Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Quick Word... On The Offensiveness of Portal 2 (And Being Adopted)

I try not to make a habit of talking too much about video games. Those that know me well will know that I quite enjoy them, but due to all the other things I choose to spend my entertainment time on I'm not really an expert. My brother James is - video games are his life, and so typically I leave all the family's clever gamesy stuff to him. That said, like with all forms of entertainment or art, sometimes a game comes along that enchants me so much that I can't avoid devoting my time to it. Most recently that game has been Portal 2, which I managed to play when I was visiting my brother up north. I got most of the way through, but then had to roll back home, and although I returned to finish it a few weeks later, the wait to find out the story's conclusion was infuriating. It was a delightful, funny, clever and witty game - and so I was surprised to wake up this morning and find on Facebook that my friend Matt had posted this:

The news story claims that Portal 2 is offensive to adopted children, using cruelty to create comedy, and that it 'literally taunts the player for not having parents', with lines like: 'Alright, fatty. Adopted fatty. Fatty, fatty no-parents'. He said that as the parent of an adopted child it was 'literally the worst thing I could have possibly heard'. Valve, the makers of the game had not commented in their defence when the story aired. They need not worry, I'll do it for them.

The nature of being offensive is a tricky problem, and it comes up regularly in a variety of mediums. A significant recent example was when Britain's Top Gear landed in hot water for Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond's comments about the prospect of Mexico designing a new type of car. Comedian Steve Coogan, creator of the hilarious 'Alan Partridge' character, wrote this response:

I've been fortunate enough to work with the likes of Peter Baynham, Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris, Simon Pegg, Julia Davis, Caroline Aherne, Ruth Jones, and the Mighty Boosh – some of the funniest and most innovative people in British comedy. And Rob Brydon too.

It's a diverse, eclectic group of people with one common denominator: they could all defend and justify their comedy from a moral standpoint. They are laughing at hypocrisy, human frailty, narrow-mindedness. They mock pomposity and arrogance.

If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance. With Top Gear it is three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. Brave, groundbreaking stuff, eh?

There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them. Put simply, in comedy, as in life, we ought to think before we speak.

Like Steve Coogan, Stephen Merchant, the voice of the character under fire from the reporters in that article, is one of the masters of this kind of comedy. Co-creator of The Office and Extras, his work is often hinged around the smug, arrogrant and offensive creatures that make up our real world environment. The David Brent (or Michael Scott - Hello U.S visitors!) character in The Office is a prime example of this question of comedy: are we laughing at him or with him when we watch the show?

Divorced from context, the comment 'Fatty, fatty no parents' is a cruel and unnecessary addition to the game. But here's the catch they didn't give you in the news report. Wheatley - the droid that Stephen Merchant voices, is the game's chief villain. Once he goes power-mad it is the primary objective of the game to defeat this corrupted orb and restore sanity (or at least some form of it) to the facility in which you are trapped. He is an antagonist, and you are not meant to respond warmly to his comments. They are supposed to drive you on towards overcoming him.

We have to ask ourselves this question - do the makers of this game hate - and intend to encourage hatred towards - adopted children? Of course not. As the player of the game progresses Wheatley gets more and more desperate for insults - so that they start to verge on the ridiculous. 'Fatty, fatty no parents' is one example, a nonsensical clutch at power by a failing overlord. I laughed - but I was laughing at the degradation of his power and what he was reduced to as I got closer and closer to the story's conclusion. At no point did I believe it was funny to laugh at children who don't live with their biological parents, that simply wasn't the point.

What I think is incredibly sad about this news story, is that Neal Stapel feels that the game is rated 'E for Everyone, when it should be "E for everyone - except orphans".' I am deeply saddened by this because I feel that his daughter would have a lot of fun, and have a lot to learn, from Portal 2. The comments concerning adoption that his daughter would hear do have a strong message, but the message is not that adopted children are lesser people. The message is that sometimes in life this is what others will be reduced to, cheap name-calling and pathetic insults, and they are the final option and last resort of the coward. To make fun of you for things beyond your control leaves you in the position of ultimate power - this is all they've got, and nothing else. In essence - you have as good as won.

That is what those comments in Portal 2 do - they teach you that those that insult you are always weak, and through the pointlessness of their cruelty they give you an even greater power to overcome them.

And if you push on towards the end of the game, you prove it. And the victory is all the sweeter.


  1. This is a fantastic post, and I wholeheartedly agree. Chell (the orphaned protagonist of the Portal series) is a very strong role model, and as you have described, she succeeds in triumphing over the villain Wheatley at the story's conclusion. Wheatley also apologises in the ending of the film saying that he was truly sorry and had gone power-mad. I hate it when critics divorce single lines of dialogue from their context.

  2. Thanks so much Holly, I'm glad you agree! Context is so, so important!