Mirror’s Edge


Awhile back I got exposed to Mirror’s Edge, a new game by Dice/EA. There’s been a fair bit of buzz about this game, because … Well, I’m not really sure why. Basically, it’s a first-person platformer, the goal seemingly being to get from point A to point B.

The game looks pretty slick, visually. The design style of the environments is realistic, but austere in a way that a lot of games haven’t been lately. Almost all game designers are pushing a more-is-more angle, but what we’ve seen of the game breaks away from that.

I have mentioned before that Michael Blowhard is one of my favorite culture critics (perhaps culture enthusiast is a better term?), but there’s one thing I’ve never quite seen eye-to-eye with him on. One of Michael’s themes is looking at modern advertising, and examining how so much of our current design sensibilities arise from the tools used to construct those design sensibilities. For example, People with metallic skin, words with incomprehensible (parenthetical or [bracketed]) emphasis are seen as byproducts of the techno-fetishization that goes on in a design world entirely run by computers. One design theme that seems to come up again and again is the idea that the human form is infinitely malleable — Which is not to say that advertisers have a fetish for portraying humans as unformed lumps of clay, but rather that designers go out of their way to display the human form used in physically implausible ways. One of the culprits he names in this is typically video-games, which by their very nature have abstracted the form from the function.

Personally, I disagree with the conclusion that this tabula rasa physicality comes from videogames. It’s certainly invested in videogames, a medium where every woman is capable of being just as fast, strong, smart, and charming as any superhuman male protagonist. But the bigger culprit to me is movies — Movies have latched on to the concept of elastic physicality far more than videogames have, if only because videogames are typically more abstract in their presentation (due to technical limitations). In a videogame you are in control of your character, so when your on-screen avatar who happens to be an attractive 100lb female grabs a 200lb burly security guard and tosses him into a wall, it’s less about the character doing this than about you doing this by mastering the game’s mechanics. On the other hand, once special effects in movies allowed it, we increasingly began to see 100lb females beating up 200lb males, overpowering them, often multiple opponents at a time. Because movies are a medium of presentation and not of interaction, the emphasis really becomes that of showing a woman performing spectacularly outlandish things.

What really struck me about Mirror’s Edge is how it seems to be less about the player interacting with the world and more about the presentation of your avatar (Faith) interacting with the world. This is a trend toward the cinematic over the interactive. Paradoxically, it is probably Mirror’s Edge’s greatest strength to think that in moving towards a cinematic valuation of presentation it also enhances interactivity (at least on some level) by providing a more immersive sensory experience than other first-person-games.

My big problem with Mirror’s Edge is that I find it totally implausible. It is implausible not only in the way the main character is presented interacting with the environment, but the entire premise of this near-future world which follows-our-rules-but-doesn’t. Even if we can accept the implausibility of our 100lb protagonist running around, jumping 30 foot gaps, sliding down 100 feet on steel cables, dodging bullets, and shrugging everything off with a roll, what is our rationale for accepting that our supermodel protagonist would even bother risking life and limb to deliver letters? Accepting these things is accepting the premises so frequently promoted through other media that the human form is something infinitely malleable– that being a 100lb waif-thin female doesn’t stop one from being a top-notch athlete who can do superhuman stunts that would cause most people to break a wrist, ankle, or worse; that being a supermodel-class female beauty doesn’t carry social cachet and expectations that would make this sort of life-risking behavior unnecessary and pointless.

I want to point this out, because I know this game has been praised and praised for its supposedly progressive visual design, but Faith is just another supermodel in a long line of supermodel protagonists. There is nothing new or refreshing or progressive in her visual design for anyone who has anything more than a politicized interest in videogames. A tank top and pants are nothing to go nuts over. Aside from her clothing, how is Faith any different from Paris Hilton?

Even though I am inclined to believe that movies, more than videogames, are pushing an ideology of physical mutability, I think it’s inevitable that games such as Mirror’s Edge are beginning to adopt this subtext wholesale as the entire medium moves towards emulating the cinema. It really isn’t unexpected, given that very few videogames (none which I know of) actually treat the physical representation of a character as inextricable from that character’s capabilities in the game world. That seems like a shame, since to the extent that videogames survive as non-mainstream media expressions, they …

… are pure products of the the engineer and nerd culture that is completely different from, say, the culture born of marketing, social sciences and various “critical studies” that currently dominates Hollywood and print media. (Link)

Alarmist? Perhaps. But I also think that Mirror’s Edge will just not be a very good game, and that this is not entirely unseparate from the tropes it adopts and the forces that it panders to.

3 Responses

  1. Some very good points you make, I think. Games which aren’t plausible won’t last for long.

  2. You make some interesting points, but I have to say that Mirror’s Edge goes a long way in comparison to many of the games that are already out there. Yes, the protagonist is a 100 lb. girl which can apparently handle a 200 lb. security guard like she was dealing with a toothpick, but at least she is a step in the right direction.

    What is worse, Faith being a strong (albeit, unrealistic) protagonist or female characters in video games that are merely the “prizes” for successful princes/warriors/adventurers? Here we have a character that has a sense of reality compared to female characters like Laura Croft who are physically unproportional, and runs around the Artic in shorts and a flimsy fur coat.

  3. Hi Lena,

    Why is it a “step in the right direction” to portray women as physically aggressive or violent?

    I think it’s pretty amusing that you seem to be bashing on Princess Peach and Zelda. If you ask me to choose which is worse between Faith and the former characters, I will most definitely take Princess Peach or Zelda over Faith in an instant, sorry to say. And while I’d be happy to pile some derision over Lara Croft, it’s not like women are uniquely portrayed in idealized ways in games. In most other respects Faith strikes me as very, very similar to Lara Croft. I think the distinction being made here is largely one devised to market Mirror’s Edge as some sort of progressive element, when it’s really the same ole’ thing.

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