Portal is the most subversive game ever

Dec 7, 2007

[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.

Above: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare


  • ernesto-romero - March 4, 2013 3:42 p.m.

    OK so now that I read the entirety of the article: 1)Is this faggot serious? 2)How are you allowed to live?
  • JustinZode - October 4, 2013 6:54 a.m.

    Super classy and well-thought out comment there with your enlightened mix of homophobia and death threats. It's also about 50% of the c
  • JustinZode - October 4, 2013 7:07 a.m.

    Super-classy and and well thought out rebuttal to the article, which was actually a review/commentary/analysis of Portal and not a personal attack as you seem to have taken it, lulz. The vile ignorance you deliver is the kind of crap that makes Xbox Live a cess-pool and keeps the stereotype of Gamers as hateful basement virgins spewing profanity at strangers on a headset alive. The irony in your statement would be delicious if it weren't so common and pathetic; first for considering a juvenile accusation of homosexuality to be the ultimate playground put-down, and second for leveling that "accusation" at someone who is a successful writer with the ability to understand and articulate with a female perspective in mind; qualities which are generally appreciated by women. Sadly I can't say the same for your scrawny bespectacled ass, I'm sure all the ladies are imrpressed with you going around with that cap and headset calling people "faggot" and saying they deserve to die. Sounds to me like this article hit you a little too close to home, their needs to be more games like the Portal Series and Spec Ops: The Line which call out these lazy dudebro military shooters that come out every year.
  • patrick-gonzales - June 17, 2012 11:20 p.m.

    I don't care that this article is years old. The "feminist review" was reaching so hard to make portal a feminist game it was sad. According to that author all violence and bullheadedness is the result of males, way to spread "equality." If s/he really wanted to analyze the game, how about the fact that the computer, the main antagonist, had a female voice and tried to hurt the player via manipulation, insults, and psychological abuse. Those sound like inherently female attacks to me, so maybe the game was about women overcoming other women. Which is much more likely as most females will tell you that women are hating bitches, whether it be in high school, work, or just in general. I think it is pretty common knowledge that women tend to not get along very well with each other (ask a few). Or, since we've lowered our standards enough to consider Freud a reliable source, maybe, the game was a pro-phalic-man game. We disguised ourselves as a woman (the main protagonist), then walk into a giant vagina (portal) over and over, in some lesbian domination fantasy, and stick all sorts of kinky things in that giant thing, like cubes and whatever other shit we can find. The whole while pissing the female computer off, and beating her and women at their own game of manipulation to assert our male dominance in all realms, even those considered traditionally female. Plus, if I remember correctly, we make a mess of the whole place when we're done so that computer bitch cleans up our male mess like a good woman should! Hows that for a masculine interpretation of the game?
  • ernesto-romero - March 4, 2013 3:30 p.m.

  • cannibalhamster - June 8, 2011 5:04 p.m.

    @Faustus >>Do you people even KNOW the MEANING >>of the word feminist? I do, but go on... >>The word "feminist" has been dragged through the mud >>in our culture >>and become a burning, hateful label. >>But you know what? >>A feminist is just a person who believes in EQUALITY FOR WOMEN. >>Is that bad? Should that make feminist a bad word? >>Should you hate people who use the word feminist? HOLD IT!!! "equality for women"... well, allow me to burst your bubble, men and women are not equal, not by a long shot, and I'm not just talking about external/internal genitals. The anger behind the feminazi movement erupted from the stupid premise that states that a woman is inferior to a man unless she does exactly what men do. That's bullshit. There are things that women can do easy and fast, in which we men fail. that's ok, no gender is inherently superior in all aspects. but then, it all started, you wanted to vote, to work, to drive, to be soldiers, scientists and astronauts. the aftermath? women voting for the "most handsome" politicians, all kind of unequal privileges on their work conditions, countless cars scraped while parallel parking, female soldiers getting their weak asses raped in middle east, generations of female scientists that never create anything relevant (except perhaps helping develop kevlar, but that's it) and a fucking female astronaut losing valuable tools in the middle of space... Say whatever shit you want about portal, is a cool game and I love it, but don't get me started on gender equality, that's a scam.
  • EwingSpringerOfKlips - July 24, 2013 12:31 p.m.

    I feel bad for every woman that has ever met you and every woman that ever will meet you.
  • JustinZode - October 4, 2013 8:32 a.m.

    Yeah fuck Kevlar who needs that shit... lulz. That live-saving crap is the only thing women have ever contributed to art, history, science, or politics, Marie Curie would surely agree.
  • kantarky - April 17, 2011 11:27 p.m.

    Are you telling me that chell uses love to knock over the turrets? That women do not serve in millitaries around the world? That females are not objects of female fantasy? That women do not attempt to construct idealized mother figures? The portal is not a connection; it rips the fabric of the universe apart.
  • ThatFanInThePeacoat - March 21, 2011 8:43 p.m.

    While I may not agree with everything mentioned in this article, it's still an interesting way to look at it. Is this the message that Valve intended to be portrayed through Portal? Maybe, maybe not. But in a sense, that doesn't matter. The fact that this can consistently be seen in the game is significant, and give's the author's theory a great deal of value. For those of you who are rejecting this, I haven't seen any (many) alternative theories. And as for the Companion Cube being a paternal figure, that's probably the strongest point of the article. Freud's theory of the Electra Complex is the female version of the Oedipal Complex; the daughter sees the father as a source of food, care, and safety, and sees the mother as competition for those resources. This can be directly related to how the Companion Cube is essential to solving certain puzzles, and how GlaDOS (a maternal figure... female and with authority over Chell) eventually forces Chell to separate from the Companion Cube. Also, there is no denying that the turrets are essentially phallic symbols... phallic symbols that can kill Chell. So toppling over them is a victory an over oppressive, masculine power. Yes, the voice actor for the turrets was female, but the editing done to her voiceover work makes the turrets sound androgynous, giving their sexuality to be completely determined by their appearance, which is male, both in their shape (phallic), and function (projectile).
  • ernesto-romero - March 4, 2013 3:35 p.m.

