What Portal Did and What Mirror’s Edge Didn’t Do (or: The Female as Exotic)

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!)

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    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.

    Way back when I was a kid, I used to play these first person game books (a bit like puzzle-based “roleplay” computer games). There was one where you played a girl out to undo an evil curse laid on her family – but the book’s introduction was all in second person, so it didn’t contain any gender cues* – only halfway through where a character referred to her in the third person was it clear you were playing a girl.

    And I’ve wondered since then whether the writers did that deliberately – to allow a make player to assume he was playing a boy (which of course I did), and then break it.

    (And I certainly can’t say it ruined the game for me).

    * The girl’s name was Omina, which looks female, but doesn’t have to be; except that I’ve since found it’s a real, though archaic, female name. So it did have a gender cue, just not one I knew at the time.

  2. says

    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.

    No, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Claiming that Portal is somehow more “feminist” than Mirror’s Edge because it hides the protagonist’s gender is incredibly problematic.

    Both approaches — using the lack of defaultness as a shocker ala Metroid (Portal) and treating the lack of defaultness as if it’s not lack of default at all (Mirror’s Edge) — serve slightly different purposes but both approaches are equally useful tools in overcoming the ingrained notions that white/male/able-bodied/straight/etc are default and anything else is the Other.

    As you said, deliberately not revealing the lack of defaultness in a protagonist might be the jolt that a player needs to question their own assumptions — that the character was default — when the situation’s revealed to be otherwise. But treating a non-default protagonist in the same way that many default protagonists get treated (hyping them in the promotional material, allowing you to see their body, or parts of it, during gameplay, etc) sends the message, “This is normal.” That’s a very important message to get out there.

    And, really, the argument could be made that treating the character’s lack of defaultness as a “shocker” is not only Othering but could easily reinforce the line between “default” and “Other” rather than subvert it. Let’s face it: Metroid wasn’t exactly a feminist game. Yes, it had a strong female protagonist (and I do love Samusm, don’t get me wrong), but her gender wasn’t there to provoke the player into “reevaluating their assumptions about their own gameplay experience,” but was rather part of the “Shiny, New, Different” you accuse Mirror’s Edge of using. Not to mention that Samus’ gender has been, and is still being, exploited for its titalation factor.

    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.

    From the way you position this claim (which nothing in the rest of the article contradicts), it seems like the simple fact of Mirror’s Edge not hiding Faith’s gender and ethnicity (like Portal does with its protagonist) is enough to qualify as “flaunting” it.

    So before I launch into a long diatribe about why equating plugging one’s protagonist with “flaunting” her non-defaultness is racist, I would like to be sure that it really is what you’re arguing. To that end, will you tell me what, exactly, the game and its marketing material do to “call so much attention” to Faith’s non-default aspects?

  3. Kris says

    Hi tekanji, thanks for your comment,

    I’m sorry that my assertions seem racist, and if they came off that way I am shocked at myself and I apologize for not wording myself correctly, not sufficiently checking against unknown biases, or both. This is a delicate issue and I regret if I’ve come across offensive.

    I wouldn’t really argue that Faith’s race is “flaunted,” but her gender is certainly emphasized. (I still wouldn’t call it “flaunted,” however; there’s a great chasm between making something noticeable and bragging about it, and I do get the impression DICE/EA was INTENDING all the best with their choices.) Talkback I’ve gotten over on Livejournal has repeatedly cited anecdotes where many male gamers were put off by the game’s marketing because, in their own words, it struck them as a “girl’s game” just by virtue of the protagonist. This, I felt, was much different than Portal’s decision to emphasize the gameplay and deemphasize Chell as something normal. Honestly, if one or both women were white and all other values were the same, I can’t imagine my argument being any different: the presentation of Faith calls attention to her identity in a way that the presentation of Chell doesn’t. For one thing, I’ve yet to hear about a male gamer say they won’t play Portal because of Chell, but I’ve heard several who were taken aback and then impressed when they discovered she was a girl. Whether that can be taken as “feminist” isn’t really something I’m arguing here –you’ll note I only say that other writers have taken that tact; I use “bold” and “progressive” and both of those words can’t really be argued in light of what normally passes for a female character in video games– but I do find it more effective for the discourse than Mirror’s Edge’s approach. Your mileage may vary. But no, race was NOT the thing at issue on that point, and I am very sorry it came off that way. I hope this managed to clarify that somewhat.

    As for whether Chell’s function is another form of “othering,” it might help us both to acknowledge that all game characters are sort of, by their nature, othered. (I recall a great line from Game Overthinker: “Of course women are objectified in games. All things in games are either objects or background.”) But I still see a huge difference between Chell’s neutrality and (I agree with you) the titillation gimmick that Samus Aran has become, and an even greater difference between Chell and Faith, a comparison that sort of has to be made for how frequently the two games are mentioned in the same sentence. So yes, while she isn’t to be a memorable personality (one might argue that her female AI antagonist, however, is), the counterpoint she offers to male-as-neutral was a good thing to see out of Valve.

