In video games, our bodies reach out from the controller in our hands to a character on screen. We stretch to omnipresence. Our bodies become larger; we can jump higher, move faster. Even at their most frail, video game bodies are pernicious and nigh impenetrable. The hero of the sci-fi military porn Halo, Master Chief, may spend a lot of time hiding behind cover, especially for a guy who wears power armor. However, his regenerating shield ensures that he will never die, as long as he has a moment to regain his strength. Furthermore, his way of interacting with the world is force. There is not a button on the controller that is not connected in some way to violence. He can conquer anything.
Riley Macleod finds to be this common thread between player characters in first person action games: “These bodies and their choices lack nuance; they move in a straight line, uncritically applying their will to the things around them via bombs and guns and barks, tough enough to take it and strong enough to dish it back.” Hundreds, if not thousands of games, share this body. From Doom’s unnamed marine, to super soldier Master Chief, to Half Life’s scrawny physicist. All encourage the player to dominate over people and places. Their bodies disappear in that dominance behind the specter of a gun. Some might emphasize speed, others a tank like movement forward, but all “uncritically apply their will.”
These bodies are oddly disposable too. Lose this one and it’ll get replaced with another. Halo emphasizes this. When the player dies, the camera zooms out of first person and we watch Master Chief pass away as cold observers. Halo wants us to embrace the power of the muscly master, but as soon as that power is lost, we are pulled out of it.
Faith, the protagonist of Mirror’s Edge, serves as a remarkable break from the dominating, simple power of first-person games. She is a runner, basically a part of a parkour based postal service, who actively fights against the Orwellian state she lives in. Superficially, Faith shares a lot with our previous parade of first person, masculine power trips. Her health regenerates, giving her the same perniciousness as Master Chief, and her body is equally disposable. As soon as you die, you pop back to a checkpoint. Broken bones and deflated organs mended.
Despite these typical tricks of video games, the game never lets Faith’s body disappear. Mirror’s Edge relies on a sense of weight and momentum unlike anything else I’ve played. Faith doesn’t instantly accelerate, but rather gains speed as she runs and chains jumps and maneuvers. We see her hands and hear her breathe. We feel the weight as she fumbles a jump. Falling off an edge, we remain in Faith’s body. The screen distorts, we hear the wind rushing past us, and the screen goes black only as her skin and bones crash into cold ground. These choices result in a body that is both impactful and frail, a body that has reality.
Most video game bodies have precise, defined limits. The manly heroes of first person shooters can only take so much damage and Mario can only jump so high, but rarely are these limits human and grounded. The sensation of weight and momentum that Faith possesses gives the game the sense of inhabiting another human body, with more than just the physical changes.
Moving with Faith’s body gives us a part of her perspective. It does not dominate, but lives with and works through. One of the prominent features of the game is “runner’s vision” which turns important objects red, highlighting potential routes. Even without this mechanic though, the game makes the player see urban spaces differently. Mirror’s Edge forces the player to look at heating units, pipes, vents, stairs, and walls as opportunities for escape, even creation. The spaces between walls and buildings, the slope of a solar panel, or the pipes jutting out of a building become blank sheets of paper on which the player writes their daring escape. It is no mistake that the game’s oppressive government has made its city full of clear, straight, white lines. Faith herself is the world’s color, its graffiti. She uses the clean, connected city against those who created it. The game isn’t just about inhabiting a body, but seeing through that body’s eyes.
The result is a game that is wonderfully subversive. While there are plenty of games about fighting vague oppression, there are few that examine it in the play itself. And fewer that don’t rely on wrathful violence. Mirror’s Edge’ language of play is centered on finding a new kind of strength. In her wondrous essay about power fantasies that resist, Jane Friedhoff writes “Making power fantasies for ourselves and sharing them with each other allows us to explore and share alternative ideas of how we can engage with life.” Mirror’s Edge presents a power that is vastly different from other first person action games. Escaping is a valid means of resistance and strength is found in invention, rather than force. Its protagonist is an Asian women, one of the rarest video game heroes. It is a conscious attempt to break gaming’s glass ceiling.
It might seem unusual to praise a blockbuster, franchise launching title for being subversive. Mirror’s Edge is not explicitly political, nor is it thoughtful about its narrative elements. Faith is thinly written. She is a typical “strong female character”, tough and sassy, but never vulnerable or rounded. Its politics are vague. The surveillance state Faith fights is bad for only the most broad of reasons. The consequences of living in such a society are never fully explored or shown. Still, there is something remarkable about playing a game in which a woman of color battles an oppressive state. When we look at the play itself, we find a game that finds remarkable strength in womanhood, in living with and working through. It explores new ways of life, new ways of seeing and being in the world, new ways of resistance.
In the first mission of the game, you see Faith reflected in a window of skyscraper, as you hang from a helicopter. Despite the chaos of the context, it is a moment of serenity. A moment when Faith sees herself, and the power she has. Mirror’s Edge forces us to see that power. Playing as Faith gives us a new perspective. In it, speed is a strength, resistance is more than violence, and our bodies make a path forward.