PORTAL & "Feminist Games"

There are some things that are genuine surprises.

A literal decade ago, a teenager looked over her brother's shoulder as he played Portal. It was a game that came with positively zero expectations. Portal was released as part of Valve's Orange Box, a packaged collection of short games with one specific headliner: Half-Life 2: Episode 2. Here's the thing; Valve was(/is) terrible at releasing games on time. Half-Life was popular, and Half-Life 2 even moreso. Valve had promised that Half-Life 2 would be released in episodes, with the purported reason being 1) shorter games that were 2) released with greater frequency. Only half of that promised was filled.

So, Valve released Half-Life 2: Episode 2 in a bundle with two other games as an apology sigh: Team Fortress 2 (a multi-player capture-the-flag co-op) and Portal, a physics-based puzzle game. Even the box of the game listed Portal as a sort-of afterthought. (I quote: "And introducing... PORTAL.")

It was supposed to be fun, and short, and help take people's minds of the fact that Half-Life was so utterly fragmented in its release.

And Portal was all of those things, but it was also funny, and weird, and perfectly constructed with not an ounce of it going to waste. But it was something else: it was something for a teenager looking over her brother's shoulder at a game that, at first glance, seemed to be utterly not for her. It was a game that came in a box with two men's faces plastered on the side (and one stick figure). It was a game that looked for all the world like a first-person shooter (even if the gun only shot portals).

But, as her brother (rather: as my brother) showed her (rather: me) how the portal gun worked--how if you shot one end at a wall and another at a different wall, you could walk through the portal and instantly appear on the other side--there was the quickest glimpse of who was holding the portal gun... something you could only see if you aligned the portals just right:

the person holding the portal gun was a woman.

Before I get going, though, here's the thing, as much as I felt a gut-punch of emotion when I realized the game's protagonist was a woman, this is where I say that this is not what this piece is about. It's about something deeper, and darker, and more intimate. But we'll get there in a second.

(Quick disclaimer: Spoilers of Portal to follow.)


"I'm making a note here: huge success."

I could go on to write about the importance of a young woman seeing someone who looked like her in a video game. I could talk about how this moment came at a time when I had more or less dropped video games from my life. Sure, I was playing Brain Age and Elite Beat Agents on the DS in between college classes, but it felt like more of a left-over habit rather than a continuation of a deeper interest.

I could talk about how, now that I think about it, even the games I played so regularly as a kid didn't have female protagonists. Heck, Gizmos and Gadgets featured a dude in a popped collar. And the Zoombinis weren't human so I won't extrapolate about their conceptions of gender.

Seeing representations of people who look like you in the things that you love makes you feel like an insider. It's a giant welcome mat. The inverse is true when those representations don't exist: looking at The Orange Box's cover, I knew exactly who the game was being marketed to, and it wasn't me. It made me feel like I was a tourist there, sneaking a peek at something that eventually I'd have to give to its rightful recipient. 

But, when it comes to the importance of representation in media, others have said this with much more facility and grace that I ever could.

In addition, this particular memory is hazy. Like I said: I first played Portal literally a decade ago. All the emotions I could try to conjure about this specific instant would be memories of memories. I can still feel the importance of that moment, but it happened to a Me that is ten years younger than the Me I am now.

More than that, though, I think this reasoning is usually why Portal is labeled a "Feminist Game." It manages to jump the very low hurdle of actually including more than one female character, and neither of those characters are sex objects. Further, you can use actual adjectives to describe the characters: both Chell and GLaDOS are tenacious; GLaDOS is witty; Chell is smart. Add on to this the fact that each character is given a narrative arc and people like me lose their goddamn minds. We're just so thankful to be seen as people that even the smallest bone thrown our way seems like a feast.

In writing this piece, I revisited Game/Show's video about Portal being a feminist masterpiece. I normally really like Game/Show, but the reasons Portal is named as "feminist" is for exactly the above reasons.  

"We do what we must because we can."

