Analysis: Portal and the Deconstruction of the Institution
In 1959 Erving Goffman released The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; a book that went on to heavily influence future understanding of social interactions within the sociology discipline. In it, he discusses social intercourse under the metaphor of actors performing on a stage. Specifically, in the second chapter he shares the idea of a front and backstage to social interaction.
As with the theater, we have a place where we manage the performance and a place where we give that performance. As social interlocutors engaged in interaction, we are presenting an impression of ourselves to an audience; we're acting out a role that requires constant management at the whim of the interaction.
The front stage is the grounds of the performance. The backstage is a place we rarely ever want to reveal to others, it contains the truth to our construction and to reveal it would be to defraud our identity in front of the audience - it simply spoils the illusion of where we're placing ourselves in the interaction.
The narrative of 2007's Portal by Valve Software is grounded heavily in Goffman's work both in social performance and institutions. The running of an institution requires a front and backstage. A restaurant is an institution which has an obvious front and back stage, both in architectural layout and in the management of performance.
A waiter passing through one area to another will shift their presentation accordingly. In the dining area he will be polite to guests, hold himself strongly and compose himself with great dignity. Moving into the kitchen though, he is away from the front stage and can loosen his shoulders, yell requests at the chefs and do other despicable acts which wouldn't be acceptable out in the dining area.
All institutions have a backstage that mask their inner workings. The events within Portal represent the management of performance used to conceal backstage in a constant tug-of-war battle to have institutional control over the player. This phenomena is due predominately (but not restricted to) the use of language in static dialogue, the following is a critique of how Portal achieves such a task:
Portal's narrative component can be dissected into two key parts; the static, compulsory narrative (the relationship between the protagonist and Glados) and the variable player narrative (everything else, ie. the game world). Since the relationship between the player and Glados is purely built on language, we can then derive that Portal's narrative is constructed by Glados' dialogue and the game world.
Furthermore, these two narrative components are the two respective devices used to define Aperture Science as an institution; the tangible and actual institution. The dialogue provides the language and the game world provides the context. I think I've just stepped upon a some kind of axiom here. Don't get too caught up in details, let's flesh this out a little;
The latter part should be fairly clear. You wake up as an inmate to a landscape that visually portrays itself as an institution, and once the actual institution delivers you a routine (the first pieces of dialogue), the tools in the game world (portal gun, level design etc.) allow you to achieve the requested outcome. Even before that first utterance is spoken the player has a sense of who and where they are, due to the visual, aural and agency clues.
While the player narrative is obviously the game's largest component (because it is “the game”), it's only a minor increment of the overarching narrative. In terms of narrative alone, the game world purely provides the context by characterizing the landscape, telling you that you've made the transition from visual front to visual backstage of the compound, giving Glados a visual avatar and providing the medium in which the compulsory narrative (Glados's dialogue) can operate – that's all. This is the tangible institution. You've got the furnishings, the white-wash decor, the building itself and all that jazz. It's also the context required to justify the dialogue (language cannot exist without context).
The larger chunk of Portal's narrative exists in Glados' dialogue; language and language only. While the game world may present the player narrative and set the initial context, it's Glados' language that ultimately defines Aperture Science as an institution. Language is the medium that constructs the institution, it's front and backstage. When you go to the supermarket to buy food, the language that is spoken to you (even if it's just “twelve dollars fifty”) defines you as the customer and the checkout chick as the manager of that process within the institution. The building, food, signage and furnishings are meaningless to the key construct.
They're just props that aid in institutionalizing yourself as the customer, as the portal gun, turrets and elevators aid in institutionalizing you as a convict. In Portal, Glados defines your position, she states your role and no outcome within the game will occur until you obey her instructions. Her dialogue and your reception of that dialogue is the actual institution. That is, until the point where you intentionally break her orders. Therefore, Aperture Science would not operate as an institution if there was no language to define the roles within it. I shall define this as the 'actual institution'.
