[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.