on Monday, May 7, 2012
Back when Mirror's Edge came out, there was a flurry of writing about it in the online gaming criticism community. I didn't get around to playing it until it recently, so I'm a bit late to the party in posting some thoughts on it. So I'll start by rounding up the existing writing on the game before offering my thoughts.

What People Have Said
Some Thoughts From Me

I can't say too much about Mirror's Edge (hereafter ME) that hasn't already been discussed (I'm just not that original compared to some of these fine folks!), but I want to bring up Faith's role as a female lead again. It seems to me, especially given the developer's stated disappointment at the objectifying fan art, that the game was something of a conscious effort to address the role of female characters in gaming. Personally, I thought the game made some good forward progress in that respect, despite also making a few missteps, so I want to do some brief (and very incomplete) analysis of the game as a whole in that vein. Others have written about how well (or not so well) Faith herself works to address femininity in games, but not too much writing has looked at potential interpretations of other game aspects with respect to the state of female characters in the gaming world. I'll point out just a few things in the game that seem to comment on that topic, mostly in a simple allegorical way.

If we start from the premise (a mere hypothesis for the sake of this thought experiment) that ME is a commentary on female characters in gaming, it might be worth considering the ME universe as being symbolic of the gaming community. I don't think it's a stretch to assert that no artistic medium can really mature as an art form as long as it inherently excludes large segments of the human population. Gaming, in many critics' eyes, still suffers from this problem to a large extent, though a handful of games have dealt with gender and sex in a more balanced way. In a way, the art design of the ME universe at the largest scales is much like that state of affairs. It is rendered bland by it's lack of color, with only a few bright spots that stand out, not unlike how a medium is rendered ineffectual by lacking inclusion, save for the few developers that manage to do something different. Faith literally bounds from highlight to highlight, as if struggling to find meaning in a world that is otherwise hostile to her.

The gameplay itself argues for a rejection of the most common gameplay mechanic out there: combat. While the player is capable of fighting, it is a decidedly underpowered mechanic, so Faith's running ability and agility are favored in most situations. Even in combat, most moves don't kill but merely disarm. This is an implicit rejection of most games out there, which often rely on combat alone. Mindless aggression is a common stereotype of the male persona, so such a rejection is a comment, albeit a simple one, on male dominance in games. Just as gameplay mechanics are more interesting when fully developed into multiple modes (Faith still can fight, it just isn't her only move), games as a whole are more interesting when they embrace the whole of human experience, including that of other genders.

The character development of ME presents a bit of a bigger challenge in this interpretation, and I think that is because the developers missed the mark to a degree as far as the story, and thus character development, goes, as many reviewers have noted. Faith is the obvious one. Refreshingly, she is a strong female lead that, in this interpretation, serves as a proof of concept for a successful female character driven game. She is modeled more like a real woman, in contrast to the heavily objectified and sexualized characters that populate so many other games, and that helps to make the game inclusive and appealing to both men and women. While she is attractive, she is not sexualized simply for the sake of the male gaze. For the most part, I think Faith is a tremendous step forward in character design in games, but she's not without flaws. In some respects, the developers have simply made her a bit of a parody, by having her physically overcome hugely strong men. She's relatively skinny and lacking in muscle, and there is no way such a person could do some of the things she does. To some extent, suspension of disbelief works, but on the other hand, it seems that the developers were having her act like a man while looking like a woman. Still, she works overall.

There are other characters in ME. I was particularly intrigued by the janitor, arguably the most minor of characters. He (we know he is a he from a note on a computer screen) is unseen, but he leaves notes and objects throughout the levels of ME. He is characterized comically as rather dumb, and he is friends with his pet rat, seen throughout the game. To me, he seems to represent ignorant, but not malevolent, gamers that tacitly support the status quo. They, and he, do this to some extent through expectations for how a game should look and function. An action hero is surely a muscly man, as the janitor assumes in a drawing of the mysterious character who has been knocking down all the red doors. Still, the janitor senses that things aren't quite right, as is seen in another drawing featuring a rat in a cage, surrounded by watching eyes and armed men. Yet another drawing (inside the truck in the level, "The Boat") shows many featureless faces with one unique dark-haired individual, all surrounded by question marks. Perhaps this is the janitor's shock at catching a glimpse at the real main character of ME. I surely missed some of the little details regarding the janitor, as most are barely noticeable, so there is likely a good deal more subtlety in this regard.

