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ClassicRadar: Portal is the most subversive game ever

This month marks the five-year anniversary of GamesRadar, and to celebrate, we’re bringing back some of our favorite features from the past. This one was originally posted in late 2007, and we'll start off the the same disclaimer Joe kicked this off with back then:

[Warning: The text you are about to read contains heady intellectual discourse and is not recommended for anyone made queasy by the discussion of feminist film theory or psychoanalytical signifiers.]


Since its release two months ago, Portal has met with overwhelming popular and critical success thanks to its quirky physics and dystopian humor. Yet beneath the mainstream success lies the most subversive first-person shooter (FPS) ever created. Portal is essentially a feminist critique of the FPS genre, flawlessly executed from within the margins it assails. Gender politics just got a whole lot more fun.

Deconstructing the term "first-person shooter" reveals two fundamental concepts of the game mechanic. "First-person" is a personal pronoun that provides linguistic context, or origo, to enable discourse. It is a perspective. "Shooter" describes the discourse that is to occur, specifically the shooting and ultimately killing of the other participants. Thus, a "first-person shooter" is easily identifiable by its specific perceptual presentation of game events, and the presence of a gun or other weapon.

The gun is typically regarded as a phallic symbol of masculine agency, through which power is won and maintained. In any first-person shooter, a power dynamic is reinforced between subject (the player's subjective sense of self) and object (the rest of the game world.) The player is forced to accept militarism and conquest by violence, historically masculine behaviors, as the only course of action. To play a first-person shooter is to enter into a context in which only the male perspective exists, regardless of the gender of the character or player.

The playable characters in first-person shooters are almost always men. In the rare event that a female character is playable, she serves as an object of male fantasy and her interactions with the game world are still forced through the male-oriented lens described in the previous paragraph. Interestingly, playable female characters are usually presented in third-person action games (think Lara Croft) -- again reinforcing a visual power dynamic that in this case furthers the objectification of the female form by a predominantly male audience. Rather than the player assuming the identity of the heroine, she becomes a controllable other.


 

From the outset, Portal tears down FPS archetypes. The protagonist is a woman named Chell, but she's not the hypersexualized object of lust we've come to expect in games. Rather than skintight latex or a chainmail bikini, she wears a plain orange jump suit that is eerily reminiscent of those worn by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. We're offered no backstory, no hint of personality. She is being held captive in a lab and is subject to teleportation experiments by the insane AI who operates the "Enrichment Center." As the player, you're never even aware that you're a woman until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the third person through a portal. The unobtrusive presentation of the female protagonist doesn't force a male gender perspective on the player as is the norm in FPS games.

Topics

Steam Valve

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18 comments

  • lovinmyps3 - March 24, 2011 12:55 a.m.

    I remember this. Great article Joe, one of my favorites. It's cool when GR goes all analytical on a game.
  • CreepersOnSpeed - March 23, 2011 11:52 a.m.

    Good point, great idea but poorly executed. You're not authoritative enough in your manner of writing and evidence was not strong. You sound like people who teach yoga (Breath in, and let go of your negative emotions as you drift away to sleep) and not a journalist.
  • CombatCat120 - March 23, 2011 8:55 a.m.

    Great article. I read it when it was first posted 3 years ago. Good times
  • Rivenscry - March 22, 2011 1:24 p.m.

    I've said it once and I'll say it again. Did you even play the game when this article was originally written? The voice actor is the same for the turrets as it is for GLADOS, the announcer in TF2 and the speaker system in Half Life 2. There, I'll stop now. P.s Interesting look at a rather popular game though, I probably never would have thought to look at it from quite your perspective myself, and that's saying something. Good night and farewell.
  • philipshaw - March 22, 2011 12:22 p.m.

    Portal and this article are still awesome. I can't wait for Portal 2
  • zer0hvk - March 22, 2011 7:21 a.m.

    this is one of my favorite GamesRadar articles, really got me into reading your articles a lot more. awesome stuff you guys, happy anniversary :)
  • SOLAMON77 - March 22, 2011 6:50 a.m.

