Return to Mirror's Edge (essay)

Mirror's Edge is technically a first-person shooter. It is a videogame played from a first-person perspective and, at times, you both shoot and are shot at.

However, your player character is a free-runner. You have almost no health. For agility, you are wearing no armour and carrying no weapons of your own. Your major skills are running, jumping, climbing and occasionally punching people in the face and stealing their weapons. You can carry one weapon at a time. Once you have a weapon, you have no idea how many bullets are in it until it's empty. You have no facility to collect ammunition or to reload once empty. And a gun in your hand will impair your mobility, so you'll have to drop it pretty quickly whatever happens.

In other words, getting involved in a firefight in Mirror's Edge is a great way to get yourself shot and killed. That's not the point of the game.

Mirror's Edge is not a first-person shooter. It's a first-person runner.

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Mirror's Edge has one of the all-time great videogame trailers. It succinctly demonstrates seven or eight things about Mirror's Edge which set it way apart from other games. In approximately the order in which these become apparent:

  • Lush, crisp, high-resolution graphics. Just look at that city. Look at the solar panels and the ventilation units and doors. It's like a newly-minted penny. Maybe I've been out of it for a while but videogame graphics have taken a quantum leap forward in recent years. Look at the light bloom effects when you look directly at the Sun or when you exit from a building into dazzling sunlight. Look at the motion blur at the edge of the screen. High definition!

  • A future city which is white instead of black. I'm counting this separately from the graphical quality. ME's graphic design stands out a mile away-- no other game I'm aware of looks like it. No mud, no brown, no grey, no darkness, no fog. The exteriors seen in the trailer are flat blocks of white stone and white concrete with gloss blue windows. Other exteriors feature huge flat painted panels of bright primary colours, blue and orange and yellow. Interiors are similarly monochromatic, orange/black/white with tinges of blue here and there, green/white with black highlights. It's a city of concept art! And why not? Many times in this game I've climbed to an elevated spot and spent a little while just sightseeing. It is technically a dystopia (for reasons which I'll cover), but it's a dystopia built by somebody with excellent taste.

  • You can see her arms and legs!

    This is a big deal. First person games have historically worked on the "invisible camera floating six feet above the ground" model, with the player character invisible to the player. When you look down, no feet are visible. Maybe you have one visible hand, holding the gun, but when you climb a ladder you just zoom up it without apparently touching the rungs. Mirror's Edge throws out all of that. When you run into a wall, your character puts her hands up against it. When you land from a long fall and roll, your field of view will pitch forward the full 360 degrees and you'll see your knees and legs as you somersault. It feels like you're in physical contact with the game world and this is a big deal because it makes it easier - or even possible - to run and jump and climb confidently.

  • She can jump over railings! She can climb onto roofs! Sliding underneath low obstacles isn't that big a deal; nor is crawling through vents, which comes up later. But in this game you can look at a ledge that's higher than your head and you can grab its edge and hoist yourself up. This completely changes the way that you, an FPS player, look at the game world. It adds a whole new dimension of mobility that was previously absent from FPSes. You used to have to find a gate, or some stairs, or a stack of things that you could climb up one at a time. It was almost embarrassing.

  • There is no HUD at all. No health meter, no radar, no ammunition counter, no target reticule*. It's just you and the world.

    As I mentioned, games these days are frequently really amazing to look at. Slapping an immobile heads-up display over the top only serves to mask that. I believe that HUDs should be kept to an absolute bare minimum and if possible should be non-existent. I concede that this is difficult or impossible for many games in many genres. Mirror's Edge is a game which, surely by design, requires no information to be present on the screen. You see the red-highlighted objects in the world? That's "runner vision", telling you where to go. It's all you need.

  • Sliding down wires, balancing along beams, leaping across space at a vertical pipe on another building: these things are fairly cool. But wall-running is significant, another substantial development in mobility in FPSes. I lost count of how many times in the game I found myself in a situation with no idea how to move forward and hung around for a while before realising that escape was trivial using a wall-run. It opens up so much possibility.

  • That leap (and the character's name is Faith, get it?) is just the first of a series of really amazing set-pieces. You know that scene in Casino Royale? With the cranes? Yesss.

  • Faith looks sensible. Practical trousers, sports top, extremely cool running shoes. Her bust isn't out to here, her hair isn't some insane length that's going to get tangled in her mouth when she moves. She is dressed like someone who runs and jumps across buildings for a living. This makes Faith practically unique among all female videogame characters. (I'm going to have to look past the silly tattoos.)

  • The music. The main theme, Lisa Miskovsky's "Still Alive" (of no connection to the song of the same name used in Portal), is uplifting and inspiring. The rest of Mirror's Edge's music, composed by Solar Fields, is airy, ambient and organic. It's good noise.

What the trailer adds up to is a videogame of great ambition and promise. It will look and play like no other, and in the best case scenario inspire imitators and sequels in an almost-new genre. This is a grand experiment, a laudable risk, particularly for publisher Electronic Arts (better known for releasing annual incremental updates of the same eight or nine sports games). Urban free-running and jumping, jumping from building to building, standing in high places looking totally cool. Look at the thing! Don't you want to play that?

