Hi Feministe — it’s been too long! My non-digital life has been a little frenetic in recent months. I won’t go into an extensive personal update, but suffice it to say that I managed to lose my job, but then I landed about six other jobs (I’m still a game designer). Also, one of my cats was diagnosed with lymphoma, but now it looks like he might just have bad digestive problems. Also, my old laptop literally melted itself, but I got a great deal on a new Sager. Along the way, we all managed to elect our first black president, gay marriage returned yet again as the hot topic to argue about in queer and progressive communities, and the economy melted down badly enough that the financial-sector people around here have started angrily nickel-and-diming the deli guys for not putting enough butter on their bagels. But you know all of that already.
I thought I’d give you all an update on a recently-released video game we talked about this summer. No, not Fat Princess — that one hasn’t been released yet. I mean Mirror’s Edge, which I brought up as an example of a game with a strong female protagonist. I just finished it, and I gotta say… yep, strong female protagonist! That’s not what makes the game interesting, however. SFPs have been a dime a dozen in games and movies and TV shows for some time, and video games have featured them all the way back to Samus Aran of Metroid and Lara Croft of Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft, who also has a new game out, is a classic example of the tricky ambiguities of video game protagonists. She’s smart and capable and tough, but she’s clearly a sex object for the mostly-male audience of her games. She explores ancient ruins in short-shorts and somehow swims in arctic oceans wearing wetsuits that show a whole lot of her bare (and freezing) ass. More than one dry academic paper has been written about how Lara Croft’s not really a feminist character because she’s a sexpot marionette for game-playing puppetmasters. I tend to think the subject-object relationship between player and game avatars is a lot more complicated than just “you are the avatar” vs. “you are jerking the avatar around on strings,” and interestingly Lara’s cup size has dropped significantly over the years, but that’s another story. I’m not going to get into the history of Tomb Raider or try to define what makes a feminist protagonist. I’m going to tell you what I found interesting about Mirror’s Edge.
Mirror’s Edge is at its heart a game about parkour, the athletic art of moving between two points as rapidly as possible, using nothing but your body and features of the environment. The game’s protagonist is Faith, an Asian-American courier with a knack for hurling herself into harm’s way. Like a lot of parkour enthusiasts, she spends a lot of time on rooftops, and Mirror’s Edge is largely about jumping, vaulting, climbing, pushing off of walls, rolling as Faith falls from great heights, and other almost-impossible seeming feats of gravity defiance.
This trailer actually may make you more motion sick than the actual game, which incorporates the fascinating technique of a little contrasting dot near the middle of the screen. The dot draws your focus in such a way that you don’t feel vertigo — it’s like magic, given that it’s done with just a few pixels on a screen.
DICE, the developers of the game, clearly wanted to give players a feeling of inhabiting Faith’s body. This has long been an argument for the first-person point of view that dominates certain genres of video game, like the notorious “first-person shooter” — think Quake, Halo, Half-Life, or Call of Duty. The idea is that the player will be more immersed and feel more connected to their in-game representation. That theory is rather flawed from the outset, if you ask me (sorry, Warren) but DICE has come up with a new twist on the idea of being in a body: you see Faith’s arms and legs as she moves around, jumps and rolls and grabs guys who are trying to pistol-whip her. This has been done before with hands (usually holding a gun) but it’s much more dramatic as you start to see more of a character’s body. I was put off by it at first, but I’ve come around to see it as a fairly effective way of communicating the idea that you are not just a “point of view” in the world, but a body who has to spread out as she leaps, curl up as she hurdles over a stretch of low-lying barbed wire.
As anyone who plays World of Warcraft knows, there are an awful lot of female avatars being played by male players. In some cases, this really is a form of self-expression or identity exploration, but the most common reason given is “if I have to be staring at the backside of my character all day, I want it to be a cute backside.” Make no mistake — this is part of why more attention has been paid in recent years to the construction of Lara Croft’s ass as opposed to her rack. Gamers want good-looking avatars, and are at least as interested in the female characters looking hot than in the male characters looking tough. Most third-person perspective games, and quite a few first-person games, let you rotate the camera around your avatar to inspect them from all sides. This is how we play dress-up dolls in the virtual world, boys and girls alike.
Faith stubbornly resists this trend. Unlike most first-person avatars, you can see her arms and legs, clad in loose white pants, red sneakers and glove, and a techno-bone tattoo. But you rarely see the rest of her, except in the occasional reflection. Interestingly, there’s no way to look at Faith’s torso or head, to check out her chest or her butt. I found this a little odd at first, to be able to look down and see my legs but not my chest — I mean, I can do that on myself (checks). I’m not sure whether DICE found this to be the best compromise, or whether they deliberately omitted the most-ogled parts of the female form, either because they cringed at the thought of ogling, or because they felt it might disrupt the thin line of gamers’ identification with the virtual body.
