So by now I am sure most have seen the Portal 2 trailer from yesterday’s E3 conference. If not, here it is.
I have to admit, I am excited. It looks pretty and the first game is one of my favorite games. But there are some things that make me uneasy. The first game was great because it was simple, it was funny, and it was unexpected. Oh yeah, and it was feminist.
(For the simplicity, see the Zero Punctuation review beginning at 3:30. I find Ben “Yahtzee” Corshaw distasteful, but I think this review is pretty spot on. For the feminism, see Kris at the Hathor Legacy, Brinstar at Acid for Blood, Jenn Frank at Infinite Lives, Joe McNeilly at GamesRadar, or go to the Iris Network forums and search either ‘Portal’ or ‘Chell’).
This version obviously is quite anticipated, and so never had a chance at being unexpected (although it might still have many surprises). It seems like it will still be funny. GlaDOS has a great personality (e.g. “Didn’t we have some fun, though…” my favorite line from the first Portal game, which is kind of a spoiler if you have not played Portal). But it does not seem simple. There is a lot going on in the trailer. Also, I am not sure whether it will still be feminist. I find myself thinking, “Trust Valve… it will be good… I’m sure it will…”
I don’t find this thought very reassuring. I am sure that the game will be good, but there are some things the design team has said that are just… well, problematic.
Chell and Gender
For example, Chell from Portal 1 is a great character. She seems to be a woman of colour, but neither of these features are emphasized or used as fanservice. She is in a simple, loose, orange jumpsuit and the first-person perspective means the player is not forced to ogle her body thorough the whole game. The player mainly catches glimpses of her through the portals, and only momentarily.
As Kris wrote at the Hathor Legacy:
Portal has you controlling Chell, a woman of color in her mid-20s, who appears modestly dressed and quite ordinary looking, a refreshing change of pace from video games characters’ usual movie star looks. An entire article can be made (and has been made) on the ways the title’s feminine undertones subvert gaming conventions, like the way that Chell’s portal gun creates openings rather than pierces things, but that’s really beside the point. What really makes Chell distinct as a character in this case is that she really has no character: her name is never given in the course of the game; no verifiable background on her is provided, and it’s actually quite possible to go the entire game without actually noticing that you’re playing a woman, thanks to the first-person view.
Even as gamers grow accustomed to different races and ethnicities for their leading men, casting a woman in the lead protagonist’s chair, as in film, is always a conscious choice and a statement. So if we’re talking presentation, what is bold about Portal’s Chell is that the game makes no effort to make any such statement. She is a matter-of-fact component of the game that Valve does not attempt to either justify or show off.
So what about the new Chell from Portal 2? Let’s see…
Her suit is tighter, but it is not overly revealing. What is worrying, however, are some of the comments from the design team. Game Informer has a whole lot of interviews and videos about Portal 2, including one by Ben Reeves with Valve’s concept artist, Matt Charlesworth, about Chell’s redesign. Here is what Matt has to say about the process of designing Chell for Portal 2:
We sort of agreed that as a character Chell was really successful in the first Portal. She fit into the world really well and complemented it without the distractions that a more flashy character would bring. She served a utilitarian purpose for that game, but at the same time when we started out on Portal 2 we weren’t sure if we wanted to bring her back. So we explored a few other characters before returning to Chell.
We were playing around with proportion as well, trying to play a lot more with extreme feminine proportions and a totally different color scheme.
“Extreme feminine proportions”? That doesn’t sound promising. Will it be a new Chell, or the old Chell? I can’t really tell. I also don’t understand how this comment is meant to fit with his other comments, such as:
This is not supposed to look like a sexy Marvel superhero suit. It’s supposed to look like it was designed without any thought of making her look attractive. We don’t want to make her be unattractive, but we want to balance that out. Chell is a test subject, so she should look like one. Not a prisoner or a janitor or something.
So the suit is not supposed to be sexy, but Chell herself might be more sexy than before with new and improved “extreme feminine proportions”?
