Marcuse and Portal
On the surface, Portal is an amusing puzzle game with no ulterior motive other than the enjoyment of the gamer. When I first played Portal, I was only concerned with making it to the next level and beating the boss; the basic goal of any video game. However, further analysis of Portal and specifically the relationship between GLaDOS, her creators, and Chell (and by extension the player), it is easy to make connections between that relationship and the society that is described by Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man. The central dogma of this comparison is that GLaDOS mediates the will of an overbearing ruler (that is, Aperature Science), and feeds selective information to those who inhabit the society, which is personified as Chell.
When first playing the game, you are given no backstory, no plot, and no sense of whom you are or where you are. Your only source of instruction is coming from the seemingly helpful robot named GLaDOS. She is your mass media. Marcuse writes that media, “shape(s) the universe of communication in which the one-dimensional behavior expresses itself.” (Marcuse Ch. 4) In Marcuse’s view, media shapes what society expresses and finds important. It imposes its views, which come from a higher echelon of officials, onto its people. GLaDOS works in this way, as she shows us what is important to learn to play the game. Initially, who are we to question her? She is our main source of information so we experience the game through her; she defines how we play the game. Her specific use of language also contributes to her similarity to mass media. GLaDOS is very monotone and slightly condescending while being able to casually throw in talking about our death in her voiceovers. This casualness is a way of “telescoping” and “abridge(ing)” her “syntax which cuts off development of meaning by creating fixed images which impose themselves with an overwhelming and petrified correctness.” (Marcuse Ch. 4) In other words, by casually throwing in death she is trying to reduce it’s importance while still implanting the image in our head. A specific example of this occurs in Chamber 8 when GLaDOS states, “Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an 'unsatisfactory' mark on your official testing record followed by death. Good luck!” Mass media does this through advertising; they implant positive images of their products into our heads without outright saying, “have a positive view of our product!” GLaDOS wants us to be killed without saying, “I want you to die” so she can still save face as being helpful. It is also important to note when making this comparison the similarities of Marcuse’s description of how media is delivered is to how GLaDOS speaks to the player. Marcuse states that media uses the “unification of opposites” to diffuse protest and get rid of negative stigmas, such as “luxury fallout shelter.” GLaDOS uses many drawn out adjectives to describe actions that would otherwise discourage the player. For example, when Chell is forced to destroy her beloved companion cube, GLaDOS does not refer to the incinerator as just an incinerator, but as the “Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.” GLaDOS also likes to personalize her spiels to the player using the word “your.” “Your testing experience” and “your companion cube” are phrases that, as Marcuse would say, establish a familiarity that really is not there (Marcuse Ch. 4). Another characteristic of Marcuse’s media is the overuse of abbreviations. Abbreviations such as NATO and UN have their own separate definition apart from what the true purpose and goals of the organization. Ironically, GLaDOS is an abbreviation for “Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System”, but without looking it up, the player would never know that. The persona of GLaDOS is imposed onto her acronym instead of knowing the actual purpose of her name or her actual programming. Although GLaDOS may seem like the only information source in the game, there are other pieces of illicit information hidden amongst the levels. This information goes against what is being fed to you by GLaDOS. Messages such as, “help” and “the cake is a lie” along with drawings are presented to Chell in hopes that she realizes GLaDOS is not as helpful as she seems. These messages are written by a schizophrenic scientist, Doug Rattmann, who watches Chell as she progresses through the game (Oeming and Pinkerton). Doug acts as another, more truthful, media outlet, but presents his information as what Marcuse would call art. Marcuse writes that, “art contains the rationality of negation. In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusal – the protest against that which is.” (Marcuse Ch. 3) Doug’s drawings and pictures act as the Great Refusal against GLaDOS, and is used to get Chell to “protest” against the status quo.
Whereas GLaDOS delivers the instructions to the player as the mass media, Aperture Science is the dominating authority that provides the setting for the game and programmed GLaDOS to deliver specific information to the player. There are no implications given as to what Chell’s life was like before she started testing. She is a blank slate set to be influenced by GLaDOS. Whether it’s Valve ignoring Chell’s existence before testing, or Aperture deleting her memories, information is being censored. Marcuse talks about in his book that the culture and history of society is constantly being degraded, or undergoing “repressive desublimation.” (Marcuse Ch. 3) Since culture and history are being destroyed, there is no way for society or individuals to utilize this information and they will be ignorant and at the mercy of their leaders. Chell and the player enter the game in a “desublimated” state; we have no knowledge of Chell’s history in Aperture Science or what her purpose is besides testing. Marcuse goes on to say that society can overcome this degradation by going through “sublimation”, or preserving your history and culture to use against the repressive society. Chell is undergoing sublimation throughout the game. By noticing GLaDOS’ off persona, her constant lying, and Doug Rattmann’s art, you can use it to ultimately make the decision fight against her and Aperture’s rule when you’re about to be killed in the incinerator. The actual gameplay can also be seen as a form of sublimation for Chell. Aperature Science allows Chell to express herself using portals and her portal gun, but puts restraints on her by only letting her use it on white walls, and putting obstacles in her way. This expression, in a Marcusian sense, is Chell’s form of art. She can play through a chamber in whatever manner she pleases, as long as she follows specific restrictions. These restrictions are “artistic alienation” (Marcuse Ch. 3) in that they do not allow Chell to fully express herself. At the same time, they encourage her to find techniques to complete chambers. These techniques become useful in the end when she is destroying GLaDOS, so the artistic alienation (that is, restrictions on gameplay) acted as a form of sublimation. As Marcuse puts it, Aperture Science acts as the “rationally organized bureaucracy” that is “invisible at its vital center” and administers “inhumanity and injustice.” (Marcuse Ch. 3) He says that the only way to combat this bureaucracy is solitude, or letting an individual think freely without outside interference. Marcuse says this is impossible, but it is exactly what is given to Chell in Portal. Besides interjections by GLaDOS and the occasional turret, Chell is in complete silence and free to think. As we see if you complete the game, she sublimates and thinks enough that she is able to overcome the injustice done to her, at least until the sequel.
Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man is a narrative on the characteristics of a developed, industrial society. By looking through Marcuse, we can see Portal is more than just meets the eye. GLaDOS is the mass media. She feeds us selective information while using language that will implant specific images of death into our heads. As described by Marcuse, we blindly follow her because she is our only source of information in our desublimated state. Doug Rattmann’s art gives Chell a reason to protest GLaDOS’ seemingly helpful persona and provides a mechanism for Chell to sublimate. Aperature Science is the overbearing ruler, whether it is seen as a government, corporation, or organization in general; there is not doubt Aperature is in charge. Aperature, through GLaDOS, makes the mistake of providing the artistic alienation of the portal gun and the complete solitude of the testing chambers that allows Chell to overcome her captors. It is easy to see how Aperture, GLaDOS and the language she uses, Chell, Doug Rattmann, and the gameplay all relate to Marcuse’s dynamic between a dominating authority, mass media and its language; the public and its desulbimation; and art/artistic alienation that leads to sublimation.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Web. <http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/64onedim/odmcontents.html>
Oeming, Michael, and Jay Pinkerton. Portal 2: Lab Rat. Valve, 2011. Web. <http://www.thinkwithportals.com/comic/>.