The Meta-Narrative That Pulls Back the Curtain for All GamesS

Was GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence in 2007's critically acclaimed Portal, in fact a game designer? And if so, what does our relationship to the computer, and its abuse of our trust, say about the other games we play?

Guido Pellegrini at Playtime Magazine raises that point, among many others, in examining not just the meta-narrative of Portal, but also that of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Portal gets a deeper treatment, but both games deliberate puncture the illusion of control game players feel they have. In the end, Pellegrini writes, we are still following commands, taking cues and completing tasks in order to ultimately complete the game. Sons of Liberty in its way, and Portal to a much larger degree, are completely open about such manipulation.

If you haven't played or finished Portal and feel like you might want to some day, this essay should be treated as one long spoiler (the same for Sons of Liberty). Ultimately, Pellegrini raises this question: Within games is any restriction antithetical to one's freedom to act, or can there still be freedom within those boundaries? It is a question that extends well beyond the immaculate walls of Portal's test laboratory.

Portal and The Meta-Narrative Maker [Playtime Magazine, Oct 23.]

GLaDOS, then, is part adversary, part game-designer, guiding us across levels in an effort to finish the game of portal gun assessment. This antagonistic artificial intelligence is a diegetic representation of the creator or director, shaping up a fiction for the players to complete, providing context, giving orders, outlining our path, introducing complications, playing around with our expectations, intentionally misleading us, and so on. GLaDOS is our ruler and general, our boss. Meta-narrative elements are not terribly common in video-games, although they are not alien to the medium. We need only look at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty to find an especially blunt and grandiloquent example of meta-narrative. In that game, a video-game player - a covert operative who has been trained solely through virtual reality simulations, or so he believes - ultimately realizes that his first official field-mission has been yet another simulation: every battle, death, and confrontation has been meticulously planned by an advanced artificial intelligence hiding behind the human façade of an iconic military general whom the protagonist has only communicated with through Codec, a sort of radio coupled with images of talking faces. The end of the game is infamously weird, culminating as it does with the advanced artificial intelligence commanding us to finish the game by killing the final enemy in a sword-fight atop the Federal Hall. Being coerced into finishing the game by the evil, back-stabbing computer that constructed the narrative we have been playing for the past twelve hours is surprisingly repulsive. We do not have a choice to do otherwise, unless we prefer to shut off our game system. But is this lack-of-choice a departure from other video-games?

Every video-game compels us to complete certain actions in order to reach the finish line. Every video-game controls us and directs our behavior through strict parameters. Even an open-ended video-game is not completely open-ended, only open-ended in the manner and to the extent decided upon by the game-makers. Our immersion into the fiction veils our status as prisoners. Yet we are no more than prisoners, forced to do what the dictator-storyteller demands of us. Now, this admittedly makes the whole business sound much more sinister than it necessarily is - we willingly pay money to be manipulated and led by the game-makers, after all - but it is interesting to note how foreboding and uncomfortable it can be when a video-game opts to make our dependency upon the game-makers a literal part of the plot. In most any game, we would not mind having to accomplish certain feats, and more importantly, we would certainly not complain about having to kill the final enemy, since that would bring upon the much-desired denouement. Alas, in the vast majority of games, these commands are gentle, imperceptible, implied through environmental and contextual cues. Thus, we receive the commands without protest. What Sons of Liberty and Portal do is to actually tell us these commands out-loud, through an in-game director, and suddenly the conceit of freedom that video-games tend to propagate is destroyed. Most games force us to do this and that. The above two games are honest about it.

If there is one divergence between Sons of Liberty and Portal, it is that the former provides no true escape from the fiction of the in-game director. To the very end, we are following the commands of an artificial intelligence. The closing cinematic (a movie-like animation that furthers the story using film language) suggests future freedom only for the fictional protagonist. As far as our interactivity is concerned, we never oppose the computer's authority. Our last action is to kill the final enemy, just as the computer has ordained. Portal, on the other hand, gives players the opportunity to walk backstage - to view the machinery behind the fiction - in order to confront the neurotic puppeteer.

[...]

We must constantly observe the architecture that traps, annoys, hinders, and informs us. Only by doing this can we find the opposite end of the labyrinth. Just as the architecture might facilitate our flight, it is also a participant in our entrapment. This double-edged quality makes our interaction with the environment a passionate endeavor. Equal parts savior and jailer, the environment is the middle-man in the tug-of-war between computer and human guinea pig, as each uses the same landscape to claim victory over the other. It is this battle that is the soul of Portal. The game-designer and the player are constantly at odds with each other. One tries to control, while the other hopes to achieve independence. One tries to dominate through a precise architecture that delimits movement, while the other explores his or her possibilities within this supposedly constraining architecture. The player's performance can flower inside a confined milieu. This happens in every video-game, but this one makes it literal and readily visible thanks to GLaDOS. We wake up inside a game and subsequently form a hostile relationship with its designer. Walking beyond the walls of this game, we find a parent game with more objectives and more puzzles. We wonder if the hostile relationship does not continue, despite our perceived escape. We turn off Portal. We play something else. We keep wondering about the hostile relationship, now in a new context. Video-games allow freedom of movement while restricting its degree. In a sense, Portal is about whether this restriction is enough to stifle any sense of freedom or whether there can still be freedom within restrictions. It is a dilemma that expands to the medium at large, if not beyond even that.

- Guido Pellegrini

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