Wednesday, April 20, 2011



Spoilers for Portal and Portal 2

So I've played about 45 minutes of Portal 2.  Why only 45 minutes?  Because I got freaked out and had to stop.

Portal is one of my favorite games of all time.  Not that I've played a lot of games.  But those of you who know me are aware of my undeniably strange affinity for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and how I unintentionally and probably magically seem to know everything about it, and am quite excellent at it.  And yet if I had to pick the better game, it would be Portal, and I kind of suck at Portal.

I first played Portal last year when it was free on Steam for about 2 weeks, and newly released for the Mac.  I had heard of Portal thanks to the ubiquity of the phrase "The cake is a lie," as well as the popularity of its theme song "Still Alive."  I assumed I would never play it, and so when I looked up the cake line, I also read the synopsis of the game.  A mistake, sure, but in the end, it was only a small one.  Not that I think the game is better spoiled, but the game is so great that you don't need to be ignorant of everything to be able to enjoy it.

So I knew things, like the fact that (duh) the cake would be a lie, that I would have to euthanize my companion cube, and that GLaDOS was trying to kill me.  But the game was still amazing.  So amazing, in fact, that even though I knew what was coming at the end of test chamber 19, I still found myself terrified, angry, confused, and betrayed.  Sneaking through the rest of the facilities, outside of the test chambers, was thrilling, and even though there was a specific way to escape and reach GLaDOS, just like there were specific ways to get through the test chambers, it didn't feel the same.  It really felt like everything I was doing was something unplanned and spur of the moment in order to escape.

And while Scott (the same one who can't read this yet because he hasn't started Portal 2--COME ON SCOTT) pointed out that all of the messages and arrows were supposed to be scribbled by one survivor from GLaDOS's attack prior to the game, which I guess makes more sense, I never got that feeling.  I always felt like everything was written by a variety of previous test subjects, who weren't necessarily smarter than I was, but who wanted to warn me.  I figured some of them had stayed hidden for a long time in secret parts of testing chambers, while others had been searching for GLaDOS only to fail where I succeeded, and had left information along the way.  It gave me an amazing sense of community, combating the ridiculously suffocating isolation that GLaDOS and the testing chambers created.

Portal has been hailed as a feminist game, not because it was making a lot of points about sex and gender, but because it took so many problems with many video games, relating to sex and gender, and destroyed them.  The main character is a woman, although you wouldn't know just from playing the game unless you looked at yourself through a portal.  She's not sexualized or objectified, partially because there's no one to do so to her.  She appears to be either white or possibly Latina (I hope Latina, so much less boring).  She's a silent protagonist in order to make the player feel immersed in the game, much like Link in the Zelda series (that's why his name is Link--he's your link to the game).  The method is very effective in Portal; you feel like YOU'RE the one who's in the chambers, and it feels personal when GLaDOS tries to kill you and when she lies to you.  It's a giant middle finger to all of those folks, from gamers in chat rooms to higher-ups in companies, who keep claiming that they're just catering to male gamers who won't be able to identify with a female protagnist.  Seriously, fuck you.  Chell is awesome, and you pretty much become her when you play Portal.  It's amazing.

Additionally, Chell is one of only two characters in Portal, and the other is also gendered female.  She's a supercomputer, GLaDOS, and she is by far one of the best villains ever created.  She's hilarious and terrifying at the same time, and while she strikes you as slightly mentally ill (for a computer), that's not what makes her evil.  She's just EVIL.  And she enjoys bathing in deadly neurotoxin.  She's not one of those evil-and-sexy female villains.  She's not nameless or story-less.  She's a fully fledged character who plans on murdering you.  And she's all you've got for company.

Finally, Portal turns the first-person shooter on its head.  This is not my original idea, but I did find it fascinating.  Not to go TOO into analysis (for example, I don't think that portals are supposed to be like vaginas--you can't go in one side and out the other!), but it's a FPS that focuses not on shooting bullets at things to kill them, but on shooting portals to problem-solve.  It removes a great deal of violence and blood from the FPS without making a boring game.