    Anyway, thanks again for your long and thoughtful comment. I hope I haven’t dug my grave any deeper, ha.

  4. says

    I’d disagree that with the idea that Portal is considerably more “bold” or “progressive.” Faith may be othered and is attractive much as many male leads are. But she isn’t particularly sexualized. This clearly shows in the actual picture versus fan picture in the article you link. She didn’t end up like that by accident, as I think this Stephen Totilo interview with producer Tom Farrer shows.

    I asked “Mirror’s Edge” producer Tom Farrer if he’d seen the images — of course, he had — and what he thought of them. His unvarnished answer:
    “I remember when I first had that image sent to me. To be honest, I found it kind of sad. 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.”

    I think you put it best when you point out at the start that Portal is subversive. I love Portal and I give it points for that. But I think you’re wrong to argue that progress only comes through subversion. I’d hardly count it a victory if every future game with a female lead had to trick whiny male games into playing. Ultimately it takes both the subtle and the overt to achieve progress. As we get more headline characters like Faith and her overt Beyond Good and Evil predecessor Jade we’ll move from tokens to an expansion of what’s considered a normal protagonist.

  5. DSimon says

    I wouldn’t really argue that Faith’s race is “flaunted,” but her gender is certainly emphasized. (I still wouldn’t call it “flaunted,” however; there’s a great chasm between making something noticeable and bragging about it, and I do get the impression DICE/EA was INTENDING all the best with their choices.) Talkback I’ve gotten over on Livejournal has repeatedly cited anecdotes where many male gamers were put off by the game’s marketing because, in their own words, it struck them as a “girl’s game” just by virtue of the protagonist.

    I think it’s overkill even to describe her gender as “emphasized”. None of the marketing I can recall showed her doing anything an equivalent male character wouldn’t be doing. Her gender wasn’t emphasized any more than, say, Link’s, and was a heck of a lot less emphasized than, say, Kratos’ or Nico’s.

    The only reason her gender seems “emphasized” is because of the larger context: how few games have female protagonists. If some gamer guys are made uncomfortable by something which is unavoidable in any modern game featuring a visible female protagonist, than that’s clearly their problem, not the problem of the marketing.

  6. says

    Talkback I’ve gotten over on Livejournal has repeatedly cited anecdotes where many male gamers were put off by the game’s marketing because, in their own words, it struck them as a “girl’s game” just by virtue of the protagonist.

    Which is a stupid and sexist reaction, obviously. That’s a really strange choice of evidence that Portal is more feminist than Mirror’s Edge — it upset the white men less??

    I played Portal & loved it, and I haven’t played Mirror’s Edge, so maybe it is more sexist. But the reasons you give here make no sense.

  7. says

    Kris said:

    Talkback I’ve gotten over on Livejournal has repeatedly cited anecdotes where many male gamers were put off by the game’s marketing because, in their own words, it struck them as a “girl’s game” just by virtue of the protagonist.

    You’re conflating (male) gamers’ reaction to the marketing with the actual marketing itself. While the way a marketing campaign is read is, obviously, important, it needs to be taken as a part of a whole, rather than represented as a whole.

    Also, consider this: when critiquing a work from a feminist perspective, whose POV is more likely to be accurate to the critique: male anti-/non-feminist gamers or feminist gamers?

    It’s definitely worth thinking about why it is that most of the commenters here — who are used to critiquing things from a feminist/anti-oppression activist perspective — are disagreeing with the reading that you seem to be basing your argument on.

    Before you take what the anti-/non-feminist gamers say about the marketing at face value, think about why it is that — by the very fact of Faith being unapologetically female — these gamers started complaining that Mirror’s Edge is a “girl’s game”. Frankly, I think that says much more about the current culture of gaming than it does of Mirror’s Edge’s actual marketing campaign.

    Furthermore, I don’t see them throwing that kind of language around regarding Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider games. Indeed, despite the fact that the Tomb Raider games do hit the marketing pitfalls that you claim Mirror’s edge does — ie. making a point of Lara’s gender and objectifying her in the process — no one would claim that Tomb Raider is a “girl’s game”. I would posit that the difference in the reading of marketing can be found in the difference between Faith and Lara; while both are strong and independent women, Lara has and continues to be marketed as T&A for the boys.

    So, in essence, what I’m saying is that I believe that, far from emphasizing Faith’s gender/race, it was the fact that the marketing for Mirror’s Edge didn’t blatantly objectify/exoticize Faith that caused the complaints. And, as malfeasanceses pointed out, the fact that white men were upset by is, in fact, subversive; gamers who typically don’t give a shit about gender equality in games suddenly whining about girl cooties is a pretty good indicator that their privilege was challenged and they don’t like it.

