216: Digital Déjà Vu

Digital Déjà Vu

The halting gameplay of Mirror's Edge may have initially frustrated some players, but it could also be the game's chief pleasure. Robert Buerkle examines the first-person free-runner through the lens of another story about experiencing the same moments over and over again: Groundhog Day.

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Another thing to remember about Mirror's Edge is that the player will not get the most pleasure out of the game unless they replay the levels again and again, trying to find the perfect route that cuts down the time it takes to traverse it. This is a basic part of the game's strategy that seemed to have escaped most of the critics that reviewed it.

Many games tap into the pleasure of replay and the potential enjoyment of approaching a situation armed with near-omniscient knowledge of the requirements ahead.

Trials HD and Stuntman: Ignition are two examples: these games basically demand that you fail over and over again while learning the level, only to return to the beginning to apply your reflexes against the (now) better-understood series of challenges. These games are not meant to be played and wholly defeated in a single run; failure and repetition are built into the foundational mechanics.

InvisibleMan:
Another thing to remember about Mirror's Edge is that the player will not get the most pleasure out of the game unless they replay the levels again and again, trying to find the perfect route that cuts down the time it takes to traverse it. This is a basic part of the game's strategy that seemed to have escaped most of the critics that reviewed it.

Unfortunately, I don't think many gamers really do enjoy failing levels over and over agian just to pass it once. It's one thing when you have to replay due to your lack of skill, but it's completely different when the game FORCES you to make the right decision, made by nothing more than trial-and-error.

I personally think it's bad game design when multiple paths are presented to you, but only one path allows you to move on. I'm not saying I like linear games, but a non-linear game should give you options, not the illusion of options. This is where I think Mirror's Edge falls flat.

I absolutely HATE doing the same thing over and over! If you like advancing only by trial and error, you need to play Dragon's Lair or Space Ace. And what about re playability? Once you know which way to go, there is not much fun in doing it ever again. I can tell from this story that I would not like Mirror's Edge at all!

I knew what part you were talking about as soon as you described the first try. I made that run on hard while doing test of faith with only two deaths my first time through. Yet replaying the game that way it often takes me even more tries. But ya Mirror's Edge takes replay to a whole new level, especially with time trials and speed runs. It's all about perfection, but you'd be surprised by the number of ways there are to traverse a section. When you go for speed you gotta get real creative and it's a lot of fun being on the constant edge of failing. That's what I loved about ME, you're almost always playing that thin line between survival and death. So ya, don't play if you don't like to replay sections as this game can be VERY difficult. However playing for example easy while using weapons is actually a fairly simple walk in the park, and generally most of the running is not extremely difficult if your taking your time.

Funnily enough, while I hated Mirror's Edge - particularly the bit at which I got stuck, when Faith had to engage in a protracted battle with gun-wielding goons before making a couple of leaps of faith at the top of a mall, whereupon the infinitely-respawning gun-wielding goons would shoot her down again - I am, in spite myself, enjoying the trial-and-error gameplay of 'Splosion Man. Maybe it's because you're replaying thirty seconds not whole minutes, and maybe it's because the puzzles themselves are clever and imaginative and my response to a sudden death is more "you bastards! I'll get it this time!" than "I don't want to play any more".

It could also be that 'Splosion Man has enough cheerful character to overcome the dispiriting feeling of having to replay a section, whereas the city in Mirror's Edge is a nasty unfair place before it pulls a cheap death on you.

I really liked Mirror's Edge and it was for the reason that this article has tapped into: the quest for perfection. I like the feeling of improvement and have got myself intentionally killed in games like Mirror's Edge because I felt like I didn't do a section well enough, even if I survived and completed it.

