Sunday, January 13

"Putting The Person Back Into First-Person"

Every once in a while an awesome game will slip past my radar; which is rare considering my keen sixth-sense for gaming knowledge. But never did I expect a game this awesome to pass by unnoticed. DICE is currently working on a couple of titles. One is Battlefield: Bad Company, the third/fourth installment in the Battlefield franchise. The other is a little-known game for PC, PS3, and 360, called Mirror's Edge.

Mirror's Edge, to be blunt, looks amazing. And not just graphically, though that too. DICE's new game is designed around an innovative, often ignored aspect of first-person games: the first person perspective itself. Truth be told, this is something that has always bothered me about first-person games, 99% of which are shooters. First-person-shooters are more so from the perspective of the gun than the person; at most players get a glimpse of the wrist. While there is nothing wrong with this in itself, you'd think more games would break out of the traditional first-person-shooter mold and try something new. Well, now they have. And its about time.

Mirror's Edge is an example of gameplay elements working in tandem. Always a beautiful thing to see. The game's take on the first-person perspective, the likes of which not seen since Ubisoft's canceled Killing Day, is not simply for aesthetic purposes, but wholely necessary for gameplay. Another de-emphasized aspect of most first-person-shooters is movement. Generally, players can strafe and jump short heights. But thats about it. Mirror's Edge, on the other hand, is all about movement, or, more aptly, motion. Taking a cue from Assassin's Creed, the focus of Mirror's Edge is parkour, or "the art of moving through your environment using only your body and the surroundings to propel yourself."

As you run, you can see your arms swing in rhythm with your gait and your feet kick out as they hit the pavement. Players are in the eyes of the protagonist, not the gun. Though this may seem confusing or dizzying, the effect is likely quite natural and smooth. What's fascinating is that, though given a limited framing of our character's body, we are able to interpolate the rest of the body's position, given our experience with the first-person perspective (aka, our whole lives). Or at least thats how it seems to me. I haven't actually seen the game in motion. But I have faith.
Speaking of which, players assume the role of a "runner," named Faith, tasked with delivering intel throughout a utopian futuristic city. Propelling you through the levels are enemies at your heels, forcing you to stay moving. Fortunately, you have at your disposal a handy-dandy firearm with which to dispose of your foes. But unlike many other first-person-shooters, fire fights in Mirror's Edge aren't slowly paced pain-staking stake-outs; the emphasis is constant movement, so even the act of shooting will match the deliberation of running. "Run N' Gun" has a whole new meaning. The city itself is highly sanitary and brightly colored, making not only for nice and simple running environments, but representative of story themes as well. The writer of the Edge preview explains:
There’s a sense of underlying menace that is perfectly communicated by the city’s sterile perfection, an austerity compounded by the splashes of primary colour, which begin to look like transparent attempts to enliven a world that is emotionally dead, its diversity stifled, its people subjected to draconian unity of thought and behaviour.
Aside from thematic issues, the simplicity of the game environment is not only appealing but also conducive to gameplay.

Sidebar: Everything Should Be Conducive To Gameplay!

The artistic style is reminscent of Portal and Team Fortress 2, simplistic geometry and a small, bright color palette, designed to work in tandem with the parkour elements. The game moves at a fast pace. The whole point is to run through a city quickly; so the environment and level design need to work in conjunction with the game's speed. And here is what is so amazing. I'll just quote the section. First quotation from Senior Producer Owen O’Brien; post-line break continuation, the article's editor.
“We wanted to get that feel into the game, seeing the world as a she would see it; stripping out everything except that which would be important to her. We want the player to move through the world very quickly, and we want the player to know what their options are. All the things that are important to you will pop out.”

Potential paths and objects that Faith can use to propel herself through the environment are indicated with vibrant splashes of primary colour. Routes that will lead to certain death tend to be marked with shadow, while safe paths are illuminated, giving the player an instinctive sense of how to navigate the perilous rooftop paths without having to stop and check ahead.
I just love that. Good game design is so awesome. Whether or not safety in regards to light and darkness is instinctive is debatable. However, the use of light and darkness as a highly-effective principle of gameplay is genius. Running through environments at an intentionally quick pace requires necissarily guided pathways. Not a big arrow in the center of the screen pointing the correct direction, but subtely, like, oh, I don't know, lighting. Otherwise players are guaranteed to run off the edge and have to restart from a checkpoint of some sort and memorize each level via trial and error. Which, again, is actually ok for some games, but is bound to suck away the fun in short order. Trial and error is still likely to play a role in Mirror's Edge, however, but more so from player error than game; this isn't gouls and ghosts. And player error is an ok thing. The learning process is unquestionably one of the greatest aspects of video games.

Back to lighting. Think of the lighting ques as the dashed yellow line along the road. In a racing game, just because you know a road is going to turn a certain way doesn't mean you're going to make the turn without hitting a wall. Lighting conveys necessary gameplay information to players quickly; players will, presumably, be able to discern which route to travel very quickly. Running the wrong way is no fun.Light design will work in two, subtle ways. It will cue players to run in a certain direction while simultaneously allowing them to feel they are actively deciding their course of movement. And they are. You could run into darkness but who knows what monsters lurk beyond the lights glare.

Mirror's Edge looks really cool. I can't wait to get some more information on the game. Everything in this preview was deduced from Edge's excellent preview and the unnofficial fansite, On Mirror's Edge. Go read the preview for some more stuff I didn't cover. Like control, and slow motion, and really cool concept diagrams. All good stuff. I'm also pretty excited to see a fansite already up and running, check out their forums for some more focused discussion.

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