Now that we've dissected the game into the two well-defined chunks, I can introduce the intention of this piece. Today I would like to move away from culture for a moment to critique Portal on the grounds that it is an interactive showcase of how language is used in performances to manage institutional processes. There is a front stage and a backstage to Aperture Science, and as one progresses the game's narrative, the institution falters allowing backstage to become front stage. This is done through the combined use of the game world (context) and Glados' dialogue (language). The two devices are self reliant, that is language (compulsory narrative), cannot exist without context (player narrative), hence I shall be analyzing how both these tools operate to reach my conclusion.
Paraphrased to length already, there are two parts to Portal's institution, this essay shall be assessing how Portal deconstructs the actual institution (part). To do so references need to be made to the tangible institution – one cannot exist without the other. The player already knows about the deconstruction of the tangible institution as this is presented as the destruction of the physical place at the end of the game, hence explaining this is useless for the essay. We're looking at the “invisible” here.
Introduction - Chamber 04
Finally, let's begin shall we? The player wakes up in the Aperture Science compound in a glass chamber alongside a series of objects; table, radio, (incubation) bed and toilet. The game provides some short breathing room for the player to take in the surroundings and to ponder where exactly they're located. Visually, the game presents itself as a holding cell, looking through the glass it's clear that your being held in an institution of sorts. The sanitary cleanliness, minimal objects and grey-white washes of colour all set the context of the tangible institution. These set pieces act as objects to institutionalize your initial role.
Your observations are interrupted by “Hello and, again, welcome to the Aperture Science computer-aided Enrichment Center”. The utterance confirms your suspicions. The front stage is set and remains unscathed. The talk continues as the PA runs through routine precautions when suddenly an electrical fault occurs, sparks fall from the ceiling and bed, the sound sifts, speeds up and then jumps to the next line of script. We witness some kind of problem occur and the system (seemingly) provides quick repair by relaying to the next step. The repair offers a glimpse of backstage as improvisation occurs. This is the first flaw in the routine of the institution, and a slight break in the performance.
The previous incident also contains some nuggets of interesting language. “Hello and, again, welcome to the” suggests that some part of the institutional process (unknown to the player) occurred previously. “Your specimen has been processed and we are now ready to begin the test proper.” Again, what specimen and what test? The institution is withholding information from us, flaunting it even. The performance instills a role onto the player of inferiority in an inexplicit manner. Everything said to the player is also wrapped in the typical, false politeness that one receives in such institutional contexts. This is of course, a re-occurring theme in the text. Lastly, we have no knowledge of the identity of the speaker – how did we ever figure out her name was Glados?
A portal appears and Glados continues to talk rules. The linear design shuffles you into the next room with a large red button and a box that falls from an overhanging chamber. The game allows you to fill in the blanks and once it's done more procedural conversation is projected. “This Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grid will vaporize any unauthorized equipment that passes through it- for instance, the Aperture Science Weighted Storage Cube.”
The lengthy names and unrelenting reference to official equipment is a trick the writers employ to make fun of institutional processes which usually require the use of official titles in formal interaction. While there is nothing systematically incorrect with using titles, the elongated names sounds downright silly. You'll find that the humour, works as it's own device to ridicule the testing procedure and institution itself. The humour doesn't so much break the performance in the conventional sense (ie. disobeying assumed norms of interaction), rather it illegitimizes the performance. Therefore, each joke made regarding institutional protocol peels away at the front stage performance.
In the next room (Chamber 01), the previous joke is repeated to a further extent “Fifteen Hundred Megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button”. These two jokes together represent the subtle way in which the writers introduce performance-breaking devices. In the first instance, we're introduced to a device (technique, function, whatever) and it appears slightly odd in context but negligible, a small flaw. Later the same device is used to greater effect, increasing the presence of backstage. The devices work on a continuum of strength, increasing a notch as you climb each storey. Sometimes these devices will take a back seat and then re-emerge later in the game. I'll continue to point there out as we go.
