Portal: the blue and orange scare

Portal is a video game by Valve that came out in 2007. It’s a classified as a first-person shooter, although, as primarily a puzzle game, it differs from other first-person shooters by a great deal. Even so, it’s often considered a classic.

The player plays as a character named Chell, who has been forced to be a test subject in a research facility (Aperture Science). Exactly what she is testing is never specified, but the video game focuses on the “portal gun”, which, ostensibly, is a gun-like device that creates linked portals. In the end, the player escapes a planned death and confronts (and “kills”) the computer in charge of the facility, GLaDOS.

A trailer can be found here.

At first glance, there’s no obvious connection in the plot to containment culture. However, the idea of “us vs. them” is somewhat prominent, with Chell as the “them”, and Aperture Science as a slight caricature of the containing society and government. Furthermore, Aperture Science echoes the idea of rerouting organizational (societal) flaws to become personal issues; it leaves test subjects in deadly, nearly impossible test chambers yet readily assumes that test subjects can take care of and solve their own problems. Many other themes also show up: surveillance cameras can be found throughout the game. GLaDOS has nearly godlike powers, similarly to a superpower with an atomic bomb. Aperture Science automatically assumes test subjects will follow their instructions and actually complete tests (as opposed to giving up and crying in a corner). And when test subjects don’t try their best, there is a myriad of ways they can die while testing. In the 1950s containment culture, there weren’t necessarily common lynchings of suspected Soviet sympathizers, but the societal rejection wasn’t far off.

What about Chell? In contrast to many other first-person shooters, in Portal the “hero” is female yet unsexualized; takes down the enemy in a match of wits rather than brute force; and utilizes the portal gun, a weapon that doesn’t kill, but acts as an intellectual tool – unlike ammunition guns found in many other shooter games. Especially concerning the prominent gender roles, she is the perfect example of the object of much fear in the containment culture: a dissenter that takes down society with its own weapons.

It would be implausible to say that the people living in containment culture would always be on the side of “us”, steeped in ideology and with zero dissatisfaction with the status quo. Thus, Portal might have attained such popularity not only because of the fascinating gameplay and design, but because Chell resonates with the subversive elements inside all of us.



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