Portal's Reflection on the Great Refusal
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. The game 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. These interactions are presented in a way which correlate to Marcuse’s ideas about our society, and take them further by reflecting on the results of our participation in the Great Refusal.
Before we can see the whole picture, or develop any significant ideas about it, 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’s Laboratory, 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 remaining initial 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 in a more elegant form.
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 as 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, in Portal, in life, and in our horse analogy, 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 death.
Midway through the game, however, we encounter a voice which presents us with information which may be in accordance with our own ideas, or at the very least presents an opinion in opposition to that of GLaDOS. The scrawled writing on the wall warns us of GLaDOS’s manipulations, and at some points urges us to resist her control. The person, or collection of people, who left these cryptic notes represents Marcuse himself. Their urges to disrupt the status quo, to break the cycle of experimentation and manipulation, are analogous to Marcuse’s persuasions toward the Great Refusal. Both are asking us to think outside the system we find ourselves a part of in order to achieve something which we did not realize we were lacking: freedom. Freedom to live how we please, freedom from the control of any and all who would seek to control us. However, successfully undertaking the Great Refusal is easier said than done. Throughout much of the game there is no opportunity to escape. It is only when we reach the end of the tests that we have the smallest chance, and even if we take that chance there is much work to be done before we can adequately remove the influence of GLaDOS.
Indeed, participating in Portal’s analogous version of the Great Refusal would have been impossible without a key piece of equipment: the portal gun. This device bends the laws of physics past what we thought was possible; it creates a connection between two physically distinct areas of space, allowing for a seamless transition between the two. Michael Burden and Sean Gouglas say in their analysis of the game, “The key mechanic - a gun that shoots portals or tunnels that allow physical movement between unconnected spaces - explores the meaning of freedom when trapped in the algorithmic processes of what we perceive as reality.” Without the portal gun it would have been impossible for Chell to escape Aperture. This, I believe, is the predominant reason why people in our world have not participated in the Great Refusal to any real degree. In order to break the system, we need something which is, by its very nature, unable to be controlled by the system. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse, unsurprisingly, fails to present an idea which would be analogous to this portal gun. This is neither a testament to some imagined shortcoming of Marcuse, nor a criticism of his ideas. Instead, it seems to be a convenient device through which we can explore Marcuse’s ideas more completely than he does in One-Dimensional Man. By allowing the Great Refusal to take place, we can examine its results and form a complete opinion on its efficacy.
At the end of the game, Chell is successful in defeating GLaDOS; the Great Refusal has taken place. 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 old paradigm may have been replaced with a new one, a better one. Perhaps we have ascended to another level of being. That is certainly what seems to happen at the end. Chell and GLaDOS’s pieces float upward in a whirlwind as a blinding white light fills the screen. We see a glimpse of the outside world, a place completely outside of the bounds of the game, outside the bounds of reality as we know it. But then Chell’s body is dragged back into Aperture, and we see a plethora of AI cores activate, ready to assume the role of GLaDOS. Will the next one that assumes control be better? Or will it be worse? Was GLaDOS really a terrible overlord? After all, her goal was quite noble: the acquisition of knowledge. Will the next ruler be so logical? So efficient? I think not. GLaDOS seems to be the least of a great many evils, and replacing her, as Portal 2 displays, will prove to be a terrible mistake. As with Frankenstein, Portal seems to be a cautionary tale. It asks us to consider the ramifications of our actions before we destroy everything we have built; it presents the idea that the changes we make by accepting the Great Refusal may not be what we expect.
Burden, Michael, and Sean Gouglas. "Game Studies." - The Algorithmic Experience: Portal as Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
Faliszek, Chet, and Erik Wolpaw. Portal. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. "One Dimensional Man." One Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse (contents). N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.