Thursday, February 20, 2014

Portal Exemplifies Marcuse

            In life, things are constantly developing, changing what we thought we knew about yesterday from the old to the new.  Society is a combination of the repetitive integration of the new, which trickles down to the individual, altering our perceptions of the natural world because people “higher” than us on the social ladder said so.  We accept it.  We have no way of knowing what isn’t true.  It is believed that the “experts” provide the appropriate applicable information, but most often, the presentation of such has a hidden agenda.  Advertisements, commercialism, mass progress, want, want, want, need, need, need.  Things aren’t always what they seem to be in reality.  Just like Alice of Alice in Wonderland didn’t expect to fall into a different dimension by way of a simple rabbit hole, the game Portal shows us that things turn out to be different from the superficial presentation in fictional stories, but also transcend the real world. 
            Portal exemplifies the writings of Herbert Marcuse to tell us about the truth in the machine of the natural world: most nothing is as it seems.  Marcuse says that, “democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial society, a token of technological progress.” (Marcuse 1) Portal is a game of progress, in the simplest terms.  The completion of easy tasks in the beginning of the game are merely there to understand the use of portals and to acquire the skills necessary to pass larger more complex situations, like the physical destruction of GLaDOS in the game’s conclusion.  The importance of that restriction of progress is that progress itself is not a neutral term; it moves toward defined ends regardless of the means.  (Marcuse 16) Given a portal gun and equipped with the possibility of creating multiple portals at once, Portal seemingly has an undefinable number of dimensions and possibilities of creating avenues for the success of the task.  It is physically possible to exemplify this.  When angled correctly looking through a portal, you can look through that portal to see your character looking through an infinite number of successive portals.  However, no matter how many times you proceed through the first portal, the counter portal is always in the same place.  It is possible to continually go through the same two portals, but not actually advance anywhere, which is the case in building up momentum.  Rather, whatever set that’s placed might not have the same start and end on the small scale, but has the same ultimate end (within the game), which is controlled by GLaDOS. 
Outside of this physicality, even though it seems like you are given freedom in the game, with

seemingly endless possibilities to explore, each situation and piece of equipment or advice given or space available, as well as the speech of GLaDOS prove to show direction for one overriding goal.  The events that transpire during gameplay are not individual, including the acquirement of the companion cube, an event riddled with sentiment in that it is the only thing taken with you throughout a level other than the portal gun, and GLaDOS specifically says that it’s important.  Though it seems individualistically empowering to have this at your disposal, it is actually not.  This lack of connection is clearly displayed in the “hidden rooms” that look like a previous simulator had been staying there.  The walls are riddled with writings of warnings and emotional expressions like, “though Earth and man are gone, I thought the cube would last forever. I was wrong.” 

Furthermore, there are multiple pictures of the cube with hearts drawn in blood all around them and pictures of people with the cube as a head, signifying its ultimate connection as not just an object, but a friend in an unforgiving set of tasks.  This is proven further in another writing on the wall, “perceiving inanimate objects as alive and hallucinations.  I’m not hallucinating. You are. The companion cube would never desert me.” The tie to the companion cube is clearly something that has happened before that ended poorly, which the player comes to find out when forced to destroy the cube by GLaDOS before moving onto the next level.  This is a further manipulation by GLaDOS to make things seem like they really aren’t.  The first is the physical being of the cube, making you think that it will be your friend forever to help with the destruction of her.  The second is the presence of the room with the writings themselves.  GLaDOS is always watching the progress of the player via cameras on the walls, even when she claims to not be.  Though it is unclear if she knew exactly what was written on the walls, she still had to have known the room was there nonetheless, indicating that its discovery was all just part of her plan.  During gameplay, however, this just seems like a small egg of insight into what the simulation is all about. 
This lack of solitude is a truth of the world; Marcuse says impossibility of solitude is a consequence of the advanced industrial society.  (Marcuse 71) This is not just an extension of the censorship due to the higher availability of pronunciation of thought, but of the individual restrictions placed by the individual upon himself by way of the mass media. 
The companion cube would serve as an additional resource to Marcuse in identification of what seems to be contrasted with reality in the form of Berolt Brecht.  Brecht questions whether it is still possible to “represent the contemporary world in the theater” – which explained, would require to, “represent it in such a manner that the spectator recognizes the truth which the play is to convey.” (Marcuse 66) Portal, abstractly, is the construction of a play, and the spectator is the player of the game, which fits in this situation because the hand was forced by GLaDOS.  The companion cube is the means to which the truth or reality of the game is recognized, which is that everything learned or instructed in the game is a lie.  This yields reinforcement from the writings on the dwellings’ walls of the previous simulator too, which says, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”

