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.

18 comments

  1. nilcypher · February 11, 2009

    Nice article!

    While I’m loathe to tell anyone that their interpretation of something is wrong, Ligman seems to be seeing things where they don’t exist.

    There are may things that you have to give Portal credit for, but I really don’t think that ‘subversive feminism’ is one of them.

  2. Thomas · February 11, 2009

    It’s significant, I think, that Faith got ‘shopped by forum goons into something more “attractive.” Not that something similar couldn’t happen to a character like Noriko which is already blatantly sexualized. But it did seem to me like it was a regressive reaction to the character, as if some of the audience was unprepared for a female lead in an action game that wasn’t so overtly aimed at the male gaze, and needed to take steps to “fix” it.

    Good post.

  3. Brinstar · February 11, 2009

    Ligman’s interpretation can’t really be “wrong” because it’s, well, an interpretation. I consider some of her points unsupported because of the way I viewed and experienced the two games; my interpretation differed from hers.

    I may not agree with Kris Ligman, but I also think it’s quite dismissive and disrespectful of her perspective for you to say that she’s “seeing things where they don’t exist”. That’s an incredibly loaded phrase to trot out to voice support for my opinion. That phrase has been historically used by people with privilege like straight white men to oppress women, queers, people of colour, and other marginalised groups when the marginalised folks complain about sexism, homophobia, racism, etc.

    Thirdly, I actually do agree with Ligman’s view that Portal is subversively feminist.

  4. nilcypher · February 11, 2009

    I meant no disrespect, and I certainly wasn’t trying to present the idea that the depiction of women in video games is fine the way it is. What I was referring to with my ‘things that aren’t there’ comment was the ‘exoticification’ of Faith in the marketing for Mirror’s Edge. I think both Chell and Faith are good depictions of female characters, but as you said, for different reasons.

    I may have been a bit quick to dismiss the feminist message in Portal, but I’m not totally sure exactly what the message actually is. I think you could make a case that Portal is an indictment of the man-hating, militant feminist stereotype. It’s something that I’d have to give more thought to to be honest.

    I’m very sorry if I caused any offence with my comments though.

  5. nilcypher · February 11, 2009

    What I think is often missed is that ‘shopped image of Faith was supposed to illustrate the differences in the standards of beauty between Japan and the Western World at large. It got caught up in a ‘hur-hur, we gave her big boobies’ snowball that completely eclipsed the original point.

  6. Ed · February 11, 2009

    “Conventional marketing “wisdom” in the industry is that sexy women on game boxes attracts (young, male) customers and will sell bajillions of copies.”

    You seen the Merkel doll by Mattel?
    Perhaps the obsession of definition in opposition is past its sell by date. Perhaps sex is a simple part of life and perhaps its in inevitable part of not being self replicating single cell life forms?

    Also your phrase, people with privilege, what does that mean? You are aware that privilege is a product of history and that history is a product of violence and that violence is a product of life.
    You flew to Japan, on a Boeing or an Airbus, a product of the war industry. You eat 3 meals a day, and you work in the computer industry. These privileges are a product of the USMC and the other weapons of governance that your country possess and utilises. You are a person of privilege and sound like a racist when you use that phrase willy nilly and without an understanding that the ability to live in the life you have is based on dominance.

  7. Brinstar · February 11, 2009

    A problem with this example is that the fan illustration of Faith wasn’t made by a Japanese person. As far as I am aware, the artist was a Korean American. The artist intended it to portray what he saw as Asian standards of beauty, not specifically Japanese. I think in the end, that fan rendition of Faith didn’t make much of a point.

  8. Brinstar · February 11, 2009

    Your usage of the term privilege is not the same as the way I have used it in this post. Since you seem not to have read my Comment Policy, and you are obviously ignorant about the concept of privilege, I will refer you to what I mean by privilege. Please read this post for a primer on privilege. If you decide to comment again, please educate yourself before doing so.

  9. Brinstar · February 11, 2009

    Thank you, nilcypher. I just wanted to clarify that I think Ligman’s perspective is just different because she sees things differently, and also to clarify the issues I had with the way you phrased things.

    I am not really sure where your thoughts about Chell and Portal are going, so I will refrain from comment, since it seems like you’re still solifiying your thoughts.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  10. oliemoon · February 11, 2009

    I’m not totally sure exactly what the message actually is. I think you could make a case that Portal is an indictment of the man-hating, militant feminist stereotype.

    Ligman lays it out in her original post: the default avatar for most games is a white male. By making the avatar in Portal a woman of color, the developer’s subverted the standard practice, and since the identity of your avatar was not immediately apparent when playing the game, for many gamers it was surprise (given their expectations of a white male) to discover that Chell was instead a WOC.

    Whether the developer’s intended this or not, by not playing into people’s gendered and racial expectations, they probably (hopefully) challenged a lot of people to re-consider why they held those expectations and assumptions about their unseen avatar in the first place. This is what is meant by “subversive feminism.”

    I don’t know where you are trying to go with the man-hating militant strawfeminist though.

  11. oliemoon · February 11, 2009

    These privileges are a product of the USMC and the other weapons of governance that your country possess and utilises. You are a person of privilege and sound like a racist when you use that phrase willy nilly and without an understanding that the ability to live in the life you have is based on dominance.

