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  • 'Video Games Can Be Art' Is Not Enough

    [02.21.13]
    - Sean Gouglas and Michael Burden

  • We argue that Portal is special because it exploits the affordances of the medium to extend and enhance its themes and narrative to remarkable effect and in a manner only suitable to this medium. The player and Chell represent, at least in part, a statement of being trapped in the algorithmic processes that increasingly run our daily lives. Algorithms, those useful bits of codes that take inputs and produce reliable outputs, are increasingly applied to social situations, such as choosing which email is allowed into your inbox, what Google shows you in a search, whether you get a loan, whether you deserve health insurance, and so on. In Portal, these algorithms have lost contact with their original intent. Chell's only purpose - her only purpose for GLaDOS - is to provide inputs to feed the running of the machine.

    A useful metaphor for understanding the madness of the algorithmic experience within Portal and what that may represent is to understand the game as a self-contained and increasingly perverse Milgram experiment - the infamous 1963 psychology experiment on obedience where participants were goaded into torturing and even killing a test subject for the benefit of science. In the end, the player (acting as Chell) is goaded toward committing murder (or at least, incinerating an intelligent lifeform) for the benefit of science. In Portal, this test is the only reality. Awareness of the machinery behind the system is portrayed as madness, as seen in the scrawls of Rattman in his little dens. Like John Murdoch's cognizance of the inner workings of the machine in Dark City (1998), both he and Rattman appear mad to those trapped within the system. But, both see clearly that the cake and Shell Beach are lies of the system that ultimately reveal truth.

    Portal adds to the tension between truth and the system by wonderfully complicating the relationship between the player and Chell. In controlling Chell and in completing the tests, the player becomes complicit in the dehumanized algorithmic processes. Incinerating the silent companion cube is simply a necessary step to complete the test. But the player also incinerates, electrocutes, and acidifies the silent, jumpsuit-clad companion. What the cube is to Chell so Chell is to the player - she reappears after each failed test like a weighted companion cube dropping from a chute. Rattman's warning scrawls are not just to the player to be wary of the game's computer antagonist, they are a warning to Chell that she is not alone in these tests. GLaDOS's warnings to the player to ignore the companion should she start to protest wonderfully complicates the player/avatar relationship.

    The uniqueness of narrative in the medium is shown at the end of Test Chamber 19, as Chell stands on a platform moving toward a sign indicating the promised reward: ‘Cake'. Instead the platform is headed directly toward a burning pit - Chell has fulfilled her purpose as a test subject and, like the companion cube, is now expendable. The narrative never suggests that there is more than this, and some players simply watch as Chell moves helplessly to her fate (Faliszek and Walpow, 2012). It is up to the player to fight for survival against the system, and to recognize that the portal gun - shackled to Chell's arm - is in fact her means of escape. Unlike a film, a videogame can create a story that requires the player to act. The game cedes narrative control to the player.

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