    This, I felt, was much different than Portal’s decision to emphasize the gameplay and deemphasize Chell as something normal.

    This idea that a woman’s gender must be “deemphasized” (ie. not talked about or represented in any obvious way) in order to be seen as something normal is very disturbing to me, not to mention something that reflects the sexist idea that’s put on women to make ourselves unobtrusive and inoffensive.

    From what you’ve said, I feel like you think that Faith and Chell are pretty much polar opposites on the representation scale, but that simply isn’t true. In fact, I would go so far to say that the good thing about Chell’s representation is the same as the good thing about Faith’s: both treat the protagonists exactly as they would if they made the same game with the default white male. That the details of the representation differs is, far from being a bad thing, in fact a step towards equality as it shows that these women were tailored to fit the game (as male protagonists are) rather than the games being tailored to fit the (sexist) idea of what games with women protagonists should be like.

  8. says

    Tekanji, I think most of your points here are very solid and worth considering, but I have a real problem here:

    It’s definitely worth thinking about why it is that most of the commenters here — who are used to critiquing things from a feminist/anti-oppression activist perspective — are disagreeing with the reading that you seem to be basing your argument on.

    It’s also worth considering that feminists are not a hive mind, and most of the people here disagreeing with Kris is NOT a valid point against her arguments. It may indeed indicate something worth considering, but this is dangerously close to saying in a very gentle and polite way, “conform or be silent.”

    As far as Faith goes, and keep in mind I know only what I’ve read here, but I can see both your positions as having some merit. I agree with you that if the game is normalizing Faith, that’s great. But you seem to be saying that the only way Kris could get the feeling Faith’s differences are emphasized is if she’s coming from the perspective of a culture in which a woman are perceived as intruding by merely showing up. I’m not convinced of that. I’ve watched TV shows and felt like a woman is being sexualized for reasons it took me YEARS to pin down, and when I finally worked it out, it was a subtle difference in camera coverage between her and the men on the show. When I’ve tried to make these arguments – usually on LJ – because I know what’ll happen if I make a nebulous argument on Hathor, and it involves the phrase “getting my ass handed to me by people on my own side” – the general response is “I’m not really seeing it.”

    Does that make me wrong? Or does that mean I have a different POV? Or perhaps I’m even seeing something others are missing. Who knows? That’s why debate is great.

    I also have to say that while I have come to agree with you that feminist projects that DON’T help to eliminate male sexist attitudes have value (in bolstering how women see ourselves, what we realize we can accomplish, by enlarging our choices), I have to admit I’m sympathetic to Kris’ concerns about a game chasing off male players. Unless feminists want to opt for a violent solution, which I’ve been saying all along will probably be required at some point if history’s anything to go by, we’re going to have to get some men (read: almost half the species) on board with the idea that the removal of their unearned privileges is a sacrifice worth making because equality could improve men’s lives so much in other ways. Is “It upsets the menz!” a valid reason for not making a game? Hell, no. But is it worth considering when one normalizing game doesn’t seem to chase them off and another does. Well, yeah, that’s pretty interesting and worth talking about.

  9. says

    Jennifer Kesler:

    I’d disagree with your last paragraph. I admittedly hang with a different set of guys than the author does, but I don’t know a single male among my gamer friends that was turned off by the market campaign. Instead, there were a lot of would be players that were turned off by widely described flaws in game play. I played it and loved it, though I see where the critics are coming from.

    I certainly believe that there were some men who weren’t interested in the marketing, but I think more of them would have tried it anyways if it had avoided problems.

    I like tricky and subversive, I love Portal. But I think we’re severely limiting ourselves if we limit ourselves to the Portal/Metroid approach. I hope the Mirror’s Edge sequel is just as proud of Faith and works on fixing other mistakes instead.

    Total side note: A lot of people think the first person perspective for the game was a mistake. I don’t, though I’m a long time FPSer so that’s no surprise.

  10. says

    Greg – as I didn’t follow the game, I have no idea whether the marketing turned guys off, or something else did, or actually there were as many guys who enjoyed it as women, or what. I was just arguing that IF one pro-women game turns off male gamers and another doesn’t, that’s a topic worthy of discussion. Because I was getting the sense that a couple of commenters don’t care whether a game alienates men or not – which is a perfectly valid viewpoint to take, but not quite how I see things.

  11. says

    Jennifer:
    Fair enough. I can agree with that argument. I’d probably even split it into maybe three types. Subversive games that don’t alienate at all; fairly normal ones that lose a few people at the margins by not being subtle; and aggressive ones, perhaps done by the John Romero’s of pro-woman game making. I’d say Mirror’s Edge falls squarely in the middle category.

    There might even be some merit to games in the third category, although I think the first two are more valuable doing more than rallying the base.

