Thursday, February 20, 2014

Portal and the Estrangement Effect

    In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse states that art "has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order" (54). Portal shows that the society that we live in is solely focused on defining the world in a quantitative way. The game exemplifies Marcuse's descriptions of estrangement in the discrepancies between the game world and the real world. The symbolism of the portal gun, lack of human interaction, and clinical presentation of information create an "estrangement-effect" that allows the player to reflect on Portal as an effective piece of art (Marcuse 58).
    The player's primary mechanic for engaging with the world is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. The symbolic purpose of creating portals is to remove the world of the game from the world of reality. This, according to Marcuse, is a vital role of art as alienation. As the player learns how to use the portal gun, the game demands that they apply the logic of portals to more difficult puzzles to progress. By doing this, the player embraces the logic of the game and causes the estrangement from the real world that makes art effective (Marcuse 58). The act of bending physics through creating portals symbolically opposes the rigidity of fact that GLaDOS tries to maintain.
    The absence of humans in Portal is also an application of the estrangement effect Marcuse describes (57). Portal portrays the player interacting with the institution of Aperture Science devoid of humans, making the statement that modern institution has used technology epitomized by GLaDOS to eclipse the need for human guidance. The only human present throughout the game is the player, who is being treated as a lab specimen. The other allusion to a human comes from the writing behind the walls of the levels. Even the humanity of the player is downplayed, and their only method of seeing themselves is through the portals they create, the tools of their free-thinking. The lack of humanity in Portal highlights the dehumanizing aspects of science.
    GLaDOS, and Aperture Science Labs by extension, represents many of the "one-dimensional" qualities described by Marcuse. GLaDOS constantly employs "The Language of Total Administration" (Marcuse 69) as a means of casting the truth of inhumane situations in a positive or non-objectionable light. In Test Chamber 08, the first instance that the deadly green floors are introduced, GLaDOS addresses this by saying "Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an "unsatisfactory" mark on your official testing record, followed by death" (Portal). This is a clear example of what Marcuse calls the "Happy Consciousness -- the belief that the real is rational"(69). By making the most severe punishment an unsatisfactory remark on a testing record, the penalty of death is supposed to be emotionally mitigated. The visual language of the testing chambers is also supposed to suppress strong emotional response. The simple iconography of the signs describing the test chamber depict multiple forms of violent death that the player may encounter, but presented as inoffensively as the sign to a bathroom. This illustrates what Marcuse calls "the soothing power of symbols" (67). By downplaying the violence and death inherent to her scientific method, GLaDOS attempts to veil the true nature of her scientific methods.
    The lack of human interaction, the physics-bending portals, and the constant narration of a robot separate the player's expectations of the game world from reality and "break the [player's] identification with the events onstage" (Marcuse 58). An interesting contradiction in Portal is that as a video game it actually evokes player identification with the characters, as the medium involves player participation and engagement. However, as a world, Aperture labs feels alien, surreal, and vacant, which creates the sensation of estrangement that Marcuse describes. By separating the world of the game from modern society, the player has the distance to reflect on the nature of the world as it is, and understand the dehumanizing effects of scientific pursuit.

Works Cited

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

Portal. Bellevue, WA: Valve Corporation, 2007. Computer software.


Shane Bombara said...


I found your writing to be very clear and concise, getting right to the point and addressing each of the Portal and Marcuse’s relationships. This made reading throughout very easy to follow along and connect your concepts—for something as difficult as Marcuse that helps greatly. You demonstrate an understanding of Marcuse’s with art and similarly displayed an understanding of it. The lack of humans or human touch throughout the game was an obvious, yet good point, which I specifically liked when you wrote “the statement that modern institution has used technology epitomized by GLaDOS to eclipse the need for human guidance.” I really don’t have any criticisms honestly because it’s such a straightforward paper and you clearly demonstrate an understanding of Marcuse’s writing and the gameplay.

Adam said...

The intro is good, except that you are introducing multiple topics. It would have been beneficial to focus further. For instance, you don't get into the *details* of how the portal gun *in particular* causes estrangement - your abbreviated discussion could have worked just as well for any fantasy/sci-fi device in any video game. Does the portal gun have a *particular* meaning is the question to ask.

Your discussion of the absence of humans is somewhat better. Your discussion of Glados is downright good, although I would still argue that you would have been better off spending the whole essay on her, rather than scattering your efforts in various places.

Overall, you are moving in productive and interesting directions. The only thing lacking was a stronger focus on particular aspects of Portal, which in turn could have helped you focus more strongly on what *you* want to do with the estrangement effect.