The Joy of Chell’s design in Portal


The Orange Box turned 10 years old this year, and by extension Portal celebrated its anniversary too. Sitting alongside continuations of well-loved games, the short puzzle adventure could have been quickly forgotten. Tacked on to bulk up the box. It was, however, a surprise hit, winning over players with its smart spatial puzzles and writing that fans continue to quote. And while I can list lines off with the best of them (don’t even get me started on that cake), this classic’s hold on my heart comes from a person who never speaks one.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch on to the game’s mechanics at first. As I exited the first room, I wondered who was that lady disappearing into the portal across from me, only to realize a second later that I controlled her. Like many players, as soon as I snagged a dual-portal firing gun, I contorted myself to try and catch a view of the woman holding it.


I’ll never forget the first time I saw her.

She looked exhausted. There were bags under her eyes and a haggard expression that broadcast how completely and utterly done she was with all this laboratory crap. She wore a shapeless jumpsuit badly in need of a wash, spotted with stains that contrasted sharply against the sterile walls of the facility. And atop her head, well, that was the best part:

“She has bedhead!” I squealed.

Frizzy, scraggly, beautiful strands of hair jutting out from a ponytail I recognized in an instant – one made as an afterthought of necessity, gathered low on the back of the head, no doubt while on the run.

To paraphrase Beyonce: she woke up like this.

I was stunned in the best of ways. Here I was, playing as a female protagonist (her name only revealed in the credits as Chell) who had been shoved away for who knows how long, wrenched out of sleep and thrown in a facility to parkour through “tests” for a malicious AI, and she actually looked the part!


Don’t get me wrong, I almost always love it when games have female protagonists, and being strong and looking put together are by no means mutually exclusive. But it can get tiring when these characters, by virtue of being women, always seem to wear down differently than their male counterparts. Their hair and makeup remain flawless through blows that magically only rip away fabric around their cleavage, hips, or thighs. When hit, some let out pained sounds that would be more suitable for an adult film than a battle. And why does it seem like any girl with an ounce of strength ends up in a tank top at some point?

Not even Chell is immune; it’s her assemble of choice in Portal 2. The sequel also smooths out those lovely frizzy strands too, and someone (Wheatley, maybe?) snuck makeup onto her face that managed to stay in place perfectly through a 50,000-yearlong stasis.

Since 2007, we’ve seen a wider variety of female characters, some handling their pain unprettily like Chell, and I hope there’s many more to come. Badasses don’t have to be bombshells all the time; when you’ve been through hell, sometimes it’s ok to look it.


  1. Ghostwise says:

    I’ll admit that I’ve occasionally uttered crude curses at the lack of low-maintenance or no-maintenance women’s hair styles in character creation thingies in games.

    Especially in games where you spent a lot of time fighting, with a helm, in a hostile environment where the friendly neighbourhood hairdresser has long since become a zombie cyborg kobold.

    It does seem to be slowly getting better though. It now appears more common to have options for no makeup, frex.

    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      There really should be more games with zombie cyborg kobolds.

      • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

        That was my takeaway from that comment too.

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    • Dewal says:

      Just about hair, I think the fact that well done “messy hair” is a valable stylish hairstyle for men hide the fact that they always have very precise cuts too. I mean, sure, it could be sweat or dirt instead of hair wax, but Nathan Drakes always have a pretty neat style for a man that goes through so much.

      What I’m more on board with is the fact that girl characters are very rarely ugly.
      A good recent example would be overwatch, where all the female characters, while varying in style and size, are all pretty. Even Zarya, who have an unusual body type, have a neat and cute face. On 12 characters, only one is not pretty nor cute, and it’s a robot piloted by a cute little girl.
      For the male, on the 13 characters, you have 4 handsome characters (maybe 5 if we count helmless Reinhardt and I don’t know about Reaper’s face) and then you have ugly, fat, old , disfigured/hidden, non human people.
      It’s so obvious that I find it a bit sad that nobody ever done anything about it.

      • Tapkomet says:

        D.Va’s mech is a pink chicken thing though, I’d argue it’s cute.

        Anyway, the newest hero, Moira, is at best average as far as looks go, so there’s that.

        • Already Gone says:

          Dewal is referring to Orisa. (The cute little girl is Efi.)

          Moira being “at best average” is… up for dispute, I think.

          • Tapkomet says:

            Ah, I see. Orisa is cute though. And also not technically female, being non-biological entirely. And she isn’t piloted by Efi, Efi just programmed her personality.

