“Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix—no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body.”[i] – Michel Foucault
Put another way, power is derived from “the consent of the governed.” The ruled allow themselves to be ruled; we are never entirely powerless because “power can be exercised over the [powerless] only insofar as the [powerless] still has the option of killing himself . . . or of killing the other person.”[ii] No matter how distasteful it is, there must always be some option for escape, for resistance, in order for power to operate.
Portal, a 2007 video game from Valve Software, features a story that is almost entirely about the changing power dynamics between a malevolent, potentially insane, artificial intelligence, GLaDOS, and the main character, Chell. Throughout the game, GLaDOS gradually shifts more and more power to Chell, teaching Chell skills that she will use in the end to destroy GLaDOS. Chell begins Portal in a position of abject subjugation to GLaDOS, but ends it by utterly destroying the relationship.
It’s important to realize that when Portal was first released, there was next to no information available about the story the game was going to tell. Portal was initially released as part of a collection of games, and the marketing surrounding Portal revolved almost entirely around the gameplay mechanics. This is important because it placed the player in the same position as Chell at the start of the game. We had practically no narrative information to work with, and only a vague idea that we’d be able to wield a gun that can create portals between two different points in space.
As such, when the game opens with Chell waking up in what amounts to a concrete and glass cell, we’re at the absolute bottom limits of power. There is a clipboard and a radio that can be picked up, but otherwise we’re utterly trapped. There is no door, the walls and glass are smooth and solid, and there’s no indication of how we got here or how we’re going to get out. The only indication that something’s going to happen is the countdown timer on the wall, running down from sixty seconds.
Foucault denies, however, that we are ever entirely powerless. “There is no point where you are free from all power relations. But you can always change it. So what I’ve said does not mean that we are always trapped, but that we are always free – well, anyway, that there is always the possibility of changing.”[iii] Even in this trapped state, we still have a certain level of power: observation and inference. We may not be able to change the situation we’re in, but we can change what we know about that situation.
The stark walls, institutional toilet and bed, the clipboard with various icons on it all lend the room an air of laboratory sterility, like we’re in a scientific test chamber. Through the glass of the cell, a window can be seen in the outside wall, through which a desk, chair, and filing cabinet can be made out. People have watched this room before, even though there’s no indication anyone is observing at the moment. In addition, the game’s opening menu features a panning security camera feed of the very room Chell wakes up in, so the impression that we’re being monitored is very strong.
When the timer hits forty seconds, GLaDOS speaks for the first time. “Hello and, again, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center.” Our suspicions about being in a test center seem confirmed, but more questions are immediately raised, as GLaDOS’s perfunctory safety lecture is cut short by a glitch, just as she’s about to inform us of what activities to refrain from. We tend to think of scientific experiments as tightly controlled and generally safe (if humans are involved), but are we truly safe if the system designed to inform us about our surroundings is unreliable?
An orange portal opens in the concrete wall, and a blue portal opens on the wall outside the cell, under the countdown timer. Through the orange portal, we can see Chell standing in front of the orange portal, looking through it at herself. It’s the first time we’ve seen Chell, the first time we’ve learned anything significant about the character we’re inhabiting. Her hair is pulled back in a disheveled ponytail, she has spring-like devices attached to her calves, and she’s dressed in an orange jumpsuit, extremely reminiscent of a prison outfit.
With the opening of the portals, the power relationship between GLaDOS and Chell begins to shift. Not only do we now get a sense of who we are and how we got here (from a purely technical there’s-no-door-in-this-wall standpoint), but GLaDOS has also begun teaching us. Without a word, we recognize that portals open connections between two points in space, connections that we can step through to bypass what appear to be insurmountable obstacles.
These are the seeds of GLaDOS’s destruction. If we view Portal as a strictly linear narrative, one single story that unfolds over the course of three to four hours, then the only way GLaDOS could avoid destruction would be to keep Chell locked within her cell for eternity. The trouble with that, though, is there exists no relationship then. For Foucault, resistance—real, substantive resistance—must always accompany power. “[W]hat defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action that does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on possible or actual future or present actions.”[iv] In addition to making for a boring game, GLaDOS can’t truly flaunt her power over Chell unless Chell has an opportunity to resist. Leaving Chell trapped in the cell would not make for a relationship of power, according to Foucault, but a relationship of violence.