    Holy fuck are you an idiot.

    1. Classism =/= racism. Not a difficult concept really, but you clearly missed it.

    2. “Your country”…and just which country are you referring to? I don’t think you realize just how clueless this reveals you to be.

    3. El-oh-el at your assumption that brinstar isn’t aware of and doesn’t understand her class privilege.

  12. Jon Lupen · February 11, 2009

    Regina already Nailed everything on the head and drove it home, so I’ll just add a few observations of my own, having played many a Valve games.

    First a little info gems for your thought. Portal started as a third-party mod. Late in it’s development cycle, Valve stepped in, bought the rights, hired the individuals that where developing it, gave them the source engine, polished it up, and shipped it out, same with Left 4 Dead, and what will probably be the story with Black Mesa Source.

    Valve games are often plot driven (Portal hardly being plot driven). Half Life, and it’s expansions, Blue Shift and Opposing Force all came to a close after a dramatic series of events, but without developing the main character, or any other characters for the most part.

    Half Life 2 is a somewhat different story. Valve developes many of it’s charcters (Dr. Mossman, Alyx, Eli Vance, Dr. Kleiner, Barney Calhoun) provided you AREN’T playing them. You learn little about Gordan Freeman other than his background. He never talks, never makes any choices on his own, nothing. He is the ultimate in empty husks possessed by the player to drive the plot forward. Chell is Portal is the same story as Gordan Freeman and only exists as a body for the player to control.

    Developing and personalizing (see what I did there? If you got that your clever) it;s main characters it’s just not something Valve does. Their games focus more on events and game play, where as Mirror’s Edge is centered around the character and her story. Portal is a first person puzzler, Mirror’s Edge is a first person narrative platformer. Mirror’s Edge and Portal share a female protagonist and the name of their respective theme/credit songs, but that’s where it ends. Saying two drastically different games in two respectively different Genres of games is beyond fair and breaks pretty much all the rules.

  13. thesimplicity · February 11, 2009

    Wonderful counterpoint. You hit on all the thoughts I had while reading Kris Ligman’s piece.

    Mirror’s Edge is very progressive for exactly the reason you state: it features an Asian woman in a lead role without the dismal characterization that normally accompanies such a position. That is something we should encourage, not dismiss due to passing similarities to established works.

  14. nilcypher · February 11, 2009

    I’m having a really hard time actually putting the idea into words, but essentially GLaDOS represents the stereotype of feminists, hateful and willing to go to extreme lengths to attain her freedom, in this case, the murder of everyone in the facility in a bid to ‘free’ herself.

    Chell on the other hand, represents a much more rational, and in my limited experience a much more accurate depiction of a feminist. She is smart and capable in her own terms, without resorting to the extremes that GLaDOS goes to.

    GLaDOS’s murder of the scientists shows that her extreme methods are ultimately self defeating, as while she is free of their influence, is unable to actually do anything with her new found freedom because she finds herself isolated, while Chell is capable of truly achieving something because she isn’t confined by her own prejudices.

    There are still holes in it, and I worry that I may have a far too simplistic view of feminist issues, but that’s the essence of the idea.

  15. nilcypher · February 11, 2009

    I do have to hold my hands up and admit that I didn’t read Ligman’s article. Probably should have done before I started shooting my mouth off.

    I’m going to remedy that now.

  16. DSimon · February 11, 2009

    One thing I found interesting about Portal was how, although it stuck to Valve’s usual technique of not characterizing the protagonist, it makes a point of making the player aware of the body they’re inhabiting. You never once see Gordon’s reflection or picture when playing the Half-Life games, but you regularly see yourself as Chell in Portal, by looking at your own body through portals.

    This is utilized in gameplay, for example as part of the process in the early stages of acclimating the player to what portals are. It’s also used in the plot, i.e. the Curiosity Core asking “Hey, what are those things on your legs?” about Chell’s spring devices, which the player wouldn’t normally know about.

    So, in this respect, Portal is like Mirror’s Edge: they’re both first-person games that use novel approaches to make the player aware that they’re inhabiting a human body, not just a floating viewpoint.

  17. Ico · February 11, 2009

    I’m honestly surprised anyone would find Faith problematic in the exotifying way Ligman seems to interpret her. Mine is a family of gamers, and we are half-Korean. I can probably count on one hand the depictions of Asian women I have seen in games (or WOC at all for that matter), and as you note, these depictions are most often terrible.

    When we saw Faith, my sisters and I were delighted. “Finally,” we said, “an Asian woman in a video game who’s *not* a hypersexualized object.” It’s the first time I’ve been able to play a game with an Asian female protagonist who actually looks like a real human being. Who looks, in other words, a little bit like me, or like someone I could imagine being. Wow. It was great.

    All of which is to say that as another (half) Asian, I am chiming in to agree with you. I’d love to see more games like Mirror’s Edge. It kind of distresses me to see Ligman take such a view of it.

  18. Jessie · February 11, 2009

    Great article!

    (I can’t wait to get my hands on Mirror’s Edge. It’s so rare for a game to be awesome and ALSO not constantly insult me and people I care about!)

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