Comparing Female Protagonists: Portal and Mirror’s Edge

Mirror's Edge

Over at The Hathor Legacy, a blog about women and gender issues in media, Kris Ligman wrote a post comparing Portal (2007)and Mirror’s Edge (2008). I disagreed with most of it, and I will go through the main points.

Ligman asserts that Mirror’s Edge was trying to copy Portal, and based upon superficial evidence, she draws comparisons between the two characters and the marketing of the two games. The only similarities the two games have are: woman of colour protagonist (Chell’s race/ethnicity are ambiguous), first-person perspective, minimalistic graphical user interface (GUI), and a theme song with the same name. It’s hard to find weight to the imitation argument because the games have quite different design philosophies and different goals for their lead characters. It terms of marketing, it’s difficult to draw useful comparisons, because each was released with different promotional goals in mind.

She first argues that Portal was “subversively feminist” because Valve de-emphasised Chell’s sex and ethnicity:

Why is this progressive? Well, as much as video game theorists often try to pose games as narratives, video games are frequently about as character-driven as pinball. First-person titles in particular are known to dispense with developing their protagonists beyond a certain extent because the protagonist is merely an avatar; a proxy. It makes sense (lazy sense), then, for most game designers to unerringly default to what is “neutral:” in many cases, something white and male. Even as gamers grow accustomed to different races and ethnicities for their leading men, casting a woman in the lead protagonist’s chair, as in
film, is always a conscious choice and a statement. So if we’re talking presentation, what is bold about Portal’s Chell is that the game makes no effort to make any such statement. She is a matter-of-fact component of the game that Valve does not attempt to either justify or show off.

Whilst Ligman believes that only Portal is progressive, I actually believe that both games are progressive in their own ways. Portal is progressive in that it plops the player into a very standard blank slate FPS character in Chell. This normalises the notion of having a woman as an avatar, which is a good thing. Mirror’s Edge is progressive in that it normalises quite another notion — having a woman as your protagonist and star of the videogame in a way that is not, in my view, particularly problematic from a sex or race perspective. This is also a good thing.

Ligman goes on to discuss Faith’s presentation in Mirror’s Edge:

Contrast this with the recent Mirror’s Edge and how their female protagonist, Faith, is presented. First, the player is always aware of Faith and her gender: we hear her panting as she runs and grunt when she gets hurt; we see bits of her body out of the corner of her vision and can see her reflection in glass windows. We also hear her address other characters, and she serves as our narrator as well. None of this is bad, but for a title so overtly attempting to parrot Portal that it even commissioned a theme song with the same name, we already see significant divergence from the other’s approach.

Portal and Mirror’s Edge were designed with different goals in mind. Chell is a typical first-person perspective tabula rasa character. She has no personality to speak
of; she is merely an avatar for the player. Portal provides no explanations for how Chell got to where she is, no insight into Chell’s feelings, and no overarching plot to provide a framework for Chell’s activities. Portal is a primarily goal-driven game. The game play is the most prominent selling point of the game, not the story and not the character.

However, Faith is an atypical first-person perspective character. She has a personality, motivations, and emotions. Mirror’s Edge is a character-driven game. The story  of Mirror’s Edge provides context for all of Faith’s actions
and motivations. There is a definite goal by the developers to actively tell a story (through dialogue and cut scenes), which is not the case with Portal, where there is very little active storytelling. Whilst the game play is one of the selling points of Mirror’s Edge (like most games, really), it was not the only marketing hook. We also had the additional selling point of the plot.

One of the design underpinnings of Mirror’s Edge is freedom of movement, and the way they wanted to accomplish this was through making the player feel as if she is Faith. The reason that the experience of embodying Faith is played up to the degree it is in Mirror’s Edge is not only because DICE had the distinct design goal of providing this immersive experience to the player, but also because of the character-driven nature of the game. I think it’s incredibly progressive for a game to do this, because in most character-driven games, you have no choice but to play a white male.

The scope of the two games was also different. Portal was never meant to provide a stand alone gaming experience — it was packaged with other games when it was first released. It wasn’t long enough or marketable enough to stand alone. Mirror’s Edge, however, was meant to provide the player with a well-rounded, stand alone gaming experience. Mirror’s Edge has a Story Mode, Time Trial Mode, online functionalities, and unlockable extras. Portal did not have anywhere near the same amount of content as Mirror’s Edge either in terms of actual game play or extras.

I don’t think the argument that Mirror’s Edge was trying to copy Portal is a particularly strong one, given the fact that each design team had hugely different goals underpinning the projects and that Mirror’s Edge has only very superficial similarities to Portal. I also don’t think there is any weight behind criticisng Mirror’s Edge for failing to be more like Portal.

Ligman later analyses Faith and the Mirror’s Edge marketing campaign:

Then, there’s Faith herself: featured prominently in the flurry of promotional materials and emblazoned across the game’s box art, she is anything but the virtual easter egg that Chell is. She’s ‘the Female as Exotic:’ a character whose difference becomes part of the sales pitch. The lithe and pretty Asian-American Faith is cast by the game’s story as an individual alienated by society, who through a combination of poor life circumstances and innate athletic talent has taken up an illegal, high-risk occupation as a black market rooftop courier.