  12. Ben says

    Let me preface this comment by saying that I have played all the way through both Portal and Mirror’s Edge, and I think they were both outstandingly fun games. What I say is from my perspective as a male gamer.
    I’ve always been unhappy at the portrayal of women in the games I play. While Chell may be great a subversive entity, I always saw her as a silent female counterpoint to the silent male protagonist of the Half-Life series. Silence is an effective tool for helping immersion, but since the developers had long used a silent first-person protagonist, so it just seemed like a logical extension. “More of the same,” if you will.
    By contrast, playing as Faith was exhilarating and refreshing. I never really identified her race as exotic, what was exotic was the intense feeling of freedom and grace that you get, simply by moving through her world. She is capable of bounding across the rooftops with effortless ease. By contrast, the enemies were slow, clumsy, and dumb. I really feel like most of what Faith has to offer comes from the feeling you get that she highly capable and in control.
    If I were going to criticize Faith’s characterization, I’d focus on things like the fact that she regularly is ordered around by a man, or that in the few times I can remember where she needs rescuing a man is the one who does it, or maybe even her repeated hugging of her sister. Portal has a female protagonist, but as soon as you’ve noted that, you can just pretend that she’s Gordon Freeman; just another man in a man’s world in a man’s game. Mirror’s Edge doesn’t let you forget that Faith is a girl, but at the same time, it doesn’t really get hung up on her gender. Her breathing and body parts in view are just a different tactic to increase the player’s immersion in the setting, and aren’t that different from any other FPS.
    To me, Faith’s strength is that she HAS her own identity. To hide a woman as protagonist may be useful as a subversive tactic, but it does absolutely nothing to establish a woman as a legitimate character with a real personality. In other words, it’s easy to criticize Faith because there’s something there to criticize. She has a name, a voice, a family, friends. None of which are present in Portal(Chell isn’t named in the game, as far as I can remember). I’m not saying that Portal isn’t everything the author said it was, I just feel like she’s made a very poor choice for comparison.
    I think Brinstar made an excellent observation, holding up Heavenly Sword as an example of a game committing all the sins the author attributed to Mirror’s Edge. Mirror’s Edge is certainly not perfect, but I feel that calling it “more of the same” is excessive, and is unfair to all the people who spent so much time trying to make Faith so different.
    I know that my comments are colored by my own personal perceptions, and most of my encounters with Feminism as an institution have left me feeling rather objectified myself. I hope I managed not to put my foot too far in my own mouth, anyways.

    As a side note, I truly cannot comprehend how the “Still Alive” link support the idea that Mirror’s Edge is trying to mimic Portal. Aside from the shallow observation that they have the same name there is no substantive link at all. Coulton’s song is sung by a homicidal computer. Miskovsky’s (technically Yacoub and Birgisson’s) is a normal pop song, with the requisite banal lyrics. Both are very catchy, though…

  13. says

    Jennifer said:

    It’s also worth considering that feminists are not a hive mind, and most of the people here disagreeing with Kris is NOT a valid point against her arguments.

    That’s not what I was saying at all, and I’m a bit insulted that you would take my quote out of context like that.

    I was saying that it was problematic to consider the opinions of anti-/non-feminists on a feminist issue as the main basis for a feminist reading, especially when actual feminists are getting a completely opposite reading.

    Kris is certainly entitled to her opinion, but I am just as entitled to find it problematic for her to use anti-/non-feminist men’s opinion as the main basis for her argument.

    But you seem to be saying that the only way Kris could get the feeling Faith’s differences are emphasized is if she’s coming from the perspective of a culture in which a woman are perceived as intruding by merely showing up.

    I feel like you’re telling me that I’m doing something wrong by “assuming” Kris’ reasons for her argument, which upsets me since I have done my best to ask for clarification and have based my arguments on what she says are her reasons for feeling Faith’s differences are emphasized.

  14. says

    I didn’t mean to take anything out of context, and certainly not to make you feel insulted. That was simply how that paragraph read to me, though your clarification here was helpful. Thank you for that.

    But let’s all back up here for a minute. The real problem with this thread, IMO, is that we are all human beings with feelings and perceptions, and this thread contains a lot of very declarative statements about stuff that can’t ultimately be quantified, such as “you’re wrong” and “your arguments make no sense” and “that’s simply not true.” While the reasons you guys are offering for these conclusions are valid and potentially constructive criticism and I want to discuss them, the phrasing is just… more aggressive than necessary. Why not “I think you’re wrong” or “I disagree with the fire of 1000 suns?” Either would be less aggressive than “you’re wrong” and yet just as effectively express your differences.

    Kris is new to writing for an audience of 20k. I’m not remotely asking you to stop expressing disagreement. Hell, I love discussions where someone questions why I had a certain perception and I have to really examine my perceptions – sometimes I end up retracting them, and other times I become even more sure of them, and yet other times I find a whole new take. But if we could dial down the forcefulness of tone a little, I think the discussion would be MUCH more constructive, and who knows what all we might learn.

