Spending Time as a Female in a Physics Puzzle Game

Chell from Portal
Chell from Portal

Gender is a pretty interesting concept when it comes to video games. Putting aside “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, video games are unique in that the players are active in constructing the narrative. Some games, like puzzle games don’t REALLY have a narrative (but that doesn’t mean my brothers and I didn’t come up with the “story” behind what was going on in Tetris – paragraph seven) But the rest have stories and put the play on a spectrum from games like Mario to games like Mass Effect and all the way to the The Sims franchise in which you have complete control of the narrative through player agency over all the characters in the house.  (See here, here, and here) As the player plays, the player takes the character’s story onto him or herself. This is at least partially the rational for the dearth of female protagonists. Everyone “knows” that not only are all the gamers male, but they also couldn’t stand the idea of playing as a female. Off the top of my head the only top tier female protagonists I can think of are Laura Croft and the girl from Heavenly Sword. There’s also Samus Aran, but that’s also a bit of a cheat since she’s nearly always armored and the reveal that she was a woman was one of video games’ first huge reveals.  But I know this is untrue – at least among the video game aficionados I know. Dan, members of the Giant Bomb Squad, and others who write about games online played Mass Effect as a female Shepard. Ryan or Jeff (or both, I can’t remember) of Giant Bomb plays as a female every time a video game gives him the option.

When I play games that give me an option, I tend to play as a guy because it tends to be the default choice and I usually don’t mess around with that stuff. (I didn’t do any customization on my Shepard, for example) So the Portal series was one of the first times I played as a woman. When thinking about Portal from the point of view of becoming the character, it’s an odd duck. On the surface there shouldn’t be much reason to invest in the character. Sure, the first person point of view cheats a bit by making it seem to be your eyes, but it’s just a physics game. The developers have set up a bunch of test chambers and you have to figure out how to use momentum to get yourself to the ending. (Plus things also get a bit more complex later on) In a lot of ways you shouldn’t be any more invested in the character than you are in Super Mario. Because when you get reductive about it, Portal is a 3D platformer in which you have to do a bit more thinking about how you get from this platform to that one.

But there are two things that change the game. First of all, you don’t know ANYTHING about the character you’re playing as. Unless you shoot two portals and look in to see yourself, you can’t even tell if you’re a male or female. And as soon as you do this, you see that you’re wearing an orange jumpsuit. Like a prison outfit. Just what the heck is going on? Second, GLaDOS makes it personal.  As you make your way through the test chambers GLaDOS is constantly berating you. If you ever go to any team-based or conflict resolution classes they always teach you that you always want to be careful not to insult people because that makes them defensive and it makes things personal. So not only was Valve providing a great, dark sense of humor, but they were forcing you to become the main character. Additionally, the things she said made you wonder even more about your past:

All your other friends couldn’t come either, because you don’t have any other friends. Because of how unlikeable you are. It says so here in your personnel file: unlikeable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikeable loner whose passing shall not be mourned. “Shall not be mourned.” That’s exactly what it says. Very formal. Very official. It also says you were adopted. So that’s funny too.

You’ve been wrong about every single thing you’ve ever done, including this thing. You’re not smart. You’re not a scientist. You’re not a doctor. You’re not even a full-time employee. Where did your life go so wrong?

All in all, however, there isn’t really anything within the game to tell you that you’re female. Without the Portal trick you don’t even find out. When Portal game out, lots of people wrote lots of articles about how groundbreaking it was to play as a female in a first person shooter. They got philosophically deep saying things like it’s radical that you’re a woman and you don’t have a gun. (Which, I think, was probably incidental since Valve essentially saw this game as a graduation project and then hired those students. The game was then made around the already-existing Portal gun) Some went even further saying that going through the portals was a commentary on childbirth and the vaginal canal. And on and on. And I think it was great to have a female character for once, but it was kind of cheating. There wasn’t anything to let you know you were a woman and nothing was different with the knowledge that you were. (Which could be a commentary in and of itself – women can do what men can)

Portal 2 was a slightly different story. For the most part it didn’t matter that you were a woman except in a couple of places. First of all, I’m pretty sure that Wheatley keeps referencing the person who defeated GLaDOS (you, but he doesn’t know it) as a man. Second, there are these quotes from GLaDOS:

Most people emerge from suspension terribly undernourished. I want to congratulate you on beating the odds and somehow managing to pack on a few pounds.

That jumpsuit you’re wearing looks stupid. That’s not me talking, it’s right here in your file. On other people it looks fine, but right here a scientist has noted that on you it looks “stupid”. Well, what does a neck-bearded old engineer know about fashion? He probably – Oh, wait. It’s a she. Still, what does she know? Oh wait, it says she has a medical degree. In fashion! From France!

You know, being Caroline taught me a valuable lesson. I thought you were my greatest enemy, but all along you were my best friend.

And this dialogue with GLaDOS and Wheatley:

Wheatley: All right, so the last test was seriously disappointing. Apparently, being civil isn’t motivating you. So let’s try things her way, all right? Fatty. Adopted fatty. Fatty-fatty no-parents.
GLaDOS: And…?
Wheatley: What?
GLaDOS: What, exactly, is wrong with being adopted?
Wheatley: What’s wrong with being adopted? Um, well. Um, lack of parents, for one.
GLaDOS: [quietly to Chell] For the record, you are adopted, and that’s terrible. But just work with me here.
Wheatley: …and also, nothing, but… well, some of my best friends actually are orphans.
GLaDOS: Also, look at her, you moron. She’s not fat.

 I think it’s pretty interesting that now that we know the player is a female in she sequel, GLaDOS goes for stereotypical female insecurities. Additionally, the monologue line I have listed there is a riff on the trope of two women who are rivals realizing they are actually friends. And, in fact, I surprisingly didn’t pick up on this when I was playing Portal 2, but it’s essentially pitting the man against the women. As I internalized being Chell, some of those insults stung in a way I didn’t think they could. I also think it better accomplishes what the developers in the Laura Croft reboot were trying to do, but in a much less rapey way. It also plays off of gender stereotypes in the second quote about the jumpsuit.

In the end, I’m more curious to see how it’ll be going forward playing a character which I know from the beginning is female and seeing how that changes my player experience.

2 responses to “Spending Time as a Female in a Physics Puzzle Game”

  1. The Tomb Raider/Lara Croft reboot thing is less bad than it all seemed, but still not quite as seamless as Portal handles it.

    As for Narbacular Drop, I don’t think there was actually a portal gun. You were actually putting down Portals (see reference footage in this episode of Did You Know Gaming? http://youtu.be/5e14kuSVDm4).

    On the subject of reading things into a work. I believe there’s a school of thought that says authorial intent is ancillary to whether or not reading into a work is valid since we’re all constantly influenced by our culture, environment, etc.

    • Good point on how intent is somewhat invalid in a participatory work although I do always find it enlightening to know what THEY were thinking.