Once you complete the test, the welcoming line “Please move quickly to the chamberlock, as the effects of prolonged exposure to the Button are not part of this test.” hints at backstage knowledge being withheld – that is the effects of prolonged exposure (another device).
On entering Chamber 02 Glados compliments you (“You're doing very well!”) in an almost patronizing tone, asserting your lesser positions. The uncertainty of safety surrounding the equipment is further played on: “Please be advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test protocol but is an unintended side effect of the Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grill, which may, in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel, and teeth.” This utterance is a combination of several different techniques. Firstly we again see the overlaying polite language. Secondly, the understating of the possibility of danger are standards of institutional talk, yet the consequences are usually kept behind doors. In this case, they're said out in the open, with full brutality, instilling a weary sense of fear. The game occasionally waves around such information, because it acts to lesser you to (in this case) the risks. A proper institution wouldn't dare put participants in such a position of risk, yet here it is done and presented as “normal”. Placing the protagonist where they probably don't wish to be.
Once you obtain the portal gun, similar jokes are made regarding the safety of the device, before another electrical cut out. This time there is no immediate repair, the device (power out) has moved along the scale to greater effect, more cracks are showing. The repetition confirms the worry that something is awry behind the scenes. Occurs once, okay, occurs twice, perhaps not.
More humour in Chamber 03 with Glados making mention of the “Aperture Science Bring Your Daughter to Work Day” stating that it “is the perfect time to have her tested.” Jokes aside, this message suggests something about the origins of the organisation. Something relating to the testing of females. Certainly falls in line with the female protagonist. Again, crucial background information withheld. We still have no clue as to why we're taking these orders and completing the exercises, reinforcing your position as the unwilling participant.
Chamber 04 features some encouraging words. Glados also states that the next room won't be monitored. Makes you consider how they're monitoring you, eh? By now the player has probably noticed the translucent windows with the desk on the other side and may have connected the dots. The security cameras similarly may also be monitoring your actions. Both instruments institutionalize your role, they're unknowns, inaccessible information which insinuate paranoia. They are elements of the front stage that feed information to the back.
Chamber 05 - Chamber 10
In Chamber 05 Glados says “As part of a required test protocol, our previous statement suggesting that we would not monitor this chamber was an outright fabrication.” which again has several functions. Firstly, the actual institution mislead you outright and by later informing you of this, it only pushes you further into a position of unwilling submission. Secondly it continues to break any faith that you might have had of the institution. On the other hand, this utterance could be interpreted as a mistake on behalf of Aperture Science making it another instance of floundering in the performance. She then follows “As part of a required test protocol, we will stop enhancing the truth in three, two, one.” The fact that this is part of some required test protocol unbeknown to yourself only strengthens your role as the submissive inmate. What would misleading the protagonist have to do with the testing? Are these tests somehow psychological? The game embeds this initial perception here. Also what is the intended meaning of “enhancing the truth”?
Chamber 06 has more darkly humoured, procedural talk regarding safety and concludes with another false complement “Unbelievable! You
Chamber 07 and 08 play with safety messages adding a sharp twist of dark humour “Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an 'unsatisfactory' mark on your official testing record followed by death. Good luck!” The dark humour is created by the dialogue prioritizing the face of the institution over your own well-being and safety. The two points are two ends of the balancing act that institutions must keep in favourable equilibrium during a performance. In the case of Portal though the institution puts itself before the patient and while it's humourous to the player, it serves to subordinate you to the institution, maintaining the front stage and keeping you well away from the back. “Please note that any appearance of danger is merely a device to enhance your testing experience.” This last quote is perhaps ultimate submission of the player, the institution doesn't just warn of danger, it's saying that is a part of the routine which you have no control over.
