Jess McCabe celebrates a refreshing break from the objectification of women in video games with Portal 2
Portal was a refreshing break from the norms of video games – because of the game play, which involves solving physics-twisting puzzles by means of a portal gun; because of the excellent writing; and because it avoids the objectification of women.
When Portal came out in 2007, it was a small project bundled together with some other games in The Orange Box by games company Valve, which grabbed hold of the imagination of the internet and grew into a massive success. Portal 2 is immediately a bigger game: it’s longer and the publicity campaign has seen posters plastered all over London.
Portal 2 (available for PS3, XBox and for PC and Mac via Steam) is still immensely fun to play, and Valve has largely retained the elements which won the first game plaudits from feminist gamers.
You play Chell, a human lab rat trapped in a giant and deadly maze designed by Aperture Science and controlled by a maniacal artificial intelligence called GlaDOS. You move from testing room to testing room, caught between solving the puzzles to survive and looking for an escape route.
At the end of Portal, you kill GlaDOS and achieve freedom. In Portal 2, you are woken up by another artificial intelligence, Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant from The Office. An unspecified time has past. Human civilisation has crumbled away and you are sucked cleverly back into Aperture Science’s testing facilities, which are coming apart around you.
There’s also a two-player co-operative mode, which sees you and a friend play two robot sentries.
The Portal games give us a playable female character without making manipulating the female body part of the game. They do so through almost disembodying the character: in Portal, you can’t even look down and see your own body while you’re playing; in this way, it’s similar to the Metroid games, in which the protagonist Samus Aran is encased in a suit of armour.
Do robots have a gender, and if so, why?
For most people, the iconic representation of women in games is probably Lara Croft. In the Tomb Raider games, you get to play a kick-ass female hero, but on the flip side Lara was designed with the teenage boy audience in mind. I remember at the time watching male friends play the games, and part of their fun manipulating Lara Croft’s body in suggestive ways.
Things have moved on from Lara Croft: but not that much. Heavy Rain, released last year, is an more like an interactive detective story than a traditional game. One of the characters you play is Madison Paige, a journalist who is also trying to solve the murders at the heart of the game. Even this rather progressive, story-telling oriented game has come into a lot of criticism on this score, with Paige taking gratuitous showers and the threat of sexual assault popping up more than once in the storyline.
Chell avoids these pitfalls. In the first game, it wasn’t even clear that your character was female until you caught a glimpse of yourself through a portal the first time. Chell is wearing an orange boiler suit and a ponytail. She’s not been hypersexualised.
Meanwhile, GlaDOS has been programmed with a female voice and gendered as female. Sarcastic and pathetic at the same time, GlaDOS’ characterisation is what draws you through the games. Even the adorable and deadly sentries have been voiced by female actresses.
All these elements have been retained in Portal 2: it’s still fun solving puzzles with portals, it’s still brilliantly written, with compelling characters in a simple but effective story arc. The game play itself gets a bit repetitive, but it must be said that I have a short attention span for games and rarely finish any of them, so your mileage may vary. Plenty of people have complained it is too short, but I was asking “surely this is the last testing chamber?” from about two-thirds of the way in.
Everyone in the Portal games is stuck in an impossible, lonely trap. Game-ish came up with a really interesting interpretation of GlaDOS as a sort of upside down Botticelli’s Venus, in bondage:
I’m not even remotely into bondage, but when I tried to draw a stylised woman like what GlaDOS looks like, it just wasn’t working. When I pushed it all the way to what I felt they were trying to convey; a woman completely imprisoned; trapped and held upside down, it just made sense.
You get to find out more of her backstory in Portal 2, which I won’t spoil here but continues to explore the theme of GlaDOS as a personality trapped inside the robotic mechanism constructed by the humans at Aperture Science. (This seems more likely than the ‘mummy issues’ that some journalists have seen in GlaDOS.)
It might be possible to say the game raises questions about nature of gender and personality (do robots have a gender, and if so, why?) But it’s a stretch.
Ultimately, there is nothing particularly feminist or not feminist about the Portal games. But we have to be realistic with where we are in the gaming genre: one of the other big releases this year is Duke Nukem Forever, which the feminist games blog Border House describes as “wallowing in sexism”.
At least the Portal games manage to avoid actively objectifying women and they are populated with female gendered characters. Turn on your console or your computer and escape into a rare example of its type which achieves these small feats.