"The difference between us is that I can feel pain. You don't even care, do you? Did you hear me? I said you don't care. Are you listening?"
- GLaDOS, Portal
Let's get this out of the way: Portal is brilliant. You know it. I know it. Consider this admission our common ground, a way for us to circumvent 1500 words singing Valve's praises that would've normally filled this space, which you've already read a dozen times over, to which you would've nodded knowingly and I would've smirked and we both would've walked away from our computers not much smarter and hungry for cake.
But when I finished Portal, I didn't ponder its brilliant play mechanics or physics engine; all I really thought about was calling my mom and telling her that I loved her. Because as good as Portal is, what's more important is what the game's about: Mothers. Daughters. Women.
Which is strange to say, considering an unobservant player could conceivably play Portal without ever realizing its protagonist is female, since the game's first person perspective prevents direct personal observation (and certainly Chell's silence provides no hints). Of course, this is less some feminist victory than a convenient narrative device. Chell's gender is irrelevant, yes, but she's not really a character, just a vehicle for the player to experience Portal's gameplay. She's a shell (pun intended?), a player avatar displaying no discernable emotions or personality.
Technically, GLaDOS has no gender either. GLaDOS is just an object: All bits and bytes, silicon and ions, 1s and 0s. Just because you program a computer to emit soft, high-pitched sounds doesn't make it female.
And yet, when I confronted GLaDOS for the first time, I remember feeling distinctly disappointed: this cluster of metal grapes, this tangle of hanging wires and LEDs, was this what had been cooing to me the entire game? This"… This"… machine?
Sure, logically, GLaDOS is genderless. But empirically? She's more female than all the Chells in all the infinite Portal loops combined.
Whether its designers intended it or not, Portal evokes complex questions of gender identity: What exactly is femininity? How is it achieved? And what makes Chell - human only in the most superficial sense - female, while the sentient, gab-happy GLaDOS is not?
Or is she?
Strip away the crazy for a moment: What was GLaDOS programmed for? To run the Aperture Science Testing Chambers, yes. But more than that, GLaDOS is your constant companion, informing, rewarding and sustaining. Her soothing voice calms you down when you awaken in your womb-like glass cage. She comforts you through the claustrophobic loneliness of the Testing Chambers, keeping you engaged and distracted from feeling too much fear over the testing hazards. She is your rock, your comfort; even when she turns on you, she never really abandons you, never leaves you alone among the darkness and the metal. There's really something to be said for that.
Indeed, GLaDOS represents the Ultimate Mom, an electronic mishmash of idealized "mother" traits. Nurture. Comfort. Empathy. Love. And yet, as a computer she also lacks restraint, taking each of her characteristics to their logical and most extreme condition.
That is, in the face of danger, GLaDOS won't just comfort you; she'll downplay or even lie about testing hazards to make you feel better. And she's not just nurturing - GLaDOS is so obsessed with facilitating your progress that she becomes a controlling, hypercritical nag. Even her empathy programming has stretched and transformed into a canny knack for emotional manipulation.
GLaDOS's problem isn't that she malfunctioned. It's that she works too well. Perfectly, even. She's simply too good at carrying out her programming, and that Ã¼ber-Mom persona was clearly more than the lowly Aperture Science researchers had bargained for.
Despite this, GLaDOS is still just a cluster of ideals, fundamentally an approximation. When does a carbon copy of a woman become a woman? If it looks like a mother and talks like a mother, is it still just a cluster of wires and metal?
As loathe as I am to attach any inherent characteristics to gender, I'd be naÃ¯ve if I didn't acknowledge that we've always associated certain connotations with the sexes. Maleness typically connotes aggression, force, fire and destruction. Femaleness evokes tranquility, flexibility, water and creation.
That last one, creation, is especially important, as a woman's existence is inextricably linked to her creative power (it's one of those Big Secrets we girls learn upon menarche). Regardless of whether I ever put my uterus to its factory-intended use, it exists, and its mere presence affects my hormones, body composition, mood levels, even my brain patterns. In essence, my uterus affects everything that makes up Me.
I'm not saying we women are defined by our body parts, or that we're baby factories who are worthless without children. But there's a good reason pagans celebrate and venerate the female birthing power, and why God - whose first act in Genesis was The Creation - gifts Eve, not Adam, with the power of childbirth. It's the most important power humanity possesses, this power to sustain and grow the species. As a woman, I am creation. I am life. Can GLaDOS say the same?
Chell certainly can; even as a shell of a character, she still possesses that creative capability. I refer, of course, to her Portal Gun, which, unlike most weapons, is not an instrument of destruction but a force of creation, life - even rebirth. Each portal created is a new possibility, a new opportunity, and with every portal you step through, you're born anew.
Unlike Chell, GLaDOS certainly has personality and character to spare, but does she possess a similar feminine power of creation? My first instinct is no - after all, she's a computer, one that likes to employ decidedly destructive methods, like rockets and neurotoxins.
And yet, as the end of the game reveals, the cake was not a lie; it does exist, and GLaDOS explicitly tells you she's the one who makes it. What's more, GLaDOS also hints that she's behind Cube production, and at the endgame you see the faithful Companion Cube you destroyed somehow reborn. Is this enough evidence to suggest that GLaDOS possesses a proto-power of creation, and thus is, anatomy aside, genuinely female?
And what of that Companion Cube? In your first encounter, he (GLaDOS reveals the Cube's gender when she singsongs "he would have been there, but you murdered him") is helpless, lost, alone. Just like you, in fact. She instructs you to cart him around, to "take care" of him, and inevitably, that cute little heart sparks warm and fuzzy feelings in your own. And then, under GLaDOS's order, you must rationalize and carry out his destruction.
In essence, through your interactions with the Cube, you've mirrored your own nurturing-yet-destructive dynamic with GLaDOS - and what's more, she wants you to do it, to see things from her eyes. Your surrogate electronic mommy guides you through her thought process and teaches you not only the motivation behind what she does, but what she thinks it means to be "mother". And when you do eventually destroy her, this bundle of cores and circuits scrabbling for sentience, you deny her what she's been programmed to love most of all - you. It's enough to break a computer's heart.
Perhaps to men, this situation sounds foreign, but this is a classic mother-daughter archetype given digital form, a Campbellian role reversal all women must eventually confront and overcome. Portal's the first time I've ever seen it realistically portrayed in a videogame. Or, for that matter, explored at all. Forget the Portal Gun. Mommy GLaDOS is the game's true achievement.
Now that Portal 2 has been officially confirmed, I have high hopes for this series. Not just because Portal's brilliant - remember we moved past that - but perhaps, the franchise could be a watershed moment for gaming, one that continues to explore gender dynamics and inspire intelligent dialogue on the subject - something the medium sorely needs. I'm tired of arguing about Lara Croft's boobies. Finally, Portal has given me something meaty, something smart and sophisticated to debate.
And cake. Don't forget the cake.