Chamber 09 again teases the player by incorporating decipt into the routine, normalizing it. Glados alarmingly states “The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it” and then later (once you've solved it) “Fantastic! You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.” The language here toys with the institutional knowledge gained so far . You know that if you don't complete the task, the elevator doors won't open and you won't be able to proceed into the next area of the exercise. All of this was taught to you by the exercises of the last 8 levels. Chamber 09 is constructed to question the player whether or not they will independently conform to what the exercises have taught them, doing so displays obedience to the institution, not doing so yields no result. You're being subordinated, forced to play out a given role. This is perhaps the most powerful technique in the whole game. It institutionalizes the player by unfairly forcing you to play the part. By playing your role, you are allowing the actual institution to continue playing their own, in which case, this is a front-stage- strengthening exercise. The mightier the front stage control, the more control the institution has over the player.
Glados' speech cuts out again at the entrance of Chamber 10 (“Hello again. To reiterate our previous warning: This test [garbled] momentum [garbled]”). This device has been used for the third time and is now common place within the performance. The word momentum is left in as a clue on how to use the portals to solve the next puzzle. Glados attempts to reiterate a previous warning but again the system cuts out. Starting with “This test” it seems as though what she tried to convey was a rule previously garbled earlier in the game. Even “unintentionally”, important information is withheld and the dominant role is unintentionally carried out.
In Chamber 10, the game breaks more rules of front stage performance by insulting and patronizing the player. This was negligible before, but due to it's continual use and exaggeration is now prominent. It's first presented as “You appear to understand how a portal affects forward momentum, or to be more precise, how it does not.” denoting your failure to achieve the requested goal.
Glados then continues the assault by referring to momentum “In layman's terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” The childish use of the word speedy is diminutive of the player. Honesty that may be harmful to the face of the institution is something never said out in the front stage and usually reserved for backstage chatter. For instance, you do not insult a customer in a department store to their face, but you may talk jokingly about them with another staff member in the lunch room. Glados begins to air open honesty towards the protagonist in a way that institutional acts don't normally permit, we see this subtly crawling between the cracks of politeness.
Chamber 11 - Chamber 16
Rarely is the 'actual instiuition' discussed, it's socially destructive. Unless you're not conforming to routine, there is no need for a supermarket to declare you as the shopper and themselves as the storefront. We just subconsciously play the performance of a shopper when entering a supermarket, alerting us of the performance is intrusive and denotes that something is wrong; someone is either not playing their role or there is an error in the institutional processes.
In Chamber 11, Glados states the actual institution by way of referring to safety; “ The Enrichment Center promises to always provide a safe testing environment. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice.” This much should be assumed, so by mentioning it, Glados only conjures up skepticism of the security among the player. I mean, what reason would there be to state this unless there is some sort of breach? The writers play on the gamer's mentality here. Glados then delivers another indirect insult “For instance, the floor here will kill you- try to avoid it.” You obtain the second Portal gun and shortly after Glados continues “As part of an optional test protocol, we are pleased to present an amusing fact: - The Device is now more valuable than the organs and combined incomes of everyone in
Not terribly much is said in Chamber 12, Glados' voice becomes garbled again and she expresses some childishness is her talk ("Wheeeeeeeeeeee"). We can see that she's also losing a professionalism in her performance, she's becoming more casual with her speech.
All insults thus far have been implicitly delivered. In Chamber 13, the barrier is removed “Now that you are in control of both portals, this next test could take a very, VERY, long time.” Unlike the other jabs, this one loses the politeness.
The dark humour continues with Glados providing excessive amounts of detail to possible situations that should be censored or destated for the patient “If you become light headed from thirst, feel free to pass out.” and “An intubation associate will be dispatched to revive you with peptic salve and adrenaline.” Afterwards she then reinstates her honesty (as required by the test protocol) and out of nowhere shares some emotion “When the testing is over you will be, missed.” In institutional performance strong emotion (crying, strong affection) that could possibly jeopardise the front stage should be suppressed, here the seed is planted. Although it's suspicious due to the raised tone of “missed” which sounds artificial.