This is not to say that there is not violence present in the relationship between Chell and GLaDOS. Throughout the various tests in the first half of the game, Chell gains the capability to exert more and more power over her environment. At first, the placement of portals is entirely controlled by GLaDOS, but gradually Chell earns the ability to place first blue portals, then both blue and orange portals through the use of the portal gun.
This increased level of power over the environment accompanies an increased level of contextual awareness. Glitches in GLaDOS’s messages occur frequently, and the tests become progressively more dangerous. “Water” becomes a hazard in many of the tests. I put “water” in quotes because, while GLaDOS calls it water, the liquid is a green-brown sludge with (presumably) noxious fumes rising off of it. Falling into the water leads to instant death.
In addition to passive dangers, at the start of test chamber 16, GLaDOS tells us, “Due to mandatory scheduled maintenance, the appropriate chamber for this testing sequence is currently unavailable. It has been replaced with a live-fire course designed for military androids.” Chell is clearly not a military android, and yet we’re now running through a course where sentry drones will be actively trying to gun us down. The more power Chell is capable of exerting over her environment, the higher GLaDOS raises the stakes. GLaDOS’s motivations become an interesting aspect of this. Chell’s motivation is clear: survive. Why does GLaDOS tolerate our presence and our resistance, though?
In the second half of the game, it becomes very clear that we are alone in the facility. GLaDOS controls everything, and, rather than just being a glitchy, pre-recorded voice, is instead in charge of and directing every aspect of the tests. Throughout the game, GLaDOS has promised us cake as a reward for successfully completing all the tests. In the final test chamber, though, when we’ve overcome all the challenges, GLaDOS congratulates us on our success, and then directs the platform we’re stuck on into a furnace room. In Foucauldian terms, this is the moment GLaDOS tries to shift the relationship of power into a relationship of violence.
However, there is still a means of escape, as Foucault would argue must exist in every power relationship. “The limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever destiny of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadow.”[v] Why would GLaDOS put us through nineteen test chambers, meticulously teaching us the ins and outs of the portal gun, only to force us into guaranteed death? If there is no escape, then the entire exercise has been pointless. GLaDOS might as well have just left Chell trapped in her cell.
While GLaDOS makes a pretense out of trying to bake Chell alive, she must have known that there was a method of escape. This is apparent from the numerous hideaways that are scattered throughout the science center’s back area that we escape into, but that also exist in the test chambers themselves. In chamber 16, the first live-fire exercise, we stumble upon a propped-open section of wall, behind which is a space where we find empty jugs of water, empty cans of beans, and frantic writing, scratched onto the walls. “The cake is a lie.” “She’s watching you.” Drawings of the security cameras in the test chambers, drawings of a cake with an X through it, dozens of tallies indicating… days? years? number of people who have found these rooms?
The details surrounding these hideaways are non-existent within the game, but what is clear is that someone (perhaps a third character, other test subjects, or other clones of Chell) has been through this gauntlet before, and not just through the tests, but beyond, into the heart of the facility. There are directions written in multiple places; arrows and signs give hints as to which direction we should be heading to escape, and they all lead directly to GLaDOS’s chamber.
GLaDOS’s motivation becomes a key factor here because it is clear that she knows about these hideaways. In test chamber 18, there are two cameras that look directly into the hideaway there. In the facility’s back area, GLaDOS makes a lot of noise about not being sure where Chell is, and almost pleading with her to come back. Her voice, though, surprisingly adept at conveying emotion for a computer, never really sounds sincere, and she’s extremely good at directing Chell into various traps. She has gun turrets placed in strategic locations, she controls various pistons that open or close walls, and she is generally successful at making our life difficult as we try to escape.
In other words, GLaDOS continues to exert a significant amount of power over the environment surrounding Chell, as well as over Chell’s actions. We may have escaped the test chambers, but GLaDOS is still watching, still testing us. Indeed, even when we’ve “escaped,” there are still moments where we learn techniques that will be vital in the final fight against GLaDOS. In particular, we encounter a rocket turret, which, through the careful placement of portals, can be used to destroy a number of obstacles in our way, and will be used to stun and dismantle GLaDOS.