The problem is to get the balance right though. It has to feel like the player is actually making headway and genuinely improving, rather than repeatedly attempting a section in hope of accidentally doing well enough to pass it. On the one hand, you've got to make it difficult enough that it requires the player to learn and improve, but on the other hand, it can't be so hard as to be beyond the limit of learning and require a dose of luck too.

while i love playing games which dont require me to play the same part again and again there is nothing better than getting stuck try something 20 times and then finally cracking it. its such a great feeling, and everyone within a block radius gets to hear me scream YES!!!!! at the top of my lungs.

I have to second olee12343's comment; checkpoint/save replay can act as a crutch to poor level design. Sure if I barrel around a corner without paying attention and get shot up by the heavy machine gun nest that's my fault; I'll smack myself on the back of the head and tell myself to be more careful next time. On the other hand if I stealthily poke my head around a corner and get it blown off by the psychic sniper situated there just for that purpose I'm going to blame the game because there's no way I could have known about that.

I don't mind replaying when it's my fault, I do mind it when it's the game's; and trial and error gaming is definitely the game's fault.

Im not thinking 'Groundhog Day' so much as thinking 'Next.' And I do agree it is a weak mechanic. Perhaps there may be a way to work it for more sense of reward, but short of going the Sands of Time approach, it has too much copout in it.
I immediately thought back to the many restarts I have done in Left 4 Dead, and know the ballgame is going to be way too different to try the saved strategy approach. And I am betting that more developers seize on the AI Director concept. It does save on a lot of work while also keeping the game fresh and challenging.
And here people used to raise a ruckus when the rules were changed....

gsf1200:
I absolutely HATE doing the same thing over and over! If you like advancing only by trial and error, you need to play Dragon's Lair or Space Ace. And what about re playability? Once you know which way to go, there is not much fun in doing it ever again. I can tell from this story that I would not like Mirror's Edge at all!

I think he was exaggerating for effect, I've only had to replay so many times only once, and that is out of 2 playthroughs.

olee12343:

I personally think it's bad game design when multiple paths are presented to you, but only one path allows you to move on. I'm not saying I like linear games, but a non-linear game should give you options, not the illusion of options. This is where I think Mirror's Edge falls flat.

But wouldn't you agree that is a matter of personal taste, rather than bad game design? Clemenstation mentioned Trials HD, another recent game I also like (which will tell you something about MY personal taste in gaming). That's another example of a game where playing multiple times the same level is integrated in the design on purpose, not a flaw.

And I can assure you, ME is non-linear! But you will only see this when you do the time trials, where you are forced to look for different paths to get through the level. I would conclude the opposite: ME gives you the illusion of being linear the first time you play through a level... it is not.

Such Groundhog Day-esque trial and error gameplay has its advantages, games can deliberately be made a lot more challenging when there's a simple 'go back to 15 seconds ago' button. I wouldn't say it compensates for poor game design -though there are plenty of cases in which it is used for that exact purpose- as much as it complements a game that doesn't allow too many mistakes.

Many players wouldn't be bothered re-running an entire level of acrobatics and fistfighting against gunmen while being hunted down by helicopters, just because they missed the timing for one single jump. Checkpoints make the game more accesible and bearable this way, and for certain types of games, they're pretty much essential for the players to actually enjoy themselves.

The main problem with this approach to death is that it won't matter anymore how often you fall or get shot. There is no longer the fear of failure that used to be eating your brains while hopping across platforms in the final level, clinging on to your last life before the game would completely restart.
-An example is Prince of Persia, where Elika will drag you back to the last solid platform you were on every time you fall. Though it keeps the game from breaking the flow everytime you fall, it also takes away the caution, the tension of hanging on to a single vine, carefully aiming your next jump to avoid the fall to your next Game Over screen.-

These rewind systems makes the player feel rather comfortable, probably even careless. Why would you even try to approach things differently, if you can just dive straight into the action 50 times in a row, faceplant 49 times and get 1 lucky break that lets you continue the game?