In Chamber 14 the writers take a few more digs at institutional procedures. “All subjects intending to handle high-energy gamma leaking portal technology must be informed that they MAY be informed of applicable regulatory compliance issues. No further compliance information is required or will be provided” Glados then continues to compliment the player, this time more heavily “and you are an excellent test subject! Very very good. A complimentary victory lift has been activated in the main chamber.” This could be interpreted as repair of the prior smattering of insults. On the other hand, all of the compliments come out forced and sound purposely polite, almost as though Glados is restraining herself. This scaffolding provides a slight glimpse into the management of her performance, by switching between polite and rude identities we can make out the bones of her performance.
In Chamber 15 Glados attempts to continue repair of front stage by personalizing the procedure “Cake and grief counseling will be available at the conclusion of the test.”, only to defy this by making clear the intentions of the institution “Thank you for helping us help you help us all.”
At this point the front stage has been lightly damaged and elements of backstage have appeared briefly in each of the chambers so far. Still, as far as an operating institution, Aperture Science maintains its front quite comfortably. In Chamber 16 two devices are heavily utilized to open the door to the backstage. The first is the inclusion of security drones. While the sludge and laser beams threatened your life before, they were passive devices, so getting injured or dying by either of these was mostly a fault of your own clumsiness. The drones on the other hand are active agents that seek to harm you, they're obstacles that must be dealt with to proceed.
They justify the sinister undertones of language that have underlined the talk so far, and force the player to consider the motives behind the institution since they [the drones] are featured so prominently in the player narrative. Shortly into the exercise you'll notice two cubes wedged into an opening which reveals the first visual backstage. Inside are messages scribbled on the wall such as “The cake is a lie” and “I'm watching you” with respective pictures of a cake and security camera. “Help!” is also marked on the floor by the opening.
Advancing to the next segment of the floor reveals a pile of cubes, a radio and some other utensils lying around discarded. The disorderliness of the game world is a visual metaphor used to confirm the disorderliness of Glados performance. Both are well unkept. The visual state of the front stage is proper confirmation of the situation at hand. Instead of a few suspicions caught in your head, it's now much more serious.
Add to this to frightening messages scribbled in the visual front stage and the game begins to affirm the sinister undertones as well. Glados' text only acts to reinforce the sinisterness of what's witnessed in the player narrative. She first apologise for the inconvenience and then casts your role again in the last part of this line; “Well done, android. The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that android hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.” Now the front stage is well and truly falling apart as the sinister intentions are becoming more evident.
Chamber 17 - Backstage Reveal
Chamber 17 is all about the companion cube; a device used to heighten the psychological undertones instilled by the institution. Glados first assigns a series of mental conditions as symptoms possibly contracted by using the cube. “The symptoms most commonly produced by Enrichment Center testing are superstition, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, and hallucinations.”
She then consoles you to believe that the cube won't threaten to stab you, nor can it speak, implying that you may have thought otherwise, suggesting the protagonist is insane/delusional. She then encourages you to disregard the cube's talk if it does indeed talk – further suggestion. After de-humanizing the cube she begins to personalize it in order to bridge affection between player and cube. She asks you to “escort” the cube, that you must “euthanize” it, she labels it as a “faithful companion” that doesn't wish to “burden you” and finally that the cube will feel no pain from the process.
We see that she initially hints that the player may be mentally insecure, then goes to the effort of creating a personal attachment to the cube before concluding by reminding the player about mental instability “You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.” This last statement ties the player to the cube, to the sickness. The aim of her technique here is to link the player to mental instability through use of the cube (both in language and game world). Of course, the technique is an obvious failure since the player does not feel any strong personal attachment to the cube to the point of mental instability. It's a hole in the performance, but one I doubt many players realized due to the layers of implementation.
In Chamber 19 Glados' performance falters by stating that “The Enrichment Center is required to remind you that you will be baked and then there will be cake.” Her words are the actual truth; the institution later attempts to cook you alive, Glados reveals the intentions and delivers backstage directly. She continues the safety jokes and normalizing of the institution by spruiking additional safety seminars to the player (“For more information, please attend an Enrichment Center Electrical Safety seminar.”).