            Still, Moira isn’t super ugly or anything (except for those nails, yuck), but she’s not really attractive either.

          • goodpoints says:

            I’ll surrender to her will anytime.

            In any case, I think it’s more important that Overwatch has a diverse cast of women who are attractive in opposition to dominant beauty standards. (race, body shape, androgyny, angular facial structure, etc.) But one thing I think it’s done better than any other game is having female characters who actually look angry or aggressive. Symmetra, Zarya, Pharah, and Moira all look (and sound) ready to knock your lights out.

            Except for Widow, who still looks like a centaur drawn by Rob Liefeld.

          • mitrovarr says:

            There’s a lot of wrongness to Moira’s appearance. It’s a cool looking design, but I wouldn’t say she fits any model of conventional attractiveness. She’s a bit of a cartoon character, same as Junkrat.

          • Zelos says:

            Before learning her name, I initially thought Moira was a man.

            After learning her name/sex, my immediate assumption was that she was trans.

            I feel like “At best average” might be too kind.

    • takfar says:

      To be fair, I’m a guy, and my hair is a lot like Chell’s (the frizzy, scraggly and hastily thrown together in a ponytail part, at least). I mean, who has the time to care for hair? I wash it daily, that’s all.

      So, yea, I also have a hard time during character creation if I’m trying to picture “myself”. Any male long hair is usually not long enough, and way too neat.

  2. wombat191 says:

    The best example recently for me would be Hellblade, Seuna is strong, brave, tormented and broken, the actress did a stunning job especially as she isn’t a professional actress

  3. Pich says:

    to be honest it would be completely in character for Aperture Science to have a make-up apparatus in their millenia-sleep pods, possibly powered and composed of highly radioactive lead.

    • goodpoints says:

      highly radioactive lead

      Someone slept through chemistry.

      • podbaydoors says:

        Yep, Cave Johnson. Who would absolutely be able to make lead radioactive, probably while trying to create weapons-grade chewing gum.

        I wonder whether he’s related to Bloody Stupid Johnson from Discworld. They’re similarly able to banjax reality through sheer incompetence.

        • Ushao says:

          You know I never put 2 and 2 together regarding them both being Johnsons and inventing ridiculous physics breaking things. Mind blown.

  4. Benkyo says:

    OK, she’s got bedhead, sure, I’ll give you that. She’s still gorgeous.

  5. woodsey says:

    Is “The Joy of…” the title of a series of features or has RPS lost its thesaurus?

  6. Laurentius says:

    Yeah, love Chell look in P1, also love that moment you can see yourself in portals, excellent stuff. A shame really that Valve decided to glam her up in wondeful sequel.

    • Ghostwise says:

      Same issue occurred in ME2 and ME3. Where Commander Shepard, Liara and a few others suddenly need to replace all their underwear due to inexplicable changes in fatty tissues distribution…

  7. Kefren says:

    Portal was one of those games that could have been perfect for me, but issues with the opening left me confused and slightly irritated for the whole game because I was being kept from information the character had, even though I was meant to be that character. (Half Life 2 had this as well, which is why I think HL1 is the better game). With Chell I noticed via portals that I seemed to have things attached to my legs, but it wasn’t possible to examine them. Were they bolted to bone and unremovable, possibly painful to walk on? Or just strapped to the outside skin, so that if I escaped I could dump them for good? Things that would have been answered just by examining them for a few seconds, but the game never allowed me to.

    It’s an aside, but my last novel was a sci-fi with a strong female protagonist who (like Chell) doesn’t get a rest. I thought about her appearance and hair a lot in the planning stages, and in the end just went for an Alien 3 Ripley cut. Much more practical for non-stop danger.

    • iucounu says:

      I can’t remember exactly when I noticed but surely those were sort of springy metal calipers? The idea was that Chell could fall long distances without getting hurt because they were shock-absorbing.

      • Kefren says:

        Yes, I had to try and piece that together from distant views because she never looked down at them or examined them. It wasn’t clear how they were attached though. Drilling bolts into bone is something I’d want to know about (it immediately tells you a lot about the situation and the stakes); the freshness of the wounds would have explained when it happened. It just made it hard for me to _be_ Chell when she didn’t show the faintest interest in something I was horrified by.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      Was there any reason to think they were bolted on to her flesh? You could equally ask if Gordon Freeman’s spectacles are welded onto his face, or if he’s just wearing them.