I did not view the marketing campaign of Mirror’s Edge as particularly sexualised or exotifying Asians. I strongly feel that it wasn’t overt, in fact. It’s not like I wasn’t expecting problematic content in the marketing, either, as a feminist and an Asian woman. If anything, I was pleasantly surprised to see very little (if any) Asian exotification or othering with Mirror’s Edge‘s marketing. I never got the impression that EA/DICE sought
to slavishly to pander to the male gaze. I didn’t think EA/DICE were really flaunting Faith’s sexuality or her “exotic” race. Mirror’s Edge‘s marketing campaign depicted Faith as strong, skilled, fierce, and active. I didn’t see Faith’s presence or treatment as any more prominent than the presence of lead male characters in the marketing campaigns of their respective. Mirror’s Edge is a character-driven game, and it’s natural for
promotional materials to display her image. Therefore, it is a highly problematic idea that Faith’s mere presence in the marketing materials exotifies her, that simply existing as an Asian American woman is an overt, and blatant cry for attention to her sex, gender, and race (tekanji has more on this). It’s like the problematic notion that women are just asking to be harassed because they exist (see the experience of any woman who attempts to speak on Xbox Live).

Let’s recall how Portal was marketed. Portal was not marketed at anywhere near the same level as the other games contained in The Orange Box. Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode 2, which were both contained in The
Orange Box
along with Portal, were marketed heavily. Portal may have gotten some passing promotion, but all of the marketing muscle was behind The Orange Box in general, and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2
specifically. The reason that Portal was included in The Orange Box was because Valve did not believe that it could be packaged on its own and still sell reasonably well. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 were marketed and promoted more heavily than Portal because an innovative first-person puzzle game where you don’t rack up a huge body count and in which you play a non-sexualised, mostly invisible woman, does not have the same recognisable marketability as Half-Life 2 or Team Fortress 2. We have to remember that the typical target audience for games like HL2 and TF2 is slightly different from that of console gamers. I think marketers believe they are selling to an even more sexist, male dominated audience than console games.

I don’t think it’s a useful comparison to draw, really, because Portal, by itself, was not viewed by Valve as a AAA game, and Mirror’s Edge was viewed as standalone AAA material by DICE. That is why Mirror’s Edge had the level of marketing muscle behind it, and that is why The Orange Box as a whole had a similar level marketing muscle behind it, and Portal, on its own, was not marketed to the same degree.

This sentence from Ligman also stood out to me:

In the long run, however, the fact that Mirror’s Edge and its surrounding marketing call so much attention to her as female and non-white is not doing female, non-white protagonists many favors.

Again, I disagree. I don’t think Mirror’s Edge or its marketing called much overt attention to Faith as female or Faith as Asian. Therefore, personally, as an Asian woman, I am happy to see someone of my race and sex portrayed in the way that Faith is – strong, driven, skilled, aggressive, independent, etc. It’s incredibly rare to find a WOC (woman of color) like Faith in videogames, in a starring role, and potrayed in a pretty positive way. When I think of the few female Asian videogame characters (and I can’t think of that many) it makes me sad at the level of hyper-sexualisation and exotification out there. It’s bad enough that I rarely ever see myself represented in media, it’s even worse when the representations I do see are so appallingly bad. I think Faith is a massive step forward for WOC protagonists in games.

Ligman concludes:

Both games should certainly be acknowledged for choosing to go with female, non-white protagonists over the typical option. And Mirror’s Edge, if it succeeds in nothing else, does manage to inch along the positive trend which Portal brought to the fore in 2007. Still, the key is not imitation, but reflecting seriously on what is presented and how. Portal brought us something distinctive, while Mirror’s Edge, when it was all said and done, just gave us more of the same.

I am a little baffled about the mention of “trend” as I really don’t know what this references. Again, I don’t think that Mirror’s Edge imitated Portal to a degree that it supports any of Ligman’s arguments

There are so few non-sexualised, non-exotified Asian female protagonists in games, and I think that to call Mirror’s Edge and Faith “more of the same” or to state that Faith is not doing non-white protagonists many favours is a just absurd. Rather than doing a disservice to non-white female protagonists, I think Faith does the opposite, and for that, Mirror’s Edge and Faith are both worthy of distinction.

I would suggest that a better comparison of marketing of AAA games that have female Asian protagonists (or even WOC) is Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword. If there is an example of an Asian woman marketed in the way that Ligman states – playing up the character’s sex appeal, othering her, and highlighting and exotifying her sex, race, and culture — it’s Nariko from Heavenly Sword. Not Faith.

I think it’s a massive step forward for DICE, the developers of Mirror’s Edge, to consciously and willingly decide not to depict Faith in a sexually objectified way, and to try and stay true to her character and her profession in terms of the way she is presented. I am so sure that there were some marketers at EA Games, or maybe even internally at DICE, who wanted to play up Faith’s sex appeal, but the DICE developers seem to have resisted that. I work in the games industry, and I can tell you that this would have been no easy task. It is the job of a marketer to advise companies to do whatever it takes for them to move product off of those shelves. Conventional marketing “wisdom” in the industry is that sexy women on game boxes attracts (young, male) customers and will sell bajillions of copies. This conventional “wisdom” is depressingly common in marketing departments industry-wide. For Mirror’s Edge to have defied that in terms of its marketing is impressive to me. I viewed DICE’s attempts to not treat Faith as an exotic Asian sex object as successful, contrary to Ligman’s view.

In conclusion, I don’t think Ligman’s comparisions and analyses of the two games and the two protagonists supports her assertion that Mirror’s Edge exotifies Faith as an Asian woman.