    • The OTHER Maria says

      Just following up on Jen’s comment…

      Let’s all just chillax and think about what it means to talk about feminism and the media in what’s meant to be a safe space for these types of conversations. How are we going to continue to have conversations about feminist works or engage in feminist analyses if instead of actual conversation/dialogue, we’re instead arbitrarily disagreeing with each other, responding to issues and ideas out of context, and are more invested in being right/someone else being wrong? That’s not productive, and doesn’t move the conversation forward.

  15. Bonasi says

    Kesler & Maria,

    Tekanji’s arguments have been well-worded, extensive, substantial, and clear in their message. To claim otherwise is bullshit, and to take issue with her “tone” serves only to distract from the content of her arguments.

    • says

      Bonasi, “tone” is exactly what’s distracting from some of the arguments being made here (and this is not just about Tekanji – one of the declarative sentences I mentioned was from Malfeasances).

      As you should know, one of the commenting rules is not to state opinions as fact. These declarative sentences I talked about violate that rule. I’m confident everyone here can get their points across without using those sorts of phrases. To claim otherwise is, as you said, bullshit.

  16. says

    Jennifer Kesler: I don’t think you have to go beyond the original post to see an example of someone conflating opinions with facts. In your rush to protect Kris Ligman’s feelings, did either of you examine the tone in her original post? I wonder whether either of you thought, for a moment, the impact the post’s strong wording would have on others. Sure, everyone’s entitled to their opinions and how they interpret marketing, but Ligman worded her post not only very strongly, but also in such a way that her opinions came across as facts to the reader. Because of this, when people disagreed, their reactions in the comments were just as strong as Ligman’s original post.

    Did either of you even consider how an Asian woman might see Faith? Faith has meant a lot to me personally, as an Asian woman, and to see her reduced by Ligman to a “female exotic” was angering, hurtful, and demeaning. You wrote about how tekanji’s words have an impact on people, yet you can’t seem to hold Ligman accountable for the impact her words have. I did have a strong reaction to this post, and a lot of it had to do with the way it was written.

    Just think about what you are doing here. Scolding someone for their tone is an extremely common tool used by privileged groups to distract from the discussion at hand. Frankly, Bonsai was correct in calling you out on this.

    • says

      Brinstar, I see your points. I’ve been taking Kris’ style as academic prose – in which one takes a position/opinion and argues it. When I read that sort of prose, I tend to infer that it’s opinion rather than fact because that was always the case when I wrote it myself. Now that you put it this way, I can see that the “tone” issues began with the original post. But I’m still regarding this as a case of newness to blogging, not maliciousness (I know, intent doesn’t matter – but I’m caught between a big bunch of people, including Kris, whose intentions I believe to be good). I too began writing on this site the way I’d learned to write in school, and only gradually learned that it doesn’t really work on blogs. Blogs require language that makes it clear “This is how I see it” and lets the audience know you’re open to interpretation. I feel some responsibility for not coaching Kris on this – I’ve always been free-wheeling with writers here, and maybe that does them as much harm as it does the audience. Because now I’m thinking even though many of you disagree with Kris’ perceptions and arguments, the phraseology is where most of the bad feelings are really coming from.

      Scolding someone for their tone is an extremely common tool used by privileged groups to distract from the discussion at hand. Frankly, Bonsai was correct in calling you out on this.

      Was she? See, again with the ignorance problem: I was not aware of this tool until last night, after I posted here, when Revena informed me about it. Since I started running this site – which frankly takes much more time than it’s worth – I haven’t had time to participate in community discussions like I’d like to. I certainly didn’t mean to invoke something I’m not aware of that’s hurtful to anyone.

      I’m aware of, and support, the argument that women and PoC have no responsibility to gently, politely educate racists and sexists. But all of us at Hathor are allies. We aren’t perfect allies – sometimes we fall VERY far short of that mark. But one thing we share is a desire to learn to be better allies, and implement what we learn. I have advised Kris to do some further feminist gaming reading in the future, and I welcome this comment and any others that shed a light on how she and the rest of us may do better in the future.

      I’d also like you to know that we’ve been talking about this a great deal behind the scenes, and will continue to do so. Kris is not ignoring the thread; rather, she is taking all of your arguments very much to heart and trying to learn from them, and she will respond when she’s better processed it all. I think we are all in agreement that mistakes were made on the side of Hathor, for sure – and not for the first time.

  17. says

    @Jennifer Kesler

    I find it troubling that you are chiding tekanji’s tone for being too aggressive in response to a post that contained a really problematic examination of a WOC, given that references to tone are used to silence POC all the time. tekanji may not be POC, but she is speaking to anti-racist issues, and as a WOC I found your comments on tekanji’s tone to be very off-putting.

