When playing Portal, the most interesting aspect to me was Portal’s status as a first-person shooter game. As a first-person shooter, Portal, therefore, is a game that belongs in a category with fellow shooters such as Call of Duty, Halo, and any game featuring James Bond. However, my experience playing Portal was vastly different than … Continue reading “The Anti First-Person Shooter”
When playing Portal, the most interesting aspect to me was Portal’s status as a first-person shooter game. As a first-person shooter, Portal, therefore, is a game that belongs in a category with fellow shooters such as Call of Duty, Halo, and any game featuring James Bond. However, my experience playing Portal was vastly different than my experience playing these games.
The majority of first-person shooters are action games. The player controls the main character as they battle his/her way through numerous enemies armed with various guns. Throughout the game, the player tries to shoot the majority of the non-player characters (NPCs) before they shoot the protagonist. The game boils down to a test of the player’s reaction time—can you pull the trigger/press the button before the NPCs?
Portal takes this trope and flips it on its head. For starters, the “weapon” that Chell—the main character—is armed with, the Aperture Portal Gun is not even a true weapon. The portal gun does not fire bullets or ammunition, but instead fires non-damaging portals at walls. In a battle, this gun would be worthless, except as a means of escape.
Firing portals is useful to Chell, however, as in this game she is not truly battling. Yes, Chell does take damage periodically from robots controlled by the antagonist GLaDOS, and she does battle GLaDOS at the end of the game, but this “battling” is more about avoidance and relocation than combat. In another break away from the genre, Portal is less of an action game and more of a puzzle game. Instead of trying to shoot first, Portal encourages the player to think strategically. The game is about finding your way out of a predicament rather than simply battling through it. While many first-person shooters are about destroying, Portal is more about creating. The player must use their weapon to create a solution to their problem, as opposed to most first-person shooters which require their players to destroy their problem.
As Kline describes in Digital Play, video games originated as “the play of an overwhelmingly masculine world, centered around themes of abstract puzzle solving, exploration, sport, and centrally, war” (107). He lists activities that society generally associates with men, and thus, makes the playing of video games a masculine activity. Portal subverts the notion of…
As Kline describes in Digital Play, video games originated as “the play of an overwhelmingly masculine world, centered around themes of abstract puzzle solving, exploration, sport, and centrally, war” (107). He lists activities that society generally associates with men, and thus, makes the playing of video games a masculine activity. Portal subverts the notion of a gaming community meant for men by manipulating first-person identification.
In film, the viewer identifies with the camera and the perspective it shows, as though the camera itself acts as a character, that character being ourselves. Similarly, in video games that use a first-person perspective, the player identifies with the character they play. Since society takes video games as a male-dominated space, men generally assume companies make games for them, thus, in most first-person games, the player plays as a man. For examples, think Call of Duty and Bioshock. (I literally Googled “first person shooter male protagonist” and got a list of games that have female protagonists, which tells you how much male protagonists dominate the field.) Now, Portal complicates that identification by making the player-character, Chell, a woman. However, the player does not even see Chell throughout the game unless they go looking for her. Since the game lacks mirrors, the player must take advantage of the portals and fire them in such a way that they can look through one and see Chell. Otherwise, one could play through the entire game and not realize her identity, since there is no other indication of her gender. I think it likely came as quite a shock to male and female gamers alike that the character they were playing was, in fact, a woman.
The first-person perspective also prevents player’s from turning Chell, as a female character, into a sexual object. In third-person perspective games, while the player identifies with the player-character, there is a separation between them, as the player watches them, rather than seeing through their eyes. Hence, female characters from those types of games, like Lara Croft, often get objectified and sexualized. Objectifying or sexualizing Chell is incredibly difficult though, because the player is constantly seeing through her eyes. In order to sexualize her, the player must also, in a sense, sexualize themself. Additionally, Chell’s outfit prevents this sexualization because it covers most of her body, and makes her chest flat. It’s through the first-person viewpoint that Portal manages to subvert the first-person shooter genre, by removing the typical male protagonists.