The most striking moment of Portal, for me, was the final scene after the destruction of its AI character and an explosion. But it wasn’t striking simply because it was the culmination of the game, or the drama of the firey finale — it was striking because it was the first time in the game in which I saw trees, dirt, and green.
This “back to nature” moment worked because it reinforced, and appeared in dialogue with, the setting of the game up until that point: the windowless chambers within the cavernous Aperture Science Center. In Narrative Architectures, Henry Jenkins argues that games sculpt worlds that contain informative landscapes. Portal’s landscape is a sterile lab environment, and every visual detail is carefully constructed to evoke this technologically-based testing chamber atmosphere, from the color scheme of white, muted greys, and dark colors to the eerie, empty surveillance rooms and cameras in each room. This is why, in the final scene of the game, those glimpses of an organic landscape were so important. It shows that the Aperture Science Center is not the totality of the gameworld — outside the total institution of the center exists a different world.
I use total institution as Erving Goffman defines it: with a total institution, “enforced activities are brought together as parts of a single overall rational plan purportedly designed to fulfill the official aims of the institution…All aspects of life are conducted in the same place and under the same single authority…all phases of the day’s activities are tightly scheduled.” Visually, Portal presents the player with claustrophobic, sterile rooms with high walls, artificial lights, metal grates — all reminiscent of a laboratory cum prison (both of which, actually, Goffman does define as total institutions). But the power dynamic between Chell and the AI, GLaDOS, also evokes the feel of Goffman’s total institution. She is the directive authority, with the institutional goal of “doing science” (as she puts it in her roll-credits song appearance), propelling Chell through regimented chamber after chamber and keeping constant watch and making sure she stays on “schedule.”
Indeed, as soon as Chell challenges this power differential by escaping the incinerator and entering “unsanctioned” areas, GLaDOS is certainly less than happy (and even starts to panic a bit). Even as the Center burns eventually around Chell, I feel much of the plot is still a mystery to me: what group formed the Aperture Science Center, and at what point and how did they loose control of GLaDOS? Does GLaDOS’ control extend beyond the Center, or was it encapsulated within? It’s hard to know what the gameworld beyond the Center walls is like, but it is different than the world presented on the inside, as evidenced by that simple appearance of trees.
Because we get relatively little plot detail, it seems the game less so made an argument about technology specific to the gameworld, but rather presented a narrative that can be loosely applied to various institutions in our world. We don’t know the complete picture of why Chell is the only one left and her specific reasons for attempting to destroy GLaDOS — but we do know that it was worth it to her. It was worth it to strip away the total institution, to burn a technology-heavy, constructed, lab based world that prioritizes science, progress, efficiency at all costs, and to try to break into a world beyond it.
When so many aspects of our lives are controlled by similar institutions (capitalist rat race! big data social media! hyper-consumption! prison-industrial complex! transnational corporations force feeding liberalization and privatization that only concentrates power and wealth to the few while the rest of us burn!) is it important to remember it is worth chipping away at their control, and to try to break into a world beyond it.
(less optimism can be drawn from the other final cut scenes, wherein Chell is dragged back into the remnants of the Center and GLaDOS personality cores light up and she sings “Still Alive.” The struggle against the institutional never does end, after all?)