The Cake Is a Lie
Published: July 6, 2011
I know the graphics card in this City Paper sucks, but let’s play the video game Portal right here, in my column. Use your gun to shoot an interdimensional wormhole in most any flat surface. Here, try it: () See? Like that. Now shoot two holes, one entrance and one exit, and walk on through() walls or ceilings or floors ()to emerge on the other side.
Tricky, right? Don’t worry, you’ll catch up. You can’t kill anything with this hole-shooting gun, but there are still lots of ways you can negotiate obstacles in the sprawling corporate labyrinth of the game’s test-center arena. You can even gather momentum by dropping through a loop of perfectly aligned holes again and again()
()and shoot yourself right into the next paragraph. It’s No Exit meets M.C. Escher, all played to the chiding telephone-lady voice of an unseen computer who mouths “encouragement” such as, “Here are your test results: You are a horrible person” in the smooth, over-rehearsed tones of a mama-grizzly candidate. There are lots of surprises in the game, but the biggest surprise for most players (including me, I hate to admit) is when you see your gun-wielding avatar for the first time. Since the game is played from a first-person perspective, as if you’re walking through the testing rooms, I’ll show you how to do it: Line up two holes, like repeating mirrors, and peek through: ()Your avatar is a woman. You’ve been a girl this whole time.()
Mute, scowling, not more than a B cup, streaks of gray in an unsexily tangled ponytail—this is you. Portal and its sequel, Portal 2 , created and developed by a predominantly male team, don’t pass the Bechdel Test, since Chell—that’s your character’s name, although you wouldn’t know that from gameplay—never dignifies the unseen computer voice’s honey-snide remarks with a response. But consider how extraordinary it is to play a game—a popular game—populated entirely by unsexualized women. Every incarnation of the Tomb Raider franchise, by virtue of its third-person, behind-the-character perspective, is essentially an extended meditation on Lara Croft’s retreating polygonal ass. We play through Chell, not behind her, leaping through portals as() our shared body becomes the projectile. Freudians can make a big cigar-sized fuss over a game where a woman carries a hole-creating device instead of a gun. Chell doesn’t need a gun because she is the bullet, ()a literal rifle Chell.
She may be the bullet, but she’s also the shell Chell, a false skin that goes beyond the assumed false-skin function of a game avatar. Thinking of her, I think of how the Gay Girl in Damascus blogger was outed as a scruffy dude from (non-Soviet) Georgia, a guy who thought it was perfectly fine to assume the voice of an oppressed woman as long as he got the facts straight—never mind that there may be real gay girls in Damascus whose suppressed stories won’t see the light of the Huffington Post. I think of how Japanese men said in a poll that they’d like to be reincarnated as “a woman” if their first choice, “a bird,” is not available, and how in Japan it’s illegal for a married couple to not share the same last name. I think about how Heather Langenkamp got to play the triumphant “final girl” (the surviving virgin at the end of a slasher movie who allows men in the audience to feel vicarious terror and triumph) in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then had to put up with a stalker in real life. There’s great freedom in pretending to be female, as long as you don’t actually have to live as one.
“Have I ever lied to you?” the evil computer coos to Chell at one point in Portal. “I mean, in this room?” She prods Chell toward her goal with the promise of cake at the end of all this uphill climb—a lovely Black Forest cake too, with chocolate shavings and delectably rendered cherries on top. Sharp-eyed players will notice, however, in later levels, how the words the cake is a lie are scrawled in manic handwriting on the concrete walls, presumably by those who’ve run the gauntlet before. Being female may allow me to finesse and negotiate situations as tricky as Portal’s obstacle course in ways that men can’t, but why create holes in times and space to() get where I need to go when half the population can still just ()walk across the room? Beyoncé can yell all she wants about how girls run the world, but from where I stand it still all looks like Ed Gein running around a Wisconsin field in the dead of winter, wearing a fresh woman skin and barking at the moon.
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