Wednesday, January 7

Walking the Mirror's Edge

I was a true runner. Leaping across rooftops blind to what's below, vaulting boxes and gaining momentum, running along walls in defiance of gravity. But I had a little help, from Faith. Yes, the concept too, I suppose, but I mean the character. Faith's runner-trained eyes see the world in a different tint, a stage, each pole, plank, and pipe a red-tinted path through the colorless rooftops, a bread crumb trail of maneuver and escape. And then I realized: I wasn't the runner, Faith was. Her innate runner-vision, her bread crumb trail, was my crutch. I was no runner, merely a player. I wanted more control. To truly be a runner, I needed to see this bread crumb trail for myself, not let the eyes of Faith show it for me.

So I went to the options. Runner Vision: Off.

Ah, now I was a true Runner, with a capital R, free from Faith's handicap, who with Runner-tuned eyes perceived a bread crumb trail innately, naturally. In this white canvas of a cityscape, I painted my own path of red; a pole, of course! a plank, aha! Now I was Faith. I was a Runner.

Or this is how it felt at first. Almost immediately, I became lost and confused. My artistic vision, painting my own trail of red through the white canvas? Gone. Perhaps I'd lost my muse. The canvas became an infinite desert. With thoughts of Where am I? Where am I going? And all the while being torn apart by assault rifles and pistols and snipers. Far from being the finely-tuned runner of Faith, I was a frustrated gamer, angry at the game and it's city and it's level design. "Where in the heck am I going?" and "Haven't I been here before?" were frequent utterances.

It occured to me that, maybe, this is how Faith feels. Runner-vision off, I considered myself to be closer to Faith than ever. Playing was fast, nervous, and intense. Sometimes. Other times, playing was annoying and awful. Its all in the job description. I finally realized that the runner-vision is in the game for a reason: the levels weren't designed %100 linear, they've got some freedom to them, options of movement and style.

With runner-vision enabled, the game breaks down to goals: get to the next red-highlighted object. Completing each goal requires two steps from players.
1. Platforming Puzzle. Figure out how to get to the next bread crumb.
2. Platforming Ability. Get to the next bread crumb.

All players need to do is see where they need to go next, deduce how to get there, and finally, accomplish their task of doing so. Repeat.

But with the runner-vision switched off, a third step is added to the list: Figure out where to go. However, as I've just stated, the levels are not linear; they stretch out to multiple directions, buildings, and hallways. Knowing which route to take isn't always clear. If the first step fails, identifying where to go, then the remaining two steps completely break down and the gameplay becomes a mess of confusion, cursing, and, good chances, death.

In an excellent article on Gamasutra, Ian Bogost discusses Mirror's Edge, including its criticisms, innovations, and potential meaning. He states at one point, "Like a photograph that highlights an unexpected object through selective focus, runner vision draws the eye to the detritus that would otherwise seem like visual noise, reattenuating it into signal." And he's absolutely right. The runner-vision, at least for the first playthrough, is almost a necessity. DICE was well aware that gamers would become lost without some sort of guidance.
Personally, I would frequently switch the runner-vision on or off throughout the game depending on my mood and recent streak of either frustration or flow.

I've already discussed Mirror's Edge a couple of other times (Time one. Time two). But now that I've actually played and beaten the game, I can discuss it from a first-hand perspective.

Sometimes, a game is questioned as either being innovative or just plain bad. But when that game garners significant critical discussion amongst the industry's best voices, you know there's more to the game than flaws. Mirror's Edge has received lots of attention over its seemingly opposing priorities, difficulty and flow. On one hand, Mirror's Edge is about experiencing the thrill of parkour. Bogost, in his article, discusses how everyday objects in the world of Mirror's Edge are transformed from their purely functional uses (boxes, forklifts) into means of locomotion. Players get to live in the shoes of a parkourist, trained to see these objects in a new fashion, and likewise, use them in a new fashion.

But across the spectrum from the flow of parkour is the game's difficulty. It is commonly believed that too much challenge equals stunted flow. Which in turn equals no fun. The particular problem of Mirror's Edge, most critics have argued, stems from its level design. Quite simply, the level design doesn't jive with the intended flow of movement. Rather, the level design jars with players' abilities, most often derived from its frequent death traps, either in pitfalls or stubborn swat teams. I cannot argue with the dieing part. I died probably over a hundred times over the course of the game. Jump to pipe, miss, die. Respawn. Jump to pipe, miss, die.

The general consensus on failing goes like this: players are willing to accept failing if they feel said failing is their own fault, not the game's. But if players feel their failing is entirely the fault of the game or the control (ala Ghosts and Goblins), then they cry foul and enlist the game disk for skeet-shooting. So which is Mirror's Edge? Really, the game is a conundrum. Mirror's Edge is intentionally difficult, to be certain. But all of the platforming sections are eventually beatable. But, in the last couple of chapters, you will need to need to engage in combat with the swat teams, and whether or not they are unfairly difficult may be a matter of opinion (for my part, they are). Bogost proposes a different take on the concept of challenge and the design of Mirror's Edge.

Bogost writes:
Unlike Assassin's Creed, which adapts the fluidity of parkour by making movement consistently easy, Mirror's Edge adapts that fluidity by making it hard. But what initially seems like a punitive design gaffe actually carries a crucial payload: requiring the player to reattempt sets of runs insures that the final, successful one will be completed all in one go.
He makes an intriguing argument. As I read it, Bogost is saying, in a way, that players build-up to flow. Eventually, you do complete that perfect run, partially thanks to the large distance between check points. But until that moment, the gameplay amounts to what is less so trial-and-error and more so just plain error. Bogost goes on to argue that the extreme difficulty of Mega Man functions differently, but I mostly disagree with this assertion. It's fascinating that Mirror's Edge gets so much flak for being unnecessarily difficult when Mega Man 9, which functions in exactly the same manner, is at times lauded for its difficulty. Likely, this is due to the fact that Mega Man is a long established franchise, one that comes with expectations of grueling difficulty, whereas Mirror's Edge, a modern mainstream game, has expectations of being easy as compared to its contemporaries. Oppositely, the new Prince of Persia, which more or less eliminates death altogether, also is criticized, except for completely opposite reasons. One statement that can be made at least is that difficulty in games is receiving plenty of attention these days, which hopefully means new developments and innovations in its design moving forward.

I think the criticism most people harbor for Mirror's Edge comes from their confusion about its goal. Mirror's Edge presents itself as a mechanism of flow, but the difficulty often conflicts with this proposition. Everytime you die in Mirror's Edge, all immersion is lost. As pointed out above, it isn't until you make that one perfect run does flow finally kick in. I would agree with Bogost, as he concludes his article: the key to enjoying Mirror's Edge is suspending expectations. The game presents something different. It asks players to be patient as they explore the intracacies of their ability. It offers to players the feeling of being a parkourist. But, to get there, players must suffer and learn as one.


  1. Good review, i hope you keep it up.

  2. Thank you. I really appreciate it.