire you and begging for oblivion to take him. When you you, playing as Chell in Portal, face off against GLaDOS, she’s been an AI for decades. When you meet Cave in Aperture Desk Job he’s been stuck inside a giant head as an AI by himself for just four years, and he already wants to die. Cave Johnson, for all his shouting about lemons, is weak! And though we can argue, having played the excellent horror game Soma, that this is not the original or real Cave, philosophically it also is him, and he begs you to put him out of his misery.
The final kicker is that even when he smashes through the floor after you shoot him with your toilet turret, the end credits reveal that the giant Cave head survived, and is powered presumably forever by a fusion device developed by a humanoid preying mantis society that was the result of yet more Cave-approved experimentation. He could still be there, alone, singing with a bunch of toilets, in the dark. Being hoist on his on petard, trapped in a hell of his own making that he asked for, is the perfect Greek underworld-style ironical punishment for Cave Johnson. I wish him much misery of it. And while it isn’t technically considered canon, it was still something Valve didn’t have to do at all and, even at that, didn’t over-do. Like everything in these games, Cave’s ending has a very light touch, but a heavy impact.