    @Gene: I'm on your side with this one. I've always had a problem with this kind of Freudian analysis. Just because the penis & vagina is rod shaped and oval shaped respectively doesn't mean everything rod and oval shaped is referring to them. As much a genius as he was, Freud had a tendency to see the world though his own clouded metaphors a bit too much. In many ways, his thinking was a product of the time period in which he lived. I particularly take affront to this statement: "As the player, you're never even aware that you're a woman until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the third person through a portal. The unobtrusive presentation of the female protagonist doesn't force a male gender perspective on the player as is the norm in FPS games." It presumes that if the player had known they were a woman from the outset, it would somehow diminish her and her femininity. Sexuality, whether presented or not, doesn't have to be a diminishing factor. This kind of thinking by it's very nature assumes sex is a bad thing and is puritanical thinking at it's worst. To quote Hef: "Sex is the driving force on the planet. We should embrace it, not see it as the enemy." This article, by classifying things into two broad gender camps, falls prey to the standard human fallacy of viewing the world in black and white terms. Things are rarely THIS or THAT, but instead somewhere in the middle. For instance; war, although dominated by men in the past, isn't always a traditional male thing. Look at how many women are joining the army now-a-days. Current research is even beginning to suggest that women may have been the creators of the first weapons in an attempt to better compete with men for food. (Read the article here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1543566/Women-made-weapons-to-compete-with-men.html). Well, it's a bit late where I am so I'm going to sign off. Although I don't agree with this article, Thanks for providing something think about.
  • Thequestion 121 - March 21, 2011 11:49 p.m.

    That was amazing! I can't wait to play Portal 2!
  • mockraven - March 21, 2011 11:41 p.m.

    Love the article and it's purpose. It's entertaining, makes you think, and inspires responses, whether good or bad! Too bad I missed it the first posting, but I'm super-GLaD that I got to read it this time around. :D
  • ObliqueZombie - March 21, 2011 7:49 p.m.

    @Gene, I agree with the part about Chell no being a character. It's hard to call someone a character, when no distiguishing personality is given, let alone a last name to work with. And good-golly-gosh, did this article tear me a new one! I understood most of it (thank you, Senior year psychology and dictionary.com!), and I knew Portal was a damn good game with deeper mechanics and meaning than at first glance, but... to rip it to analytical and psychoanalytical shreds was excessive. But some clothes on. Overall, very well-typed and well-defined article. Someone went to college ;)
  • Gene - March 21, 2011 7:04 p.m.

    I really can't get behind this article. So much of the evidence for each article is circumstantial: the portals are shaped like female genitalia? Maybe Chell entering and exiting them places her in the position of male dominance, penetrating wherever and whenever she pleases. And the portal gun really is quite phallic. Those curves, the way it ejects rather that carries in the way the gravity gun did. I could go on, but it's pointless. It's subjective, but there's convincing subjective, and unconvincing subjective. This was the latter. Oh, and regarding Chell: "We're offered no backstory, no hint of personality." THIS MEANS SHE IS NOT A CHARACTER! You know what I'm heartily sick of? People describing Chell as a good female character. What's the rational given for this? 'She keeps her clothes on.' That's pathetic, and I don't care if this is an immature medium, I refuse to take what I'm given. A good female character is Alyx Vance, or Grim Fandango's Meche or Carla, or On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness's Anne-Claire Forthwith. Chell isn't a character, she's a cipher, a visual because Valve decided one was needed, and how low-cute her top is is irrelevant.
  • Swornthroughswords - March 21, 2011 4:53 p.m.

    Excellent article. A very interesting analysis of great game. I love being able to read these gems from before I was a regular reader at Gamesradar.
  • shnazzyone - March 21, 2011 4:26 p.m.

    I love seeing old content like this popping up now. It shows me some of the good stuff i missed before i discovered the dar.
  • FrozenImplosion - March 21, 2011 3:35 p.m.

    Very interesting analysis, never thought of it like that. Although, I did notice how the main character seemed purposely left relatively plain and without sexualization which I believe is good since women are often relatively overly sexualized. But honestly some of the best female protagonists are the non sexualized ones for example, Faith from Mirror's Edge and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil.
  • BluesyFish - March 21, 2011 2:58 p.m.

    That disclaimer made me skip this article four years ago, and it's making me skip this article now. Cause I got it like that.
  • TheRedRabbit - March 21, 2011 2:58 p.m.

    Awesome article!
  • CaptJak - March 21, 2011 2:28 p.m.

    Holy crap I can't believe I missed this the first time it was posted. Great article, Joe! Ingenious reading into the FPS. What's your take on the voyeuristic aspects of Beyond Good & Evil?
  • luckyseven - March 21, 2011 2:19 p.m.

    Portal was awesome..cant wait to see glados again

Showing 1-18 of 18 comments

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