Anyway, Portal is awesome and science-y, too.

Portal 2, though.  That was a question mark.  We knew it was coming; when Portal was free last year, the ad for it included a reference to the co-op mode that would be in the sequel.  But could it live up to the hype?  Could it be as good as Portal?

One thing about Portal that was so amazing was how new the concept was (unless you had even heard of its inspiration, Narbuncular Drop).  GLaDOS was also part of the game's brilliance, but we killed her at the end (of course, she was still alive, and eating delicious and moist cake, while you probably were trying to get Black Mesa to help you).  Could Portal 2 bring her back without being gimmicky?  I mean, really, we're talking about a sequel to one of the greatest games of all time.  How could it be as awesome?

The verdict is in, less than 48 hours after its release: Yeah, it's that good.

I've only played 45 minutes, like I said.  I was too freaked out.  How was I freaked out?

Well, from the beginning, it's freaky.  Your little hibernation room (a hotel room--awesome) basically crashes into a wall (yup, really) for an extended period of time.  I was so freaked that I actually backed myself into a corner of the hotel room.  I don't know why.  It's not like I could have died in the game at that point.  It was nice to know that almost a year later, I still felt like I was immersed in the game.  I wasn't backing in the corner for Chell's sake; it was for my own.

Wandering through the damaged center was trippy.  Especially since there was a room with drawings all over the walls.  Drawings of GLaDOS going on a murder spree and then ME (yes, ME!) defeating her.  There was an image of me drawn in an angelic pose, and a shadow of a cross lay over it.  I wasn't too psyched about the cross symbolism, but it was effective.  I was someone's savior.  Weird.

Meanwhile, I did find it unpleasant to go through the chambers with a cheerful, not-robotic male voice giving instructions.  Not that I wanted GLaDOS back, but it felt weird without her.

I don't know the robot's name, but there's a round, one-blue-eyed robot who was assisting me at the beginning.  He told me to find the portal gun, and then he helped me as we tried to find an escape pod.  To get there, though, we had to pass through where GLaDOS used to live.  He was terrified to go through, saying she would kill us if she woke up.  As we went through, and she didn't wake up, he began telling me that some human had defeated her.  He was impressed that a human managed to do something like that, but that's not what struck me.  The handful of pronouns he dropped referring to the human were male.

Now, I don't know if the writers did that intentionally, although I really hope they did.  After all, the writers knew, like we did, that Chell, a woman, defeated GLaDOS and that the robot was using the wrong pronouns.  Perhaps they used male pronouns because "he or she" was too wordy, or because they didn't feel comfortable getting away with "they" as a non-gendered singular pronoun.  But either way, the use of male pronouns was actually something I really liked.

Because, again, we know that it wasn't a he.  So we come to one of two conclusions, in game, about the robot.  Either he thinks that the person was actually a man, or he isn't sure and goes with the male pronoun (either because he thinks it's more likely that a man defeated GLaDOS, or because a lot of writing uses the male pronouns instead of "male or female" ones).  And so the gamers playing are forced, however subtly, to resent the robot, at least a little, for getting our sex wrong.  It's a microaggression in one of the most anticipated video games in recent years.


Anyway, I stopped playing soon after that because, you see, we woke up GLaDOS a short while later.  When it happened, I had the biggest "Oh shit" face you have ever seen.  She was piecing herself together, and suddenly she was back, and she knew it was me (the little robot was all, "Wait, what?!!" and then she KILLED HIM).  And then she knocked away my portal gun and threw me in the incinerator, and now she's going to basically make me run tests until she kills me.


Now do you see why I stopped playing soon after?  At least in the first game, she wasn't so outright about planning on killing me.  And it wasn't personal.  Now it's personal.  And it's TERRIFYING.

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