Thursday, February 20, 2014

Prompt 2: Marcuse’s “Concept” in Portal

“The cake is a concept.
The cake is a concept.
The cake is a concept.
The cake is a concept.”

This is what the writing on the wall in Valve Corporation's 2007 video game, Portal, may as well have said according to Herbert Marcuse. The actual phrase reads “The cake is a lie” over and over:

The way that Portal repeatedly presents the idea of the cake is an example of Marcuse’s writings on what he calls “concepts” through both language and pictorial representations in One-Dimensional Man. Beyond being a demonstration of this topic, the cake in Portal functions to open discussion on manipulation through the manner of rhetoric and image presentation, as Marcuse also investigates.

Marcuse introduces a precise definition of the term, “concept”, in chapter 4. He says, “‘Concept’ is taken to designate the mental representation of something that is understood, comprehended, known as the result of a process of reflection. This something may be an object of daily practice, or a situation, a society, a novel” (Marcuse 83). Additionally, he explains the interchangeability of concepts and their respective images, “This language controls by reducing the linguistic forms and symbols … by substituting images for concepts. It denies or absorbs the transcendent vocabulary; it does not search for but establishes and imposes truth and falsehood” (Marcuse 81).

With this defined, Portal can been analyzed as containing a strong example of this idea in the cake. The cake in Portal is presented as a concept both in its visuals as well as description through language in the form of GLaDOS’s narration. Visually, the cake appears on the warnings sign at the start of each level: 

Each square depicts a danger or skill that, when illuminated, is present/necessary in the level about to be played. The cake is symbol is seen in the lower right square as a graphic symbol like the other hazards on every level description. Marcuse’s take on repetition supports the reasoning: “it is tinged with a false familiarity -- the result of constant repetition, and of the skillfully managed popular directness of the communication” (Marcuse 74). The repetition of the image contributes to the purpose of the cake as a motivational tool, whether the player is consciously aware of it or not.

The depiction of the cake in the writings and drawings on the walls behind the clinical walls of the level reveal to the player that the cake is, in fact, a lie 

The combination of the drawing of the cake as well as the frantic-looking text depict the urgency of the discovery, and that it is information that was meant (intentionally by GLaDOS) to be kept from the player, as it was only delivered to the player by this secretive message. However, the game developers clearly wanted the player to know because of the presence of these “discoveries”. This allows the player to take a more objective look at GLaDOS’s use of manipulation through the cake as a symbol.

Through language, the cake is only presented through GLaDOS’s narration, the first occurrence being in chamber 9. At first it is used as a promised reward for you (the player) at the conclusion of your completion of the tests (along with grief counseling in chamber 12). But once the player approaches the end of the tests and is going to be destroyed, the cake’s full purpose becomes clear. It is a tool of manipulation GLaDOS tries to utilize on the player, which is able to be thwarted because of the planted suspicion that “the cake is a lie”. As the player goes through the escape level, GLaDOS tries to lure the player back on track with the promise of cake. At one point she says, “Uh oh. Somebody cut the cake. I told them to wait for you, but they did it anyway. There is still some left, though, if you hurry back” (Portal, escape level). She tries to use it to manipulate the player, even though the player is aware that it is an empty promise, exposing and recognizing it as a false promise.

The cake fits Marcuse’s definition of a concept because without being told, the player knows that initially, the promise of cake is a good thing. The player knows that cake is the reward for performing well at these tasks and knows this without being explicitly told. This is an example of Marcuse’s take on a concept: “These terms are generally understood so that their mere appearance produces a response (linguistic or operational) adequate to the pragmatic context in which they are spoken” (Marcuse 71). While not the literal reward to the player sitting behind a computer screen, the lure of the prize still exists in both the language and the visuals presented and does elicit the desired response, the continuation of play.

Marcuse addresses this manipulation in an earlier section of his writing to make a relevant point: “Just as people know or feel that advertisements and political platforms must not be necessarily true or right, and yet hear and read them and even let themselves be guided by them, so they accept the traditional values and make them part of their mental equipment” (Marcuse 51). The player continues to be guided by GLaDOS, if even to oppose her, after learning of her ill intentions, or at least lack of intentions to reward with cake.

The cake is a tool, presented to the player as one of manipulation through repetition, and this expected response from the player of desiring to play on, whether for the cake or not, contributes to its effect. While the player may acknowledge this as a form of manipulation and even laugh at the efforts, the subtext is still at work. Marcuse says, “Language not only reflects these controls but becomes itself an instrument of control even where it does not transmit orders but information; where it demands, not obedience but choice, not submission but freedom” (Marcuse 81). GLaDOS uses the cake as an element of control through both the visually symbolic and linguistic manners of presenting the concept, as defined and supported by Marcuse, which indicate the extension of the meaning past a simple cake to that of a tool of manipulation of which the player can criticize.

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

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


Becca Garges said...


I really like your essay. I wasn't able to get very far playing Portal, so it was interesting to learn more about the game through your writing. Furthermore, you do a really great job of demonstrating the purpose of the cake in the game by comparing it to Marcuse's discussion of the term concept. The images you present and the passages you quote are good representations of your argument. If you decide to revise this essay, I think you could expand to include Marcuse's ideas about preconditioning and machines/technology as the real controlling force in industrial societies. The use of the cake is a good example of preconditioning and GlaDOS is a perfect example of a machine in power. Good job!


Adam said...

"The Cake is a concept" may be my favorite one-liner of the semester. Thank you.

Your first several paragraphs are quite good, but there is some slippage. Marcuse is interested (my words, not his) in properly formed (i.e, transcendental) concepts as well as improperly formed (i.e., operational) concepts - think to our discussion of democracy. You get that he is attacking the improper use of concepts, but I need to continually remind myself that you didn't quite get that he wanted to propose the *proper* use of concepts in opposition to the improper, operationalistic concepts.
Through the rest of your discussion (keeping in mind my minor criticism above) your discussion of Glados' use of the cake is fantastic. Your excellent use of imagery especially stands out, as does your ability to work with a lot of difficult material from Marcuse in a straightforward way. Other than my one complaint above, I have no major criticism.

Which still leaves questions. If Portal is so relentless in both using *and* exposing its mechanics as a lie, what does that mean? Portal has a deliberate, sarcastic and self-referential structure. What does it accomplish thereby? You've analyzed the image of the cake and what it means in terms of Marcuse - but why is it so deliberately *blatant*?

Excellent work.

I like Becca's focus on preconditioning - that seems like a useful direction in a revision.