Thursday, February 20, 2014

Portal and Industrialization

        Debate has long raged concerning the question if video games deserve to be called art. On one level, many games are the artistic equivalent of a stick figure drawing, with limited though put into the game beyond how to monetize it. However, there exists a class of games more thoughtfully designed, one of which is Portal, by Valve Software. Portal makes the case for a video game classifying as art, due to the thought and polish put into the game.  The world of Portal and the manner in which the player interacts with the game-world stands, in the Herbert Marcuse and Bertolt Brecht sense, as theater to represent the condition of the worker in a society of industrial expansion.

        In One Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse, the author makes the argument that in order to avoid one-dimensionality in thinking, art must be able to convey lessons to the audience, “a doctrine which has to be learned, comprehended, and acted upon” (Marcuse). Much like how parables were used by Jesus to explain moral concepts to the masses, or stained glass windows created to educate the illiterate, Marcuse believes that art must enlighten the public through entertainment, and hope that by showing the world in a state of “negativity that must be negated” (Marcuse), the public learns from the artist’s lesson.
The bulk of Portal consists of the player’s character (named Chell) solving a set of puzzles of increasing difficulty, with the help of a “Portal Gun”, which allows for the creation of physics-defying wormholes from one location to another, allowing for the conservation of mass, speed, and momentum, all of which must be used to solve the puzzles. The puzzles are set to Chell by an artificial intelligence named GLaDOS (Genetic Life-form and Disk Operating System) (Portal).

        Here, GLaDOS, and the testing she conducts on Chell, represents the modern industrial complex. GLaDOS pushes Chell to complete every test, and is solely driven by results. Any player mistakes are criticized by the artificial intelligence and any successes are met with a new, more dangerous test to do. The pattern of testing represents the nature of the current industrial society, one that is driven only by results. The employee (Chell) is only useful to GLaDOS as long as Chell keeps producing, otherwise, Chell will be killed. Near the end of the game, GLaDOS (the management) intends to kill (fire) Chell (the employee), as Chell is no longer needed. Even though Chell has done all that was assigned to her, she is no longer necessary. The modern industrial complex cares less about individual people, but in efficiency. If an employee is no longer necessary, ties are cut without regret. The game is telling the player that in a society focused on industrial expansion, individuals are less valuable, and are replaceable.

        The environment the game takes place in serves to reinforce this metaphor. The entire game takes place in environments that seem almost sterile (Like this chamber: All white walls, harsh fluorescent lighting, constant monitoring, no unnecessary elements, and even once the player is outside of a testing chamber, the rest of the environment consists of only office space and factories. The implication here is that with the expansion of the industry, the lives of the workers  will eventually be limited to what occurs at work, and any other leisure task is rendered inaccessible to the worker due to the all-consuming nature of industrial work. The game is a linear game, in that there is a clear start and end to each level, and there is no player choice in the eventual outcome of the game. The most amount of freedom the player has is limited to how creatively he or she can solve the puzzles, and in the destruction of GLaDOS’s monitoring cameras. The linearity of the game is a metaphor for how the worker’s freedom becomes limited as a consequence of industrialization.

        Chell, in the story, is also manipulated emotionally GLaDOS. Throughout the game, the player is promised “cake”, as a reward for completing all the test chambers. The cake is representative of job satisfaction, of personal fulfilment and is a concrete extrinsic motivator, and after completing the mentally grueling test chambers, the player feels as if he or she has earned that cake. When the player is told that the cake is in fact non-existent, the player does feel let down. Tying this to the fear of industrialization metaphor, the developer implies that with the rise of mechanization, the inherent positive feeling of completing work, caused by intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, is withheld, and work becomes something that you do, but gain no pleasure from. And finally, GLaDOS forces the player to incinerate the Companion Cube (, a cube that was used to solve puzzles, and was carried around through a level. The player grew attached to the cube, felt a genuine feeling of regret as it was burned. Here the linearity of the game forces the player to take an action they feel is reprehensible, but the player must continue. From this, the player is harshly reminded that with industrial expansion, even the worker becomes dehumanized, and is be forced to take actions he or she is morally opposed to.

        The scrawled paintings are also interesting to note. Hidden within the pristine chambers are cracks in the surface, where graffiti can be seen, with scrawl upon the walls, and slightly disturbing paintings are visible. One example is this: ( They all seem to glorify the Companion Cube (which you are forced to destroy later), and talk about the falsity of the cake, and of the fear of GLaDOS. From these images, the player assumes that another person was also a test subject of GLaDOS, who escaped, and existed outside of the AI’s control. The implication here is that the involvement of GLaDOS in the individual’s life drove them mad, leading to horrific drawings in hidden places. The result of showing the madness of another human helps to demonstrate how controlling and humanity-destroying industry can make its workers.

