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Subversive Portal: Review

Being a critical-gamer gives us access to the language to explain our gut reactions of games, and the complexities of games themselves. However, communicating with the same language is important. Using the same definitions for words and the right words is essential. In Portal is the most subversive game ever, Joe McNeilly presents a very interesting analysis of Portal. Though the article is a good read, McNeilly's diction requires some attention. You know the drill by now. Read the original (it's a short read) and then return to my commentary for a good exercise.

[Warning: The text you are about to read contains heady intellectual discourse and is not recommended for anyone made queasy by the discussion of feminist film theory or psychoanalytical signifiers.]

Game writing is still in a period of nonage as evident by McNeilly prefacing his article with a disclaimer about the high intellectual writing that follows. Depending on the type of audience that frequents, a waring regarding psychoanalytic and feminist material may be appropriate. But warning of forthcoming intellectual material seems unnecessary.

Yet beneath the mainstream success lies the most subversive first-person shooter (FPS) ever created.

Portal is not a first-person shooter. It is clearly a first person puzzle game. The FPS genre was been uniquely named. What other genre also contains the perspective in which it is played (besides 3rd-person shooters which were named in response to FPSs)? Ultimately, the differences in gameplay and design between a first-person and third-person shooter is negligible. The genres are ultimately about shooting guns and overcoming enemies with force. Furthermore, many games have first-person shooting elements but are not FPSs: The 3D Zelda games, Mario Galaxy, The House of the Dead, and the Metroid Prime Series. Some of these examples may seem like a stretch, however I only used them to illustrate that Portal can completely belong to the Puzzle genre while having similar elements of the FPS genre.

Deconstructing the term "first-person shooter" reveals two fundamental concepts of the game mechanic. "First-person" is a personal pronoun that provides linguistic context, or origo, to enable discourse. It is a perspective.

McNeilly's deconstructive move here is different from the literary theory of Deconstruction and Deconstruction according to critical game theory. It's important to understand the overlap that can occur when encountering this word. McNeilly is simple breaking the word "first-person shooter" down into it's elements. If McNeilly wanted to use deconstruction critical game theory on Portal, he would have to look at how the structures of the game undermine themselves. Moreover, McNeilly's comments on the first-person perspective are apt. However...

"Shooter" describes the discourse that is to occur, specifically the shooting and ultimately killing of the other participants.

It would have been better to describe portal as having similarities with the FPS genre to avoid running into issues of genre misplacement. Unfortunately, McNeilly's argument is built around Portal being an FPS. Because of this misplacement, some of the impact of his article is reduced. Also, the word "discourse" seems misused, in that it implies communication or conversation. Unfortunately, we don't talk with bullets and death. "Action" would have been a more suitable word.

The playable characters in first-person shooters are almost always men. In the rare event that a female character is playable, she serves as an object of male fantasy and her interactions with the game world are still forced through the male-oriented lens described in the previous paragraph. Interestingly, playable female characters are usually presented in third-person action games (think Lara Croft) -- again reinforcing a visual power dynamic that in this case furthers the objectification of the female form by a predominantly male audience. Rather than the player assuming the identity of the heroine, she becomes a controllable other.

Perfect Dark for the Nintendo64 features a female character who is the worlds #1 agent, Joana Dark. She was neither objectified or hypersexualized. And even when trapped in the male gaze of the FPS genre, the majority of Joana's mission objectives are non violent based on stealth and reconnaissance. How's that for a subversive game that is actually an FPS? It's also worth noting that the console sequel to Perfect Dark on the Xbox360, featured a younger, more sexualized Joana. Perhaps more feminine friendly games can be found on Nintendo systems as opposed to the machine the Microsoft built. Assuming any female character in the third-person is a "controllable other" that is objectified by the player is rash. What about the Pokemon series that allows player to play a male or female character n a world that lets players choose their own activities among collecting, battling, and showing off the aesthetics of their Pokemon? The world of Pokemon is also a place where even battling only results in fainting as opposed to death a subtle change that subverts violence for sport and play. Besides Pokemon, there's a slew of Nintendo games that are virtually gender neutral.

As the player, you're never even aware that you're a woman until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the third person through a portal. The unobtrusive presentation of the female protagonist doesn't force a male gender perspective on the player as is the norm in FPS games.

McNeilly's point about the "unobtrusive" presentation of the female protagonist in Portal is very true. But Portal wasn't the first to do this. The original Metroid for the NES features the female protagonist Samas Aran, whose gender was practically hidden from most players throughout the game. Beating the game quickly enough unlocked a special ending revealing that Samus was indeed a female and not a robot. Samus' power suit helps to mask gender identity. And with the Metroid Prime series, players assume the role of a completely un-sexualized protagonist. At the same time, the Prime series is in first-person and reflects some of the conventions of the FPS genre. The absence of mentioning the Metroid series or any other Nintendo game possibly exposes McNeilly's lack of experience with such games and the possibly that they are more subversive than Portal.

Portal successfully reinvents both the "first-person" and the "shooter" elements of its genre in a manner that celebrates the empowerment of the feminine rather than subjugating it to objectification by the male gaze. The force of its message is amplified through its unconventional deployment of adversaries and genre archetypes. In doing so, it subtly yet powerfully points out to the entire industry that games needn't exist solely to service the libido.

Portal is a first-person puzzle game. Even if it were an FPS, it would not reinvent the "first-person" or the "shooter" elements. Its design is standard for puzzle games. The first-person perspective doesn't revolutionize the puzzle genre. Rather, it adds a branch to the Puzzle genre. Yes, portal is an excellent game filled with subversion to many male-conventions. However, it's just one in many that "point out to the entire industry." Perhaps, McNeilly should spend some more time with the classics, and with Nintendo games especially considering how the PC and Xbox360 markets are over saturated with traditional masculine first-person shooters.

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Reader Comments (1)

I wonder if I can provoke anyone...

Joe McNeilly scares me. He represents a vanguard of gamers with a fondness for symbolism who want the genre to be transformed into a new addition to the humanities. He scares me because, while in symbolic works conclusions are abundant, I have never been able to find anything resembling a respect for logic in literary theory (the closest any type of criticism came to being logical was the new criticism, I think). Because of this, I think symbolism is probably the worst thing that ever happened to art. Symbolism transformed art into an extremely, extremely poor substitute for argument, and consequently a venue through which people could try to spread utterly unjustified opinions. As symbolism stalks my most beloved genre, I become more and more uneasy.

January 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjohn

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