Late Portal convert

// 29 July 2008

prtl.gif 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.

Comments From You

Lew // Posted 29 July 2008 at 2:21 pm

Portal is one of the best games I’ve ever played. I very rarely play single-player games, but when I do, I always find the testosterone offputing. This game had none of that, and I’ve only just realised that the lack of testosterone is why I can enjoy it.

It’s great also that Portal has achieved immense fame on the internet, and has never had a bad review. I don’t know if this can be seen as an achievement for equality, but it’s certainly something.

Zenobia // Posted 29 July 2008 at 2:36 pm

Yes! I watched someone play this, and it looks incredible, I’m going to have to play through it myself at some stage. Plus the dialogue is so amazing, I loved the humour. Well, dialogue is stretching it a bit I guess

Actually, the Half Life games are mostly pretty good for female characters, although Gordon Freeman is a bloke, I guess – some sort of superhuman killing machine, even.

As an added bonus, one of the voices of the final boss is Mike Patton, and you get to throw him into a furnace. Count me in!

Daniel // Posted 29 July 2008 at 4:19 pm

I too would suggest you give the half life series a go, while the original half life is an all male affair, its a stunningly atmospheric and story driven game, while the sequels introduce several female charachters, one of which, while not playable, fights alongside you and when on several occassions you have to rescue her it feels like rescuing a team mate rather than a damsel in distress (i’m fairly certain she rescues you at some point to)

Hazel // Posted 29 July 2008 at 4:50 pm

I’d like to recommend two other games which have female leads without big boobs.

Both are first person adventures: the first is Metroid Prime which my son describes as one of the best games there is. The second is Beyond Good and Evil which my husband describes as a good, funny, clever and varied game in which all the “shooting” is done with a camera.

Emily // Posted 29 July 2008 at 6:16 pm

I heart beyond good and evil!!! It was so good. I got it for the gamecube and it was fantastic. Would totally recommend it to everyone ever!

Anna // Posted 29 July 2008 at 6:17 pm

just a small correction on Metroid – whilst Samus Aran is for the most part in an extremely unflattering armour, every game has a chance to see her not wearing it – either in an extremely fitting jumpsuit, or, on occasion, bikini..

Zenobia // Posted 29 July 2008 at 6:18 pm

I’d second both of those, Hazel. Metroid in general is just jaw-dropping.

chem_fem // Posted 29 July 2008 at 7:17 pm

I don’t really think we mind games like Tomb Raider just because she has big breasts – many women have those.

Rather that she is sparsely dressed and sold as a sex object.

Hazel // Posted 29 July 2008 at 8:25 pm

Anna, I did not know that.

Gillian // Posted 30 July 2008 at 1:33 am

The original Half Life also has the Decay add on pack where you play as two female scientists. It never made it to the PC, but there’s an unofficial port going on somewhere.

Zenobia // Posted 30 July 2008 at 10:16 am

just a small correction on Metroid – whilst Samus Aran is for the most part in an extremely unflattering armour, every game has a chance to see her not wearing it – either in an extremely fitting jumpsuit, or, on occasion, bikini.

There’s a story behind that, apparently when the first Metroid game appeared in the States there was an outcry when a lot of 14-year-old boys got to the end of the game and discovered that fearless bounty hunter Samus Aran was *gasp!* a girl!, which wasn’t obvious throughout the game, since even her armour was pretty pixellated. So the way she gets blasted into her bikini every time she dies is kind of a joke about that.

And her special move in the new Smash Brothers is to turn into Zero Suit Samus, and she still looks kind of cool facially and all, but she’s what Gok Wan would refer to as a ‘busty beauty’.

It’s kind of a shame in games when the female lead’s arse has more texture and detail than the entirity of the rest of the game, especially when a game that previously had really cool-looking female characters decides to sex / goth them up, like Soul Calibur has done. Or that Anna Williams in Tekken, who fights in an extremely tight skirt suit and high heels.

That’s another thing I like about Half Life actually, no crescent-shaped shadows under the female characters’ buttocks, and they don’t look like if you pushed them over they’d kind of boooiiiing themselves back to an upright position. In the case of Anna Williams I’m kind of shocked that’s not actually her special move.

Seph // Posted 30 July 2008 at 3:22 pm

Can’t see myself playing this game (FPS just aren’t my type of game) but it seems interesting how female main characters in games with traditonally male main characters seem to be given non-traditional weapons (cameras, magic powers, mysterious glowing staffs etc) wheras the guys generally get guns and swords.

Daniel // Posted 30 July 2008 at 9:44 pm

Seph, it isn’t really a FPS more of a puzzle game. Sort of like being a lemming

Hazel // Posted 30 July 2008 at 11:31 pm

Oh, Lemmings is one of the best games ever. That and Tetris and Warblade. I like my controls to be simple.

Capli // Posted 30 July 2008 at 11:37 pm

Well, I will make a note on Metroid Prime specifically. All Samus really does is take off her helmet at the end, so you don’t really see her in a bikini or anything.

I too recommend Metroid Prime for the Gamecube. It’s the most atmospheric of all of the Metroid Prime games.

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