For the non-video game players out there, Portal is a puzzle adventure with a truly unique gameplay mechanic. I won’t describe it (hint: it involves portals) because, for the purposes of this post, that’s not really the interesting bit. The interesting bit is the underlying story. In it, your character is imprisoned in a maze-like corporate laboratory ruled by a rather terrifyingly passive/aggressive robot intelligence named GLADoS. GLADoS subjects the player to increasingly deadly “tests”, culminating in a final confrontation where either you or “she” must be killed.
Despite the dark humor scattered throughout the game, GLADoS is, I think, one of the most deeply intimidating villains in video game history.
Of course, GLADoS is defeated in the end. Or is she?
This is where things get especially interesting. Follow:
In Portal 2, the player is introduced to a new robotic character, a beachball-sized helper called Wheatley:
Wheatley is small, weak, and completely terrified of GLADoS, despite the fact that, thanks to your actions in Portal 1, she is deactivated. In the process of helping you escape, Wheatley accidentally causes this to happen:
Wheatley, of course, inadvertantly reawakens GLADoS. Exhibiting her very unique brand of venomously polite intimidation, she dooms the player to one more round of deadly “testing”. This, so it seems, is the point of the game.
But wait! Here, actually, is where it gets really interesting.
Wheatley survives GLADoS’ awakening and attempts once again to help you escape her deadly, deadly traps. And despite his general ineptness, you succeed. Sort of.
Did you watch that? If not, you should. It’s some of the best video game film-making ever devised. In it, the player succeeds in confronting GLADoS and performing a “core replacement” on her. The result is that GLADoS’ “brain” is removed from her enormous robotic body– a body which controls the entire facility– and is replaced with little, meek, terrified little Wheatley.
Wheatley gains control over the facility, while GLADoS’ brain lays on the floor powerless. And here, finally, as promised, is where things get really, importantly interesting.
Within a matter of moments, the power goes straight to Wheatley’s head. We watch it happen. He very convincingly and dismayingly turns against the player, becoming, if anything, even more spiteful and deranged than GLADoS. For Wheatley is not driven by megalomania, but by a deep-seated, long cultivated sense of inferiority. His new-found power plugs directly into a part of himself that had never before had a voice. Where GLADoS wielded power with a sense of eerily calm, entitled finesse, Wheatley uses it like a bludgeon, fueled by a the giddy abandon of unexpected (and unprepared-for) power.
This, I propose, is a creepily accurate image of human society. This little video game storyline perfectly illustrates humanity’s fundamental brokenness, pettiness, and its absolute inability to find moral equilibrium.
How? I’ll give away the ending: because the moment the oppressed succeed in kicking the oppressor off the throne of power, the oppressed find themselves irresistibly drawn to that seat themselves. And once there, they quickly become their own kind of oppression.
We see this everywhere, don’t we?
No one argues that Haiti’s slave rebellion of 1791, for example, was not a long time coming and an absolutely necessary response to the decades of horrors committed by white slave owners. But even in that context, are we comfortable with the fact that the uprising slaves killed every white they found, whether they were plantation owners or not, raping the women before slaughtering them, and carrying dead white children on pikes in triumph?
That’s a long way from Portal 2, and yet I think both tales share an eerily similar truth: despite the increasingly popular modern narrative, humanity is simply not good.
There are exceptions. There are people who do seem genuinely altruistic, empathetic, generous. But they are not powerful people. This bears up under even a very detailed study of totalitarian leaders around the world and throughout history. With virtually no exception, extremely powerful people are extremely dangerous, demented monsters.
Even King David, the golden boy of the Old Testament, had one of his best generals killed so he could steal the guy’s wife. Why? Because he could.
Humanity’s fatal flaw is that we are all wired for tyranny over others. The only requirement is for that socket to be plugged in with power.
How long did it take chubby, America-loving mousketeer Kim Jong Un to turn into the sort of tyrant that would have his former girlfriend, a famous Korean pop singer, machine-gunned in front of her family?
But Portal 2 illustrates something a lot more insidious and far-reaching than the corrupting influence of absolute power over a few tinpot tyrants.