Ultimately, ME seems to take a hopeful view of gaming's future ability to be inclusive of female characters and mature into the art form we all hope it will become. This hope is most elegantly expressed through the beauty of the city. It's grey and, in spots, ugly if you look closely, but upon backing up, you notice that there is a great deal of beauty about it. Indeed, in the final scene we see the city at twilight for the first time, and we see, amidst a sea of colorful blue lights, that it is capable of lighting up. That is one of the lessons of ME. While games are quite imperfect, including ME itself, there is great beauty there now and even more in its future, as long as we keep running forward against the odds.
on Sunday, May 6, 2012

  • THQ, Digital Extremes
  • Action, FPS
  • Release: Mar 15, 2011 (US)
  • Platforms: PC (version reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3

Homefront is an encapsulation of the problems that plague many video games. While it has the polish and technical prowess of a top of the line, AAA gaming experience, it falls totally flat due to its inept conception.

The single player campaign finds the player's character, an American pilot, captive to the Koreans, who have invaded and conquered much of the United States in Homefront's near-future setting. Soon, however, he teams up with a resistance group, with whom the player endeavors to throw a wrench into the Koreans' plans by unleashing a whole lot of violence. As implausible as the premise sounds, that is not the game's problem.

Nor are the graphics. The game is powered by the Unreal Engine 3, and the developers have managed to adapt it to beautifully render some lovely, open, outdoor landscapes. Because the game centers around a American resistance movement, the setting is is a battered version of suburbia. The battlegrounds are neighborhood streets, the aisles of large abandoned stores, and the open spaces of parking lots and sports fields. It is a competent representation of the premise the story puts forward.

The control and mechanics work adequately as well. The gunplay holds it own with titles like Call of Duty, and there is no shortage of weapons with which to experiment.

So why does the single player campaign fail so totally? The answer lies in the story and how the gameplay was used to convey that narrative. These choices are at odds with the game's strengths. The appeal of the implausible premise and setting is the novelty of fighting for a world that attempts to be the some one that the player lives in. One gets to see the destroyed suburbia, and those fighting alongside you are normal, scared people like yourself. A game that makes the most of these strengths would allow the player opportunities for exploration of the environment, perhaps by providing multiple possible routes to achieve objectives. Such a game would develop the characters; their back stories would provide motive for the fighting while exploring how terrible situations change people. The prejudicial tension between Americans of Western European descent compared to those of East Asian descent given the invasion of Koreans could provide fascinating plot points to be explored.

Homefront, however, does none of these things. The gameplay is linear to a fault. There is frequently one path forward, and that path is always highly scripted in both time and space. You cannot climb a ladder or crawl through a hole until the characters with you go first, and, even then, you will simply press a key that tells the game to do the crawling or climbing for you. You cannot explore the neighborhoods that you must fight through. Only one path forward will be allowed, so there will be no opportunity to look in abandoned houses, stores, or other scenery. It is all merely a backdrop. The other characters, too, are merely a backdrop; though they fight alongside you, they are shallow, undeveloped shells of characters. The main group consists of a tough black guy, a scared woman, and a featureless, techy Asian. Each is an empty stereotype that is present only as a nod to diversity, and none contributes to the story. With no characters to care about, a world that feels tiny despite its large size, and no freedom to accomplish anything, it is very hard to care much about the game as a whole. As a result, there's not too much fun to be had, and there's nothing interesting to think about, either.

How about the multiplayer? It is highly derivative of the Battlefield series. The maps are pretty decent, and the different game types are standard of the genre. Homefront mixes things up a bit with the introduction of "Battle Points." These points are earned by doing things like killing enemies or achieving objectives. Then they can be spent on vehicles (tanks, trucks, etc), accessories (flak jacket, RPG, etc), or special abilities (like deploying a drone). This adds a touch of new strategy, but in practice it doesn't work too differently from just spawning the items at intervals. The vehicles seem underpowered in this game, and I think much of that issue arises from the non-destructible environment. In Battlefield: Bad Company 2, for example, a tank can force it's way through a flimsy wall or fence; in Homefront, on the other hand, the tank can do nothing to a flimsy fence and is thus easily trapped. This renders the use of vehicles fairly uninteresting. As a whole, the multiplayer can be enjoyable, but it is clearly inferior to several other games.

As a whole, there is much to learn from Homefront. Despite its high production values, it makes numerous mistakes in its construction of gameplay mechanics and its botched attempt to create an interesting narrative. Further, it has no idea how to combine that narrative with those mechanics, so each fails completely and separately. One can have some fun with Homefront, so perhaps players that simply want a different FPS to play will find enjoyment. But, ultimately, it's a shallow and unfullfilling experience.