    • says

      Oliemoon, please see my response to Brinstar. I was not aware that “tone” is frequently used as a silencing mechanism against PoC in racism discussions, and have additionally acknowledged that the original post’s “tone” is where the problems (unintentionally and unwittingly) began.

  18. says

    The comparison between the visibility of the protagonists strikes me as somewhat fallacious–Portal and Mirror’s Edge are operating in two fairly different gameplay traditions, and the relative emphasis on showing the protagonist in-game reflects those traditions as much as it does the games’ respective attitudes towards their protagonists and audiences. That Chell is physically invisible to the player for much of the game is a conceit of Portal’s genre as much as an exercise in encouraging cross-characteristic identification, and the inverse is as true of Mirror’s Edge.

  19. Kris says

    First off, let me apologize for taking so long to get back to the comments here. I’ve been having some RL issues, and while I’ve been watching the post I didn’t feel it appropriate to try to respond until I could compose myself and give them the attention they deserved. My ego has gotten in the way in the past and that’s not what I want to have happen here.

    Second, the big, huge thing that I want to say right out the gate is I agree that there are major issues with this article. I am a young writer and I readily admit I went off half-cocked, said things I shouldn’t have said or phrased the way I phrased them. This does not exempt me, but I want to stress that I am, as always, humbled by the thoughtfulness of everyone’s comments and I am working to improve.

    I’ll try to address some of the major concerns people have brought up here, and if I missed something/did not clarify properly, please let me know.

    DSimon

    I think it’s overkill even to describe her gender as “emphasized”. None of the marketing I can recall showed her doing anything an equivalent male character wouldn’t be doing. Her gender wasn’t emphasized any more than, say, Link’s, and was a heck of a lot less emphasized than, say, Kratos’ or Nico’s.

    I should have qualified that remark as being strictly versus Portal, not the gamut of game advertising. In the scope of advertising as a whole, I believe you’re right, she’s treated very equally, and that’s a good thing to see.

    malfeasanceses

    Which is a stupid and sexist reaction, obviously. That’s a really strange choice of evidence that Portal is more feminist than Mirror’s Edge — it upset the white men less??

    Very bad wording on my part, and I have no real way to amend it because it IS stupid logic. The anecdotal detail really had no place anywhere in my argument and was why I kept it out of the original article. Why I chose to bring it into the comments is beyond me, because true or not (as another comment points out, far more players are likely concerned with its less-than-stellar gameplay above all else), it’s not valid support.

    I personally find it counterintuitive to take a look at a male-dominated, largely male-oriented medium and not, to some extent, question what these games communicate to men about women. This is not how everyone chooses to approach the issue, and it might be very lay of me to do so– possibly, not the appropriate approach for a site like this in the first place, at least not how I’m doing it, which was very poorly in this case. I apologize for that, and it’s a concern I address in further detail in the rest of this response.

    tekanji

    This idea that a woman’s gender must be “deemphasized” (ie. not talked about or represented in any obvious way) in order to be seen as something normal is very disturbing to me, not to mention something that reflects the sexist idea that’s put on women to make ourselves unobtrusive and inoffensive.

    Honestly, I’m disturbed myself. That wasn’t how I meant to come off, but I’m shocked that that managed to become my assertion, either through poor wording or poor thinking (or likely, both).

    What I meant to say is that if a culture of gaming includes the idea of the protagonist being unobtrusive –just a sprite, a glorified cursor– then the same should be possible of both male and female protagonists. Yet, I’ve seen plenty of anonymous male protagonists, but few female ones. In my own gaming experience, at least, female characters are always presented with some kind of story and setup, and while the same is true of many male characters, the notion that males can be completely anonymous but females always seem to be “justified” was what bothered me. (In short: more female FPS protagonists, please.)

    Again, it may be my own impression, and a misguided idea to arrive from, at that. I DO agree with the consensus here that having good, strong female characters that shock male gamers are important, even critical, in many respects.

    tekanji

    From what you’ve said, I feel like you think that Faith and Chell are pretty much polar opposites on the representation scale, but that simply isn’t true. In fact, I would go so far to say that the good thing about Chell’s representation is the same as the good thing about Faith’s: both treat the protagonists exactly as they would if they made the same game with the default white male. That the details of the representation differs is, far from being a bad thing, in fact a step towards equality as it shows that these women were tailored to fit the game (as male protagonists are) rather than the games being tailored to fit the (sexist) idea of what games with women protagonists should be like.

    I agree with this perspective completely and the fact that it took me this long to arrive at that conclusion says a lot about how –well– little thought I put into this article before posting it. I think both Chell and Faith are both great for their respective games. Where, I think, I was going wrong was in framing an argumentative essay around what was essentially a fangirl opinion: Portal and Mirror’s Edge are frequently compared, but I don’t believe they share much in the details of their presentation. “Better” or “worse” isn’t the sort of qualification I should have made at all. That’s not productive, it misses the point, and by and large it’s inapplicable. I regret taking that route with this article.

