It is interesting, really, just how relevant a video game can be to a 50 year old reflection on our society and culture. One would think that Portal and One-Dimensional Man are wholly unrelated, but when reading Marcuse it is hard not to see a pattern which almost perfectly coincides with the story of Portal. It is this pattern that leads me to think that Portal is, in fact, able to “represent the contemporary world in the theatre;” there is a truth, or a set of truths perhaps, represented here. Portal as a whole can be seen as a metaphor for our world; the characters and their interactions detail our culture and its interaction with individuals in a manner similar to Marcuse’s ideas.
Before we can see the whole picture, we must consider each piece and what it represents. Let’s start with the obvious: the world in which Portal is set. The entire game takes place in Aperture Science, a huge underground facility run by, GLaDOS, the quirky AI. Naturally, this represents the world, specifically today’s world. If Aperture is the world, then what does that say about GLaDOS, master of the entire facility? She can be seen to represent Western Culture, our culture, which is presently running the world in a way similar to GLaDOS running Aperture Labs. The only remaining piece is the player, Chell, the silent protagonist. Chell’s role is to be the vessel from which you interpret the world. In other worlds, she represents you, dear reader. Not you in the sense of everyone that reads this, or every human, but you as an individual. Her perception of the world and her interactions with GLaDOS outline an individual’s perception of the world and interaction with our culture in a way similar to Marcuse’s ideas, albeit more elegant.
Not only do these pieces accurately depict their real-world counterparts, but their interactions occur in much the same way that Marcuse describes. In the beginning, you wake up in this world; you don’t understand how you got here, you don’t even understand where here is, but there is a ruling entity telling you what’s what. For lack of any better solution, you believe everything this entity says, but not without hesitation. This is the position Chell finds herself in at the beginning of Portal, this is the position you find yourself in as a child. As Marcuse says, “Just as people know or feel that advertisements and political platforms must not be necessarily true or right, and yet hear and read them and even let themselves be guided by them, so they accept the traditional values and make them part of their mental equipment.” (Chapter 3) GLaDOS feeds you truths and lies, but you don’t have sufficient information to come to your own conclusions. So you hesitantly accept her version of reality as reality. This hesitation can be seen as a realization of the distinction between reality and culture, between the truth and what GLaDOS says. In spite of this we let ourselves be guided by her words. Faced with insufficient information to develop our own paradigm, we temporarily accept the first to present itself.
As our lives continue we accumulate data, we learn. This data inevitably comes from two sources: our own perception, and what others tell us. As Portal’s story continues we accumulate data from the same two sources: what we conclude, and what GLaDOS tells us. This data can be, and frequently is, contradictory. GLaDOS tells us there is cake at the end, but we may see that the cake is a lie. Traditionally, Western culture tells us there is heaven at the end, but we may see that this is a lie. These lies serve the same purpose: the manipulation of individuals for some overarching goal, the proverbial carrot that lures the horse. That goal, both in Portal and in life, is to use the individual as a worker. GLaDOS uses Chell to her own ends, milking her for whatever she can provide, and providing nothing but empty promises in return. “Society takes care of the need for liberation by satisfying the needs which make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable.” (Chapter 2) In other words, a horse pulls a cart because of the promise of the carrot and the threat of the stick. Chell solves puzzles because of the promise of cake, and the threat of death. Our carrot is money, happiness, or eternal life, and our stick is the threat of imprisonment, social ostracism, or even death.
We can see such striking similarities between GLaDOS and our society because each has the same purpose: progress, and in order to actualize that purpose there needs to be a workforce. As Marcuse says, “The government of advanced and advancing industrial societies can maintain and secure itself only when it succeeds in mobilizing, organizing, and exploiting the technical, scientific, and mechanical productivity available to industrial civilization. And this productivity mobilizes society as a whole, above and beyond any particular individual or group interests.” (Chapter 1) Essentially Marcuse is saying that this type of servitude is necessary to the existence of industrial governments, which in turn are necessary to our culture. Furthermore, GLaDOS needs various test subjects to continue her scientific exploration.
Where Portal differs from Marcuse (as far as we’ve read), however, is that it takes these ideas one step further. At the end of the game, Chell is successful in defeating GLaDOS. Metaphorically, a person or group of people have successfully overthrown or removed our culture’s influence. As that catchy song is playing in the credits, we are left with a serious question: where does this leave us? With GLaDOS gone there is no more science being done; with our culture gone there is no more progress being made. Our toils no longer contribute to something greater than ourselves; essentially, our lives lose a little bit of meaning. Is our freedom worth this price? Is our servitude worth this progress? As a whole, is humanity more than the sum of its parts? Portal and One-Dimensional Man both clearly reflect the nature of our lives, our culture, and the relation between the two, but only Portal seems to ask these questions. Marcuse presents the truth, as well as his opinion. Portal presents us with the truth of our situation, of our lives, and asks us to make a conclusion. Just as we each needed to form an opinion about GLaDOS, we need to form an opinion about her destruction. Interestingly, despite everything GLaDOS has done, despite everything our culture has done, I still feel the overwhelming need to contribute. GLaDOS’s song at the end says it perfectly: “You just keep on trying till you run out of cake. And the science gets done. And you make a neat gun. For the people who are still alive.”