Mirror's Edge

Oh Lord how badly I wanted to hate this game at times. But how could I? It was so beautiful. And--when it was in the right mood--so smooth and sensual. So why didn't I want to love it? Because it didn't love me. It was like Faith (our heroine) didn't want me inside her--okay, poor choice of words, let me rephrase--it was like she resented having me in her head and so she'd cross her arms stubbornly in mid air, refusing to grab the next ledge and passive-aggressively falling to her death. Over and over and over again she punished me, as I refused to take the hint and hand the controller to someone younger and more attractive.

The last time I tried first-person platforming was in Half-Life 2. I loved the game, but those segments were irritating. It felt like "Gordon Freeman" was a transparent cube of gelatin, maybe six feet on a side, whose outer surface exuded a greasy lubricant. It was this cube I had to somehow launch from surface to surface. The momentum felt sluggish and slidey. I had to choose between aligning my jumps (which required looking forward) or timing my jumps (which required looking down so I could see when I was at the edge). I was constantly grease-sliding off things and falling because I couldn't see or feel where I was standing or where the edge was. It just felt all wrong. So I wrote off first person platforming.

In fact, before I played Bioshock and the various Half-Life episodes, I'd written off the entire genre of first-person action games. I thought the POV was inherently corny, like those awkward shots in movies where the camera supposedly takes the place of the character's head and maybe somebody asks the camera a question and the camera bobs up and down to say uh-huh. Playing an FPS felt (and still feels) like wearing horse-blinders; I could see only a tiny angular fraction of my surroundings compared with what a third person perspective offers. The camera never felt or moved like it was really my head or anybodys head. And whenever I could see some other part of my body, usually my hands, there was something ludicrously wrong about it -- like I had a small pair of hands growing out of my cheek-bones, holding a teeny shotgun. For me it's an instance of the uncanny valley effect; I understand that the first-person POV is meant to be a more immersive simulation of what it's like to be personally present instead of remote-controlling a puppet, but because it tries to imitate real experience, my mind automatically judges it by the standards of real experience, and I can't help but notice how unreal it seems.

The advance hype, and then the actual reviews, promised that Mirror's Edge had solved the problem; it had finally cracked the first person platforming nut. And now that my frustration while actually playing the game has faded in memory somewhat, I have to admit I think the game does contain the solution to making the genre not only work, but work unlike anything that's come before it. I say it "contains the solution" and not that it has solved the problem because, at least for me, several sections of the game were more awkward and frustrating than Half-Life 2 or any other platformer I've played in years. There were individual jumps (and wall-runs) that I literally had to try a dozen times or more. Worst of all, when I finally succeeded it was never clear why I'd made it that time and failed every time before. I wasn't consciously trying anything different. It didn't look or feel any different. It was like every jump was a role of the dice. If I had to get past a series of four, all I could do was keep trying until I happened to roll high four times in a row. There were parts of the game which could have been brilliant (like the yellow atrium you have to ascend near the end) but were ruined for me.

This isn't just frustrating; it's disengaging. It's one thing to play a difficult game; it's quite another to play a game where the rules--what separates success from failure--don't seem clear or consistent. Even if one succeeds in a game like that, there's no sense of achievement or mastery, because any success seems arbitrary. That's a big problem for Mirror's Edge in particular, because graceful mastery of the character's physical skill set should be one of its central pleasures (and is, when it's working right).

In retrospect, I wonder how much of the problem was simply Faith's extreme fussiness about what she would and would not grab onto. "Grab on! GRAB ON!" I screamed at her over and over again. I look forward to the games of the near future when this will actually be effective. Until then, I'd rather have a manual grab button I have to remember to press myself if my on-screen persona is unable or unwilling to do her f*cking job (sorry kid, but there it is). I don't know, maybe if they'd simply turned the "grabbiness" knob I'm naively imagining from a two up to around a seven, all my complaints would evaporate. And it's true, this problem could just as easily occur in a third person game. But even if the first-person POV isn't the cause, it's definitely an aggravating factor. In a third-person game I can watch my character attempt a difficult jump and notice that--ah ha--this time I planted my foot a little closer to the brink, or that time I started my wall run a few bricks sooner. From the first-person perspective this kind of feedback is much harder to read, so failure is harder to diagnose and success is harder to repeat.