    Ben

    As a side note, I truly cannot comprehend how the “Still Alive” link support the idea that Mirror’s Edge is trying to mimic Portal. Aside from the shallow observation that they have the same name there is no substantive link at all.

    As a standalone, no, it isn’t very solid evidence. However, the GameSetWatch article I linked also remarks upon it, suggesting the song title was the “clincher” after months of speculation about intentional imitation, where it was brought up frequently among game journalists that there were, at least, noteworthy similarities between the two. Fans took it yet further with game mods and other fanwork. I can’t seem to find anything official from DICE about emulating Portal, hence why I drew upon the one convergence that is, in the circumstances, possibly but not likely to be a coincidence, Portal‘s “Still Alive” being the cult hit now that it is. To me, the influences seem obvious, but it was unwise to suggest the song definitively sealed the deal somehow.

    Brinstar:

    I am sorry for any offense I may have caused at any point with my wording/tone. Jenn’s offered her own explanation for it, so I won’t repeat except to confirm that, yes, I do come from an academic writing background where “opinion” is assumed, and as Jenn has also observed, that isn’t really a tone entirely appropriate to this kind of blogging. I’ll be working on adjusting that in the future, because if there is one thing above all else that I never, ever, EVER want to imply, it is that I take my words as being more than this one writer’s observation based on personal impressions and reasoning.

    And even in that sense, I need to strive to be far more conscientious about how I say what I think, because I did not at any point mean to come across insensitive or hurtful. I apologize profusely for upsetting you with a poor choice of phrasing and presentation and can only say that you and the other commenters have done a lot to impress upon me the need to be more thoughtful in the future.

    Rachel:

    Please see my answer to tekanji. Upon reflection, I agree that evaluating them the way I did was not a productive approach.

  20. says

    Kris Ligman:
    Thanks for your clarification. It’s not fun to write that sort of piece and I think we all understand how real life can intrude.

    One thing you said made me curious about a possible avenue for further discussion:

    What I meant to say is that if a culture of gaming includes the idea of the protagonist being unobtrusive –just a sprite, a glorified cursor– then the same should be possible of both male and female protagonists. Yet, I’ve seen plenty of anonymous male protagonists, but few female ones. In my own gaming experience, at least, female characters are always presented with some kind of story and setup, and while the same is true of many male characters, the notion that males can be completely anonymous but females always seem to be “justified” was what bothered me. (In short: more female FPS protagonists, please.)

    This seems true enough. Most of the female characters I can think of are of the fleshed out sort and not like Far Cry 1 guy who I’m told was mainly described in the game as being in a Hawaiian shirt.

    One exception there may be RPGs which often let you choose your gender. How do those play into your thinking? I know Mass Effect tended to use a male for their box pictures although on the other hand Dungeon Siege went the other way. I never beat the original, but from what I played the back story of the main character was just farm girl/boy with dead family.

  21. Ben says

    Kris, I wanted to start off saying that I really appreciated your thoughtful replies to the comments. It’s not common for a person to take criticism and reply in such a thoughtful, non-defensive way. Certainly not on the internet.
    That said:

    However, the GameSetWatch article I linked also remarks upon it, suggesting the song title was the “clincher” after months of speculation about intentional imitation, where it was brought up frequently among game journalists that there were, at least, noteworthy similarities between the two.

    The article also makes it clear that this was Internet speculation based on early trailers. Immediately after the section about Portal, the article says, “After the initial trailer, curiously, every Mirror’s Edge press release reflected design decisions shockingly unlike Portal.” Much of the remainder of the article talks about how differently the two were received and why. The line “Portal was never promoted on a triple-A level, otherwise we would have known everything about it.” suggests to me that the author beleives that if Portal was promoted as a stand-alone product, all of the game (Chell included) would have been driven into the ground, too.

    Yet, I’ve seen plenty of anonymous male protagonists, but few female ones. In my own gaming experience, at least, female characters are always presented with some kind of story and setup, and while the same is true of many male characters, the notion that males can be completely anonymous but females always seem to be “justified” was what bothered me. (In short: more female FPS protagonists, please.)

    I think this is a really good point to make. In terms of Female FPS protagonists, I can only really think of these two and maybe No One Lives Forever(not what I’d call a woman to associate with). I think the perception is that silent characters are easier to associate yourself with. Since the perception is that only men play FPS games, it’s logical to make the silent protagonist male. Making more (and better!) female avatars is key, I think, to attracting more women to the genre.
    Looking back on it, making Faith’s gender so obvious actually changed my experience of playing Mirror’s Edge. It made it a lot more challenging to immerse myself in Faith’s character. I think the gender cues kept me from forgetting that my avatar was a woman. If those cues had been absent as they were in Portal, I might have just(being a man) masculinized Faith in my head as I did with Chell to make her easier to associate with. I think with a better and more intentional design by game developers, it’d a really powerful tool for getting players used to idea of seeing things from many different perspectives.

