Saturday, March 29, 2014

Portal: The Cake as a Comment on Motivation and Implied Trust in Video Games

“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 a discussion on manipulation through the manner of rhetoric and image presentation, as Marcuse also investigates. The self-referential presentation of the cake points out and trivializes the idea of reward and motivation in video games as a higher truth. This then makes a statement about the player in traditional video games: he/she knows on some level of the manipulation but continues to blindly perform for the promise of reward.
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). In other words, a concept is a representation either linguistically or symbolically for an object or idea, and symbolic representations can establish its exactness.
However, Marcuse has a higher ideal for the idea of a concept in his delineation between transcendental and operational concepts. He criticizes operational concepts for “imped[ing] conceptual thinking” (Marcuse 76) in their innate operationalism, or intrinsic, initial structure. Rather, his ideal transcendental concept is built on the foundation of the most pure, essential version of the idea. This is rarely apparent in reality, but Marcuse’s descriptions and criticisms of the “less-utopian” operational concepts are readily encountered. Even if this concession “reveal[s] the one dimensional mind” (Marcuse 77), it is able to serve its function albeit in an imperfect manner.
With this defined, Portal can been analyzed as containing a strong example of this idea of a concept (realistically closer to an operational concept) in the symbol of the cake. It is presented as a concept both in its visuals as well as descriptions through language in the form of GLaDOS’s narration. Visually, the cake appears on the warnings sign at the start of each level:

Each small square depicts a danger or skill that, when illuminated, is present/necessary in the level about to be played. The cake symbol is seen in the lower right square as a simple graphic 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 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. Specifically in the medium of video games, Ian Bogost writes, “games can culture familiarity by constructing habitual experiences. They do so by finding receptors for familiar mechanics and turning them slightly differently, so as to make those receptors resonate in a gratifyingly familiar way” (Bogost 133). The player doesn’t need to be explicitly walked through the idea of earning and receiving a reward or even what a reward looks like. As the player experiences the first few levels of Portal it becomes clear: the reward is the cake, and to earn it you must complete these tasks.
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 ( by GLaDOS) to be kept from the player, as it was only delivered to the player via this “unintentional” secret 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 (aside from the secret writing on the walls), 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 as offered 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 primarily 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.
Game design PhD candidate, Douglas Wilson, presents his idea of “unachievements” that can be applied to this dimension of Portal. Wilson explains, “Whereas achievements try to motivate players to pursue specific rewards as delineated by the game system, unachievements try to motivate players to hijack, modify, or otherwise subvert these kinds of extrinsic rewards. Unachievements signal to the players that they should not take the game-specified goals too seriously - that they, the players, should instead confront the game on their own terms” (Wilson). Portal makes clear use of this type of idea in its purposeful revelation of GLaDOS’s empty promise. From that point on, another layer has been added to gameplay: the player knows that GLaDOS is hiding something. Wilson concludes his discussion with, “What it does is try to convince its players that any meaning ultimately resides in themselves, not in the system” (Wilson). This sentiment rings true in Portal’s gameplay as well. While directed for the majority of the “official” levels, the player has to switch gears once he/she learns of the deception of the cake. This forces the player to find another message or explanation for the game. At this point, the game means more than just completing tasks, there is depth, conflict, and mystery which strays from the traditional schema for reward and achievement in video games. The achievement is no longer earned by the player and provided from the system; it is extrapolated from the experience of deviation and examination of the system.
The player knows that the motivational tool is a lie, so being able to critique the process also means the player can assume the need to defy it (the idea of unachievement). Going one step further, the ability to note the subliminal tactics of motivation that now fail to be effective on the self-aware player means that the player can evaluate video game design techniques. The critique here is that the player of a video game submits him/herself to blindly follow incentives without question in the realm of the game. This deliberate self-referentiality points out and trivializes the system of rewards and prizes typically in place in video games as a whole. Portal draws attention to the player’s nature to take the events and truths presented for granted, both on the level of Portal specifically and the medium more generally. The examination of tropes in this way pokes fun at the designer and the player for falling into this pattern with the parallels between GLaDOS/Chell and designer/player. The unique awareness of this issue allows a case for questioning of trust in this assumed relationship.
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. 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 indicates the extension of its meaning past a simple cake to that of a tool of manipulation of which the player can criticize. The sense of awareness of this manipulation allows the player to more knowingly experience and evaluate the reward construct in video games as a whole and the blind faith that is almost automatically given to the designer in pursuit of a presumably secure reward.

Works Cited
1. Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011.
2. Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. PDF.
3. Portal. Bellevue, WA: Valve Corporation, 2007. Computer software.
4. Rogers, Scott. Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design. Chichester: Wiley, 2010. Print.
5. Wilson, Douglas. "Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now: On Self-Effacing Games and Unachievements." Game Studies 11.1 (2011): n. pag. Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.


Adam said...

Your introduction remains compelling, especially the last couple sentences.

I wrote a paragraph or so about limitations in your reading of Marcuse, but I changed my mind. I think you get Marcuse pretty well, although there might be a structural issue here: I think your discussion of (pardon the expression) the concept of the concept could have been re-ordered to foreground the difference between operational and transcendental concepts, and maybe even incorporate what that has to do with one-dimensional vs. two-dimensional thinking. I should also say that you are wrestling with Marcuse very well.

One thing I'll add to what you have to say about the operational concept of the cake is that Marcuse is very keen on the idea that we are more or less aware that we are being manipulated much of the time - and yet that manipulation still *works*. I think that's something that could be incorporated into your current essay successfully.

Your use of Bogost is smart. Good research. Now, for me the question arises: to what extent do you think Portal is simply being funny and smart about the stereotypical rewards in video games, and to what extent do you think it is questioning/critiquing them? In other words, when we are able to "take a more objective look at GLaDOS's use of manipulation through the cake as a symbol" are we able then to transfer that insight to the end of the game? Here's another way of putting that question. Does the structure of "unachievements" (good research again!) in the game simply take place within the plot, or does it allow us to achieve a more transcendental/two-dimensional understanding of video games and what they mean in general? I think you do a very good job with your discussion of self-awareness in the second to last paragraph - but how far does that self-awareness take us?

This is good work, with good research and good analysis throughout, and I'm happy with it. That being said, I think your ending is incomplete, because when push comes to shove you don't want to really articulate whether or not Portal (to borrow from Marcuse) actually manages to move from an operational to a transcendental level. Does it ultimately give us some tools to transcendentally deal with video games in general or (perhaps better) the larger world?

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