Aperture Science Compared to Modern Work Environment
The Aperture Science Labs of Valve’s “Portal” are futuristic technology laboratories that use human subjects as tools for testing weapons technology. Like Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, one of “Portal’s” artistic messages is to convey the manipulation of laborers for the sake of progress, especially in the fields of the scientific, the rational, and defense technology.
In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse emphasizes the importance of the “estrangement effect,” or breaking the audience’s engagement to the events of some theatrical effect (Marcuse, 67). Through the gameplay of “Portal”, the player’s character, Chelle, experiences an estrangement effect. It is reasonable to assume that Chelle is just learning about the world she is in, parallel to the first-time player of “Portal,” upon her awakening. Thus, both Chelle and the player are actively engaged in learning. But as danger of the level increases, it becomes egregiously apparent that Aperture Science is exploiting workers while “disappear[ing] behind the façade of objective rationality,” (Marcuse, 32). This estrangement from Aperture’s testing is accentuated by interruptions in the puzzle gameplay of “hidden passages” like the one pictured below.
This kind of interruption serves to disrupt Chelle from the testing as the only world, and to imply that an overarching deception is used to manipulate the laborer; simply put, “The cake is a lie.” From this, “Portal” is alerting players that the evidence of their exploitation for rationality is present when the system is examined more closely. Yet, just as Chelle continues with the exploitative testing, real world labors continue to subject themselves to their toils for lack of any escape. “Portal” designers are attempting to alert the player to the “totalitarian” nature of their day-job. Also, that managers and administration will deceive employees with the false hope that there will be compensation, beyond that of their wage, for cooperation with the system (i.e. promotions, bonuses, titles, etc.).
A remarkable development in “Portal” is found in the climax of the video game. Though game character Chelle is aware of her enslavement, by Marcuse’s definition of slavery as a person devolving to a mere tool to be used, she remains compliant (Marcuse, 32). This compliance is promptly terminated as Chelle faces her fate of death as a worn out tool to be discarded.
“Portal” designers are attempting to convey that, in only matters of life and death, individuals will rebel against their oppressor. This is a situation in which the evolutionary “fight-or-flight” response overwhelms the urge to submit to slavery. Chelle’s rebellion was an extraordinary one; players can assume that many previous subjects were unable to create the opportunity for liberation. This should be viewed as a warning of how the big corporation guiltlessly discards humans as tools, yet only a small percent of individuals have the courage and the means of a revolt against the company.
Would not the modern worker be protected from these repetitive violations of occupational safety violations? Of course they would; the Union would never allow workers’ life or limb to become a liability to the company. Would, though, the Union protect the average worker’s liberties? “The union is not going to convince missile workers that the company they work for is a fink outfit when both the union and the corporation are out lobbying for bigger missile contracts,” (Marcuse, 20). This lack of union representation allows Aperture Science to construct a truly hostile work environment for its subjects. Though the modern worker is unlikely to face the threat of literal conflagration, they do, especially in a tumultuous economy, face the constant threat of losing their job and means to support life. Without the strong union behind them to protect them from vulnerability, workers could likely accept a poor work environment with constant reminder that they may be expended. And laborers accept that they “Are in the swing of things” or as Marcuse explains the oppression is misguidedly regarded as, “Things swing rather than oppress and they swing the human instrument- not only its body, but also its mind and even its soul ,” (Marcuse 26).
Examining the artistic storyline of “Portal” provides a revealing image of the modern workplace in which the big corporation is able to oppress laborers. Ultimately, the protagonist of the game committed to a rebellion of her slaver and, though futile, the revolt is depicted as a favorable end. “Portal” conveys a message of encouragement of self-determined liberation from the laborers’ working place of imprisonment and servitude.