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ClassicRadar: Portal is the most subversive game ever

Chell is released from her tiny cell and put through a series of tests involving an experimental technology. Each test requires simply that she move to the exit, like a rat in a maze. She acquires a Portal Gun for use in these tests; interestingly, the gun's masculine symbolism is subverted by the fact that it shoots portals rather than bullets. Portals are oval-shaped openings that are visually and spatially connected; go in one and you'll come out the other. The Portal Gun creates connections rather than destroying life. It is through innovative placement of these connections, or portals, that goals are achieved or enemies overcome. A psychoanalytic reading would likely conclude that the portal is an image of the female sex organs: oval and receptive, and also a metaphorical birth canal through which the protagonist is constantly being born into new trials.


 


Another subversion of FPS norms takes place in the presentation of conflict. The primary antagonist is an unstable artificial intelligence named GLaDOS, a maternal female construct who administers the experiments. She antagonizes you/Chell not through physical brutality but through emotional manipulation. Some of Portal's best dialogue occurs when holes appear in GLaDOS' programming while she's in the midst of especially cloying or manipulative statements. In one example, GLaDOS congratulates Chell by saying, "You, subject name here, must be the pride of subject hometown here." These malfunctions call attention to the fact that GLaDOS was programmed to respond empathetically but doesn't actually feel emotions the way a human being does. As such, she comes to represent man's attempt to construct an idealized mother figure through the cold logic of science. The resulting entity is a jumbled mess of cross-purposes and psychic detritus who attaches more value to the Portal Gun than to human life. You must outsmart, rather than outgun, this enemy to escape with your life.

A secondary antagonist manifests in the form of security turrets scattered throughout the facility. These turrets speak in robotic voices and open fire immediately upon seeing the test subject. Their boyish voices and small stature makes the turrets seem inconsequential, however they are deadly and can kill Chell very quickly. The turrets reintroduce the traditional masculine themes of guns and control, but in an unconventional way. Turrets will make statements such as, "Hello, friend," "Can I help you?" and "Dispensing product." The purposefully cute, non-threatening dialog belies a latent destructive purpose. The turrets are easily deactivated by tipping them over, which is accomplished through the clever placement of portals. The power of the feminine overcomes aggression without the use of force.

 

Another non-traditional character, the Weighted Companion Cube, represents male identity in Portal. Though it is an inanimate object, the Cube is referred to as an idealized companion. The Cube is used to hold down giant buttons that open doors around the Enrichment Center, and features pink hearts emblazoned on each side. The Cube must be carried around one entire level, and is burdensome despite its usefulness. GLaDOS encourages Chell to develop emotional attachment to the Cube, despite its strictly utilitarian function of holding down buttons. Ultimately, Chell incinerates the Weighted Companion Cube, symbolizing a mental unburdening from the need for approval from a father figure.

Portal successfully reinvents both the "first-person" and the "shooter" elements of its genre in a manner that celebrates the empowerment of the feminine rather than subjugating it to objectification by the male gaze. The force of its message is amplified through its unconventional deployment of adversaries and genre archetypes. In doing so, it subtly yet powerfully points out to the entire industry that games needn't exist solely to service the libido.

Originally posted Dec. 7th, 2007

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Topics

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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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