Ten years ago, on April 18, 2011, Portal 2 came onto the scene. The game developed by Valve was an innovative first-person puzzle platformer that continued the story of the main character Chell and enticed players to think differently. While the first game, Portal, was well received, Portal 2 really captured players with its unique titular gameplay and even more intriguing characters.
These characters happen to be perfect examples of how to portray women as fully realized characters in both the hero and villain roles in a video game. While I would not label Portal 2 as a feminist game, there is definitely a need for discussion on how Portal 2 makes a great example and lays the groundwork for how to craft a female lead (whether hero or villain) that doesn’t fit into a cliche stereotype. The game is a rare instance where both the leads are female, and their gender means nothing to the game. Oftentimes when a character is female the focus can be placed solely on their gender, relying on tropes or even sexualization as an attempt at writing their “character.” While this might not happen to all female characters, Portal 2 stands out by having, well, none of it. Our iconic cast of this tale, Chell and GLaDOS, are simply that: iconic cast members who are not defined by their gender but by their actions.
Throughout Portal 2 you play as Chell, the silent protagonist, where her gender is not a topic of discussion until the end of the game with comments made by the villain GLaDOS. The fact that your character is a woman means nothing in this series, and players might not even realize that Chell is a woman unless they catch a glimpse of her via the portals. This is significant because Chell could really be anyone; she can do anything and is just trying to survive given the circumstances.
Her being silent is not any different than the typical “get stuff done” male protagonists that we have seen in the past. There is a logical, in-universe reason for Chell’s silence beyond the idea of making her an easy vessel for players to step into; in Portal 2 she is silent because she has not used her voice in years—she simply cannot talk.
It is important to note here that Chell is the main character of this game and has to navigate the world of Aperture Science Enrichment Center via puzzles and her portal gun. The significance of Portal 2 is Chell’s depiction of a simplistic, average woman who uses smarts to get through a series of difficult tasks. Even her outfit is simplistic right down her to shoes. It can be so rare that we see this type of depiction of a woman in a video game as we have become accustomed to certain tropes that female characters are given. But Chell does not fit into that mold, in fact Chell is unique in her own way as there are not many other (if any) characters depicted the way that she is.
Where do we begin with GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System)? The game's villain is an AI with a distinct personality and a now-iconic female voice. Not only that, but GLaDOS is witty, evil, and clever, easily one of the highlights of the game and instantly recognizable in any medium. A huge part of Portal 2’s success was GLaDOS’s personality; she both encouraged and belittled players. There is a significant difference between the way that GLaDOS acts between each game in the series. While in Portal her focus is on running her tests to completion, in the sequel she blames Chell for putting her through such torment after being defeated in the first game. Things have become personal and she is not afraid to talk about it.
What makes things even better is how GLaDOS and Chell now have to work together for survival as the game's villain, Wheatley, tries to kill them both. This makes for a delightful, spiteful situation where the characters are constantly at odds but are forced to work together to survive. It may be an old narrative trope, but seeing them together is consistently entertaining. Adding in GLaDOS being extremely outspoken and passive aggressive, it is no wonder she has been titled one of the most memorable video-game villains.
You begin to see the dynamic between these two characters change over Portal 2, as GLaDOS learns more about where her personality came from in the form of Caroline, the personal assistant to Cave Johnson, founder and CEO of Aperture. She slowly becomes aware that testing is not everything, and her tone changes towards Chell, surprisingly becoming quite supportive. The tale of Caroline is a tragic one, and as we learn the details, GLaDOS becomes more trusting of Chell as they are now in a similar situation. Chell now knows all about GLaDOS, and GLaDOS knows all about Chell. What happens between these two characters is what really is quite remarkable: These two women, who have been at odds for so long, become “sisters in arms” as they have to band together against a man who is trying to control them.
Not only is Portal 2 a breakthrough in female representation in a video game by having the core cast be female, but what is even more important is that their gender has nothing to do with the game. Chell and GLaDOS completely avoid typical pitfalls when it comes to female representation in games; they are simply characters in a puzzle game. Chell is not sexualized when she removes part of her orange jumpsuit to reveal a tank top; it is modest without any shots of her body. GLaDOS is powerful, intelligent, and engaging. Neither of these women fit into the stereotype we so often see thrust on women in video games. They don’t fall into categories of a type of woman. They are just complex, unique, interesting characters. And for these reasons, they are icons in video games even 10 years later.