NOTE: As has been brought to light in the comments, there are major issues with this article. It would be inappropriate for me to make any changes to the original post at this point, but I would encourage you to read the comments which follow as well as my response, which attempts to address the concerns readers have expressed.
Comparisons between Valve’s Portal (2007) and DICE’s Mirror’s Edge (2008) are inevitable. Both are first-person platforming titles with innovative twists: Portal has you creating small warp portals to complete puzzles, while Mirror’s Edge has you traversing urban rooftops at high speeds. Both games also set themselves apart from the masses by having female, non-white protagonists. However, the ways these two games execute this aspect of their designs is quite different. While Portal has been critically praised in part as being subversively feminist, the same can’t really be said about Mirror’s Edge– and it has more to do with the presentation than anything else.
Portal has you controlling Chell, a woman of color in her mid-20s, who appears modestly dressed and quite ordinary looking, a refreshing change of pace from video games characters’ usual movie star looks. An entire article can be made (and has been made) on the ways the title’s feminine undertones subvert gaming conventions, like the way that Chell’s portal gun creates openings rather than pierces things, but that’s really beside the point. What really makes Chell distinct as a character in this case is that she really has no character: her name is never given in the course of the game; no verifiable background on her is provided, and it’s actually quite possible to go the entire game without actually noticing that you’re playing a woman, thanks to the first-person view.
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.
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. 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.
To her credit, there is something terribly en vogue about Faith. She is an Asian woman frontlining a game about parkour, thinking on your feet and seeking alternatives, all very much in sync with a Generation Y aesthetic. 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. One of the crowning moments of Portal is when a player has positioned two of their portals in such a way that they glimpse Chell in front of them. For many, it’s a real Metroid moment: just as Samus Aran seminally shocked players by only revealing her gender in the epilogue of her 1987 NES debut, these chance glimpses of Chell jolt the player into reevaluating their assumptions about their own gameplay experience. It’s a far cry from Mirror’s Edge‘s marketing blitz of Shiny, New, Different, which immediately couches the player in a very separate, and dare I say much safer, mentality.
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.
(For a closer look at the disparate marketing strategies of these two games, I refer you to this excellent article on GameSetWatch: If Looks Could Kill. Feel free to offer your own impressions about one or both games in the comments below!)