Late Portal convert
Jess McCabe // 29 July 2008
I am aware that I have been quite negative about various video games here in the past. To be honest, my feelings about gaming are not so much love-hate as hate, hate, love.
But, finally, one to belatedly celebrate – Portal, a game for the XBox and PS3 which involves solving puzzles by way of opening portals. And, yes, I realise I am a bit behind the curve on this one, what with the ubiquitous theme song that made it onto Guitar Hero, and the fact you can buy companion cube necklaces on Etsy.
What’s so good about Portal? For a start, you play a female character. But not just any female character. GamesRadar sums this up perfectly:
The playable characters in first-person shooters are almost always men. In the rare event that a female character is playable, she serves as an object of male fantasy and her interactions with the game world are still forced through the male-oriented lens described in the previous paragraph. Interestingly, playable female characters are usually presented in third-person action games (think Lara Croft) — again reinforcing a visual power dynamic that in this case furthers the objectification of the female form by a predominantly male audience. Rather than the player assuming the identity of the heroine, she becomes a controllable other…
The protagonist is a woman named Chell, but she’s not the hypersexualized object of lust we’ve come to expect in games. Rather than skintight latex or a chainmail bikini, she wears a plain orange jump suit that is eerily reminiscent of those worn by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. We’re offered no backstory, no hint of personality. She is being held captive in a lab and is subject to teleportation experiments by the insane AI who operates the “Enrichment Center.” As the player, you’re never even aware that you’re a woman until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the third person through a portal. The unobtrusive presentation of the female protagonist doesn’t force a male gender perspective on the player as is the norm in FPS games.
In other words, the few playable female characters in games are usually meant to be played with, as much as played. Not in Portal.
The description of this game as a first-person shooter is a bit tenuous, as you never shoot or kill anything (except for robots and, brilliantly, an inanimate cube). Or, as Feminist Gamers said:
You, as the player, are the only living creature in the game. So it does sort of skew the whole “100% female” proclamation that I made early on. However, there are two robotic “others” in the game: first off is the Institute’s computer — imagine the Star Trek ship’s computer with a sick sense of humor and a half-done inflection subroutine and you’ve got your instructor. She directs you through the center’s levels with a combination stick: warning you that you will be sent to android hell at the first signs of disobedience, as well as the carrot: urging you through the levels with the promise of cake at the end. The other robotic “other” are the little battle platforms: sentry drones that will detect movement and fire a bunch of bullets at you. As obnoxious as they are when they’re popping caps in your ass, I absolutely love these sick little fucks: they’ll scan for you and in sweet, harmonized voices (yes, female), they’ll ask you to “please come over here” and when you knock them out, they’ll shut down with a resigned “I’m not angry.”
And looky-look – one of the main developers of the game was a woman – Kim Swift.