I’ll admit that I’m a bit afraid about writing this, as writing a bad word about a beloved game is enough to bring the wrath of the gaming community raining down like fire and stone à la battle with Alduin. And yet, here I am, writing it. Hopefully my argument strafes and seeks cover and uses the right Thu’um, as it were, to avoid the fury of the metaphorical community dragons. My argument is this: the Portal franchise isn’t nearly as progressive and feminine-friendly as people tout it to be.
Don’t get me wrong. Portal is a great first step on the way to gender equality in the gaming industry. It gives you a great, real woman, seemingly strong and independent, to look up to or admire. It also shows that you don’t need T&A to sell a game; a woman wearing a gender-neutral orange jumpsuit can be just as beloved and successful.
But here’s the thing: that’s all she really is. Sometimes she’s not even that, because you almost never see her. Neither Portal nor Portal 2 game cases feature her on the cover (which, I’ll admit, could be a pro that Valve isn’t using a woman to sell their games), you don’t see her in-game, you never even hear her name. You only know what she looks like via glimpses in portals or because Valve made a bigger deal about her appearance for the second game, putting her image on the back of the Portal 2 case and some paintings in the game. Now, this isn’t a problem in itself. You don’t often see the face of players in first-person games.
However, take, for instance, Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, who I will be using as Chell’s male counter-part since they exist in the same universe, are created by the same company, and have similar characteristics in their portrayal (which is, they are silent and “invisible). You never really see his face in game, but his image iconic. It’s on the cover of the first game, so you knew going into it who he was and what he looked like. He’s also on the cover of Half-Life 2, even the cover of the Orange Box. Gordon Freeman is the face of Half-Life, you know him before you even know the concept of the game. What or who is the face of Portal? If Google Images is any indication, the answer is the portals themselves, or the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device.
Okay, so Chell wasn’t used for marketing, whatever. She’s still the main character, right? The game would be nothing without her. Wrong. The main character is GLaDOS, if you want to get technical. GLaDOS is the spine of the Portal story. She creates the environment, she controls the action, she is responsible for Chell being awake in the first place, GLaDOS is the one with volition, with personality, she is the one that progresses the story. Whether or not GLaDOS is a woman, and whether or not she is a good representation of one, is an argument for the a future episode of Saucy Saturdays, and one that would be rife with Portal 2 spoilers, so I’ll leave it more or less alone for now. The fact is, Chell does nothing in the game except complete the puzzles, she simply gives the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device legs. If you had to list a number of GLaDOS’ traits, you could come up with an actual list. If you were asked to do the same for Chell, the best you could do with the information the game, or even the comics, gave you, would be to say, “She’s…. stubborn? And… average… But smart, I guess?”
You might make the argument, like Portal writer Eric Wolpaw, that Chell is silent in order to not give GLaDOS the satisfaction of a response. It’s just a manifestation of her stubbornness. But the reality is, her silence, her invisibility, her lack of definable characteristics all serve to manipulate the gamer intoforgetting about her entirely. Which is a goal of development, to pull gamers into the game’s universe and forget that they playing a character, and rather think that they are the character themselves. But even in those games, the player adopts the motivations, the goals, the “hopes and dreams” of the character. Those hopes and dreams come into existence through decisions made in the game, through dialogue with other characters, through story progression. GLaDOS has a more developed story than Chell, Chell’s only goal or motivation is that she wants to survive. And, in fact, this goal only manifests itself at the very end of the first game. Up until that point, the “goal” was to simply complete the puzzles, with no information as to why Chell was in that position or why she should be completing them other than that she’s essentially a lab rat, indistinguishable from just about every other test subject in the whole of the compound.
“But she’s not the same!” you shout, even though I can’t hear you. “She’s not the same and that’s the whole reason she’s awake!” Fine. Somehow, her being extraordinarily stubborn makes her special, at least in the eyes of one Doug Rattman. Which, in my opinion, cripples Chell’s strength and independence. Chell would be a corpse waiting to be reanimated without Doug Rattman, who chose her to be the final test subject, and assisted her throughout the ordeal. Chell wasn’t truly independent, she never made her own choices; she had Rattman potentially spying on her the whole time and giving her advice, she had GLaDOS giving her tools and directions. In Portal 2, if it wasn’t Wheatley telling her where to go and what to do, it was past recordings of Cave Johnson, or GLaDOS. I’ll talk more about companions in a minute, because I know you’re itching to rant about G-Man and Gordon’s friends.
So, Gordon Freeman is also silent and, within the game, invisible. You’re also compelled to forget about him, the developers even make a point of stating that they want the player’s experience and Gordon’s experience to be the same. But this isn’t really the case. Gordon has friends and relationships, he has enemies, you know what school he went to and what degree he got, you know why he got a job at Black Mesa, you even know why he’s so good about crawling through ventilation shafts. He has an established history and you can make inferences about the kind of man he is based on these facts and the situations that he gets into. His motivations go beyond survival; he’s literally trying to save humanity.
So Gordon is getting helped by and being monitored by the G-Man, the way Chell was being guided and monitored by GLaDOS and Rattman. The fact is, though, that Gordon is essentially getting assistance from god to fulfill his “destiny” of saving the world and humankind, where Chell’s “destiny”, as expressed in the games at this point in time, is simply to get herself out of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. Other than the godly G-Man, yes, people exist to actively guide Gordon. They’re called his “friends and colleagues.” You know, those people who try to help you get on your feet when you’ve lost your job, spot you some cash to buy a drink, and try to help you cope with the fact that there’s an invasion of extra-terrestrials set on the destruction of the human race and milking the Earth of its resources. These people have their own lives and goals that they are independently working on, they are assisting Gordon, not manipulating him and making decisions for him in the way that Wheatley and GLaDOS manipulate Chell. These people don’t constantly call Gordon up and are like, “So, how’s saving Earth coming along? Are you doing what I said? Have you done it? Did you ruin it?” They’re not treating him like a little kid who doesn’t know his left from right.
So my argument essentially boils down to this: Chell isn’t a woman, she is a tool being controlled by the player. She is an ambulatory mannequin wearing an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device that the player controls. Some may argue that’s the case for every video game character ever, and that’s true, but at least most of those characters have actual stories, personalities, goals, motivations, histories, futures, likes, dislikes, friends, enemies, sometimes they even have voices, or are featured on the cover of their games. Basically, they are more than tools, they are characters. They have characteristics. Chell doesn’t have characteristics. In fact, her defining characteristic is her lack of defined characteristics. And if that’s the point of her role in the game, fine, I’m not against that. But I am against thinking of her as any sort of step forward in the representation of women in video games.