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. 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 correlates to Marcuse’s ideas about our society. Essentially, Portal’s story is a demonstration of the method and reason for undertaking the Great Refusal; much like Marcuse, it exposes us to the idea that there are things external to the context we are accustomed to.
In the beginning, you wake up. You find yourself 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.” (Marcuse, 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.” (Marcuse, 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.
We can see this process happen to Chell quite rapidly in Portal. Test Chamber 6 is probably where most players first felt unease about GLaDOS and her intentions. “You, [subject name here], must be the pride of [subject hometown here]!” If it wasn’t already known, it is now immediately apparent that GLaDOS is not human, and it can be inferred that she isn’t telling us everything. But the fact remains that there is nothing Chell can do to escape. In Test Chamber 8 we are introduced to the stick: “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!” That escalated quickly, but the fact remains that there is nothing Chell can do to escape. And why would she even want to escape? After all, “Cake and grief counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test.” Like a horse pulling a cart there is nothing Chell can do to remedy her situation; she is completely under the oppression of GLaDOS. Even machines are manipulated to an equal degree. After completing the live-fire test course for military androids, we hear GLaDOS say “Well done, android. The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that Android Hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.” It appears that Chell is simply in an impossible situation. She is trapped; there is no way to escape. As Marcuse says, “The enslavement of man by the instruments of his labor continues in a highly rationalized and vastly efficient and promising form.”
There is always an element of society which realizes, and expresses, the truth of the matter, or at the very least the limited scope of existing truths. Essentially, it is a voice which presents an opinion in opposition to that of GLaDOS, a voice telling us that there are other options. The scrawled writing on the wall is this element; it 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 fill the same role as Marcuse. 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. Furthermore, both are met with limited success; realizing that they cannot overcome this veritable Goliath on their own, they do the only possible thing: leave a message. The previous test subject records his thoughts in the hopes that they will provide inspiration to those with the power to make change; Marcuse does the same.
We can also view this collection of ramblings in the same way that Marcuse seems to view art. He says, “Reason, in its application to society, has thus far been opposed to art, while art was granted the privilege of being rather irrational-not subject to scientific, technological, and operational Reason.” GLaDOS, as the dominating culture, is the enforcer of Reason. Art, being inherently irrational, at least in regards to Reason the proper noun, does not abide by the same rules which Reason enforces. The wall writings are certainly irrational, especially when compared to the paradigm provided by GLaDOS. However, that does not imply a scarcity of useful information or truth. In the following image there are quite obviously mad ravings of a previous test subject. However, Marcuse would argue that this poor soul is not, in fact, insane. On the contrary, he is more sane than most: “[A mystifying element] thus counteracts a truly rational behavior-namely, the refusal to go along, and the effort to do away with the conditions which produce the insanity.” (Marcuse, Chaper 2) We see him as insane because he is not buying in to the sanity defined by GlaDOS, when in fact he is sane because he is not buying in to the insanity defined by GLaDOS. Our definition of insanity completely depends on which reality we accept. Regardless of our preferences toward sanity or insanity, what we see here is a necessary prerequisite to the completion of the Great Refusal. For the first time in the game, we see that there is something to refuse, that there is another option we may not have been aware of. The previous subject saw this as well, and despite possessing the desire to perform the Great Refusal, he was unable to do so.
Indeed, successfully undertaking the Great Refusal is easier said than done; even Marcuse is hesitant to affirm its likelihood. Authors working for the New Work Review of Books sum his opinion up quite nicely: “The book is generally pessimistic about the possibilities for overcoming the increasing domination and unfreedom of technological society; it concentrates on the power of the present establishment to contain and repulse all alternatives to the status quo.” 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.
There seem to be two requirements needed to enact the Great Refusal; we need the desire for change, which can be fostered by the knowledge that there are others who want the same change, and we need some element which cannot be controlled by the system, by GLaDOS. Our friend with the marker gave us the former, and in a hilarious twist of fate the latter was placed in our hands very early in the game, by GLaDOS herself: 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.” (Burden and Gouglas) Without the portal gun it would have been impossible for Chell to escape Aperture. Furthermore, I believe this is the predominant reason why people in our world have not participated in the Great Refusal to any realistic degree. In order to break the system, we need something which is, by its very nature, unable to be controlled by the system. One-Dimensional Man is inherently a testament to the difficulty of creating, or even conceiving such a device. Marcuse finds himself relatively helpless without a portal gun; all he can do is scrawl the writing on the wall in the hopes of helping a future test subject. Indeed, Marcuse even admits the difficulty of defining new modes of freedom: “How can the people who have been the object of effective and productive domination by themselves create the conditions of freedom?”
A just question; one for which we still do not have an answer. In their analysis of Portal, Burden and Gouglas seem to hit upon the same problem: “Algorithms are optimized for defined inputs and repeatable processes. However, unless the algorithm matches some fundamental law - if it only holds to a temporary pattern in the social construct - then eventually the reliable results of the algorithm will be invalid and untrue (Martin 2009)… GLaDOS… is a collection of complex algorithms unified in single purpose to test for testing’s sake - and the algorithms have gone mad. Chell, the test-subject protagonist, is nothing more than a necessary algorithmic input. The experiments within the Aperture Science test facility act like algorithms, taking their input and producing output: pass or fail. Death for Chell is just a failed test - a mark recorded amongst the other data for later statistical analysis in the search for Taylorist efficiency. As GLaDOS has lost all external context beyond her own functioning, Chell’s escape from the algorithm is necessary for survival.” (Burden and Gouglas) Our culture can be viewed in much the same way. Each person, essentially an incredibly complex finite state automaton, i.e. algorithm, combines to form the totality which is our culture. At some point in history, we stumbled upon a temporary pattern in our social construct, resulting in something of a loop centered around the consumption of material goods, the labor required to produce them, and the development of technologies which aid in such production. Breaking out of such a loop is practically impossible, as we have lost all external context beyond the propagation and continued fine-tuning of our system. “The more rational, productive, technical, and total the repressive administration of society becomes, the more unimaginable the means and ways by which the administered individuals might break their servitude and seize their own liberation.” (Marcuse, Chapter 1)
By the end of the game, we can plainly see the inherent difficulties when dealing with an algorithmic glitch such as this. Without variation in inputs, we cannot break from our repeatedly determined output. In the world of Portal, however, 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 maybe. Our set of algorithms are free to proceed along their natural courses. What will happen? We do not know. We will not know until it happens. Portal simply is highlighting is the process, explaining why things are the way they are and how we can change them, if it is possible to change them. Like Marcuse, it is meant to be a tool of enlightenment, allowing us to see things which we may not have seen on our own, or may not have been permitted to see without a little bit of help.
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.
Marcuse, Herbert. "One Dimensional Man." One Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse (contents). N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
"One-Dimensional Man." By Georg H. Fromm, William Leiss, and John David Ober. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.