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'Portal 2' and the Politics of Stupidity

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Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011
Which is the dictator worthy of fear, the fool or the genius?

This discussion contains major spoilers of the plot of the single player campaign of Portal 2.


The original Portal is in part a performance of (and, thus, a consideration of) the mechanisms of power.  The relationship between the protagonist, Chell, and the supercomputer, GLaDOS, reflects also the relationship between players and rule systems in games in general.  Playing the role of lab rat within the boundaries of computer-defined rule sets is the heart of playing a video game and speaks directly to the complexity of negotiating between the freedom of play and the imposition of regulation necessary to “game,” given especially that embedded in gameplay is a negotiation that is a constant movement between giving up control to authority and then resisting voices of authority.


Thus, given that such similarities exist between the structure and narrative of the sequel and the original title, it is unsurprising that once again another Portal raises the issue of why we submit to rule systems, accept their challenges, and follow their orders in order to enjoy ourselves.  In the sequel, though, I drew a rather hasty conclusion early on in my playthrough that, perhaps, this iteration of the series was going to critique politics and power in a more specific way than the more philosophical and abstract approach that the previous game had taken when merely acknowledging this theme through its gameplay.
  
More specifically, it was the revelation of Wheatley’s origins as a means of providing a control for the “misbehaving GLaDOS” that I initially thought was going to serve as a critique of some real world politics.  Basically, when it was revealed that Wheatley, who now had some designs on taking control of the Aperture Science facility himself, was an utter moron, I had the sense that yet another critique was going to be leveled at the Bush administration.


As GLaDOS begins figuring out who Wheatley is, she begins to explain how limited intelligence can be used as a means of regaining a foothold of power for a previously disenfranchised interest group: 


GLaDOS: The engineers tried everything to make me . . . behave. To slow me down.  Once, they even attached an Intelligence Dampening Sphere on me. It clung to my brain like a tumor, generating an endless stream of terrible ideas.
GLaDOS (hearing Wheatley speak): It was YOUR voice.  Yes. You’re the tumor.
GLaDOS: YES YOU ARE! YOU’RE THE MORON THEY BUILT TO MAKE ME AN IDIOT!


I had initially thought that this plot point might be a way of paralleling the mythos surrounding the origins of the Bush-Cheney White House as an opportunity for the Republicans to regain control of the White House through a less intellectually apt figurehead and to thus control their domain through this weaker authority figure.  As the plot advanced, I didn’t really see further indication of this theme though.


Nevertheless, by getting me thinking about the politics surrounding the circumstances of GLaDOS and Wheatley’s conflict, the game did keep me attenuated to how Portal 2 presents a fundamental conundrum that does exist surrounding competency and power.  On the face of it, leaving a fool in charge, which is what GLaDOS then encourages Chell not to do, seems a sensible enough decision politically.  Morons seemingly don’t grasp the complexity of decision making enough to trust in positions of authority.  Indeed, Wheatley’s poor decision making throughout the latter half of the game is clearly leading to a catastrophic outcome for the “kingdom” that he now controls, Aperture Science is facing meltdown as a result of Wheatley’s inability to prioritize the administration of the facility, threatening not only the facility itself but also, of course, Chell’s life.


Thus, it becomes clear, not only to GLaDOS (who is also simply chafed to have been ousted from her own throne) but apparently to Chell as well (since she follows through on this plan) that Wheatley must be removed from his seat of power, lest she and the facility go up in flames.  However, this brings me back to that issue of a conundrum that exists surrounding the relationship between competency and power that I alluded to earlier.  So, my other “option” is to put back into a position of authority an evil genius supercomputer that has turned Chell (and myself as a player) into a human guinea pig over the course of two games?


I certainly understand that stupidity is a characteristic that is not especially compatible with power, but as a child of a post-Nixon administration America (as are most of the developers of this game), I am not a person that has been raised to see a strong connection between political aptitude and a compassionate concern for other people.  Indeed, the American political landscape has trained me to as cautious (if not not be even more cautious) about the supremely smart being given the reins of power as much as the supremely stupid.  Clearly, similar evidence of the idea that an extremely smart leader can be about the most oppressive force in an organization has already been provided in abundance for anyone who has played the first Portal.  GLaDOS’s “leadership” is the very definition of sadistic fascism throughout that game.


Now I mentioned earlier that the notion of challenging GLaDOS’s plan to relieve Wheatley of his position would seem like an “option” or alternative to the idea of leaving a moron in a position of power.  And, of course, this never really is an option in the game at all.  If the player wants to finish out the story, it becomes the only solution to Portal 2, as the paths that the designers have created for Chell to get back from the bowels of the facility (where she has been left after Wheatley’s takeover) to anywhere near an escape route from the facility requires finding and teaming up with GLaDOS to eventually square off against Wheatley.  There is no way to simply find a way to the surface and leave the moron to do what he has to do.  And ironically, from a political perspective, leaving the moron in charge would seem like the best option. 


Wheatley’s administrative incompetence would inevitably lead to the breakdown of the whole facility, which would actually seemingly be a win-win for Chell.  Assuming the possibility of escape, she would have her life and any human that is “still alive” on Earth’s surface would benefit from the organization going boom as well.  To be frank even were Chell not to survive, the greater good would be served if she had the ability to choose to sacrifice herself for the sake of letting the idiot “win, which also would actually rather neatly define her as quite heroic, a martyr for freedom and the destruction of an oppressive system through the surprisingly effective weapon of political stupidity.  However, Portal is not a narrative of political or personal revolution.  It is a narrative of slavery and control.


Indeed, in this lack of choice is where Portal 2 manages to effectively maintain its position on the relationship between the everyman (Chell) and systems of power (GLaDOS).  Like the first game, even when Chell is allowed to get “behind the scenes” in the game, outside of the testing chambers that offer only singular solutions to problems, not multiple paths and decisions to effectively surmount obstacle, the game really only offers the illusion of freedom from a system of power. 


In the sequel, there is still always only a single path to solve the whole of the game, and the player always only solves new puzzles in slightly less sterile environments even when seemingly “left to her own devices” outside of the institutional test chambers themselves.  Chell is never given the choice between being a pragmatic individualist more concerned with preserving her own life than with disallowing GLaDOS to retake her position as master of the system or playing the martyr by letting Wheatley bring the whole system down around them.  Instead, the player is led along by the rules of the game and the story itself, which has a clearly defined outcome that the developers of these puzzles and tests have created for the player.  Even when emerging from the facility at the close of the game, it is clear that such freedom has only been granted at the whim of the computer-in-charge; GLaDOS is the voice that instructed her on how to take the tests, and GLaDOS is the one that chooses when Chell stays and plays and when she goes and does not go. 


Like Chell, the player is forever a rat in a maze driven by the rules and boundaries of gameplay and narrative itself towards a fixed political position, slave to the machine, never its challenger.

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