    How's this for an alternative theory: It's a game where you run around solving puzzles using a given tool. I hate this generation.
  • ThatFanInThePeacoat - March 21, 2011 8:27 p.m.

    I didn't think that I could love Portal even more than I did... but now I do!
  • RandomRaptor - August 27, 2010 11:04 p.m.

    Seriously? This seems a lot like big issues being shoehorned into the game, rather than an analysis of the game itself. The Weighted Companion Cube being a paternal figure might fit nicely into your theory, but playing through the game itself, there's not much to support that specific line of thought. The Cube itslef is essentially what it appears to be at first glance, an inanimate cube, just like all the others you find throughout the game. What is unique about is not what it is, but how it is used, not by you however. The player interacts with the cube in roughly the same way as all the others. It is how GLaDOS uses the cube that is unique, as a test in itself. The hearts, the encouragement to become attached to the cube, the term 'companion', all a mental manipulation of a mind that has gone through a series of harrowing ordeals with none but the increasingly hostile, disembodied taskmistress for company. The test is, after such a lonely and hostile experience, can the subject destroy the closest thing it has had to a helpful ally throughout the entire ordeal, and retain their sanity. An insidious psychological test, and, as evidenced by the hidden graffiti behind malfunctioning wall panels, not one everybody can pass. It is also a genius storytelling device that highlights the subtle change in GLaDOS' character from something akin to an automated recording to self-aware, passive-aggressive antagonist. As for the paternal symbolism you've accorded the Cube, it seems forced and superimposed, and detracts from your point as a result. It is to bring this firmly back into the world of videogames, the Water Temple of your argument.
  • TheRunawayHeart - August 25, 2010 7:40 p.m.

    @Kittie idk if you noticed this, but it was an analysis, not a review. Just saying, you shouldn't diss something for what it is before you know what it is.
  • Rita - July 15, 2010 8:53 p.m.

    A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the Companion Cube. Of course, HE couldn't come because you murdered HIM. ...Just saying.
  • YodaUnleashed - March 8, 2010 6:48 p.m.

    "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." O oh, someones taking Freud too seriously. I think this guy or girl is reading way too much into portal with these feminist views demonstrating how feminism really is over the top most of the time. In other words, its a fair bit of bollocks. Furthermore, the turrets had a very distinctly female voice, not male so I really don't know why this reviewer thinks their male all of a sudden. And come on, imposing a gender-type upon the inanimate cube is preposterous.
  • Divuspennae - March 5, 2010 4:14 a.m.

    Oh and one more thing, listen to the guy above my "speech". He knows what he's talking about.
  • Divuspennae - March 5, 2010 4:12 a.m.

    After reading this article, I am more angry than I have ever been about anything else in my entire life. Ever. Feminists everywhere would frown on this nonsense. I think that women's rights are a good thing and they help further our society, but feminism is about equality, not hatred and slander of men. Had a bad experience? There are just as many personalities of men as there are of women. Don't push an entire gender out of your life because of one bad specimen in particular. Funny thing is, I'm 14 years old and I've seen women objectified and everything else you feminists rant on about constantly. I have no interest in women, or men for that matter. There are things that are much more important to me than relationships, and, to be quite honest, they just seem like a bother to me anyway. Please don't misunderstand me, your intentions are good, but you are too quick to jump to conclusions. Take into regard what I've typed here and consider what it is you're doing to what you believe in.
  • GeoVII - February 23, 2010 6:46 p.m.

    The article isn't supposed to be based on psychoanalytic theory. A feminist READING of a work is a form of literary interpretation, not a psychoanalytic one. As far as those who say a feminist deconstruction of Portal is unwarranted, I'd respond by saying that feminism is in the eye of the beholder. But in all honesty I don't see how someone pointing out a few aspects of the game that lend it a certain interpretation can ruin the experience for those who disagree. A lot of people in the gay community have taken things like rainbows and SpongeBob and used them as symbols. Does that mean my kids can't look at a rainbow or watch SpongeBob without being gay? Secondly, most of the points the author makes are pretty valid. Yes, Freud is somewhat dated. But the symbolism is still there, even if the creators didn't intend it. Up until the point where the companion cube is mentioned as a male presence I would say most of the arguments are not too far fetched. Literary feminism is defined by "foregrounding the background", making the absence of something a present factor. The fact that the entire game works through the absence of things we normally expect from a first person shooter makes it pretty easy to interpret that way. And for all you hardcore guys out there, well... think about it. You have a game you can't win by shooting things. Your 'enemy' is a disembodied presence that tries to defeat you through psychological manipulation. You, in turn, must defeat your enemy by changing the landscape to your favor. When direct force is applied against you, you must turn that force back against itself instead of meeting it head on. Conflicts end either in your foe congratulating you or apologising to you. Even in the final confrontation, you and your opponent never directly attack one another. Both of you merely manipulate the environment in order to cause indirect harm. When all else fails, your foe whips out the big guns and... insults you. Tell me this game doesn't sound like every episode of Desperate Housewives ever made. I don't think anyone here is trying to make Portal into a bad game. Some people just make connections other people don't, and if that improves their enjoyment of the game, let them do it. There's no rule that says we all have to like the same things for the same reasons.
  • Evangelion - February 22, 2010 2:30 a.m.

    This article has no basis in psychoanalytical theory, or anything for that matter, and is therefore complete bullshit.

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