Upon reaching the end of the exercise, the player is on a direct course, destined for an open furnace. Glados continues to place the organisation over the player's safety “All Aperture technologies remain safely operational up to 4000 degrees Kelvin.” and “Rest assured that there is absolutely no chance of a dangerous equipment malfunction prior to your victory candescence.” Institutions avoid the sticky end of business where possible, which explains why this part of the procedure was never mentioned before – it's awkward. How does Glados explain that you're now to be killed while maintaining a believable front? Even while the player is being escorted to the flames, she makes no word of it.
The player escapes (maybe after dying some) by portalling to the platform above, turning the whole game on its head. The fire reveals the hidden intentions that you were to be killed at the end of the exercise. Of course, at this point, the institution is exposed. The front is now the back and it's impossible to repair the situation once the performance has been defrauded. The analysis up to this point has looked at how Glados' performance has attempted to maintain and impose front stage control. Now, after having the front stage pulled from under her, we look at how Glados is trying to buy back the front stage.
At first Glados expresses her disbelief and responds with a knee-jerk reaction “What are you doing? Stop it! I.. I.. We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you.” She slips up and begins to talk on behalf of herself, before quickly trying to maintain institutional control by pretending the escape is part of the routine. Her tone says otherwise, expressing restraint and urgency. She then uses compliments and the prospect of a party to persuade the player to conform to her demands, leveraging all that she has left.
The player then begins to explore the visual backstage which portrays many things such as semi-build turrets, the mechanical process that levitate platforms, storage, exists, air vents, the back offices and even returns back into one of the earlier levels. Glados can no longer monitor you in these areas and her dialogue represents that struggle of control. “Hello?/Where are you?/I know you're there. I can feel you here./Hello?/What are you doing?/You haven't escaped, you know./You're not even going the right way./Hello?/Is anyone there?”
You're now a deviant that has been given control. Glados begins to plead with the player, she's desperate to return to procedure. “Okay. The test is over. You win. Go back to the recovery annex. For your cake. It was a fun test and we're all impressed at how much you won. The test is over. Come back.” She then tries to persuade by leveraging the cake “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.” and then attempting to convince the player that they're lost “You're not even going the right way. Where do you think you're going? Because I don't think you're going where you think you're going.”
She then vouches for affection, playing the previous incident off as a joking charade “Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said 'Goodbye' and you were like 'No way' and then I was all 'I was just pretending to murder you'? That was great!” In fact she goes through a whole manner of techniques to gain her role back, but fails every time. When it all becomes too much, she digs deep into the backstage and shares her deepest opinions “You're not a good person. You know that, right?/ Good people don't end up here./Can you hear me?/This is your fault. It didn't have to be like this./I'm not kidding now. Turn back or I will kill you./I'm going to kill you and all the cake is gone.”
This is the first instance where the backstage is completely unveiled to the player, Glados cannot retreat from here. In fact, Portal now begins to go beyond Goffman's specialization. The player has travelled from front to backstage and from backstage, right into the psychology of the antagonist. Her words transcend the socially accepted and are pure evil. Unlike everything leading up to this part of the dialogue, the institution is now gone, destroyed. Glados is no longer scrambling for front stage, these utterances admit defeat and all of the dialogue that precedes has no adherence to the institution. All further performance is unrelated to the institution. In the final chamber, the “boss battle” if you like, Glados's performance attempts to convince the player to a) not attack her b) die. For this reason, we have finished the analysis, as the instuition is gone.
Portal is a game fragmented into two slices, with each slice aiding in the delivery of narrative. What we can draw from the lengthy (but necessary) analysis is how through the use of both language and it's required context, a performance is created and maintained by the antagonist, and used to tell a metaphoric tale of a power struggle of identity roles within an institution.
We see this through the flaws in performance, that break down the front stage allowing the player to witness parts of the back. From there the process concludes and the institution's intents are revealed. and then undermined which result in complete destruction of the institution and a desperate scramble for performance control.
[Daniel Johnson spends too many late nights conversing Mandarin to friends in Shanghai. He studies language and culture, and shares most of his video game musings on his blog at danielprimed.com]