The two Portal games are memorable for their clever physics puzzles, funny writing that's been run into the ground by Internet memes, a cooperative campaign that ruins friendships, and a popular female protagonist who doesn't serve as eye candy. That last one isn't as unusual these days as it once was, but we think Portal goes deeper into feminism than you probably realize.
Amidst the killer robots and hyper-masculine scientists is a clever exploration of a woman's struggle in a male-dominated culture, and we're not just saying that because your only weapon is a gun that shoots vagina metaphors. If you think we're reading too much into it, well, give us a chance to make our case:
5 The Female Main Character Is a Blank Slate (In a Good Way)
Right away, Portal doesn't make a big deal about the fact that you're playing as a woman. And that, oddly enough, is a big deal. Hey, remember that Jurassic Park game where you could look down at your own tits?
"Dude, I bet women do this, like, all the time!"
As we've mentioned before, there's a reason so many action/fantasy heroes seem to be devoid of personality. It's not bad writing, or a mistake -- Han Solo is cooler than Luke Skywalker because the latter isn't supposed to have a personality. Neither is Frodo. And it's for the same reason Mario, Half Life's Gordon Freeman, and Skyrim's Dragonborn are all silent protagonists with hardly any character traits of their own: They are blank slates onto which the player/audience project themselves. They're you. That's why the wooden and befuddled Keanu Reeves was so perfect as Neo -- he's the stand-in for the audience, the "everyman" character we can all relate to. It's a storytelling technique that's literally older than written words.
But it is very rare for that "everyman" character to be a woman.
And even rarer for it to be an appropriately dressed woman.
Sure, Metroid's Samus was a silent character, but her gender was originally used as a plot twist for shock value ("Surprise! All of these heroic things were done by a woman! And if you beat the game a second time, you can see her in a bikini!"). Other games are all about calling attention to it, even if it's a strong character -- in Bayonetta, you're a flamboyant, trash-talking sex goddess who gets naked in mid-battle. Lara Croft's original design was entirely about the boobs.
Portal's protagonist ("Chell"), on the other hand, is an empty form designed so that players can step into her skin. When you're talked to or chastised, no name is given, to maintain the illusion that they're addressing you directly. You are given no backstory -- Chell isn't trying to rescue her boyfriend or overcome some emotional trauma. Her goals are your goals: to escape, and to stay alive. You only know you're a woman when you see yourself in a mirror (or through a portal, if you do it just right). And ... that's it. It's kind of like the first time you saw a gay couple in a movie where they didn't call special attention to it -- treating it like it's no big deal becomes a bold move.
It's like her name is some sort of clever reference.
But once you get into the game ...
4 There's a Hidden Backstory Full of Overbearing Men
The genius of Portal 2's level setup is that you're basically playing your way through the game's backstory. As you traverse the abandoned laboratory of the franchise's villains (Aperture Science), you stumble across little bits of their history. How much of this you take in is all about how much time you spend listening to / reading the clues instead of devoting all of your brainpower to figuring out the next puzzle ("GOD DAMN IT THERE IS NO PLACE TO PUT A PORTAL MY COPY OF THE GAME IS CLEARLY DEFECT- oh, there it is").
What you find out is that Aperture was founded during the 1940s by macho man Cave Johnson (one of the great fictional names of all time, by the way), and we get a lot of hints that, even for its era, Aperture was not a progressive company. Aside from Johnson's assistant Caroline, the only other evidence we have of women being employed by Aperture is a Girls of Aperture Science pin-up calendar tucked away in a hidden room. A promotional tie-in comic showed us an Aperture Science that was apparently made up entirely of male scientists even in the modern era.
"See, shit like that is why no one wants to work with you, 'McConaughey.'"
See how those guys are talking about having to "control" her? They're working on "personality cores" -- little artificial intelligence modules designed to run Aperture's facility and control GLaDOS, the "female" AI that serves as the main villain of the game. Players meet a bunch of cores, and all but one of them has a male voice. The only female is the Curiosity Core, an AI whose defining trait is that it's overwhelmingly confused by absolutely everything it sees. Kind of what you'd expect from a female personality created by a bunch of sexist men, right?
One of the others, for instance, is the John-Wayne-esque Adventure Sphere, who hits on you, encourages you to take a "lady break" and let him handle things, and peppers almost every sentence with old-timey sexism.
"Your funeral -- your beautiful lady corpse open casket funeral" is not a line we'd suggest busting out at the bar anytime soon.
And then there's "Wheatley" (played by Stephen Merchant), the dumbass core who is the other main character of Portal 2. He was literally designed to dampen GLaDOS's intelligence. All of the cores were intended to keep GLaDOS in check, meticulously designed by men of science to suppress a female AI. Which leads us to ...