The nature of Portal’s plot ties in with the overarching theme of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man; that is, we’re consensual slaves within a system of oppression since we know of no other way to exist. We cannot simply break out of the system, or as Marcuse puts it in chapter 1, “Non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless.” If Chell decides to not comply with GLaDOS’s orders, there’s no benefit to her; she’d either starve to death in an experimentation room or be executed for being a failed experiment. The only way to effect change under oppression of the system is to revolt within the system.
The motivating factor provided to Chell for all the torment of the experiments is something material—cake. The only way to attain this great reward is through the suffering of harsh labor, and no absolute, tangible guarantee is provided that it’s a reward we’ll receive. However, there is one thing that is absolute: total rejection of the mandated labor will not result in cake or any sort of reward, but instead simply death. This takes us to an important point f chapter 4: “The prevailing mode of freedom is servitude.” The further you play, the more you realize you can break outside the system, if just temporarily. As you go further, you find more and more ways to exploit the system and niggle your way to liberation from total control of one master. For those who replay the game multiple times, we find more efficient ways to break free from the system and attain liberation even faster. We learn to break the system only by being within the system.
Another thing we learn through playing is that the rewards are false. Late in the game, we finds notes scribbled on the walls telling us that the cake is a lie—it doesn’t exist. As players, did we care about the cake? Probably not, but we can assume that it may have been a driving force for characters within the universe. For any other test subject driven by this, we could draw a parallel to Marcuse’s idea of “false needs” presented in chapter 1. Did we really need the cake? Should we find the cake, was the cake worth suffering for? What happens after we consume the cake? Must we undergo more testing in order to find another? Did the test subjects have any goals beyond simply getting cake? In the end, however, the player’s path results in finding freedom instead of cake.
There’s also an aspect that could be pointed out as ironic: we as players don’t choose to fight for freedom. Our only choice is whether or not to play the game, and if we decide to do that, it follows that we do as the developers intended and break free of the oppression imposed by GLaDOS through the use of strict rules defined by the game’s developers. The ultimate result of playing is freedom; there’s no choice to decide to play through new test chambers indefinitely, and choosing to die only forces you to be reborn and accomplish the task assigned to you. We thus attain an illusion of freedom and feel like we’re defeating the system, when we’re merely playing by its rules. It ties back into the earlier quote: “Thus, the fact that the prevailing mode of freedom is servitude.” We know we’re “free” because the game tells us we’re free at the end, but are we really? Aside from the choice of deciding to play the game, did we decide whether we wanted freedom from GLaDOS in that manner? We defeated one means of oppression only to uphold the other. However, this is more of a meta-analysis of the game and not so much analyzing the content within the game, but I still hold it to be a valid point. “Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination.” (Chapter 1) Throughout the course of the game, we’re not considering that we’re still bound by the laws of the developers, only that we’re breaking the laws defined by GLaDOS.
In a way, Portal does somewhat embody the reality of the endless struggle for freedom. The limitations of the game can be seen to represent a newfound freedom supporting another means of oppression. Once the character achieves freedom, what are they to do with it? Must Chell fall into a new cycle of toil in order to build a shelter and find food? If we play Portal 2, we realize that there is no freedom for her—there’s just more hard labor and oppression under a new ruler.