Consistently, the walls read, “the cake is a lie,” but the act of destroying the companion cube is the tear from the game.  The cube is meant to give attachment to the game, just as the characters of the play (since all the game is played alone), so it feels less like a game that’s being played by an outsider.  The reality is brought back upon the player when he must destroy and break identification with the very thing that was gifted to him (and saved his life), though this is what GLaDOS wanted as a test of will in killing, and to expose herself as a liar, so the player would then feel no remorse in her dismantling at the end of the game, though this is also what she wanted, as evidence by her song in the credits about living on.  The game was not meant for the simulator the whole time, it was a display of power and manipulation by a thing, GLaDOS which was never physically there the whole time, but still drove the action of constriction.  Marcuse exemplifies this idea in the real world as organized bureaucracy, which administers inhumanity through an invisible vital center. (Marcuse 71)
            “Entertainment and learning are not opposites; entertainment may be the most effective mode of learning.” (Marcuse 67) Though Portal is entertaining as an entity of videogames, it exemplifies and further clarifies central ideas of Marcuse’s writings, particularly that things are most notably not what they actually are or seem to be.  Though the game is a fictional representation, the embodiment transcends its technological bounds in the world.

Works Cited: 

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

Portal. Computer Game



Brendan Demich said...


I think you have a great perception of the gameplay of Portal. Your execution of encorporating "ODM" was well done.

Now to the specifics. I don't particularly have a grevience with how your introduction is constructed. However, I do think a better introduction would have reflected the rest of your paper more closely. You may already follow this procedure, but I might suggest returning to your introduction after completing the paper.

I am interested in the later portion of your second paragraph. Some of the observations about Portal are astute and very possibly relevent, but they seem to lack development. If revising this essay, be sure to develop on the ideas of Portal having "undefinable dimensions" and "building momentum." Or if you choose to follow a different direction with a revision of this essay, don't necessarily include these points because I mentioned them.

For your third paragraph, you may want to refine the structure slightly. The first two paragraphs seem related to the following points you make, but I failed to make the connection. I believe if the first two sentences were reworded or refocused, your third paragraph would have more cohesion.

The following example you make from ODM are very nicely done. I enjoy especially your expansion on the estrangment effect that Brecht defines. The point in which you relate GLaDOS to organized bureaucracy is one that I believe you could expand more upon.

Overall, I think your essay is rife with excellent observation and examples. To improve though, would be to expand on the meaning on some of the observations that were made.

Adam said...

Your intro was a little wordy, but I liked the engagement and the hint of passion.

This, of course, is your real introduction, and I wish I'd written it: "Marcuse says that, “democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial society, a token of technological progress.” (Marcuse 1) Portal is a game of progress, in the simplest terms." You are taking a lot of complexity and boiling it down in an insightful way.

So now you've set yourself up to either reveal Portal as a work *about* progress (a critique of it), or perhaps as a failed/incomplete work about it it. Good.

There are many fantastic insights through the rest of the essay, but none of it is as clearly structured as it might be. You analyze a number of topics from interesting angles - the perverse lack of solitude in a game where you are the only real character, Glados's systematic (but also absurd) manipulation, the meaning of the companion cube. I liked all of it in individual pieces, but I felt like we jumped around too much. I also felt like the analysis of how the companion cube relates to estrangement and the theater wasn't quite there. It seems like it's on the edge of being a transformative (at least for me) insight into the game, but it's not at all done.

Let me try to throw in my voice. You are getting at the lies around the companion cube. But what about the absurdity, the attempt to create from a metal box an object of love and passion? The great thing is that absurdity is precisely what the theatre of Brecht traffics in. You're starting to bring together some of the disparate elements of Portal which are difficult to bring together - minimalism (see parts of Tom's essay), absurdity (which nobody talks about enough), lies and manipulation (which you, of course, are good on), but you're not actually doing it yet.

This has a wealth of great material, but could use a thorough rewrite to clarify the main argument even before you started adding on to it.