I love the Portal series, especially the sequel. The gameplay is solid, the narrative is pretty funny, and it has a great atmospheric soundtrack. But I always thought the series had a little more to it. I found the games’ takes on gender to be interesting and subversive.
Spoilers after the jump.
First, a quick introduction to the series for those unfamiliar with it. The Portal games tells the story of a woman named Chell trying to escape a deadly science facility known as Aperture Science Laboratories. This company produces various products, but is known for its Portal Gun, a device that creates two linked gateways and allows its user to manipulate physics and gravity. The facility is run by an Artificial Intelligence system named GLaDOS, as it turns out to be abandoned by humans except for Chell. GLaDOS subjects Chell, the player character, to various chambers to test her skills and the usefulness of the gun. However, many of these tests are death traps. Needless to say, the relationship between Chell and GLaDOS is not friendly unless it explicitly needs to be. In the second game, GLaDOS has been removed from the facility’s system and replaced by a dim-witted AI named Wheatley who, unintentionally, lets the building fall into critical condition. (More on him later.)
Despite being a first person shooter, Chell does not commit many explicitly violent acts. I feel like this is a fair assessment, as her only “weapon” is the portal gun, which, on its own, is non-lethal. In addition to creating portals, it can also lift items, but cannot toss them very far. Any of Chell’s violent actions are self-preservation; even her eventual attacks on GLaDOS and Wheatley in Portal 2 are responsive. She only sends back bombs that are thrown at her. This is a lovely subversion of typical run-n-gun shooters where violence is usually the best solution; more often than not, carefully paced thought is Chell’s best friend to navigate the treacherous areas she encounters.
The game also plays with gender roles. Many video games paint women as lazily-written stereotypes, but to some extent, this game makes its male-coded characters (the AIs it introduces) the lazily-written stereotypes. They are supplemental to the central intelligence system, have specific personalities, and are meant to negatively affect the performance of said intelligence system. Essentially, they are useless and just decoration, in the same way that many female characters in other games are unfortunately portrayed. These AIs are referred to as spheres, or cores, and three of them are introduced during the conclusion of Portal 2 as the Adventure Sphere, Fact Sphere, and Space Sphere. The Adventure Sphere is pretty much an action star/“ladies’ man” that spends his few minutes hitting on Chell. Fact Sphere dispenses a host of nonsense labelled as facts (there are some facts, but they serve no use to you). Space Sphere is obsessed with space to the level of serving no real purpose (other than quick foreshadowing).
In addition to the robotic characters, the human male characters are also flawed. Cave Johnson, the founder of the company, is shown through voice recordings to be arrogant, poor with business sense, and maniacal. He treats humans as objects and does absurd things like mining space rocks when the company is bankrupt and having his assistant’s brain forced into a computer to become an AI. Finally, the second game introduces Wheatley, another AI sphere. His sole purpose is to be unintelligent. In this respect, he is very successful, but most of his actions only further inconvenience the hero as opposed to humorously helping out.
Many games treat enjoyment of sex quite unequally; women who
enjoy sex are often portrayed as evil and deserving of punishment, but the men who enjoy sex are considered strong and heroic. Portal 2 flips this with Wheatley. In the game, the need for AIs to conduct tests is described as an “itch”. This “itch” is what ensures that testing will continue in the event of humans being unable to initiate it. The harder the test is, the better the relief to the itch when the subject completes it. GLaDOS admits that she’s gotten used to it and it doesn’t affect her; she just legitimately enjoys conducting tests at this point. Wheatley, on the other hand, has a reaction reminiscent of sexual gratification when Chell completes tests. He goes to great lengths to reach this gratification, starting with pathetically simple tests, and eventually escalates to mashing together test chambers he finds scattered in the facility. As he is not very intelligent, he can’t create legitimately difficult ones on his own. He decidedly shows signs of addiction, and it comes across as pathetic rather than a heroic attempt. Again, this is counter to the typical “males should attain sex” trope in some games. Shape usage in the games also reflects gender in that rather than phallic imagery, as is so often popular in gaming, much of the Portal games’ imagery is based on openings. There are the eponymous portals, of course. Each level begins and ends with doorways and riding elevators. In this spirit, each major event of the game is represented with going through a large opening. The beginning starts with bursting through a wall. (The final scene in the game results in traversing a giant hole in the top of the the facility to reach the moon!) This is important as it is another counter to many games. For instance, in many RPGs, the player gets a sword in the beginning and subsequently receives bigger and bigger swords, which is often subconsciously interpreted as representative of male sexuality. Similarly, evil villains will be in tall, intimidating towers, supporting this theory. The imagery surrounding Chell supports the idea that power and success aren’t dependent on being male.
And lastly, Chell is a woman of color. Her design is based on Alésia Glidewell, a woman of Brazilian and Japanese descent. This is never brought up or mentioned, proving that ethnicity doesn’t have to be a defining character trait. Again, this runs counter to the many popular shooters that are dominated by white men or tired racial stereotypes.
Overall, the Portal series is a shining example of breaking standard conventions of both genre and gender, and it proves that these constructs are rather arbitrary and artificial.