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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