Left Gamer Review decided to take a look back at Electonic Arts’ 2008 release Mirror’s Edge mostly as a consequence of Anita Sarkeesian’s obvious enthusiasm for the game. And indeed, there is lots for a feminist (ie, civilized) gamer to appreciate, especially the tough, intelligent, and non-objectified female protagonist. But the game is hard. Hard hard hard. So hard, in fact, that unless you’re willing to invest a lot of time learning the game’s funky mechanics and memorizing its levels, expect all the fun to be sunk in an ever-rising sea of controller-throwing frustration.
Mirror’s Edge takes place in a near-future dystopian (apparently American) city where civil liberties have been suppressed to create a Singaporesque “clean” urbanity for the enjoyment of the bourgeois citizen. Our protagonist Faith is a Runner, a parkour-using messenger employed by the city’s residual renegades to communicate on the down-low (or more accurately, the up-high: Runners prefer rooftops).
During her childhood, Faith’s parents were political activists who participated in the tragically unsuccessful movement against the authoritarian regime, which prefigures Faith’s adult interstitiality: she rejects the dominant order but doesn’t actively oppose it; that is, she’s on the mirror’s edge. She only starts to range herself more directly against the powers-that-be when her sister Kate becomes entrapped in a deadly political conspiracy. “This time it’s personal” is, of course, a trope, but Faith’s family history gives her prior non-commitment a sound psychological basis.
The game’s representation of Faith is an outstanding high point in the annals of women in video games, although this perhaps goes to show the generally backward state of affairs. Faith is confident and competent, not a damsel in distress (nor a “damsel” of any kind). She’s beautiful without being Barbie-proportioned or dressed in some ridiculous “get-up” for soft-pornish enjoyment. And–like most people–she’s not white!
Mirror’s Edge passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors; but still, the Test is merely a (comically low) narrative floor, not a ceiling. Although it’s way ahead of most games in representing women, Mirror’s Edge could have gone further still. In particular, aside from the nominally sisterly bond between Faith and Kate, there’s not much thematically to suggest that Faith should be a woman. Some of gaming’s more interesting male protagonists–such as Niko Bellic, Alan Wake, or Max Payne–are necessarily male, in the sense that they confront (at least in part) peculiarly male problems in peculiarly male ways.
Men and women experience the world differently; this is not due primarily to intrinsic differences arising from biology, as the “scientific” sexists claim, but because society structurally determines different experiences for the sexes. Art cannot avoid it. Thus an aesthetically significant female character cannot “just happen” to be, but must be, a woman: it should be impossible for the same stuff to happen to her were she a man, because the same stuff does not happen to men and women in life. We’re of course not suggesting a resort to the banal conventions of art “for women”; only that game developers exhibit the same sophistication with women protagonists that they seem to have discovered with dudes.
All that being said, Mirror’s Edge remains narratively interesting and innovative, albeit quite short. (A sequel seems to be in development, although the history is somewhat tortured.) Still, a game is a game, not a master’s thesis in Media Studies–and here, unfortunately, Mirror’s Edge falls as flat as Faith when she’s missed a key jump for the twentieth-or-so time. Which is something that happens. A lot.
LGR couldn’t analyze the gameplay problems better than this article at Pixel Poppers, although we never played Prince of Persia and can’t speak to the comparison. We did play Assassin’s Creed, however, and think this brilliant comic from Virtual Shackles speaks volumes:
Now one could fairly accuse AC of being way too easy, the main challenge being to avoid hand cramps from holding down RT+A too long. Fine–but AC does deliver a sense of free movement and supremacy over the environment that is, at its best, genuinely thrilling. Mirror’s Edge serves you such feeling in tiny morsels between death-plummets and getting shot to bits. The game wants you to move fluidly without pause, but this is impossible without exact foreknowledge of where to go and what to do.
Combat is a huge pain in Mirror’s Edge, and the game sends very mixed–or actually wrong–signals about it. Everything about Faith suggests that she should prefer stealth and evasion to gunplay: she’s a parkour expert; can’t move freely while holding a gun; can’t carry or reload guns; and wears gym clothes instead of body armor. There’s even a premium achievement if you don’t shoot anyone. But the non-lethal path is a big mistake unless you’re an elite, highly-practiced player: unlike AC or Deus Ex, the game isn’t going to help you avoid killing, even though by all accounts it should.
“Hey losers,” we hear you say, “why don’t you just put it on easy mode and stop demanding games for babies?” Well, we did put it on easy mode, jerkface, and it was still too hard. The difficulty setting seems only to influence how much damage Faith can absorb before dying–going to Easy doesn’t make the platforming any more generous, nor offer any additional path-finding assistance. So if you dial down the difficulty in order to get past, say, a particularly intractable jump–which is exactly why we did it–you’ll find yourself in exactly the same position as before, only with a greater sense of self-loathing.
It’s a shame that a game with as much promise and enlightenment as Mirror’s Edge is wrecked by poor design; nevertheless it is. We’ll welcome the sequel only if we see a conscious effort to address and overcome the flaws in the original.
Mirror’s Edge is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC.