Thursday, February 20, 2014

Portal is Life

Marcuse’s reading of Brecht in chapter four brings to question whether or not playwrights “represent [the play] in such a manner that the spectator recognizes the truth which the play is to convey.” (Marcuse).  After playing the entire game I find that Portal is a theatre representation of the difficult task of conveying the truth of what life is like in our society.  The game separates life into two different stages of life, the first being childhood and the second being adulthood.  In each stage, the AI is portraying a different character to the player.
In the first stage representative of childhood, the AI plays the part of the parent.  At the beginning of the game, the levels are rather easy and the AI helps the player learn how to use the blocks and one-way portal gun to overcome challenges.  In life this is comparable to a parent toilet training a toddler; telling them how to do it, providing them with special toilets, and direction to accomplish their tasks.  This process goes on for a few levels; the AI teaches the player the basics of playing the game much like a parent teaches their child the basics of being an acceptable member of society like speaking and being toilet trained.  Once the player progresses beyond the early levels and figures out how the game works, the AI stops helping them and allows them to solve the rooms themselves, but with encouraging words after successful completion.  This part of the game is a clear comparison to early childhood, where the parent gives the child more independence and promotes their success with positive reinforcement.
After a few levels of independence the AI introduces a new factor that challenges the player a little more than the other levels by introducing the player to pessimism.  In this level the AI tells the player to just give up, the level is broken and impossible to complete. Now the AI might not be acting exactly like a parent from this point on but it is teaching the player life lessons within the levels it created, lessons a parent should teach to their children.  The level in the game involving the companion cube is another life lesson to the player being taught by the AI.  Here the player is given the companion cube, being told it is their friend to help solve the level.  The player gets attached to this idea and cannot solve the level without the cube but is forced to destroy it at the end in order to continue on with the game.  By forcing the player to destroy the cube at the end, the AI is actually teaching several life lessons.  For example, sometimes friends, even those that have helped a person get to where they are now, need to be left behind in order to move forward.  Another lesson would be that using other people for one’s gains may seem easy while doing it but when the other person has to be discarded it can become a very emotionally difficult thing to do.
At the last level of the “test” part of the game, the AI resumes its role as a parent.  Here the parent releases the child to the world, this stage in life is symbolically represented by the room filled with fire.   When the child has learned all the lessons the parent has to teach them, the parent lets them leave their supervision and they can take what they have learned and survive in the real world or fail miserably and potentially die.  The symbolism here is using the portal gun to escape or accepting the fate of not being prepared to face the real world and burning in the fire.  Concluding the escape of the fire room, the player is now assuming the stage in life of adulthood.  They are not constrained by the test environments and are free to do as they please.  The goal here shifts from completing the tests to escaping the facility. In the analogy with life, the comparable goal is to be successful.  At this point the AI then assumes the role of a person in life who does not wish for the player to succeed by telling them that they’re going the wrong way when they’re not or trying to convince them not to proceed.  The facility itself is throwing all sorts of things at the player too; complicated areas to get through, helpful writings on the walls from others, and the little horror writings in blood of “Help” from others who have attempted the same goal and failed.  These are all comparable to events a person would encounter on their journey to achieve success.
During the end of the game, the player either overcomes all the obstacles thrown at them, including destroying the AI, to escape or chokes to death wondering what escape would have been like. The same idea applies to becoming successful.  A person either makes it or dreams of what it would be like.  Only once the player finishes the game and they are able to step back from it and think about what it meant are they able to realize its representation of the truth of life in our society.  Marcuse refers to this as the “estrangement-effect.”  “. . . the theatre must break the spectator’s identification with the events on stage.  Not empathy and feeling, but distance and reflection are required. “ (Marcuse Chapter 3).  Portal as a video game manages this in perfection.  It is really difficult if not impossible to identify with someone trapped in a testing facility run by a murderous AI, but stepping back and reflecting on the game’s plot allows the player to discover that it is portraying the truth of what life in our society is like.


Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Beacon Press Boston. 1964. Print
Portal. Computer Game


Courtney Elvin said...


I would like to start off with a huge “well done!” because not only was the basis of your argument wildly interesting to me, but also I think it was well supported and analyzed from start to finish, a very complete argument. When I finished reading your introductory paragraph, the thesis at that point seemed slightly vague, but as I got through more, the structure did make sense. Again, really good analysis. I found myself asking questions as I read that you would go on to answer in the next paragraph. One part that could use more clarification is once the player escapes how the AI’s relationship then changes. Does it maintain any of that parental nature? GLaDOS does still want to keep track of the player, much like an overprotective parent, but how does that fit in with what you’re saying about her becoming the voice of “tough love” from the real world?

If you were to revise this post in the future, there are a few topics I’d encourage you to delve into. What you start to say about the estrangement-effect in the conclusion is interesting, and supports that this is inspired by Marcuse, but that is a direction you could take future additions, to explore how that further integrates with your argument. Also, maybe investigate the significance further in a longer piece: what are we supposed to learn from this parallel? What is the statement that the game is trying to make with this? Or questions along those lines. Overall, I think you did a fantastic job, and the argument is well-made, well-supported, well-analyzed, and incredibly interesting!


Adam said...

Childhood vs. adulthood caught me off guard, but in a good way - that's a very interesting approach. I'm not convinced it will work with Marcuse, but I'll be impressed if you make it work.

Before I get to the middle - the actual content - let me comment on the ending, where you make the tenuous connection back to Marcuse. One difficulty here is that although you clearly get what Marcuse is saying about estrangement *as such*, you aren't really engaging with Marcuse's area(s) of interest about our world/society/etc.

Now, regarding the middle sections. I think you needed to work with some of the difficulties inherent in your argument: Glados, if a parent, is a wildly abusive parent. Rather than engaging with the brutality of her "parenting" you try to make it more smoothly it your metaphor. But I really think the more interesting approach would be to really engage with here as a kind of brutalizing satire of what parenthood (or education?) is for us - which, by the way, would link you back much more clearly and directly to Marcuse.

So the idea is good - but you aren't following it through to its conclusions. Glados as *bad* parent is the really interesting possibility here.