I don't want to discount the story of Portal and how that contributes to its status as a "feminist game," because the story is quite stellar and, unfortunately, it still stands apart from other mainstream games in terms of its portrayal of female characters.

For example, it's revealed in Portal 2 that GLaDOS was made when Aperture Science's (male) founder decided to "give" his (female) assistant Caroline a chance at immortality by putting her consciousness into GLaDOS. In that way, Portal is about a woman literally objectified. 

Or: there's the "women gets revenge" narrative: when GLaDOS was first switched on, she tried to kill the Aperture Science Enrichment Center workers, and they kept having to shut her down and dampen her true personality with defective cores to make her weaker and less smart. There's the reveal that, eventually, she was able to flood the entire facility with a deadly neurotoxin on Take Your Daughter to Work Day, which happens before the events of Portal.

There's the fact that the relationship between Chell and GLaDOS grows over time. There's animosity and fighting. There's the meeting of two women as equals. There's the two of them living in a place that's usually dominated by men, and claiming it for themselves.

There's the real-world fact that Portal's project leader was a woman: Kim Swift, which was and continues to be a rarity.

All of this is important, but I don't think that it alone is what makes the game "feminist." It's what makes it a good game.

What I want to talk about instead is what happened when I played through Portal again this week, because it was the first time that I played it through as (what I hesitate to call myself) an "adult woman." And it was a wildly different game than I remembered, and it spoke to something beyond the the list of low-bar feminist checkboxes that games have been/still are evaluated against. 


"Even though you broke my heart and killed me."

I think the moment things switched for me during this last play-through of Portal was when I navigated Chell through some of the earlier testing chambers in the game. At one point, GLaDOS remarked: "Remember: The Aperture Science Bring Your Daughter to Work Day is the perfect time to have her tested." A little while later, closer to the last test, she said, "Did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science self esteem fund for girls? It's true!"

Mixed in with the other darkly quippy lines, these couple are almost unnoticeable. They blend into the background, surrounded as they are by the likes of "In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance: the floor here will kill you.

But even among GLaDOS's other comments, those two lines about girls felt like a dog whistle. My ears pricked up. Sure, here were two dedicated sentences to the presence of girls in this world. But more than that, both had undertones of horror specifically related to the personal experiences of these alluded-to girls: one comment referencing the loss of body autonomy, and one referencing the gnawing hollowness of low self-esteem. 

Moreover, though both of these experiences can be had by folks regardless of their gender, Portal is explicit in coding these as happening to girls.

I started to try and tune in to a different frequency in the game. As I approached the end, it felt more and more apparent that the game spoke to something else.

"Now these points of data make a beautiful line."

The pivotal moment in Portal comes at the end of the testing sequence. After GLaDOS promises Chell cake for completing the training (like a good 50s housewife would), GLaDOS instead puts Chell on a conveyor belt to be incinerated. The player has two options: Chell can stay on the conveyor belt and die (over and over again, forever, as each save is reloaded), or they can have Chell escape with a well-timed portal placement.

If Chell escapes into the depths of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, GLaDOS's true nature finally comes out in full. GLaDOS, in turn, berates Chell and begs her to come back. However, I noticed how GLaDOS doesn't get big and aggressive. She is cloying ("It was a fun test and we're all impressed by how much  you won. The test is over. Come back"). She is pleading ("You really shouldn't be here. This isn't safe for you"). She is blaming ( "This is your fault. It doesn't have to be this way"). Her voice echos all around the depths of the facility as Chell tries to make a break for it.

Eventually, Chell finds her way to GLaDOS's chamber, finally seeing the looming AI face to face (as it were). After some exposition from GLaDOS, Chell sort-of-accidentally (really: due to GLaDOS's prompting) destroys a personality core holding GLaDOS's morality. With that damper gone, GLaDOS once again floods the center with deadly neurotoxin, leaving Chell with only a few minutes to destroy the rogue AI who has been looking over her for the entirety of the game.