      • Kefren says:

        I couldn’t work out how they would stay in place otherwise. And since it isn’t normal to have springs attached to your legs, I wondered. Glasses on a face are normal enough that I didn’t have questions about that.

        • Aspirant_Fool says:

          I mean, it’s not super normal, but it’s also not that abnormal in some circles. They just look like a futured-up version of these, and I’ve always assumed that they’re never mentioned because they were an afterthought tacked on to ‘explain’ the fact that you can fall from any height without harm.

          • jonahcutter says:

            IIRC it wasn’t an afterthought. It was a response to playtesters wondering why Chell didn’t break her legs when landing after the giant leaps and bounds she takes. So Valve added the shock absorbers to her legs to provide a visual explanation.

            Environmental storytelling, essentially. A rather graceful bit of it as well, just making sure the players saw it early on and trusting they’d figure out the mechanisms’ purpose. I much prefer that to a big, gameplay and narrative-halting exposition about them.

    • TightByte says:

      You might find this video, explaining the workings of the Long Fall Boot, to be informative (as way as hilarious, much as anything else uttered by Cave Johnson) : link to

      • April March says:

        Ouch. That video makes it look like most of the force is absorbed by the balls of the foot.

    • klops says:

      Cool thing in Black Mesa (I played the free version) was that the annoying croswbow ninjas wore these same spring-heels.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Don Reba says:

    “She has bedhead!” I squealed.

    We sure play games differently. 😆

  9. Ben King says:

    Catching sight of Chell while tumbling between portals was definitely a good part
    of the grim mood setting for me. Without her harrowed condition and exhausted eyes I think the whole world of testing chambers and abandoned rat holes would have been a good deal more light hearted. As it was it definitely felt like Chell was in a fight for her life winning against a brilliantly evil opponent with just her brains for defense. Chell beats one of the most epic bosses ever with AC:0 HP:1 INT:20 She’s really cool.

    • jonahcutter says:

      I’d say she’s got a pretty solid DEX. And a CON to rival that INT.

  10. deanimate says:

    10 years! Where did the time go. And to think of all the games valve have made since!
    Ahh I’m just joking but they are busy making a ga….a big fruit cake :)
    Well done valve

  11. TimePointFive says:

    “Not even Chell is immune; it’s her assemble of choice in Portal 2”

    Did you mean “ensemble?”

    • Ghostwise says:

      This is RPS. The copy editing is done by discharging a riot gun at the article whilst yelling “DIE DIE DIE” and hoping that the buckshot will mostly hit the typos.

  12. LennyLeonardo says:

    There are staggeringly few examples of unglamorous women in games. However, Chloe and Nadine in Uncharted: Lost Legacy also did it right. They’re dressed for danger and by the end they’re properly sweaty and knackered. The really look like they deserve that pizza.

  13. Kinsky says:

    This is essentially an attention to detail issue. High-fidelity 3D games generally tend to be poor with details, especially flagship character action games. Most exceptions to this do so specifically for the sake of marketing – the modern Tomb Raider series is essentially a vessel for Lara Croft’s new style, and is otherwise unremarkable; Uncharted’s characteristic sweaty/dirty look is something lifted wholesale from the Indiana Jones aesthetic it cribs from ruthlessly. Hellblade, on the other hand, is eminently concerned with details and thus presents a much more realistic image of its protagonist.

  14. Red_Fox says:

    I remember when this came out. I made an agreement with myself that I wouldn’t play HL2 e1 and e2 until e3 came out so I could play it all the way through.

    3 years ago I gave up and played them.

    Fuck you valve. Eat a dick Gabe.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    Saw the word ‘Chell’ in my RPS RSS feed and immediately thought of Crewman Chell from the Star Trek: Voyager games. Was disappointed to find it was a Portal thing instead. :D

  16. Chentzilla says:

    The question is, was she sleeping with her ponytail already done? If not, when did she make it?

  17. Cederic says:

    It’s becoming clear to me that a lot of the grief about characters within games comes from a large section of the population looking at games in a very different way to me.

    Chell doesn’t represent me. She’s not middle aged, with a fat hairy gut and acne ridden stubble.

    In fact, no computer game characters manage to really achieve that look.

    I don’t care. I happily play as Chell, or indeed as anybody else. I’m playing the game for fun, not because I see myself in it.

    While I have no issue with other gamers taking a different perspective, it does make me wonder if some people might be happier if they dissociated themselves from in-game character representations and just enjoyed the game.

  18. Bobic says:

    wish we could’ve seen her take stanky dumps in that first room toilet. that would’ve humanized her even further