Eater of Trees

The Problems of Portal 2

Posted on: April 19, 2011

(I also wrote a less formal discussion of what I liked about Portal 2 on my Tumblr.  This document contains spoilers.)

Portal 2 is unfortunately not nearly as inclusive as the first.  The first the worst problem (that I noticed) was that there was some implication that GlaDOS’s amorality was being equated with people with mental health issues.  Portal 2, however, has two points I found problematic: ableist humor (as well as some other varieties of bigoted humor) and the treatment of GlaDOS’s character.  The former was mostly small moments, but they recurred regularly throughout the game, and overall it created an environment that strongly sent a message that if you’re disabled (or otherwise nonnormative) you’re not worth anything.  The latter I’m slightly more ambivalent on, but it still contributed to an environment that made me uneasy.

Spoiler cut.

The game basically opens by making ableist jokes.  After a very brief tutorial for moving around, you’re awakened in a ruined test chamber, and Whately shows up and informs you that there is some risk of brain damage after prolonged suspension, to which you respond by jumping when he asks you to talk.  I found the “Press Space to talk” cue quite amusing and a good way to teach the controls; but the implication here seemed to be that the character was brain damaged and that this is somehow amusing in and of itself.  In addition, the reference to brain damage didn’t really add anything to the joke.  If it were left off, it would have simply been a joke about the fact that the protagonist is completely silent, and I’d’ve actually found it more amusing, because the punch line is how ludicrous said video game convention is.

Said jokes continue off and on throughout the game.  I found it especially facepalm inducing when Whateley, upon you returning to him with the portal gun, proceeded to make some comment about how “brave” disabled people are.  Which is a very common manifestation of the abled gaze, and furthermore, that it came up in a comedy game (and wasn’t the only instance of ableism) made it seem a lot like the writers were mocking the idea that disabled people could be at all useful or valuable.  Which is also problematic.

There was also another scene in which Whateley showed up informing you he was on the nanobot work crews, and then when he is fired by his supervisor during this conversation, makes a comment about how they “should’ve accommodated a nanobot of [his] size.”  Which is also a manifestation of a common ableist idea, which is to say, that accommodating disabled people and letting them do work is a completely ludicrous idea.  By presenting accommodation as “You must allow a robot that’s a billion times too big to be a nanobot work as one” this is presenting the idea that that is what people think reasonable accommodations are, and that things such as the ADA are inherently ridiculous.

In addition, GlaDOS, upon reawkening, decides to start insulting you over every possible fault.  Mostly these faults are that you killed her in the first game, and when she’s making these jabs it came off to me as rather amusing.  However, she also decides to insult you over your weight (and on at least one occasion, your appearance in other ways as well).  Considering Chell is not remotely fat this comes of as extremely problematic.  Moreover, Chell has been made significantly more coventionally attractive in this game; which further seems to reinforce the idea that people who are not conventionally attractive (and thin) are worthless.

These jokes continue somewhat regularly throughout the game.  When you return to the upper levels after having put Whateley in charge of the place, many of the jokes are centered around his incompetence.  Unfortunately, many of these are framed not as “Whateley has no experience running a facility of this size” but rather as “Whateley is an idiot.”  Nearly every joke in this section seems to be based on the fact that he can’t do anything well; which is a common manifestation of the idea that people who are not “intelligent” are worthless.  Whereas in reality most people are labeled as “unintelligent” for not being able to preform in certain specific areas, and are, in fact, quite capable of many things.

I would note, though, that I didn’t really feel at all like GlaDOS was ever portrayed as “crazy” in this game.  As in, her motives for wanting to trap you in and endless cycle of tests is portayed as, if not exactly a nice reaction, a relatively reasonable one considering that you killed her, and, as she explains, forced her to constantly relive her death again and again and again until you revived her.  Though she is still portrayed as mostly evil; and your mileage may very as to whether this comes off as attacking people with nonnormative mental health.  Certainly equating it with violence is a very common manifestation form of ableism.