Throughout the boss fight, GLaDOS continues taunting Chell, but many of the lines are hard to hear over the familiar thumping of the "Final Boss Music." However, when looking through GLaDOS's lines to pull for this piece (collected on a stunningly content-rich wiki) I saw that one of the lines GLaDOS quietly delivers to Chell in these final moments is "This isn't brave. It's murder. What did I ever do to you?"

And, logically speaking, that doesn't make any sense. Chell is fighting for her life. If she doesn't fight GLaDOS, she'll die from the neurotoxin. But GLaDOS's delivery isn't ironic; she very much believes that Chell is murdering her. That's when I had a different thought:

Chell is notably silent through the entirety of Portal. GLaDOS, on the other hand, is almost always talking. GLaDOS provides the running commentary throughout all of Chell's trials and tribulations. She is the voice in Chell's head. All of Chell's actions have an equal and opposite reaction, and GLaDOS is not kind in her reactions. She is increasingly cruel. She picks on Chell. She talks down to her. She doubts every action that Chell makes and tells her she's bad and unworthy. GLaDOS is the articulation of every self-doubt, every bit of self-hatred, every internalized body horror and I'm-not-good-enough and imposer syndrome.

In other words, GLaDOS articulates every horrible thing that a woman has thought about herself. 

"Go Ahead and leave me."

And this is where I think Portal earns its title as feminist masterpiece. It's a game that doesn't just have female characters, but instead is a gaming representation of the internal life I (and, based on conversations with my female friends, I assume a majority of women) experience every day. Further, Portal does all of this without explicitly shouting "THIS IS A GAME ABOUT HOW WOMEN INTERACT WITH THE WORLD." As a result (and this is corroborated by just looking at the comments section at the Game/Show video above), there are certain sects of gamers who take every opportunity to shout instead, "STOP MAKING EVERYTHING ABOUT WOMEN."

But it is about women. I don't need other people to know that, but I do think it would be helpful for male gamers who enjoy this game to realize: "Hey, you can like a game about a specifically female experience. Isn't that rad?"

Further, Portal feels like an attempt to make a game that — with humor, subtlety, irony, and sadness — builds its plot, arc, and climax around the conflict inherent in the inner lives of women. It recognizes the horror that women put themselves through. It allows for women to be flawed and wrong and scared. It rejects that feminist video games have to feature strong, unbreakable Mary Sues; they can also speak to something small and private.

As a woman, I have learned to doubt my actions. I begin and end sentences with, "Sorry." I am the turrets in Portal, apologizing for taking up space with well-placed "I" statements ("I don't hate you," "I understand," the turrets say. "I'm sorry," "I understand where you're coming from," I say). I doubt myself when I do something that is entirely for me. If someone put me on a conveyor belt leading into an incinerator, I might just sit there because I don't want to be impolite. Even when writing, I tend to backtrack and undercut my own arguments; read any piece on this website and be immersed in a world of parenthetical statements. 

I have a voice inside me that doubts and polices everything that I do, and it is specific to my experience in the world as a woman.

Chell's actions in Portal are attempts to fight back against this voice, represented by GLaDOS. She literally throws it all into a fire at the end. She destroys the thing that's been telling her how awful she is, how unworthy she is, for simply doing the things she needs to do to survive. The horror at the end comes with the realization that, even after all of that, that voice is, almost triumphantly, Still Alive.

However, Portal is also sympathetic to this voice: in Portal 2's examination of GLaDOS's origin story, it sympathizes with how this internalized, self-criticizism comes to be in the first place. (Surprise: it's forced upon them through experience with the outside world.)

I don't know of any other popular video game that has that same level of self-reflection directly aimed at women who might be playing it. I don't know any other game that treats these topics with such sensitivity. I don't know if I've ever felt so directly addressed in a video game about something that is part of my lived experience, a lived experience directly informed by my gender.

We should have a higher bar for expectations around women and video games. And, though it's a decade old, Portal still remains a shining example of the level we should expect games to reach.

just google "Portal" and play it. Trust me on this one.

Also, on a totally different topic: can we talk about this line from the final boss fight after Chell destroys GLaDOS's reasoning core or whatever? It's maybe my favorite joke.