Friday, March 19, 2010

Reflecting on Mirror’s Edge

Ever since Charge Shot!!! clambered out of its games-only cave and into the pop culture world at large, it’s been harder and harder to reach back into the past and select a game (or other piece of media) worth talking about.  So much hits the shelves, literal and digital, each day that looking back on something from more than a year ago often feels like a waste – unless there’s proper context.

But sometimes it’s worth having a little hindsight.  In a gaming industry flush with sequels, sequels, and more sequels, it’s worth taking note of the aberrations.  Why does one franchise succeed (see aforementioned sequel-palooza) and another fail?  Should it actually be considered failure when your game sells one million copies?  Maybe it is when you have the cajones to project to sell three million.

If you’ve been dutifully clicking all of my links, you may have noticed the odd relationship between Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge.  Both games came out in 2008 as part of Electronic Arts’ renewed commitment to original IPs.  Unfortunately, 2008 followed 2007, a year that may well define this console generation.  Not only did Super Mario Galaxy and Call of Duty 4 drop that year, but a trifecta of now-canonized new IPs launched in Mass Effect, BioShock, and Portal.  A running theme of 2007 year-end discussions was that 2008 was preemptively screwed by comparison.

A few years later, it looks like Dead Space came out ahead of Mirror’s Edge.  EA’s holding contests for players to contribute content to Dead Space 2.  Folks from the developer Visceral Games will be running public relations at PAX East.  Meanwhile, EA’s keeping Mirror’s Edge developer DICE busy trading blows with Activision and bolstering it’s next offer with quality multiplayer

Will we ever see another Mirror’s EdgePossibly.  Should we?  Definitely.

 Telling Faith’s Story

I can’t remember the last time I played a game in which I controlled a woman out to save her sister.  In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of any games where saving your sister is the primary objective.  You had to save your sister in Prototype, but that guy was a hoodie-wearing dick.  Mirror’s Edge’s Faith, on the other hand, is a down to earth girl – well, as down to earth as you can be when you’re living in a near-future uto-dystopia and your sister gets framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate.  She trusts some people.  She’s skeptical of others.  Yet, thankfully, she’s not full of angst or witless one-liners. 

A Save Your Sister tale could easily feel like yet another variation on the tried-and-true Save the Princess formula.  However, Faith’s womanhood undercuts that trope.  There’s no winking sexual humor to be had.  When Faith (SPOILER ALERT) hugs her sister after finally rescuing her, it’s out of love between two sisters, made all the more powerful by the dichotomy between Faith’s off-the-grid existence and her sister’s working-for-the-Man role as a cop. 

That believable, emotionally-charged character motivation, as well as some slick world-building, are the major triumphs of Mirror’s Edge scribe Rhianna Pratchett.  The plot holds together well enough, despite its occasional saw-you-coming-over-the-horizon plot twists.  I totally didn’t expect the cutscenes to be super-fluid 2D animation, though I respect how much this does to build Faith’s character instead of making her a Gordon Freeman-like vessel for the player.  And kudos for crafting a female character that is a worthy replacement for the senselessly buxom Lara Croft

A Primary World

Mirror’s Edge’s distinct visual style grew out of gameplay necessity.  The world completely lacks the color green and is instead composed of whites, blues, yellows, and a useful amount of red.  I say useful because red objects represent opportunities for Faith to interact with them as she freeruns through a level.  Dubbed “Runner Vision,” the dynamic coloring highlights climbable pipes and tarps available for safe landings.  Also, the richness of the colors allows for their relative brightness to be a rock solid indicator of Faith’s health.  That’s right, there’s no heads-up display.  It’d only get in the way, another obstacle for the player to vault.

The overall effect for the eye is one of cleanliness and simplicity.  It’s also damn distinctive.  In an interview with MTV Multiplayer, Senior Producer Owen O’Brien said, “I wanted a game where I could look at a screenshot and say, "Hey, that's Mirror's Edge."  I think he accomplished that goal.mirrors edge large city O’Brien’s call for a unique visual aesthetic also feeds into underlying themes in the narrative.  The game’s nameless city has an identity crisis.  It’s covering up its underbelly with increasingly thick layers of polish, alienating troublemakers instead of addressing their concerns.  Faith is one of the Runners, a band of couriers who primarily work with revolutionaries and whose job it is to traverse the whitewashed cityscape.  The splashes of red separate them from ordinary people and Blues, clever chromatic slang for cops.  They are constantly on the run, and each red springboard, tightrope, or door is a signpost on the way to the next safe house – assuming there is one.

Running on the Edge

What may prevent a player from bonding with the protagonist or drinking in the beautiful environments is the parkour-based, first-person platforming.  Runners, being forever pursued, must navigate environments with a combination of speed, agility, and a GPS-like sense of direction.  As I imagine it is in real life, successfully executing a series of complex maneuvers can fill you with elation; failing to progress because you can’t quite land a jump can consume you with rage.

The first hurdle for a seasoned gamer to overcome is the control scheme.  On consoles, the analog sticks perform as expected, and the right trigger/shoulder button serves as the attack/fire button.  That’s about where conventions end.  Because jumping and crouching are tied to movement, they’re linked to the hand controlling movement.  Crouch/slide with the left trigger, jump with the left bumper.  Need to make a quick 180 or leap off a wall at an angle, tap the right bumper.  Sound confusing?  This stuff isn’t easy at first. 

The second obstacle to a player’s progress is the odd sensation of platforming from the first-person perspective.  While playing, some will encounter what O’Brien refers to as Simulation Sickness.  To mimic the acts of running and clambering, the camera jostles around continuously.  Take a punch from a guard and you’ll spend a few seconds reorienting yourself.  Overshoot a jump and your momentum will prevent you from looking down to see that you’re not actually standing on anything.  DICE ended up adding a small, white reticule dot to the center of the screen to help combat dizziness, operating on a similar principle to a common practice in dance called “spotting.”

Moving through the world of Mirror’s Edge is unlike any other game I’ve played.  At its best, it deftly marries the athleticism of Assassin’s Creed with the environmental navigation of a Half-Life or Portal.  At its worst, it’s simply the most infuriating system of trial and error I’ve ever experienced.  The biggest issue I see is the lack of tactile feedback for Faith’s feet on the ground.  When you run in real life, the conversation between your shoes and the earth communicates information you don’t need your eyes for.  Currently, games can’t replicate that so well, and I’m not into wearing any kind of force-feedback booties.

Having Faith in the Future

Whereas Dead Space took years of survival horror conventions and blasted them into space, Mirror’s Edge took DICE’s love for the first-person perspective and discovered a whole new realm of possibilities.  It is not a perfect game, by any means.  The combat’s aggravating (Ian Bogost called Mirror’s Edgea shooter that makes you hate to shoot”) and some of the platforming is Lost Levels hard.  But it offers something utterly unique in an industry of copycats, sequels, and copycat sequels. 

EA needs to give DICE a break and let them return to this franchise.  The concept is genius.  The world is beautiful.  Let them fix it, refine it, expand it, whatever.  I want more.  I just don’t have the patience to gambol through Mirror’s Edge again.