You'll fail many times during a playthrough of PoP, ME and other games that use any rewind or checkpoint system. The games are still quite enjoyable, but do you really feel the challenge through this course of trial and error? By the time you've beaten the game, do you still get that same feeling of accomplishment you got when you finally managed to get through any Metal Slug title without using up a single credit?

I think one of the things that fascinates me about the current usages of replay is the point that Clemenstation made -- that in many cases, games seem to be designed with an assumption that the player will fail several times, such that levels are built to assume some degree of foresight. Of course, this is nothing new -- games like Contra were notorious for this sort of gameplay (I mean, let's be honest, no one beats Contra without memorizing the patterns), but there was a legitimate reason for this: to encourage you to pump more quarters into the arcade machine. And I think we expect this sort of gameplay in arcade-style games, even when they migrate to home consoles. But when playing the sorts of narratively immersive games that make up much of today's market, which are experienced in completely different ways, it's odd to see a similar necessity for trial-and-error because it's so antithetical to our experience of a realistic world.

I do stick to my claim that there is a certain pleasure in this sort of mastery, in becoming awesome simply be virtue of knowing what will come next, and in this regard, I like T'Generalissimo's point -- I've had the same experience of letting myself die simply because I wanted to do something better, even if I could have trudged ahead. All the same, I completely agree with Olee12343, FlipC, and others who point out how immensely frustrating trail-and-error gameplay can become when its designed as part of the learning curve.

Crops' mention of the new Prince of Persia is an interesting counterpoint; I agree that having Elika save you every time you fall eliminates the stakes of survival, and the game loses a lot of the pleasure that the Sands of Time trilogy afforded as a result, but I am glad to see designers experimenting with alternatives to the traditional checkpoint model. I think trial-and-error will continue to be a large pleasure of gaming (or at least, certain games), but at the same time, it is a remnant of the arcade, and games looking to be more "cinematic" or "realistic" need to find some new ways to remain challenging without the disruption of repeatedly dying and rewinding.

I think one of the reasons that I chose Mirror's Edge for this article was because, despite its story and design, it does have a certain arcade quality about it, and the time trials really evince this. InvisibleMan's got a point in that the mediocre reviews were, in part, a result of players expecting something else from the game, probably due to its resemblance to more narratively immersive games. Comparing the game to other first-person games, for example, it feels rather hollow and repetitive, but comparing the game to platformers and side-scrollers, it seems to make a bit more sense. I'm not going to call it a masterpiece -- I think the game is far from perfect -- but it does seem more in the arcade tradition than the "interactive cinema" tradition, and its reliance on replay is very much a part of this.

I'm surprised that, as far as I've noticed, no-one's mentioned the word 'empowerment' yet. For me that's what it's all about, there's something deeply empowering about going back over a situation and redoing it with, (eventually, hopefully) perfection.

So often the most badass character is let down by the skills of we the controllers- Snake gets seen, Kratos gets stabbed, Lara falls off a cliff. Because of their personal narratives, we know these things aren't THEIR fault, (they get on perfectly well in the cutscenes!). It's OUR fault. By going back and doing it right you put your character back on the line of their destiny, and to everyone but you it's like the cock-ups never happened. You become badass too.

-Bimbley

Shamus did a video in regards to this subject. It went along the line of a learning curb that involved either being punished for your mistake and starting completely over again, or learning from it, and being givin another chance to try again.

I think its a situational thing, in the past it seemed that designers by default would just restart the level cause that was pretty well the only solution... the player fails, they must then restart the whole challenge, and get it right to recieve thier rewards. its a formula that can still work provided that the challenge rewards balance with the punishment of restarting.

Today it seems development has grown, and as players we are now offered the oportunity to spend less time punished, and more time to learn the challenge at the point of failure, as opposed to everything up to and including the failure.

I like the idea of trying again at the point of failure. saving your game before a seemingly challenging oponent in oblivion for example can save alot of headache, however if you dont, then the autosave may be your only 'saving' grace, wherever the autosave happened to be. repeating what you do well isnt so much a waste of time as its is just boring. Im playing the game to be entertained as well as chellenged, and if im just being givin a challenge i know the answer to over and over again, its not a challenge, its just boring.