        Working back to Marcuse, the medium in which the relationship of the worker and the new industrial machine is illumined is important. Marcuse makes a specific note that, in order to pass the message of the art onto the audience, art must overcome the “estrangement-effect” (Marcuse). This effect details that there is a divide between watching and comprehending, and the audience member must make the effort to separate the performance from what was experience, and see it in a larger context, accompanied by deeper thought. At the surface, Portal is a puzzle game, but in a larger context, it becomes a lesson to the player about extreme industrialization. By having Portal take place in an interactive medium, where the player is actively engaged, rather than passive, helps to overcome the estrangement effect. By literally destroying the only friend you had in the game, or overcoming obstacles in spite of GLaDOS, the player becomes part of the art, and is able to overcome the estrangement effect more easily. Secondly, Portal fills the “state of negativity which is to be negated” idea of Marcuse. The author believed the best way to show a truth was to extend it to the most negative conclusion, by way of forcing the audience to realize the possible negative outcome must be stopped. The GLaDOS and Chell relationship and the dangerous and harsh things Chell had to overcome stand as an outcome for humanity that must be prevented. The game designers took the idea of industrialization, and extended it to an extreme, but probable, conclusion, to ensure the message of the game was received by the players.

        The game ends with Chell going out in a blaze of glory, by overcoming GLaDOS and becoming free in the most Marxist way possible, in that Chell overcame the social superiors through a violent and deadly revolution. The original ending of the game had Chell lying on the surface of earth, surrounded by the destruction she wrought, but that ending was retroactively changed in order to create a sequel (Funk). Using the original ending, the game ends saying that extreme industrialization can be avoided by individual thought, and creative action. The game Portal is more than just a good video game, but stands as a metaphor for the dangers of extreme industrialization, where the individual is subjugated for the greater good, to disastrous effects. The game is successful in delivering its message due to the interactive medium it was presented in, and serves as a good example of art being used to impress a message upon the audience.

Works Cited
Funk, John. "Portal Has a New Ending." The Escapist Magazine. Alloy Digital LLC, 3 Mar. 2010. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print

Portal. Bellevue, WA: Valve Corporation, 2008. Computer software.

Any pictures linked to are property of the original poster and website it was linked to.


Jake Stambaugh said...

I think that this essay does well to use the specific example of what Portal says about Industrialization to show that it is saying something and is therefore art. To revise the paper, I think it would be beneficial to incorporate the two ideas more consistently throughout. For instance, the second paragraph seems to make two unrelated points in parallel, one about Marcuse's definition of art and one about the basics of Portal, but I don't feel like these two ideas are discussed in relation to each other in the paragraph, and only much later in the paper.

The instances of Portal used to describe industrialization are well used. The thesis that Portal shows industrialization in a negative light is clear, however I feel like it needs to tie back to Marcuse's definition of art more often. You eventually do when you discuss the estrangement effect, but instead of comparing it to your existing arguments you create new ones. In all, I feel like consistency should be the focus of a revision, and the definition of art should be brought up more often since it is the thesis.

Adam said...

Your introduction is very good despite being a little wordy (I mean the 1st two paragraphs taken together), though the 3rd paragraph seems totally unnecessary.

There's a lot that works well through the rest of the essay. While it succeeds as it stands, I also feel like in some ways it operates as an outline. You are making an argument which touches on many different aspects of the game and how they all connect to a Marcusean interpretation of it, rather than taking one or two aspects of the game and interpreting them in detail.

For instance, take the minimalism/sterility of the graphics. This is a smart approach, especially since it deals with artistic *form* as well as simply narrative *events*. It's a good enough approach that it's worth dealing with in depth. Is the whole game minimalistic, or do some parts of it become messy or baroque? If the minimalism is consistent, what does that mean? If it is interrupted, what does that mean? Similarly, your analysis of the companion cube & the estrangement effect was both smart and rushed - you're heading in the right directions, and yet at the same time I'm not convinced that you really fully understand what the estrangement effect *is*.

Here's an attempt at a rewording: all of your ideas are good, but the devil is in the details. You've begun to touch on the details, but this actually is an unusual essay which could be turned into a successful revision just by making every thumbnail analysis into a detailed one - more images, more depth, more investigation of the hard parts, etc.

I agree with Jake, incidentally - you oversimplify both Portal and Marcuse in some ways by focusing too much on industrialization rather than the meaning/role of art in the industrial world.