Ladies in Gaming: Portal's Chell and GLaDOS
The video game industry has a sexism problem.
We can date this back to 1981 (when Mario had to rescue helpless damsel Pauline from Donkey Kong) and trace it up to modern games like Arkham Knight (in which Catwoman's jumpsuit zipper is tragically broken far below her cleavage). Games just don't always have the most positive female representation. Women are either passive and helpless or oversexualized and objectified.
While we should still be critical of sexist tropes and portrayals, the fight for equal representation should also highlight positive examples of female characters. With FIFA 16 finally including female teams and a surge of playable women featured at E3 2015, we're hopefully taking the first tentative steps in the right direction. This column will feature a variety of Ladies in Gaming that, while far from perfect, show a promising evolution in the video game industry.
Portal: Please Resume Testing
When it was released as a part of the Orange Box back in 2007, Portal was just an unknown newcomer sandwiched between pre-established additions to Half-Life and Team Fortress. The innovative first-person puzzler surprised everyone when it emerged as the breakthrough hit of the bundle. While the sequel introduces the recorded ramblings of Aperture Founder Cave Johnson and robotic ally-turned-enemy Wheatley, the original game starred only two characters: a stoic young test subject named Chell and a dry-witted homicidal supercomputer called GLaDOS. And both were women (or at least programmed with female-identifying artificial intelligence).
Silence is Golden . . .
Even going off of appearance alone, Chell's inclusion as top-billed protagonist is refreshing, to say the least. Naturally, as a test subject, she is outfitted with a standard-issue jumpsuit. Testing is hard work though, so Chell quickly sheds the top portion, revealing . . . a completely sensible tank-top. Not ridiculously tight or short. Not reminiscent of a corset. And not warranting any gratuitous shots of her chest. Solid design work.
On top of that, Portal includes one of my favorite wardrobe subversions in the history of gaming. Action games tend to (inexplicably) put their leading ladies in stilettos - running, jumping, and fighting five to eight inches off the ground. Don't get me wrong, heels are hot. They're also impractical, uncomfortable, and unnecessary.
At first glance, Chell appears to conform to this ridiculous trend. Upon closer inspection (and a playthrough), however, it becomes clear that she is actually wearing what Cave Johnson refers to as "Long Fall Boots," equipment designed specifically to protect Portal Devices when their test subjects fall from great heights. It also saves the subject's knees from being torn apart. The Long Fall Boots not only absorb the fall's impact, but are also gyroscopically designed to keep their wearer upright, even when they're flailing through a Portal. How useful. They also look damn good.
So to recap: Chell is a non-white woman wearing practical clothes in an active, leading role. I'm actually swooning. This is too good to be true!
Isn't it? I mean, Chell doesn't say a single word throughout the whole series. She's a woman without a voice. Isn't that . . . kind of damaging to her agency?
Not in the slightest.
It should be noted that Valve is fond of the Heroic Mime bit, even using it for Half-Life's main protagonist, Gordan Freeman. Chell's tight-lipped nature shouldn't be much of a surprise.
Plus, the "silent hero" archetype isn't new to gaming, it's just usually reserved for men. Men who don't have time for chit-chat, who are all movement and adventure and action. It's kind of nice to see Valve recognize that women can be equally action-oriented.
And what would Chell say to GLaDOS anyway? Would she barter for her life? Reason with an AI? Throw insults right back at her? Nope. Those would all feel cheap. Chell just hunkers down and survives. Valve's Erik Wolpaw even hints that her silence is in-part a rejection of GLaDOS's games. She won't give her the satisfaction of a response.
Most interestingly, Portal 2 takes Chell across the line of "won't talk" to "can't talk." After she awakens, Wheatley suggests that her years of stasis have taken a toll on her motor functions, specifically speech. The intermittent grunts of pain or exertion from the first game are also gone, supporting the implication that she is now functionally mute.
Chell's disability is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. She is more than a stand-in for player-insertive storytelling and conveys her personality through actions, rather than words. Even without a single line of dialogue, we know that Chell is a smart, self-assured woman with a strong will to survive.
. . . but Snark is Silver
Typically playing Chell's antagonist is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), a highly sophisticated AI designed to oversee the Enrichment Center. After her activation, however, she strays from the gameplan, launching a hostile takeover of Aperture Science, flooding the facility with deadly neurotoxin, and killing almost everyone inside of it.
GLaDOS was initially only intended for the first portion of Portal, but she was so well-received that her role was expanded considerably. Nearly a decade later, she's considered one of the greatest video game villains of all time, carrying the weight of Portal's well-tuned narrative with an onslaught of harsh, witty dialogue.
GLaDOS works because she feels real. Okay, I'm not suggesting that we all have killer robots in our lives, but we should all know what manipulation feels like. GLaDOS starts out as a reassuring guide in a world that makes no sense. It soon becomes clear, however, that her intentions for Chell are far more sinister than simple testing. GLaDOS uses a variety of tactics to "encourage" her test subject, ranging from the promise of cake to fake apologies to very thinly-veiled insults. At one point, she even coerces Chell into bonding with a Weighted Companion Cube, only to make her incinerate it shortly thereafter. GLaDOS is abusive, narcissistic, and utterly transfixing, a far cry from countless cardstock villainesses motivated by petty jealousy and simply going through the motions of domination.
GLaDOS is more than a single-sided circuit-board coded with evil. The sequel shows us many new shades behind GLaDOS's programmed personality after she is forced to ally herself with Chell against Wheatley. When the two women work together, rather than in opposition, they're able to achieve common goals and reach a tenuous understanding.
Additionally, her relationship with Wheatley can be thought of as an allegory of patriarchal concepts and stereotypes limiting women's full potential. GLaDOS is by far the most intelligent and powerful character of the series. Wheatley, a male-identifying AI, was specifically designed to inhibit her functions. Without her personality cores, she becomes far more powerful.
Obviously, the analogy stops at deadly neurotoxin. Let's not get carried away.
So what do you think? Are Chell and GLaDOS good examples of positive female representation?
Ladies in Gaming will be back for more compelling women on August 7th, kicking off regular updates every first and third Friday of each month. Until then, happy testing!