Thursday, February 20, 2014

Portal: A Funhouse Mirror

Dennis Madden
Portal and Linear Sociology
Prompt 3
            The sociological valence of Portal hinges on its careful quasi-embodiment of multifaceted 21st century humanity into the character of GLaDOS. The character of GLaDOS, which stands for ‘Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System’, represents much more than a psychotic AI. Though the Aperture Science research facility and its mastermind GLaDOS parallel the rise of superior technological entities, I believe that the nature of GLaDOS is a critical satire of the progression of societal influence. By assuming the guise of a technological psychopath, GLaDOS effectively diverts the player’s attention away from her human criticism. Individuals, and humans in general, often have difficulties when tasked to be self -critical. In this way, the generalized consciousness of a society rarely perceives itself in a negative light; it is only by transforming society into something impersonal that we can be productively deceived into being objectively critical about our own proceedings.
“That which is ‘natural’ must assume the features of the extraordinary. Only in this manner can the laws of cause and effect reveal themselves” (Marcuse 67). In Portal, the Aperture Science research facility is anything but natural.  The test cubicles within which we are subjected to the trials of a world of steel and cement are symbolic of our natural lives as humans in a social system. By the means of mass media and generalized political opinion, our existences are operationally structured and we are guided by social norms. Each ‘trial’ in Portal represents a task or stage in our life that we are coached to complete. The social paradigm dictates our adherence to ‘The Authority’, which ensures that we follow certain social laws and behave acceptably. Deviance from The Authority is threatened with violence, and we are required to utilize our given resources to pass each life landmark in a linear nature.  
Marcuse suggests ways in which the artist must translate society in order to expose it to our criticism “Obviously, the physical transformation of the world entails the mental transformation of its symbols, images, and ideas” (Marcuse 66). The reconstruction must be foreign enough such that society is not suspicious of its own critical portrayal, yet must be familiar enough to be effectively believed. The environment of Aperture manages to be unnatural with its incorporation of futuristic machines and technology, but at the same time these objects and ideas are subconsciously familiar to us. The realistic physics of Portal, such as gravity, momentum, and orientation serve to establish a world that behaves like ours. Robotic turrets, pneumatic platforms, and energy lasers are all ideas relatively well ingrained in the imagination of modern society, yet they remain realistically estranged enough such that we are unfamiliar with their potential social implications. This environment, along with entertaining gameplay mechanics, distracts us from the fact that we are being subjected to a piece of auto-criticism.
In Portal, the level progression is constructed with a feeling of upward-ness; the character always seems to be travelling towards the ceiling and the light that lies above. By constantly being promised the equivalent of happiness in the form of cake, we are deceived by the elite influential powers of our society into continuing on our linear journey in order to fulfill their best interests instead of ours. It serves us when we conform, because conformance to the system facilitates our progress through the promise of reward. Throughout our journey through Aperture we also see the clear evidence of what happens to people who don’t conform (remember, if you do not comply, you do not get cake!). The hideouts of social deviants located behind walls in the complex’s inner workings show the remains of those who either refused to progress, or those who simply could not keep up with the societal train. ‘Help’ scrawled across walls in blood represents the underserved and impoverished, seeking mercy from the master Authority yet with no help being offered. The main character must look past these pleas in order to progress: after all, we always look out for number one. We would even burn our best friend in a fire if it were necessary for us to progress. Neither Aperture Science nor modern society reward or support the welfare state; careful ideological metamorphosis in Portal helps us realize these critical flaws of our own society.
            As we progress through Portal, the voice of GLaDOS becomes less helpful, and we eventually realize that she is manipulating us to get us to succumb to her desires. This transformation symbolizes individual emancipation from societal control through realization of said control’s existence. Once we realize that we are being manipulated, we embark on the struggle to defeat our manipulator. The story proceeds as an allegorical work of art detailing the struggle of the individual against societal authority.
            When we begin our revolt, the testing chambers and task based succession cease, and we are left to climb by our own accord. The environment changes from a technologically aesthetic environment to the more realistic rusted corridors and sewage pipes of the sites internal infrastructure. While our revolution rages on, the Authority reminds us that we are wrong to deviate: we must immediately revert to our sheep-like place in the system, working to progress down the track of predestination. Authority clearly proclaims to us that there is no success, there is no reward, there is no cake, NOTHING without conformance. By making these claims, societal Authority attempts to break our spirit. It nearly works, but we had already come too far and knew too much.
            The destruction of societal influence (and thus the supposed destruction of GLaDOS) is initially perceived as a permanent victory: an individual’s struggle leads to that one individual’s victory. We are even FINALLY given cake, along with our companion cube! It looks like liberation from societal Authority allowed us to choose our own destiny, with truly favorable results.
Victory? Think Again.
            Marcuse though, implies that a critical analysis of society through representative negation achieves its greatest levels of influence when its influence is hard to perceive. When we see that we get the cake and the cube after the defeat of Authority, we believe ourselves liberated from said destroyed Authority. Portal seems to portray the victory of the individual, but reveals a much more sinister scenario instead. The credit song “Still Alive” is GLaDOS’ victory lap, stating that she is indeed still alive, though her body was destroyed. “I’m not even angry. I’m being so sincere right now. Even though you broke my heart and killed me. And tore me to pieces. And threw every piece into a fire. As they burned it hurt because I was so happy or you!” (GLaDOS). This subverted message suggests that even though we seem victorious over Authority, it welcomes us back! Societal influence will never hold a grudge: it will always beckon you in with open arms. As long as there is Authority existent in society, you are subjected to it even if by proxy through others. Although one individual might appear to break free, societal Authority always has the upper hand. The vast majority will succumb to the conditional promise of success, and Authority will churn on victoriously.  When GLaDOS says at the end, “And believe me I am still alive. I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive. While you’re dying I’ll be still alive. And when you’re dead I will be still alive”, she lets us know that we have not won: our victory is fool’s gold given to us to continue keeping us quiet. Thus, Portal’s critical and estranged analysis claims that our victories are a false product of Authority to make us ‘think’ we’ve won, when we truly have lost irrefutably.

