Still Alive:Understanding Posthuman Femininity in Valve’s Portal Games

Stobbart, Dawn (2017) Still Alive:Understanding Posthuman Femininity in Valve’s Portal Games. In: Posthuman Gothic. Gothic Literary Studies . University of Wales Press, pp. 161-176. ISBN 9781786831064

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Since its beginnings, Gothic fiction has been interested in exploring and critiquing the representation of femininity, Critics such as Donna Heiland (2004) and Claire Williams (2007) have utilised the Gothic to consider how women are treated in society through an interrogation of themes such as considering how women are treated in society through an interrogation of such themes as the loss of human identity, fracturing of the self, and the construction of women as monstrous or other. Videogames, whilst not specifically a Gothic medium, are well suited to representing Gothic themes and tropes and are particularly suitable conduits through which to consider posthumanism: as technology begins to create intelligent computers and software, the very technology that creates this Posthuman condition is an appropriate medium for critiquing its possibilities and dangers. The two converge in Posthuman Gothic, a subgenre that allows the exploration of these issues and our relationship to technology in the 21st Century, and as Michael Bolton writes, ‘the source of dread in the Posthuman Gothic lies not in the fear of our demise, but in the uncertainty of what we will become and what will be left of us after the change’ (Bolton 2014). This is a theme, I argue, that videogames are well suited to interrogate. Posthumanism, Gothicism, and representations of femininity converge in the videogame franchise Portal. Ostensibly puzzle solving games, Gothic themes and tropes permeate the setting and characters of Portal (Valve 2007) and its sequel Portal 2 (Valve 2011), with which the player engages interactively, haunted by and inhabiting the Gothic and the Posthuman through gaming technology. The derelict enrichment centre, initially appearing antithetical to the Gothic tradition, is quickly shown to be operating in the same way, possessing the same features as the Gothic space in archetypical Gothic novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (Radcliffe 2001), for example, yet uniquely allowing the player to actively explore these spaces. Featuring only three characters, GLaDOS (an acronym for Genetic Lifeform and Digital Operating System, instantly signalling her Posthuman construction), Chell, and Wheatley, the game offers a recognisable Gothic storyline built around a puzzle-solving core. As the player gains proficiency in the spatial problems and completes more of the games, she comes to realise that the antagonistic supercomputer GLaDOS, in fact, is a Posthuman sentience. Furthermore, the player discovers that before becoming an artificially intelligent computer system, GLaDOS was Caroline, a successful businesswoman, who when uploaded into the GLaDOS programme, went insane and thus became the Gothic monster who begins the game. Through its embedded narrative, Portal is able to interrogate the GLaDOS as a variety of incarnations of femininity: the Gothic heroine, the Gothic monster, and the Postfeminist Gothic female. As well as this, the game offers a narrative of death, imprisonment and escape, and reconciliation that is recognisable throughout the history of Gothic fiction, from The Castle of Otranto onwards, but places the player within the narrative itself, and asks her interpret the narrative to discover its Gothic heart.

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10 Sep 2019 14:55
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12 Sep 2023 02:49