Apparently this redesign was supposed to help make Chell more memorable as a character. While explaining how the redesign will make Chell more memorable, Matt says something that universalizes a male perspective (or perhaps his perspective?) as if it represented all perspectives:
We also want people to remember the character this time around. Before I started working on Portal 2, I barely remembered the character from the first game
Matt is saying “people” here, but I don’t think he means women. Because if one reads game reviews, game blogs, game forums written by women one will find that women who write there often find Chell to be extremely memorable. As Jenn Frank notes, Chell is memorable because she is you, and she is you in a way that female gamers do not get to experience very often. (I am about to quote at length, which is kind of rude. I wanted to cut more, but it is all so vital to understanding why Chell is memorable for female gamers. So please also read in the original context. You really should. I have broken all the links to encourage visits to that site, and some of the links are very worthwhile. Plus there are pretty pictures. Go read it.)
Chell is “You!” in Portal, of course.
You don’t see “You!” for a long time in Portal. It’s a first-person game, and so you’re you, and no one insinuates or presumes anything about you, and no one gives you any information or real explication about you, because you’re just you, and you’re in a labyrinthine obstacle course, being pretty much you, yourself, you, and except for some disembodied voice in turns encouraging and taunting you, it’s just you.
And, very much in the same way Link never utters a word in a Zelda game, the magic is never broken by dialogue. You have total agency—you are taciturn, a person of action—and really, your success or failure is the main theme and action of the narrative. The disembodied voice goes to great lengths to tell you so, and she sounds pretty invested in your fate, which is creepy in its own way.
Because a long, long time after Portal establishes you as you, you run past yourself. You see yourself in your own periphery, in an orange jumpsuit, darting past. It’s terrifying, real uncanny doppelgaenger stuff here.
And you’re so startled, and then you say, “Oh, my God! That was me!” And after a moment or two, you arrive at the very next moment, a tiny revelation where you become totally self-aware, like a baby in the sensorimotor stage, discovering its own hands. Until this moment, maybe you didn’t realize you looked like anything in particular.
And so now you say to yourself—maybe not aloud, maybe internally instead—“I wonder what I look like.” So you backtrack, trying to get a better look at yourself. And ever so carefully, you edge into your own line-of-sight.
Surprise! You are a chick.
THAT IS UNSETTLING.
It’s unsettling even if you really are a chick, but probably also if you are a dude. Because, when you spatially align yourself so that you can observe your own avatar, she is staring off to her right or left through a space/time vortex, ostensibly gazing right back at you. And (this is the horrific part), you and she are standing in exactly the same spot and moment in space and time, eyeing each other. I don’t think there’s a stranger existential moment in the history of gaming.
But here is the next surprise: your being a girl doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. You play on, and nothing has changed, and the game is still the game, and you are still you. But something has substantially changed, and fundamentally changed, because now you know. You have seen yourself.
And anything you can do, Chell can do—Chell, standing where you are standing, looking right back at you, every bit as disbelieving as you are, maybe even equally surprised that you’re the asshole at the controls—and this conveys something really important about identity, about what is superficially constructed and what is essential.
But it also conveys nothing.
It’s unimportant, in Portal, that you’re Chell, and that Chell is a lady. She’s just an avatar, and that’s totally meaningless. She’s just the skin you are wearing at this particular moment in space and time.
Do you understand why this is important?
I understand why this is important, but the comments that Matt Charlesworth makes in the Game Informer interview make me wonder whether he understands why this is important. That makes me worry. (If you want to know why I think this is important, I would be happy to discuss it in the comments).
The picture above ended up being less problematic regarding gender than Matt’s comments would suggest. But the comments portray such a lack of understanding about what makes Chell an important character to many women gamers that I can’t help but feel uneasy about how Chell will enter into the new Portal game. Maybe it will be fine, maybe I should just trust Valve, but I don’t feel reassured.
Chell and Race/Ethnicity
The other thing is that Chell’s race/ethnicity seems to have changed and she now seems to be a white woman. The original Chell is ambiguous in terms of her race/ethnicity. This is, again, part of what makes her appealing. I have talked to women who read her as black, white, asian, native. The original Chell is very “projectable.” It is very easy to read yourself into her (at least if you are a woman, I don’t know whether this is true for men).
Here again, I find Matt’s comments really troubling. He says:
We explored changing Chell’s nationality for a little bit. Nobody really knew what Chell was in the first game. She kind of had a hint of Japanese ethnicity to her, but we were still not quite sure if we were going to keep her or make her a new character.
From the pictures in the article, Chell seems whitewashed to me. Perhaps this will be different in the game, but again I don’t feel reassured.
In any case, I have obviously not seen the game, so it is way to early to judge. But I was really excited about the release of Portal 2, and after the E3 announcement, I feel more uneasy than anything. I will have to wait and see.