  22. Ico says

    I came over here from Brinstar’s post. Just want to chime in that what she says pretty much sums up my own feelings on Faith:

    “Did either of you even consider how an Asian woman might see Faith? Faith has meant a lot to me personally, as an Asian woman, and to see her reduced by Ligman to a “female exotic” was angering, hurtful, and demeaning.”

    I’m half-Asian, and to my sisters and I Faith is a hugely awesome character. It’s the first time we’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 us, or like someone we could imagine being. Which is pretty fabulous.

    This article seems to me to be very far off the mark.

  23. Chase says

    I don’t think Faith’s panting and grunting is a pointing out of her gender. Both women and men breathe harder when they run. In unrealistic games this is ignored, in better games it’s included, but I liked that they put it in Mirror’s Edge for the same reason I liked Faith’s more ordinary bone structure. When Faith’s hands came into view, they looked a lot like my hands. In many other games (Neverwinter Nights comes to my mind), a female who does athletic things like fighting and running is nevertheless twiglike, with wrists about one inch in maximum diameter, and that reinforces the lie that the fashion-model body is healthy and achievable. Faith’s wrists are proportioned more like my wrists, which I also happen to use for climbing occasionally. And I certainly grunt and pant a lot when I do it.

  24. UZ says

    Hey! Not a super educated feminist here, but I do sorta know my games. As long as you’re using Samus Aran as an example, can I advise that you have a look at “Metroid: Other M”?

    Honestly I haven’t had a chance to play the game, and honestly after the reviews I never will. It goes something like this:

    1) Back in the NES days, yeah, we found out she was a girl. But she was still a “bounty hunter” anyway, a big hunk of metal with a cannon for an arm and an impassive faceplate like Boba Fett (everyone’s other favorite bounty hunter). This persisted until around Metroid Fusion.

    2) Metroid Fusion. Still a bounty hunter. But then… there was this guy. Adam. He… calls her up on the radio… and tells her what to do. And you get this creepy feeling, like you managed to make it through four or five games before now without some guy telling you what to do and now *there he is*.

    3) Metroid Zero Mission. Great game! Reprise of Metroid 1. Except… 80% of the way through the game your ship gets shot down. Samus’ ship blows up. Her suit blows up. Everything that she owns blows up except for a weefle stungun and a form-fitting blue latex jumpsuit. Creepy feeling again, like if you were playing this game as Boba Fett you wouldn’t have had to spend the last act running around in the equivalent of your undies.

    4) Metroid Other M. Just… read everyone’s reviews, but in short Samus gets reduced to a whimpering idiot who just can’t function without the over-the-radio manliness of… wait for it… Adam Malkovich. He’s back, and the creepy feeling from Fusion blossoms into something horrible.

    I know this doesn’t change the original story. I know people can just remember the glory days and pretend Other M never happened. But, if you’re young enough that you don’t remember those older games, then Fusion and Zero Mission and Other M are all you have. For that person, that’s who Samus is, and it may be difficult for them to see her as an icon of empowerment when there’s always some loser in a hat giving her instructions over the phone.

    So have a look! There might be something here worth talking about. :)

  25. says

    Hi Hi!
    Maybe it will throw people off my comment by stating this but *shrug*: Mirror’s Edge is my favorite game of all time. All. Time.
    Before I ever heard of what it was, the first thing that caught my attention was that the cover art had a female protagonist. I always give games that don’t clad their female protagonists in conan the barbarian style clothing a solid look and what I saw in ME was AWESOME (Mass Effect is cool too!)! See, my favorite sport is actually Parkour and the idea of this game appealed to me, so I tried it out and loved the mechanics and the gameplay and the achievement that rewards you for playing as a pacifist (which I love to challenge myself by doing in shooter rpgs like Fallout (3 and New Vegas) or Elder Scrolls (Oblivion and Skyrim)).
    So, in other words, it was the feminist touch that caught my attention about the game, but it was the extremely appealing gameplay itself (which had nothing to do with her being female) that made me love the game as a game and not just a statement about women in games.

    Portal I and II, on the other hand was the complete opposite. I just knew that it was a ‘good game’ with mechanics that emphasized problem-solving and ingenuity. It certainly wasn’t lacking in any of that but what really made the game worthwhile more then the puzzles or seeing that you are playing a female through mirrored portals was the decidedly female antagonist AI. The levels became less about the joy of puzzle-solving and more about the fun of finding easter eggs and getting more dialogue from Glados (cuz she’s funny!!) XD

    So to sum up, Mirror’s Edge attracted me for the feminism and held me with the gameplay while Portal attracted me with the gameplay and held me with the feminism. Both, I think, are SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS devices that make me proud with the gaming industry. ^_^

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