Marcuse and Portal
On the surface, Portal is an amusing puzzle game with no ulterior motive other than the enjoyment of the gamer. When I first played Portal, I was only concerned with making it to the next level and beating the boss; the basic goal of any video game. However, further analysis of Portal and specifically the relationship between GLaDOS, her creators, and Chell (and by extension the player), it is easy to make connections between that relationship and the society described by Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man. The central dogma of this comparison is that GLaDOS mediates the will of the overbearing government (that is, Aperture Science) and feeds selective information to those who inhabit the society, which is personified as Chell.
When first playing the game, you are given no backstory, no plot, and no sense of whom you are or where you are. Your only source of instruction is coming from the seemingly helpful robot named GLaDOS. She is your mass media. Marcuse writes that media, “shape(s) the universe of communication in which the one-dimensional behavior expresses itself.” (Marcuse Ch. 4) In Marcuse’s view, media shapes what society expresses and finds important. It imposes its views, which come from a higher echelon of officials, onto its people. GLaDOS works in this way, as she shows us what is important to learn to play the game. Initially, who are we to question her? She is our only source of information so we experience the game through her; she defines how we play the game. It is also important to note when making this comparison the similarities of Marcuse’s description of how media is delivered is to how GLaDOS speaks to the player. Marcuse states that media uses the “unification of opposites” to diffuse protest and get rid of negative stigmas, such as “luxury fallout shelter.” GLaDOS uses many drawn out adjectives to describe actions that would otherwise discourage the player. For example, when Chell is forced to destroy her beloved companion cube, GLaDOS does not refer to the incinerator as just an incinerator, but as the “Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.” GLaDOS also likes to personalize her spiels to the player using the word “your.” “Your testing experience” and “your companion cube” are phrases that, as Marcuse would say, establish a familiarity that really is not there (Marcuse Ch. 4). Another facet of Marcuse’s media is the overuse of abbreviations. Abbreviations such as NATO and UN have their own separate definition apart from what the true purpose and goals of the organization. Ironically, GLaDOS is an abbreviation for “Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System”, but without looking it up, the player would never know that. The persona of GLaDOS is imposed onto her acronym instead of knowing the actual purpose of her name or her actual programming.
Whereas GLaDOS delivers the instructions to the player as the mass media, Aperture Science is the dominating government that provides the setting for the game and programmed GLaDOS to deliver specific information to the player. There are no implications given as to what Chell’s life was like before she started testing. She is a blank slate set to be influenced by GLaDOS. Whether it’s Valve ignoring Chell’s existence before testing, or Aperture deleting her memories, information is being censored. Marcuse talks about in his book that the culture and history of society is constantly being degraded, or undergoing “repressive desublimation.” (Marcuse Ch. 3) Since culture and history are being destroyed, there is no way for society or individuals to utilize this information and they will be ignorant and at the mercy of their leaders. Chell and the player enter the game in a “desublimated” state; we have no knowledge of Chell’s history in Aperture Science or what her purpose is besides testing. Marcuse goes on to say that society can overcome this degradation by going through “sublimation”, or preserving your history and culture to use against the repressive society. Chell is undergoing sublimation throughout the game. By noticing GLaDOS’ off persona and her constant lying, you can use it to ultimately make the decision fight against her and Aperture’s rule when you’re about to be killed in the incinerator. As Marcuse puts it, Aperture Science acts as the “rationally organized bureaucracy” that is “invisible at its vital center” and administers “inhumanity and injustice.” (Marcuse Ch. 3) He says that the only way to combat this bureaucracy is solitude, or letting an individual think freely without outside interference. Marcuse says this is impossible, but it is exactly what is given to Chell in Portal and as we see if you complete the game, she is able to overcome the injustice done to her, as least until the sequel.
Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man is narrative on capitalistic societies and their massive flaws. As hard as it is to read, it surprisingly makes a lot of sense. When I started reading it, I never thought it would be so relevant that I could even compare it to a video game, let alone one that barely has a narrative of its own. Portal provides us with just enough information and dialogue from GLaDOS to discern what kind of dynamic exists between Aperture, GLaDOS and Chell and how it can relate to Marcuse’s dynamic between a dominating government, mass media, and the public.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Web. <http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/64onedim/odmcontents.html>