I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but I finally started playing Portal
over the weekend, got through level nine, and enough cannot be said about how charming the game is. Because I haven’t played video games or been around gamers in any substantive way in a decade, I wasn’t as struck as Becky Chambers was by the opportunity to play as a woman
(though Chambers’ piece is excellent). Instead, what struck me is the way the game’s sense of humor dovetails with larger trends in entertainment, particularly comedies set in corporations.
The minute GLaDOS declared in her menacingly chipper way: “Remember,’Take Your Daughter to Work Day’ is a great opportunity to have her tested,” I immediately thought of Veronica Palmer, the hilariously amoral executive from Better Off Ted. Veronica’s the kind of person who is perfectly comfortable freezing a man for science only to be annoyed when he emerges from the experience with a tendency to shriek unexpectedly; who when Ted, the senior vice president who works for for her, brings his daughter Rose to work and asks Veronica to look after the little girl, teaches Rose how to lay people off; who works with Ted to fake a major company initiative when rumor accidentally spreads that they’re on to something awesome. In other words, she is beyond the realms of usual corporate malfeasance into the realm of the hilariously evil. If she were Jack Donaghy, she’d be turning children orange and selling dangerously defective grills to North Korea. If she were Michael Scott, she’d run an office so depressing and No Exit-y that day-to-day life would become a comedy of the absurd. GLaDOS offers chipper warnings that various force fields might yank out Chell’s fillings, and that under certain circumstances, you’ll die and get a note in your permanent record (and I understand that worse is yet to come).
This mismatch between tone and content feels like an important hallmark of our corporate comedy to me. The things all these characters are doing are wildly malfeasant, but they’re not actually so malfeasant as to be unrealistic—in fact, sometimes, reality is worse than what we can imagine. Even Veronica Palmer would quail at Don Blakenship. But I think most Americans don’t really think we’ll do without corporations, or that we’ll radically change their role in American life. I’d like to believe that’s different. But until it is, joking about corporate power helps us reconcile ourselves to big companies’ role in our day-to-day lives, whether they’re employing us or building the world around us. It is to cry, but day-to-day, it helps to laugh.