Its a double edged sword though. An excellent example is Prince of Persia: City of Light. Its just as fun and challenging with its ablility to allow the player more time to learn by restarting at the point of failure, however it does make the game 'easy to read' and the challenge in the bigger picture becomes less apealing because you know that you will never die. (fun game though)

In short, I think both formula are worthy, just in the correct context of the game in question. Repetition I can do unless its just a broken record.

But wouldn't you agree that is a matter of personal taste, rather than bad game design? Clemenstation mentioned Trials HD, another recent game I also like (which will tell you something about MY personal taste in gaming). That's another example of a game where playing multiple times the same level is integrated in the design on purpose, not a flaw.

Nethack and other Rogue-likes take this to a whole other level with the one-death mechanic. What makes dying in these games tolerable, I think, is the sheer level of integrated random generation combined with their inherent complexity. The level geography is all procedural, as are item drops and monster encounters, and there's definitely a tiered difficulty system based on how deep in the dungeon you go. That's all fairly standard.

Where it gets interesting is in the scripted events and the rules-that-govern-the-realm. Learning these rules is what the game is about and determines a player's success in the game, and while the items and monsters and character types might change on each play-through, these rules remain consistent. Nymphs steal stuff from you and teleport away. Searching them out to get back what they've stolen can be a deadly waste of time as with each step spent in that direction the player becomes hungrier and hungrier and risks running out of food. On the other hand, Nymphs can steal cursed items that the player can't remove by normal means. It's pretty difficult to eat anything with both of your hands welded around a spear, so having a nymph spirit it away suddenly becomes a very attractive option.

The game is full of examples of this kind of thing, from lizard corpses that stop petrification to wish-granting potions, and knowing how to use them is vital to survival. While hints are littered throughout the dungeon to reveal these precious tidbits, a new player is guaranteed to spend hours after hour dying and restarting as he works his way deeper into the dungeon.

Of course, treating death with a sense of humor helps. The game awards a score for each play-through, listing attributes and manner of death on the game over screen. "Doomie D, killed by a newt, while helpless," "Rodney the Wizard, shot himself with a Wand of Death," "Drizzt von Legolas, choked on a Unicorn corpse while satiated." In a way the game becomes a contest to see how the player can get killed in the most demeaning or embarrassing way possible, especially when online death trackers and groups of friends are involved. Death also identifies all items carried and reveals the player's innermost attributes, revealing things the player should look out for or pay more attention to next time.

All of this culminates in the act of ascension. Retrieving the Amulet of Yendor from the Wizard in the depths of Gehennom and surviving not only the trip back to the surface, but through the elemental plains and the final level is an exhilarating experience that culminates in ultimate satisfaction if the player actually manages to beat the game. At the same time, one must be careful not to get caught up in the action. It's very easy to overlook something appallingly simple and have to start the process all over again.

The community has a term for this, "YASD," or "Yet Another Stupid Death", and lists of these, warnings to fellow travelers to always be on their guard, can be found on almost every message board dealing with the game. Simple things like putting an unidentified bag into a bag of holding can result in a powerful explosion if the bag in question happens to be another bag of holding, and stepping on a forgotten polymorph trap without magic resistance can leave a player resigned to living out his life as a quivering blob, virtually incapable of movement or even sight, totally at the mercy of even the weakest of monsters.

Yet despite these pitfalls and nameless horrors players keep coming back to the game. Failure is in many ways just as enjoyable as success, and the journey is more exciting because of its frequency. The unforgiving nature of the early game tempers the player's resolve and it soon becomes a test of wills, the player against the game, determined to overcome its challenges and achieve glory in ascension. There are very few games that can boast this, and while Nethack and its Rogue-like compatriots are certainly not for everyone, they're definitely worth a try.

 

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