So it was a pity about the execution.

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Don't get me wrong: Mirror's Edge delivered on all the points mentioned above. It is exhilarating to play. Free-running is already cool in reality; raise the altitude by fifty storeys and add pursuing helicopter gunships, and it's a winner. But mistakes were also made. And in fact, it's really hard to see exactly how Mirror's Edge even could have been 100% successful.

Let's run through the easily avoidable ones first:

  • Some very cramped indoor areas. This is a game where the real joy comes from moving fluidly across an open, free-form, vertical and vertiginous urban landscape, not from being locked up in a small room and forced to perform slow, fiddly jumps and wall-crawling manoeuvres to get to the vent in the top corner. Momentum is lost.

  • The outdoor areas, which are admittedly great fun to play, don't withstand scrutiny as physical locations in a real city. Doors, vents, ledges and cranes are far too conveniently located. Most glaringly: buildings simply are not built that close to one another.

  • At least a dozen puzzles to which the solution is "locate and press the single, obvious, nearby button".

  • Animated cutscenes aren't a sin. But these just aren't very good to look at. A bold effort, but not an entirely effective one.

  • A plot that... okay. Let's cover this.

    As with every videogame, the plot was created in order to justify the existence of the playable levels and the levels have to logically tie together the acts of the plot. But the two never quite meet in the middle.

    Some years ago, the City (Could it be Mexico City? Who knows) was a regular city. Then extreme surveillance came in and the Powers That Be started using security cameras and reading everybody's emails and text messages. Which is bad. There was a protest, the November Riots. The rioters lost. So now surveillance is part of the scenery.

    Because of the heavy surveillance, anybody wanting to send a secure message to another person has to send it physically, via Runner. This is where our character Faith comes in, along with her Runner friends and their handlers. "Running" is of course illegal and in the apparent absence not just of any other criminal activity but of any other inhabitants of the City at all, the Runners are public enemy number one. The very first significant event in the whole game is when Faith encounters a group of police officers, who immediately open fire on her.

    And that's it. It seems like the City would be built on some sort of terrible dark secret, which would be uncovered during the course of the game, but that literally seems to be the whole setup. It's never adequately explained what messages are being sent, from whom or to whom.

    So Faith goes to see a person, then another person, then breaks into this other place for no good reason (although not without killing a bunch of people on the way in, and her actions throughout the game are difficult to justify). One person winds up dead; another has dubious loyalties from the start; there's a mysterious assassin whose identity is easily deduced from the Law of Conservation of Characters; there's a Big Bad whose identity is even easier to figure out. Nothing is adequately resolved, largely because nothing is adequately set up.

    And the title doesn't mean anything.

All of that could be fixed. But now the core problems.

The combat, when it does occur, is extremely unforgiving. It's completely reasonable that Faith would be instantly taken out by just a few well-placed sniper shots. In fact, if the combat was properly realistic and Faith's health didn't regenerate, it would be much worse. But there's a tightrope being walked between the game being fun and the character of Faith not inexplicably being a walking tank, and the developers have erred too far on the side of harsh. The result is punishingly difficult trial and error, as you try to figure out whom to disarm first and where to hide once you've done so, while being insta-killed each time you make the slightest mistake. Once you've got the moves and tactics worked out, combat is more fun, but solving the problem once is plenty for most people and you'll have no particular desire to come back and play that chapter again.

If the combat is unforgiving trial and error, I don't know what to call the running-and-jumping-and-platforming. Zarquon. You will fall and fall and fall and fall again. Mirror's Edge has good reasons for being crammed with invisible save points. Again, once you get some practice under your belt, learn the levels and become properly competent at Faith's repertoire of moves, the game becomes infinitely easier and therefore more rewarding. Stringing moves together into a successful flow is neat once you know how. You just don't get the chance to learn. Because...

Final problem. This one ties the whole thing together. The game is too short. Maybe nine hours.

Mirror's Edge's core problem-scape is this: for the game to be good and rewarding, you need time and practice to become proficient at it. If you only play the single-player story, you won't have played for enough time for that to happen. You'll get to the end, sure, but you'll have done so by breaking the game into

  1. easy bits and
  2. extremely difficult bits which you accomplished once through dumb luck and never want to revisit.

But if the game had been longer, and if it had schooled you more thoroughly and clearly in the proper execution of those moves, it would have become boring and repetitive. For the deadly falls to be more forgiving, the game would have had to take place at street level; for the combat to be more forgiving, it would have had to be substantially less credible.

Do you see?

This looks to me like a fundamental problem with the high-altitude parkour formula more than a fault of developers Dice. A longer game which broke in the concepts more slowly and carefully might have been better-received, but on the other hand it's a balancing act and that kind of level design is a real skill.

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Mirror's Edge is flawed, but it has flashes of great brilliance. I've played it through enough times that I understand it now. It was a shot in the dark, a genuine attempt to create something not seen before, and it was tremendously successful on those terms. And so, so good to look at.

Will they please begin work on a sequel?

 


*You can turn one on, but even then it's just a tiny white dot.

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