Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Portals in One Dimension

Like all art, according to Marcuse, video games’ ‘truths’ come from the idea that “literature and art were essentially alienation, sustaining and protecting the contradiction…”[1] The artwork, regardless of the medium, was used to show the realities of our world by giving the repressed attributes of our collective society visual/vocalization. As society advanced, the art did not change perchance, but the way in which it is viewed has. According to Marcuse, because we have finally commercialized art, it no longer is able to call up negating aspects of our society – it (artwork) has
“…Been invalidated… their subversive force, their destructive content -- their truth. In this transformation, they find their home in everyday living. The alien and alienating oeuvres of intellectual culture become familiar goods and services. Is their massive reproduction and consumption only a change in quantity, namely, growing appreciation and understanding, democratization of culture”[2]

With this in mind, Marcuse wants to know if art can, in an advanced society such as ours, still show us truths about our world in an alienating way – does art still hold its power?
            In attempting to answer this, Marcuse points towards Bertolt Brecht, founder of the ‘epic theater’. Brecht’s goal was to provide exactly what Marcuse was looking for – Verfremdungseffekt, or the estrangement effect. By breaking the fourth wall and using other jarring theatrical techniques, Brecht hoped to give the audience a sense of curiosity at the events unfolding onstage, even if they were familiar with them. He hoped to show the audience truths about our world by presenting everyday situations in novel ways. How then does this relate to video games, and in this case specifically, Portal?
One of             Marcuse’s main points is the fact that with an increase in available technology, humanity loses its absolute freedom. In gaining the ability to travel through space instantly via a portal gun, Chell is able to completely master her environment, while simultaneously giving her captor, GLaDOS, absolute control over her situation. Chell entirely relies on GLaDOS’ experiments to provide ‘portal-able’ surfaces so as to stay alive. She is completely at the will of the AI. In giving the AI this power, the developers quickly teach the players to crave and seek out those pale white walls. In essence, the walls have become a false need. They are only necessary for survival because GLaDOS says they are. The game would not be very exciting if all we had to do was walk around a large laboratory after all, and yet that is all that is truly required to keep Chell alive. By forcing her to use the portals to stay alive, GLaDOS is given the power to arbitrarily determine what is necessary for life.
More importantly however, is the game’s treatment of the ‘Great Refusal’. At the end of the game, Chell disobeys GLaDOS. In her final moments, Chell uses the portal gun to escape a fire of ‘4000 degrees kelvin’. At the literal extreme of the previous point – that technology is so powerful in today’s world that it can determine when we die – Chell, the stand in for humanity, refuses to take part. She escapes GlaDOS’ attempts to kill her and ultimately attempts to destroy GLaDOS for good, thereby fully rejecting technology – the other extreme in Marcuse’s ideals[3].

[1] Marcuse, Herbert. "3. The Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness: Repressive Desublimation." One-dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1964.
[2] Marcuse, chapter three
[3] We should note that Chell is unsuccessful, as GLaDOS had multiple personality cores stored away and continued to live. In Portal 2, she is seen tormenting other machines – technology had progressed to the point where humanity was not even necessary. This would be akin to Rachel Rosen owning an electric owl. 

1 comment:

Adam said...

Given the difficulties of Marcuse, I think your opening paragraph is an excellent, compact summary of some of his central themes. Good. The paragraph about Brecht is maybe too strictly summary of Marcuse - but maybe you'll do something with that, too.

"In gaining the ability to travel through space instantly via a portal gun, Chell is able to completely master her environment, while simultaneously giving her captor, GLaDOS, absolute control over her situation." - I wish I had written that. It's a strong interpretation which needs elaboration and defense, but it's a great start to an analysis of *Portal*. The whole paragraph is a splendid initial reading of the game.

Re: the final paragraph. There's nothing wrong with your approach - but in some ways, I think it's more obvious that Chell is still really participating in the experiment, just at a higher level (I have the ending in mind, where it seems like another AI is taken off the rack to replace GLaDos).

You have a good grasp of Marcuse and a strong interpretation of the game, so I'm quite happy. What's missing is an analysis of the details of the game, including of the ending - you need to find a way of citing details (video/screenshots/literal quotations) to really elaborate on your argument if you revise. While this is quite good, in some ways it's an overview more than a finished product.

p.s. the 3rd footnote is interesting, and may contradict some of my initial comments.