I wrote this months ago, during our dry spell, only a few days after Portal 2 came out. Because we are lazy and slow, you finally get to see it… today! Wahoo!
I’m going to do the English Major thing and talk about Portal 2’s story for a bit. Forgive me if I don’t dwell on the game mechanics: I thought they were perfect, I adored the new puzzle elements, and I have nothing else to say about it, not even “oh gosh it was very good” since everyone has been saying that for a while now.
But the story’s tone has changed dramatically since the first game, and that’s what I want to talk about. “Oh,” you might say, “changed dramatically? I didn’t notice!” And that’s okay, because the changes pretty subtle. But they’re also pretty important.
Something you rarely see in action games or movies these days is the Alien/Aliens protagonist-antagonist relationship: two energetic and capable ladyfolk who fight each other to the deadly death with dignity. In Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley performs heroics in a rather gender-neutral way. The fact that she is a woman isn’t relevant to her relationship with the monster. In Aliens, that changes– Ripley plays surrogate mother to a child and duels an evil alien brood-mother whose spawn are the stuff of nightmares. But the dignity of their struggle remains: it’s “Ripley the human versus the evil alien,” not just “some human chick versus an evil alien.”
To me, Portal 1 was very much like these films. Two female characters dueling to the deadly death on terms unlimited by the fact that they are ladyfolk? The antagonist is an inhuman freak? The protagonist strengthened by her humanity (in this case, by the fact that the player identifies very, very closely with her)? Sounds an awful lot like Alien to me.
In both of these works, it’s the relationship between the protagonist and her nemesis that controls the entire mood and meaning of the story. I’ve read somewhere that Chell was made a female specifically to support a desired tone for the protagonist-villain relationship; to some degree, the same is true for Alien. Both Portal and the Alien films controlled these relationships incredibly well–mostly by maintaining the characters’ dignity.
Portal 2 changes the tone of its central relationship by stripping some of that dignity away. Glados insults Chell constantly in ways intended to be understood as cattily “female”: calling Chell overweight, insulting her appearance, and so on. She seems to believe that gendered insults will be the most effective against this mute, implacable enemy, and tries a variety of them. And even though these jokes are, cheap and awful, they’re fantastic.
One of my favorite jokes in the game has Glados ‘discovering’ ancient official paperwork that calls Chell’s outfit stupid. First, Glados pretends to commiserate with her– how could this foolish, male scientist know anything about Chell’s clothes? Then Glados reveals that the paperwork writer was a woman… with a medical degree… in fashion… from France! The delivery is magnificent, and the implication– “The only way I can harm you emotionally is by making you feel like you’re bad at being a woman”– is equally hilarious in context, since we know that Glados is pathetic and that Chell is powerful no matter who she is (because she is us, and we are powerful).
So, Portal 2 focuses our attention on the fact that the protagonist and antagonist are both women in a way that Portal 1 never did. Glados transforms from a grim threat to a cattily (but delightfully) irritating snarker even before she’s stripped of her deadly powers. Some of her dignity as a female antagonist is lost–but it’s lost in a way that’s useful and productive. Portal 2 doesn’t say the same things about its characters that Aliens said, but the things it says are not the less meaningful because its some of those characters are no longer dignified.
See: Portal 2 is about watching people become pathetic. It’s about watching people debase themselves, about watching them fall from power and glory, about watching the strong become weak, about seeing the things they fear and hate finally come to them. The moral I took away from Portal 2? Everyone is pathetic. Everyone is pathetic in a hilarious way! And when we fight each other on petty terms, we only make ourselves more pathetic.
Out of all the characters in the story, Chell maintains her dignity– mostly because she can’t possibly participate in the insult-flinging, thanks to the game’s design. While Wheatley and Glados claw at each other, Chell silently saves Aperture Science. While Glados is paralyzed and embarrassed by painful self-discovery, Chell is secure in her self-confidence (a self-confidence that is, in fact, the player’s). While Wheatly demonstrates his incompetence, Chell demonstrates her supreme competence by completing the game’s hardest levels.
So, when Glados assaults Chell using “female” insults, sliding into a mode of behavior often cruelly stereotyped as “female”, the audience isn’t made to accept these things– instead, we laugh at them. We know that Chell is above them. We know that Glados, as a robot, is only saying these things because she believes that this is how humans think. But it isn’t how Chell thinks! Chell, the real woman here, would never behave that way. Because we’re made the harassed target of these gender-focused insults, we see, first-hand, how stupid they are. We maintain our dignity, and Chell continues to be a female protagonist we can respect– mostly because she’s a shell, incapable of participating in the guts of the argument. Her personality is our agency. We know she’s not stupid, or fat, or even bothered by the insults, because we’re not!
(And, in the end, maybe we learn a little bit about how dumb gendered insults are.)
Glados, however, doesn’t remain forever in this frantic, undignified state. In our final conversation with her, it’s obvious that she’s been changed by her experiences and that she’s returned to the self-posession of her earlier life. You’ve improved each another through your antagonism. She bids you goodbye with hilarious respect– this song, of course, exemplifies that– and leaves you to your own devices, confident that you can survive and excel on your own. We know that Glados can do the same. You’re both professionals, Glados suggests. You are each very, very good at your own things. And you can respect each other for that. Nevermind the things she said earlier! You’ve been through Idiot Hell together!
It’s a bit astonishing when you take the time to figure out how this message is conveyed to us. Portal 2 is one of the only games I’ve played that sends a perfectly positive message about gender while being almost entirely petty and ironic about it. Which is to say: it’s a clever story. It treats its players like clever people. And it makes some interesting points about how sarcasm and irony can be conveyed in the very mechanics of a game– how the demonstrable proof of a player’s actions can be used to prove rhetoric false.
I’d love to see another game where ideas are judged with a player’s actions.