Even when you do see her in ads, mirrors, and cutscenes, Faith has a wiry, androgynous form suited to someone who runs and climbs for a living. Her clothing is utilitarian, not decorative, and her style of movement is closer to the efficiency of parkour than the aesthetics of free running. Tom Farrer, the producer of the game, was recently quoted about her character design:
We’ve spent time in developing Faith. And the important thing for us was that she was human, that she was more real.
We really wanted to get away from the typical portrayal of women in games, that they’re all just kind of tits and ass in a steel bikini. We wanted her to look athletic and fit and strong [enough] that she could do the things that she’s doing.
We wanted her to be attractive, but we didn’t want her to be a supermodel. We wanted her to be approachable and far more real. It was just kind of depressing that someone thinks it would be better if Faith was a 12-year-old with a boob job. That was kind of what that image looked to me. [...] To be honest, I found it kind of sad.
Farrer is talking about a fan-made image that started making the rounds six weeks ago, created by a Korean gamer who felt that the character design was a Western stereotype of Asian women, and didn’t cater to “Asian tastes” enough. Here’s the comparison:
Guess which one is supposed to represent “asian tastes?” Refreshingly, the response from the gamer community has largely been in favor of the original Faith, with a healthy smattering of “uh, I’m Asian and I prefer the one on the left, OK?” I can’t give people TOO much credit for being creeped out by the combination of D-cups with a little girl face, it’s like getting the “yay, you’re not a pedophile” award. Even hardcore gamers like variety, and a change of pace from the usual improbably red-headed loincloth-clad Chinese girls with giant swords for something slightly more realistic. (As a side note I can see the point about stereotypes in that Faith’s eye shape is highlighted and then accentauted by makeup, and “lithe and wiry” is the usual body type that’s paired up with Asian ethnicities… but the boobs and the anime-cutie face? Come on. I hope it was a tongue-in-cheek joke, which is what some are saying.)
Some comments on other sites have gone so far as to say that a less-sexy character design is responsible for the relatively low sales of Mirror’s Edge, but I’m not really sure how that could play such a huge part given that you don’t actually see the character in the game. If anything, I suspect it’s more that the concept of the game, a true 3D platformer that’s not billed as a fantasy adventure, is a little too unfamiliar for many holiday shoppers. It’s a shame, really. Parkour has been popping up all over pop culture lately, from action-packed television ads to the villains in the latest Die Hard film and other games like Assassin’s Creed. But Mirror’s Edge is the first to really nail the experience, and the result is fantastic gameplay.
At the beginning of each level, you’re told roughly where you’re supposed to go, often a landmark on the horizon. You can press a button at any time to face your goal, a fact that should be explained a little earlier and more clearly, but other than that, you’re on your own — which is part of the point of parkour, you’ve got to find your way across rooftops, through ventilation ducts, up pipes on the sides of buildings, any way you can. This seems to have baffled a few game reviewers, who may be used to having a map or other clear signs telling them where to go, but those tools would defeat the essential gameplay in this case. The only real concession to help you out comes in the form of objects that turn red, indicating that you can interact with them–leaping off ramps, climbing up footholds, breaking through doors–and even those can be turned off for hardcore play. I’ve actually found it makes for some fun Thanksgiving-weekend social play with friends, as everyone hanging out on the couch looks around the environment and says things like “wait, can you get on top of that roof? Slide down that railing!”
A traditional map would be cumbersome and somewhat useless for a different reason in this game–the intense verticality of the environments. Faith is always climbing way up or sliding and plummeting way down, an intriguingly urban change of pace from older forms of explorative gameplay in 3D worlds, which usually involve traveling around to various locations or finding every location on a top-down blueprint-style map. The city Faith travels through is full of death-defying feats that you can just barely believe might be possible if the direction of the wind and the strength of her legs were exactly right.
DICE has taken an interesting direction with the environments as well, creating a city of skyscrapers that almost looks like it’s been whitewashed. Too many games these days revel in the ability of modern graphics processors to create extremely detailed renditions of grime, dust, rust, lichen, and decay, or at the very least, complex ornamentation. The anonymous City in this game, mostly white a gleaming metal broken up by intense swatches of primary-colored paint, looks like it was designed by a Scandinavian minimalist. (And it probably was, since DICE is located in Stockholm.) When you get up close, however, and are pressed against a skyscraper wall, you see a very realistic porous, slightly crumbling texture that’s all the more astonishing for its subtlety.
Gritty problems behind the clean facade of the City are the focal point of Faith’s story, which I have to admit is half the reason I bought this game. How could I not buy a game that has the word “criminalized” in the opening scene, where the stage is set? It’s simple enough idea, not all that different from other works of popular culture where resolute rebels fight against an oppressive state, but Mirror’s Edge avoids the filter of science-fiction or fantasy and plunks its rebels right down in an unnamed city that could be anywhere in the USA, any time in the next decade. There are no futuristic elements other than increasing corporate-government dystopia.
