I’ll be honest; I haven’t played a video game since my old Gameboy days (Super Mario Bros. 3 was my favorite). These past few months, I’ve been getting back into the swing of gaming, in part due to my boyfriend’s influence, in part because I forgot how much I enjoyed video games and the worlds that they create. I forgot how easy it was to get lost in them.
In March I tried my hand at Portal for the first time, and I was…less than great. I don’t think I’m very good with first person shooter style games, anyway; the lack of peripheral vision throws me off. So when I got my first taste of Portal, it wasn’t the game play that excited me; I got so frustrated that I handed the controller off to my boyfriend and finished the game as the enthusiastic audience. While I watched I became absorbed in the game’s intricate world building, and the place and usage of its two female characters in a completely empty scientific facility. When I got to Portal 2, I immediately realized that the creators expanded the world of the game further, thrusting the gamer into an intricate, yet subtly woven backstory about the creation and purpose of Aperture Science, the facility Chell’s been stuck in since Portal. The game also reveals what Aperture Science has been doing for the past 80 years, why the portal goop works, and why GLaDOS exists, went on a murderous spree, and feels compulsively bound to test you over, and over, and over again. It also introduces the first—and only—male character in the series, Wheatley, another A.I., who, incidentally, also tries to kill you. But more on him later.
As I watched the game, and it got me thinking. What is this game doing, besides creating a successfully creepy atmosphere completely devoid of people and run entirely by artificial intelligence? What messages is a game that has only two main characters, who are both women, and pitted against each other, trying to send? Okay, yes, there’s also Wheatley, but he’s not a main character, not to me. Besides, he’s a stinkin’ traitor.
Cracked recently published an article with a list of feminist themes in the Portal games. Originally I agreed with a lot of what the article said, especially concerning Chell; she’s a blank slate, the article says, to allow for more immersive game play. The more I thought about it, and about my own feelings while watching the play through, I can’t say I agree anymore. If a progressive game wants to show a strong female character, why make her featureless and utterly silent? Why create only one other female character for the game, and then have that female character verbally tear you down, (and try to kill you multiple times) rather than help you? What is this game trying to do, really?
Chell, the protagonist, is rarely visible. You only see her in mirrors, or through the portals you’re entering and exiting. While this does allow the gamer total immersion in the game and makes it easier for Chell’s needs to become yours, it also erases the need for her existence. Why hint at her backstory at all? Why have a defined protagonist, and why point out that she’s female? If the gamers wanted the protagonist to be a blank slate, they could have skipped the backstory and any indication of playing as a character, sticking with the undefined “you” to give the gamer that same total immersion.
In my mind, Chell’s silence and hinted at but not wholly defined backstory serves to send a message; in the eyes of Aperture Science, she’s not an individual, but a test subject, with all qualities of her personality, past, and life outside the tests stripped away. Her silence, featureless-ness, and lack of characterization didn’t comfort me or allow for better gameplay. Instead, it shows that Aperture Science is a male-driven project that doesn’t care about women, or really people at all, and serves science at any cost, even if – or especially if – that cost is human life. Chell’s silence made me uncomfortable, and emphasizes her powerlessness against the system in which she struggles. Even though she’s given a portal gun—her only weapon for solving each puzzle—she’s unable to use her voice. Speaking of voices…
On the opposite end of the spectrum stands GLaDOS, a female A.I. who runs the test facility in Portal, and who becomes a sort of ally figure in the second half of Portal 2. GLaDOS, unlike Chell, has only her voice as a weapon. While she can control the Aperture facilities and maintains them, she is powerless to leave the facility or be anything other than what she was programed for: a test coordinator bound to the science her creator Cave Johnson started. Like Chell, GLaDOS is a product of male ingenuity and force, and according to Cracked, she is the product of an abusive relationship, and that the shape of GLaDOS herself mirrors a woman in bondage. That fits her character (and the art that the article shows is incredibly unsettling and paints the point masterfully).
But the game doesn’t make us pity GLaDOS, at least not in Portal. Instead, she is villainized, in part because she killed the Aperture scientists by releasing Deadly Neurotoxin throughout the facility, and in part because she wants to kill Chell. Yes, wanting to kill the main player of the game won’t win you points for good citizenship, and murder is generally frowned upon. But GLaDOS’s desire to make Chell’s life spectacularly hellish stems from her design: she was created to run Aperture’s tests and maintain the facility. And that means testing the test subjects. As Portal 2 revealed more about GLaDOS’s creation and purpose she became even more of a sympathetic character, especially because the game hints that GLaDOS was once Caroline, Cave Johnson’s assistant, who he forced to upload her consciousness into what would become GLaDOS. (And I don’t really want to think about what that actually means because the idea is sickening.) Despite all of this character building that led me to sympathize with her, the game creators make her your enemy. So this isn’t supposed to be the story of two strong women working together to take down “the man.” This is a story of two females pitted against each other in a battle of wits to the death, Hunger Games style (although with more Neurotoxin and snark) so only one can survive in this industrial, surgical, and lethal man-made environment.
To bring home the point that women must fight each other to succeed in a male-dominated society, GLaDOS only becomes an accomplice in the last half of Portal 2. This time you team up with her to take on Wheatley, a male A.I. who helps you remove GLaDOS from her position of power only to take that power for himself, and become twice as vindictive and bloodthirsty as GLaDOS ever was. Again, the male-centric environment drives your actions, and GLaDOS, now a potato—long story—can’t offer help, only snarky side comments and offensive jibes, something she does throughout both games. Does this intimate that in a corrupt environment run by power, women are natural enemies until a greater enemy—a male—comes along to diminish the power of you both?
The real kicker is, once you defeat Wheatley and reinstate GLaDOS as the facility operator, she doesn’t even thank you; she just yells at you and kicks you out of Aperture for good. Sure, escape was the game’s main goal, but the fact that your alliance with GLaDOS was merely tenuous and temporary at best indicates that when power is at stake, women can’t work together, and personal motives get in the way. One character’s success must equal another character’s failure or erasure.
The Portal games are less a battle cry for strong female protagonists than they are an accurate and hard-hitting commentary on our current social structures, especially in business models where power and personal success are the ultimate goals. More than anything else, I think this is why the game gave me shivers. I became Chell and was immersed in her life, but not because she was a blank slate. I never forgot Chell was a woman, and I could see myself in her because she set an example of a worst-case scenario lifestyle: me, voiceless and alone, fighting fruitlessly in a world ruled by uncaring men and women who seek only to put me down. As I said, this is an exaggerated, worst-case scenario image, and everyone I’ve met at school, in the workforce, and in my home environment has been nothing but supportive and caring, valuing my opinions, voice, and thoughts.
But the frightening truth is, this scenario may be a reality for women fighting against the odds to stay alive and afloat in a world that sees them not as people, but as objects. Even today, women in the workforce (in a STEM field, for example, but certainly in other industries, too, especially where men far outnumber women) might be treated exactly this way, or might feel this competitive pressure every moment of their lives, and might worry that the price of success is their silence, their female coworkers’ failure, or both. The reminders in Portal are real, and the games show that in male-dominated, male-driven social structures, women have no choice but to become either a GLaDOS or a Chell. In some sense, that threat is always there, and that’s more terrifying than any threat of Neurotoxin.