A few years ago, my son Zane and I were at Target. He was eight years old at the time, and it’s fair to mention at this point that he was– and is– an unusual boy. He’s sensitive, artistic, empathetic, not into video games or sports or Transformers movies, etc. In short, he always identified as much with girls and their interests as he did other boys. Thus, he was dismayed and (I think) a bit hurt to see a girl his age wearing this tee shirt:
He asked me why that little girl thought he was stupid– so much that he deserved to have rocks thrown at him. I was really hurt on his behalf. I came home and asked my prodigious collection of Facebook friends what I should say. I was increasingly dismayed that a lot of my friends had no problem with this slogan and even supported the theme behind it. Why? Easy: because men have belittled and tyrannized women in the past. For decades, women in America lived under the misogynistic boot-heel of male chauvinism.
But my son wasn’t responsible for any of that (and it was very telling to me that none of those who supported the boy-hating tee shirts had sons). Glibly, obliquely punishing young boys, purposely undermining their sense of gender, because of the sins of other people, is the worst kind of passive-aggressive tyranny. It’s proof that, as always, as soon as the oppressed unseat their oppressors, they gleefully assume the oppressor’s seat themselves.
This happens everywhere.
A Democrat president takes the White House promising heretofore unheard of transparency and fairness, only to conduct possibly the most politically polarized and coordinated intimidation campaign on conservative Americans in history.
The LGBT community finally emerges from beneath decades of oppression only to embrace tacit hatred and demonization of any person who has the slightest qualm about gay marriage.
Introverts finally gain some prominence in internet culture and begin to immediately portray (in very introverted ways) extroverts as apparently feelingless, vapid loudmouths.
And all of this goes to prove the basic point: humanity is just no good at balance. The desire for revenge is simply too hardwired into our hind-brains to be denied when we have the opportunity. We feel ironically diminished by the idea of being the bigger person– of refraining from revenge upon an entire gender, or personality type, or ideology, when culture turns (as it always does) and puts the whip of power into our own hands.
The thing that’s so depressing about this tendency is the way that it validates all the former oppressors. Think about it: the moment Wheatley the robot assumed power and punished the suddenly helpless GLADoS he became the bad guy. GLADoS became a sympathetic character. The game plays this out– GLADoS becomes your friend, helping you win the game. Later, she resumes power– and having learned what it means to be truly powerless, she sets you free.
Feminists, when you demean young boys and dismiss all men as oafs, you become the oppressor– the tyrant. Your once-legitimate cause becomes a propaganda tool for your own brand of cultural despotism.
LGBT advocates, when you vent your rage over decades of oppression by hating anyone who doesn’t completely support gay marriage, you become the oppressor, stifling reasonable debate in favor of the sort of for-us-or-against-us mentality that you claim to hate in every other area.
Political parties, when you gain power and immediately begin to intimidate and propagandize the minority party, you lose the moral high ground. You become the tyrant you always hated.
In conclusion, I suppose the proper thing to do would be to encourage us to break this cycle– to suggest that, when fate hands us the whip of power, we try not to give in to the temptation to use it ourselves.
But it’s a pointless suggestion. Because as a culture we can’t stop ourselves. We humans are just too in love with our causes, our wounded pride, our sense of entitled rage, not to spank back.
We’re all like Wheatley: just tyrants waiting to happen.
But… if YOU decided not to hate en entire generation for something they probably had no say in… or an entire gender for something that isn’t part of their culture anymore… or an entire race for the crimes of their distant forefathers…
Well, it may not change the world, but you can live with knowing something extraordinary: that you alone are rising above the petty tyranny of almost everyone else. You’re better than the ones who gleefully take up the whip. You’ve said no to the basest part of you, shown you are indeed bigger than your past oppressors, even if no one else notices it.
It won’t change the world. Because you’ll probably be the only one doing it.
But that’s what will make it so intensely valuable.
The true test of morality is not in helping achieve victory over oppressors. That’s an excellent thing, a necessary thing. But the true test of morality is avoiding becoming the oppressor yourself afterwards.
This, it seems, is a test most of humanity fails on purpose.