For those who have not heard of it, Portal
is a recently released game from Valve Software
which brought us Half-life
and all of the games associated with it. Portal is a short game, released as an extra package for the Orange Box
which contained it, Team Fortress 2
and the premiere of Half-life 2
episode 2. The game introduces, for its short length, one of the most innovative new game mechanics of the past year. The player can create, using a portal gun, two human sized doorways that make a path from any flat surface to any other flat surface, with the result being the ability to exploit game physics in new and interesting ways. You can fall an infinite
distance with a portal below and a portal above, you can fling yourself large distances by falling from a high portal and making a new entrance portal on the way down, you can walk up through one ceiling and down through another. But curious as this new mechanic is, the game offers another curiosity. Every character in the game, with two exceptions, is female.
"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!"
GLaDOS and Chell, the test subject, are an interesting pair. All of the dialogue, or rather monologue, involves GLaDOS talking to Chell, warning her of impending puzzle features, or death traps as they may otherwise be named. While the interaction may be one way, the player is shown in the first minute of the game that Chell is a woman, and truth be told not a healthy looking woman. Gaunt and pallid, she is clothed in an unflattering orange jumpsuit and lacks that certain jiggle that other protagonists in games with a nearly completely female cast tend to acquire. GLaDOS really isn't all that easy on the eyes herself having no distinctly feminine features aside from her voice, provided by the excellent Ellen McLain. So, it's safe to say that they aren't typical female game characters. But there are a number of connections here to the older game that bucked gender norms, Metroid.
"Remember, the Aperture Science ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day’ is the perfect time to have her tested."
There, too, the protagonist and antagonist are both gendered as female, though in Samus's case this isn't revealed until the end of the game. The antagonist in Metroid and Super Metroid is the MotherBrain, a living computer which runs the space pirate operations. For Metroid, male characters exist in larger numbers, grotesquely in the form of the Space Pirates and their bosses such as Kraid and Ridley and more benevolently in the form of the Chozo. Metroid has been acclaimed for years as it is one of the few games were the female characters were not mere eye-candy, though in the first game certain amounts of completion of the game do lead to more visible skin on Samus in the end credits. Furthermore, the storyline paints Samus as a rather callus figure, steeped in vengeful anger and battle-lust. In the second game she accidentally hatches a metroid infant which immediately imprints to her. No maternal figure, she quickly hands the flying, life-sucking, alien jellyfish over scientists for study, setting the stage for the third installment of the game. The latest installments of Metroid have evolved the platformer into an FPS platformer, which is the same genre that Portal occupies. One other similarity I noted was the fact that Chell's point of view includes her environment and the portal gun she wields in a manner similar to that of the way Samus views the world.
"I don't blame you."
Portal is not a combat heavy game, but where it does involve combat it manages to confuse the player's senses further. The major combat aspect in the game is fighting the robot turrets. These stationary turrets are equipped with a simple AI and voiced by Ellen McLain as innocently as possible. They play Hide and Seek with the player, except when they say "There you are!" they follow with a stream of bullets. Seeing and hearing these turrets kicks the creepy up a further notch. Again we're presented with female characters of a certain archetype, childish and innocent, in a form which is deadly and frightening.
"You euthanised your faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations."
There are two characters in the game who are not female. The most obviously un-feminine is one of the personality spheres which GLaDOS is made of, the last that you have to destroy, the evil sphere. Its gender is mainly defined by the male voice actor, who provides the snarling and snapping noises this module makes. The other, and more remarkable un-character, is the "Weighted Companion Cube," to whom mentally unstable preceding test subjects have left poetry scrawled on the walls behind the moving panels, mostly derivative work though. The Companion Cube is not really a character, so much as it is the idea of a character, placed in the minds of the player, and presumably different test subjects, by GLaDOS insisting that it cannot talk. According to the developer commentary, they created all of this narrative around the Companion Cube so that the player would not leave it behind and instead use it as a tool in the level. Then they took the idea further and came up with so much narrative that they turned the gray, metal box with a heart on the center of each face into the second favorite character of the year, after GLaDOS. As it is an inanimate object, the Companion Cube has no gender so it fits strangely into this odd storyline. The manner in which you euthanise the cube is the same as the manner in which you destroy GLaDOS, which just serves as further insight into her demented nature, and that of the developers.
"Thank you for helping us help you help us all."
As a gamer and an egalitarian it is heartening to see titles like this on the market. Games which take a less gender-typical approach toward female characters are few partly because they cannot rely on the assets which appeal purely to the puerile tastes of men, and a small subset of women. Undertaking a game without pandering to such tastes places a responsibility on the developers to make the game original. Of course, this doesn't mean that original games are bereft of eye-candy. So we can be doubly grateful that Valve is staffed by innovators who rely on the quality of their games and not the quantity of their...titty.