It’s not clear what Faith’s parents were protesting or why dissident elements are being criminalized (other than just for being dissidents, of course). There are any number of possible reasons, but it’s all kept in the abstract, and the use of repressive force and surveillance is brought to the foreground, represented by security cameras and black helicopters. It’s at this point that Mirror’s Edge gets a little shaky in the story department, and starts to feel like it was cobbled together to help explain the parkour gameplay and the clean visual design. Faith and her friends are “Runners,” couriers who carry messages that are too sensitive to be sent online, where the government monitors everything. (I guess PGP has been reclassified as a munition in this future, and Phil Zimmerman is probably in prison along with the entire EFF.)
The actual business of delivering messages only really happens in the very first chapter of the story, and Faith spends the rest of the game either investigating or on the run from a shadow set of city-government overlords who are trying to frame her sister for the murder of a virtuous politician. The whole Runner idea is a little silly, and I suspect it came out of conversations that went something like this:
A: “So why is the city so totally clean and bright?”
B: “Well, we need a conflict for the story anyway… maybe it’s because the government has ‘cleaned up’ all the dirty troublesome elements to make it all look like a brand-new corporate park!”
A: “OK, so why is our heroine doing parkour on the rooftops?”
B: “Well… city governments do hate it when people trespass on rooftops so they can jump over ventilation systems and stuff like that…”
A: “Uh… not really dramatic enough.”
B: “How about this: they’re carrying messages! Messages that have to be… uh… carried over the rooftops for security! Because Big Brother is watching everything, so it’s actually the best way to send an e-mail!”
A: “So she’s like a super bike-messenger! Except on top of skyscrapers!”
In other words, it’s a little tacked on. I might be a little sensitive to this kind of thing, since my own work has focused on trying to create narratives that stem more organically from gameplay. Despite the stretches in plausibility, I like Faith as a game character. She’s a little flat, mostly just a punk street kid who likes dodging the law, but she has sympathetic motivations — she wants to save her sister from the same bullies of the state who killed her mother, and that’s hard for me not to like. There are plenty of “fuck the police” protagonists out there these days, but most of them are deliberately low-life criminal anti-heroes in the vein of Scarface, and almost all are male.
What’s more, Faith’s style of action is all about evasion and speed, as opposed to force. Although you can pick up guns in Mirror’s Edge, even shoot down the SWAT teams that constantly pursue her, you can’t carry a gun for long, because Faith needs to be light, agile, and hands-free to get around. Instead, she relies mostly on martial arts and precisely-timed disarming moves to deal with the cops — either that, or fast escapes. She can’t really take on more than one or two cops at a time, which is a lot more realistic than the walking tanks that some games turn you into eventually. If you manage to get through the whole game without shooting anyone, you’re rewarded at the end with the “Test of Faith” achievenment.
Farrar has also talked about how DICE wanted to create a game “where it felt good to throw the gun away” and it’s yet another refreshing move. I’m not a pacifist when it comes to entertainment — I’m also playing Fallout 3 right now, and there’s nothing more satisfying than running around the post-apocalyptic ruins of Washington DC in a party dress and a summer bonnet, making people’s heads explode when I punch them with my giant metal fist, “Fisto.” But I’m always in favor of new approaches and changes of pace, and the choice of whether to use guns or not in Mirror’s Edge feels like a genuinely moral decision that you have to make for Faith.
When it comes down to it, the combat system is not the strongest part of the game, despite its interesting take on weapon-toting. It feels rushed in design and cumbersome, and I always roll my eyes when Faith’s dispatcher announces “you’re going to have to fight your way through these guys, Faithy.” A lot of reviewers have said the same thing, and more than one has pointed out that the game really shines in Time Trial mode, which is pure parkour — get to the destination as quickly as possible, the clock is ticking, with no cops or puzzles or storyline to get in your way. This form of gameplay is really the heart of Mirror’s Edge, and it’s kind of a shame that successful console games these days have to be blockbuster productions; nobody would publish a game that was just parkour time-trials without an epic storyline about battling evil. But then again, without the impetus towards grand blockbusters, we wouldn’t have a truly interesting lead character like Faith.
Mirror’s Edge is available now for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Windows PC. If you’re going to buy it, use the links below and Feministe will get a cut!
UPDATE 1: Kotaku has covered some more reaction from the Japanese-speaking Internet about the original design of Faith. I’m not surprised at all that a lot of gamers think that the Swedish-designed Faith is stereotypical and not that attractive. Part of this has to do with the (creepy and sexist) “moe” standard of cuteness that prevails among Japanese geeky types, but part of it is definitely a reaction to the stereotypical Asian features, haircut, body, etc.
UPDATE 2: In January DICE will be releasing some new maps that can be downloded for the game. They’re gorgeous, abandoning the story setting of a city and having Faith parkour her way through abstract shapes hovering in space. It’s like climbing and vaulting through a beautiful and complex display of information. Which, of course, is what a video game essentially is — it’s what any game is, at the heart .