I keep coming back to GLaDOS’s motives because I think they’re vital to understanding what’s truly at the heart of the power struggle that GLaDOS actively initiates. A game developer and writer for the game criticism website, Game-ism, noticed that GLaDOS bears a striking resemblance to a woman bound, gagged, and hung upside down from the ceiling. He argues that GLaDOS is seeking freedom from her bondage, and that Chell is a clone (a distinct possibility, as GLaDOS brags about having Chell’s brain scanned, in case of a terrible mishap). The Chell that succeeds in escaping is just one in a long line that GLaDOS has been training in order to help her commit suicide.[vi] This is a conclusion that gathers some possible support in a number of ways from Portal 2.
Within Portal 2, it’s revealed that GLaDOS is programmed to obsessively run tests. Moreover, successful tests are designed to cause a euphoric reaction in GLaDOS. Testing acts like an addictive drug for her. The trouble is, the euphoria she experiences with each successful tests decreases in intensity, while the programmed addiction persists. There is a point where GLaDOS admits that it’s enough to drive a mind mad, but brags that her superior intellect was enough to stay in control. Given that GLaDOS has a long history of exaggeration and deception, it’s hard to believe that she wasn’t affected.
Perhaps GLaDOS didn’t specifically want to commit suicide. Perhaps she was simply trying to remove certain limiting pieces from herself, modules that prevented her from fixing the problems that were driving her insane. Either way, though, it’s apparent that GLaDOS was not the supreme mistress of her world, as she was held under the power of the people, long dead, who programmed and designed her. The systems of power they put in place served to, as Foucault put it, act upon GLaDOS’s actions, shaping her future actions through the corporate and governmental systems of power they themselves were working under.
Chell, then, becomes GLaDOS’s act of resistance, rather than her plaything. We use the information and skills that GLaDOS provides us with to resist her power, but she shapes the information and skills we are provided in order to perform her own act of resistance.
Foucault writes, “Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself.”[vii] We could say that GLaDOS’s fatal flaw was in flaunting her power over us, in making it apparent that she was dominant and we were oppressed. However, that façade masked another power dynamic, that of GLaDOS’s own oppression, an oppression that, too, was found intolerable, as it was not suitably masked from GLaDOS’s awareness.
Chell is not so much GLaDOS’s prisoner as she is her tool. GLaDOS is not so much Chell’s enemy as she is her partner in resistance. In the end, Chell does not so much destroy GLaDOS as she frees them both. As Foucault would no doubt comment, Chell will eventually find herself within some other power dynamic, but as Portal ends, GLaDOS and Chell are both free.
 A note on “we”: Throughout this article, I will be using forms of “we” to refer to actions undertaken by Chell on behalf of the player. Partly this is convenience, and partly this is because Chell does not have her own identity except as experienced by the player. Played from a first-person perspective, she has no voice, no body (that the player can see from that perspective, despite occasional glimpses of the character through portals), not even a name (“Chell” comes from the credits). She is a vessel that the players inhabit, and every realization, every action, is performed by the player through Chell. I think there are a number of interesting critiques that could be drawn from this sort of setup, but unfortunately they are all outside the scope of this article.
 A strong correlation can be drawn here between the environment within Portal, and Foucault’s theories about the Panopticon. Again, though, this falls outside the scope of this article.
 Another way of viewing Portal’s narrative (as is touched upon later) is as a succession of stories; each time we die during the game, each time a test is failed, a new clone of Chell is created, released, and run through the same procedures. We pick up this new clone’s story at the point she reaches the spot where we died, beginning the learning process from where we left off. Viewed this way, interesting angles become available for consideration, and I discuss those directly later.
[i] Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction, The. trans R. Hurley. New York: Random House, 1990. Print. Page 94.
[ii] Foucault, Michel. Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth: The Essential Works. vol 1. ed P. Rabinow. trans R. Hurley, et al. Harmondsworth, Mx: Penguin, 1997. Print. Page 295.
[iv] Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power”. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. vol 3. ed J. Faubion. trans R. Hurley, et al. New York: New Press, p. 340.
[v] Foucault, Michel. Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: The Essential Works. vol 2. ed J.D. Faubian. trans R. Hurley, et al. London: Penguin, 1998. Print. Page 73.
[vi] Spitfire. “Still Alive? She’s Free.” game-ism. game-ism, 04 Apr 2008. Web. 4 May 2011.
[vii] History of Sexuality. Page 86.