              “One Dimensional Man” : Marcuse

            “Portal” Valve


Jessica Craig said...

There seems to be a sharp division between your opening paragraph and your second paragraph. How does this idea of the natural relate to self-criticism? Your second paragraph begins with a quote from Marcuse; I think you could introduce this quote and, moreover, the idea that Marcuse discusses here. This might bridge your first two paragraphs together and will also build a stronger connection between the game and the novel.
You assert that “Each ‘trial’ in Portal represents a task or stage in our life that we are coached to complete. The social paradigm dictates our adherence to ‘The Authority’, which ensures that we follow certain social laws and behave acceptably.” I think this is the start of a really strong argument, but maybe use an example to illustrate a stage in life that the game represents.
Overall, I think your essay presents a lot of insightful analysis of both Portal and One-Dimensional Man. However, I think it is trying to explain too much; each new paragraph brings up entirely new ideas, which are all very good and very insightful but warrant further explanation. I could see each paragraph becoming an essay all on its own. Perhaps this is because One-Dimensional Man is such an in-depth and complicated book; it is hard to separate out any one of Marcuse’s ideas let alone analyze Portal as well.

Adam said...

Question: what is the relationship between your thesis that Glados is basically a representation of societal control/authority, and the particularity of her technological incarnation? I think you can answer that question well, but forcing yourself to be specific about obvious difficulties like that keeps you from getting overly lost in abstractions. You circulate around all sorts of good ideas - and yet, in the first three paragraphs, it's still hard for me to really be sure of what your *specific* analyst of Portal entails. More grounding in specifics is usually good for almost all of us almost all of the time - that general advice certainly applies to you.

I loved your analysis of the hidden rooms & the social deviance they contain, although the discussion it was embedded within was, once more, a little overly general.

Look at this: "Once we realize that we are being manipulated, we embark on the struggle to defeat our manipulator. The story proceeds as an allegorical work of art detailing the struggle of the individual against societal authority." Is this transformation to be taken at face value, or is it all a little too easy - in other words, should we ask whether we continue to be manipulated even as the plot demands that we fight against our oppressor? One could argue - using Marcuse - that we are moving between styles or eras of domination here, and that the apparent opposition of Glados and Chell is like the apparent opposition between the US and Soviet Union - deadly but somehow fake at the same time.

You of course move in that same direction at the end, when analyzing Glados's song. So let me ask a couple further questions:

1) The fact that Glados is really triumphant also relates back to Marcuse, and to the continued triumph of one-dimensional society. What do you do with that?
2) Does Glados' ongoing victory mean that art *fails* (as Marcuse argues)? Or can you do something different with the role of art in modern society, after recognizing that what Portal does is represent false victories and apparent triumphs.

Overall: Conceptually good, especially at the end, but a little wordy and a little light on detail in some spots. Ripe for rewrite/expansion - there's lots more to do with Marcuse here, especially at the end.