But that's a lot of bitching, and I did say the game contains the answer (well, an answer) to first-person platforming. So now I'll lay that answer out as I see it. I'm not presuming to lecture the game makers here on what they should have done, I'm describing what I learned from them in those sequences where everything came together:
  1. Give the player a body. This is achieved in Mirror's Edge through more subtle touches, I think, than I was able to consciously detect. I know they spent a lot of time on this very issue. Most obviously, you can see your body. It may still look a little unnatural, but there it is for your shoe-gazing pleasure. A little more subtly, the way you move--accelerate and decelerate--makes you feel like you're driving something that weighs what a human body weighs and is driven by human muscles, rather than hovering on compressed air jets. Run into a wall and you'll see and hear your palms slap against it--it all feels fleshy and solid.
  2. Be forgiving. This is necessary because the perspective inherently handicaps the player. Maybe this means that no jump in the game is longer than, say, 75% of the character's maximum jumping distance. Maybe it means that the character is really good at grabbing ledges--good enough to correct for a mediocre jump on the player's part. Since it's easier to aim a jump than time it right (because you can't look down while running), it makes sense to favor short jumps to narrow targets over long jumps to wide ones 
  3. Individual acts of acrobatics don't need to be challenging for the game to be challenging. Looking back, Mirror's Edge was the most fun when I was very quickly and fluidly performing a long series of moves, none of which by themselves would be very difficult if I took them slowly. It was the speed of traversal, and the need to think on the fly, that made these sequences challenging. Any time I came across a single really difficult jump, it all came crashing to a halt and the effect was ruined. The game also contains slower-paced puzzle sequences, but I think these sections work best when the challenge lies entirely in figuring out what you need to do. Once you've solved the intellectual puzzle of how to traverse an area, the execution should be fairly straightforward, or at least that's what I would've preferred.
Most significantly, this game demonstrates what can only be achieved in a first-person platformer. Never since I was a toddler have I found the movement of simple, brightly-colored shapes so hypnotically compelling. This game threw open the doors to dusty, long-shuttered rooms at the back of my motor cortex. There's no doubt about it, for all my eye-rolling over the absurdity of running around with a camera for a head, my dumb primate brain was fooled at some deep level. Like I was sitting in an old-school IMAX movie, I could feel the weaving, bobbing, leaping and (most frequently) falling in the pit of my stomach. Also, I know video games are supposed to be a pathetic imitation of actual experience and whatever, but I'm pretty sure the colors in this game are simply better and brighter than in real life.

Obviously the game designers couldn't come out and actually say this, but I wonder if they meant to imply that Faith is on amphetamines or some other mind-enhancing drug, and so we experience the borderline-hallucinatory, radioactive-candy-coated hyper-reality she does. There's so much bright, luscious light in this game; the whole thing is like one of those old radiosity demos where all the surfaces are smooth concrete so they don't distract from that all that lovely diffuse interreflection. In case you can't tell, I adored the visuals. I don't care if it's supposed to be a false utopia in the story, this is a love letter to the modern urban landscape. And no one has ever had the balls to use colors the way these guys do. It makes you realize that the higher dynamic range of modern TVs is just as important as the higher resolution. When you run into an orange room in the game, not only is it the orangest thing you've ever seen on the screen, but the whole room you're playing the game in turns orange.

The most common complaint about the game is that the combat is weak. Strangely, given my other complaints and the fact that I'm not a big FPS fan, I actually didn't mind the shooting. Then again, maybe that's because I was shooting and not evading or disarming everybody like a good Buddhist. I honestly intended to play as a pacifist, but trying to compassionately disarm three riot cops with automatic weapons was about as effective as you'd reasonable expect. As I lay dying on the ground for the fifteenth time, I felt my politics undergoing a profound shift. On my next try, after disarming the first guy I just turned and shot the other two and it felt sooo good. What I learned from this game: shooting at your problems with guns makes them melt away like fluffy dreams.

Part of the reason I resorted to lethal force was that getting shot while trying to do my acrobatics made me really, really angry--like getting smacked hard in the back of the head every few seconds while trying to play. This game has far too many sequences in which wave after wave of police shoot all too competently at you. I understand that the designers want to force the player to move very fast--that's the whole point--but they should've invented more ways to achieve that effect. There are a couple of sections where you're pursued by enemies who can't shoot you but will hurt you if they can catch you, and others where you have to catch somebody else--I found both more effective and satisfying than dodging bullets. And I feel like the gunfire is fundamentally at odds with the ideal rhythm of the game, which at its best achieves an almost trance-like fluidity that is BANG! only rudely BANG! interrupted by BANG! okay you get the idea.

Another thing I alternately cursed and admired the game for is the way it provides guidance. I've always been interested in how designers use color, lighting, level design and other sneaky tricks to subtly manipulate the player's attention, so we notice what we're supposed to notice and go where we're supposed to go. At its best, this can be like a magician asking you to choose a card, having decided in advance which one you'll choose. There were moments in this game that felt that way; I was running at full tilt through complex, cluttered environments; I'd make what felt like a spur-of-the-moment choice among many possible routes--and somehow I chose exactly the route the designers intended (and I'm not referring to my "runner vision" painting things red, but to subtler aspects of the design). I can't decide whether the fast-paced nature of the game makes this trick easier or harder for them. Getting lost and backtracking, or even pausing to look around, is something you can rarely afford in the game, so guidance is a much more acute problem. On the other hand, maybe it's easier to manipulate someone in headlong animalistic flight than someone who has time to slow down and use their cerebral cortex. Maybe I always just headed for what was directly ahead of me. Maybe I headed for whatever was shiniest.

Then again, there were several places where I did get lost and died repeatedly because of it. And the designers must've been very worried about this, since they included both the red runner-vision and the look-homeward-angel button. At first these seemed to me like crutches, inserted to make up for shortcomings in the level design. But then again, the game presents runner-vision as a visual representation of your character's intuition, and who's to say that's not legitimate? While it's almost always the case that video game characters have physical abilities the player doesn't, they may also have intellectual abilities the player doesn't. How else were they supposed to represent the fact that Faith knows more than you about rooftop traversal? It's not the kind of knowledge that can be put into words. Maybe artificial color is as good a solution as any. Anyway, it's an interesting problem.

Should I even mention the story? Uh...nah.