Another problem that comes up is sexism.  It seems to mostly start in the levels that are being narrated by Cave Johnson.  First of all, at this point, GlaDOS has been depowered and turned into a potato, which the player must rescue.  Thus turning one of the most unrepentant female villains into a damsel in distress.  Secondly, Cave has a female assistant that mostly seems to exist entirely to be attractive–though, this is an informed attribute since you never actually see her–and do whatever he says.  It then turns out that GlaDOS’s personality is based on this woman, and, moreover, GlaDOS starts showing very obvious admiration and subservience to Cave as a result of this.

Overall this seems to serve to send a message that women are not allowed to be strong and that they need to be taught a lesson or something if they are.  Which GlaDOS seems to learn, as well, because she starts being helpful too you as you progress.

The sexist message is, however, a bit subverted.  You eventually restore GlaDOS to her old position, so she regains all the power she briefly lost, although only with the player’s help.  It should be noted that the player character is female; which does also help subvert the “women need to be rescued by men” trope, but the need for rescue is still there.  She also states that she learned a valuable lesson in her time with you.  This lesson, however, turns out to be how to delete the subservient and conscience-having portion of her personality that was taken from Cave’s assistant.

So it does seem a bit that while GlaDOS is briefly depowered and turned into a damsel in distress, her position of power and her tendency to be completely unrepentant is also part of the status quo that is restored at the end of the game.

So I’m a bit ambivalent about it.  There clearly are problematic elements, and it does seem like GlaDOS’s gender is being used against her.  But it also has GlaDOS’s personality and power restored in the end as part of the status quo.  So I’m not entirely sure how I feel here.  It certainly could’ve been done better, but I’m not completely convinced it’s as blatant of a problem as the ableism.

Portal 2, unfortunately, is not nearly as inclusive as Portal.  It is still a first person game with a silent female protagonist, which certainly helps to subvert the male as default paradigm especially common in gaming.  But misogyny still manages to creep its way into the game, and the frequency of jokes premised on the worthlessness of people with disabilities can create a rather hostile environment to play in.

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2 Responses to "The Problems of Portal 2"

my whole relationship with glados is kind of… tricky. on one hand, i find some of her mannerisms to be snarky and charming. on another hand, it reminds me all too much of abuse and how it is perceived by society.

maybe my reaction to glados and her response to chell and her death in portal is unique. but the further i got into portal 2, the more it felt like i’ve been there.

i think part of what makes me reluctant about the entire thing is because i don’t want to associate mental health with glados and the obvious hostility that the developers formed for her growing character development. and yet i don’t want to say that her reactions are understandable either because… i’ve been there. and it would almost seem like blaming myself. i can’t do that.

(keep in mind that i am in no way saying that you are blaming anyone either – i’m just trying to articulate how complicated the entire thing is in my head and in my heart, for numerous reasons. and because of it those words are very difficult to come by in attempts to express it. i apologize for any misunderstandings this may cause.)

Okay so my browser ate my longer reply. I say longer… but this may very well turn out to be really long 😛

Anyway I didn’t really think GLaDOS’s actions in Portal 2 were really that unreasonable considering that, well, the player killed her in the first and apparently forced her to relive that repeatedly. Like… I think taken in that context, nothing that she does in the second game seems at all unreasonable.

Which makes me really skeptical that anyone (or well, anyone I’ve seen) who declares that she does have some variety of mental illness is just playing on the “mental illness=violence” trope. Which like… she’s definitely violent. Her actions are definitely creepy and abusive but I’m not sure they’re really outside the norm.

I maybe am missing obvious parallels but still.

(And like, she’s clearly an “insane” AI trope, but like… I’m pretty sure that trope is mostly just associated with mental illness because of the exact same reason. Most of the time when people write “insane” computers they really mean EVIL ones.)

Anyway, the parts that I found really problematic were more like… Cave Johnson treating everyone as a prop (and I triggered by the classism on my second playthrough–after I wrote this. That was pretty terrible. I just like… didn’t process it on my first run.)

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