At first glance, Portal might seem like nothing more than a unique, quirky puzzler, but the quick romp through Aperture Laboratories holds far more than just crates, buttons, and inter-dimensional holes. Within only about only three or so hours of content, Valve weaves an efficient yet substantial narrative, as well as showcasing incredible game design. This story of an artificial intelligence and a silent protagonist might seem shallow, when in reality many elements display deeper and more intricate content that what appears on the surface. Just like any other form of media, Portal conveys themes and social commentary, albeit more subtly but still effectively, keeping with Marcuse’s observation that, “entertainment may be the most effective mode of learning,” (Chapter 3). The most apparent of these themes is that of a Marcuse-ian, overt control of humanity by technology, which is expressed not only through the game’s narrative, but also its gameplay.
The most obvious instance of this is the interaction between Chell and GLaDOS. The AI is greatly authoritarian, and commands Chell constantly to continue testing, all the while promising her “cake and grief counseling” when she is complete. The cake, if nothing else, represents the final completion of the hellish testing process, an imposed need that Chell develops due to the constant mentioning of it by GLaDOS. Of course, the cake is indeed found to be a “lie”, a false need that is instilled for nothing more than providing a motivating source for test subjects to finish the course, fulfilling GLaDOS’ seemingly endless pleasure in conducting “science,” or murder of test subjects. GLaDOS here is representing the social interests of the media by creating these false needs and hopes, “perpetuating toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice,”(Chapter 1) Furthermore, GLaDOS herself can be seen as an example of Marcuse’s fundamental contradiction regarding the creation of machinery. She was created for the sole purpose of conducting human testing, as the researchers of Aperture Laboratories did not want to waste time with such a rudimentary task. She then goes on to flood the entire Enrichment Center with neurotoxins despite the many personality cores that were installed to attempt to keep her from becoming homicidal. Although the researchers were freed from the task of testing, they did not consider the consequences of creating the AI, and were killed by the very materials that they had entrusted to the machine.
Even the game’s most important gameplay element, the portal gun, represents aspects of technology controlling humanity. Although it grants Chell greater freedom of movement and increased options for completing additional tests, it is a catalyst for nothing more than her increased misery. The more the GLaDOS reveals concerning the device, such as changing the course of deadly energy balls in Chamber 7 or the conservation of momentum and velocity through portals in Chamber 10, the more danger that Chell is exposed to, providing an example of Marcuse’s technological reality, which, “extend[s] liberty while intensifying domination,” (Chapter 3). The portal gun slowly leading Chell to her demise is further supported by GLaDOS’ constant remarks that her tests are becoming more and more dangerous, as well as her final attempt to kill Chell at the end of Chamber 19 by dumping her in a fiery pit. Even as Chell is attempting to escape, the increasing utility of the portal gun continues to put her into increasingly deadly situations, as well as cause GLaDOS to send more turrets and lethal threats.
Another narrative example of this control by technology can be seen in the remains of a seemingly previous test subject. Found first in Chamber 16, these dens are littered with graffiti, speaking towards GLaDOS’ true intentions and warning the player over and over that “the cake is a lie”. The most important of the remains are the endless obsessions that the he or she has with the Weighted Companion Cube, as can be seen the provided images of his or her scrawling. Although the cube is meant to be nothing more than tool for a subject to complete Chamber 17 with, it is presented as a resource to be treasured, which the crazed previous subject had obviously taken to heart. The writings on the wall are meant to be jarring to the player, and are an example of the alienation effect that is meant to reveal that the insanity of test subjects is not something that is commonplace, and it is Chell retaining her sanity that is in fact rare. The control in which GLaDOS exerts on her subjects with nothing more than a simple cube is meant to be ridiculous in such a way that it shows just how effective her testing is in controlling every aspect of a subject’s being. Although the examples of control within the game are far more pronounced than that which the media and society exerts in real life, the story of GLaDOS and Chell is still a “huge success” in exemplifying the control that technology has over humanity.