Digital Déjà Vu

I kick open the red door and find myself in a parking garage. Ahead of me, a “blue” (a policeman) stands on the opposite side of some pipes with his back turned. A closed gate blocks my path to the right. Before I can assess my options, another blue bursts through a nearby door, gun drawn. Seeing nowhere else to run, I turn left and break into a sprint … just before spotting another gunman straight ahead of me. Uh-oh. The blues open fire. Everything goes dark.


Silence. Mirror’s Edge reloads my last checkpoint, and I find myself, once again, standing before the red door. Déjà vu.

Ever wonder why time travel has persisted in science fiction and fantasy? From H.G. Wells and Mark Twain to Back to the Future and Star Trek, the dream of traversing timelines has endured in our pop cultural imagination for well over a century. It’s one of those fantasies that, no matter how illogical, speaks to a common desire: to go back and fix our mistakes. I wish I could undo that stupid traffic accident, that embarrassing date, that exam that I totally bombed. Why didn’t I do things differently? Wouldn’t it be great if I could go back and do it again?

The idea of predicting the future is equally compelling, as uncertainty is one of the great insecurities of modern society. Should I take this new job or keep my old one? How should I invest my money? Am I ready to settle down and have kids? If only I could see how things would turn out before committing to a decision!

Replay indulges both of these fantasies by allowing us to relive situations until we get them right. It’s one of the great pleasures of gaming: Whenever we lose, we get to go back and try again, never having to live with failure or regret. The assurance that we’ll be afforded this opportunity lets us enter new situations calmly and confidently. Common wisdom tells us we can’t have it both ways, but with replay, we can.

I kick open the red door. I know heading left is no good, so without breaking stride, I charge toward the pipes and slide beneath them, gliding past the blue on the other side. No time to think – the blue is already drawing his weapon. I see three possible routes: a door to the left, a corridor behind a large truck and a staircase straight ahead. I hesitate, and the blue puts a shot in my back. Suddenly, getting behind the truck seems very appealing. I dodge past it, hoping for a respite, but spot another blue ahead. The corridor was not the way to go.

Gunfire. Darkness. Silence. Rewind, and I’m back before the red door.

There’s something immensely pleasurable about this experience – going back and reliving the same moment over again. And over again. And over and over, until I get it right. It’s Groundhog Day.

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Ever see the movie? I’m sure you’ve at least heard the premise: Phil, a weatherman, is sent to Punxsutawney to report on the groundhog, but inexplicably gets stuck in a temporal loop such that he wakes up every morning in the same day – February 2nd – forced to repeatedly experience the same events. It’s pretty good. Quite funny. And it’s the definitive movie on replay.


But here’s the thing: Groundhog Day presents this temporal loop as the movie’s “problem” – Phil’s goal is to escape this loop, to finally make it to February 3rd. Yet at the same time, this loop is the very pleasure of the movie. Although we do hope that Phil escapes eventually, much of his predicament seems strangely enviable: being able to do anything he wants and knowing that he doesn’t have to live with the consequences; learning to anticipate exactly what will happen and planning accordingly; experimenting with possibilities, trying different strategies and learning the best way to navigate this particular day. February 2 in Punxsutawney becomes the ultimate videogame level – Phil replays the day over and over, learning new tactics and acquiring new skills until he can successfully defeat the final boss: romancing his producer.

Groundhog Day taps into a very basic yearning, one most commonly annunciated as “if I knew then what I know now.” It’s this same pleasure that videogames afford in replayability. Replay satisfies the eternal human desire to go back and do things over, to experience a situation in the present but also with the benefit of hindsight. We all want chances to relive a moment, to erase our mistakes and do things better, and replay allows this.

I kick open the red door, charge ahead, slide beneath the pipes and break for the stairs ahead. I scuffle with a blue on the floor above, then … uh-oh, no good. Rewind.

When videogames began introducing the “save game” feature, we originally thought of this in relation to the expanding size of games – save points allowed us to stop playing and come back later, which in turn freed up designers to create experiences that lasted for hours rather than minutes. But this innovation had another profound effect on the way we experienced games.

In the past, dying had been something to avoid at all costs, as it inevitably entailed some punishment – going back to the beginning of a level, or worse, having to start the whole game over from scratch. These were very game-like experiences, as they entailed a sense of losing – death made us slouch back, throw our arms in the air and take a breather before starting over again. But as games have become more story driven – which is to say, more movie-like – “losing” has been replaced with “rewinding.” Death is now more of a hiccup, a mistake that needn’t be feared as it can be easily forgotten. Whereas dying used to require a reboot of sorts – the level resets, and the player must start over from scratch – we now simply turn back the clock and try that moment again.

I kick open the door, slide beneath the pipes, break for the stairs, ignore the blue, charge down the ramp ahead, turn right – no, make that left … forget it. Rewind.

The “story” of Mirror’s Edge involves Faith attempting to uncover a vast conspiracy and clear her sister’s name of a crime. Yet what I actually experience is Faith repeatedly dying and resurrecting en route to her goal, continually being defeated, then moving backward in time to a slightly earlier moment. While playing, I constantly have my finger on the rewind button, turning back the story to watch that scene over, hoping for a different outcome the next time around.


Think about it: We’re living in a home video era. Since the dawn of the VCR, we’ve had complete temporal control over the stories we experience on screen. We can pause when we need a drink or rewind when we miss a vital line of dialogue. For better or worse, we’re accustomed to temporally manipulating our narrative experiences, and replay has evolved alongside this standard.

I kick open the door, slide beneath the pipes, break for the stairs, ignore the blue, charge down the ramp, turn left, duck behind a cargo truck and spot an elevator on the opposite side of a glass wall. Bullets shatter the glass and riddle my body … dead, but I see my exit.

It shouldn’t be surprising that these sorts of temporal manipulations have become so commonplace as to enter the very logic of more recent games. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time took the next step in replay: Rather than leave it an unspoken component of the medium, as with my experience of Mirror’s Edge, Sands of Time made replay a deliberate part of the game’s internal reality. When the Prince misses a ledge and falls to his doom, the titular Sands allow him to manipulate time, moving back to the moment just before he jumped. In Sands of Time, the act of replay becomes the crux of the story.

But is this shifting temporality any less important to my experience of Mirror’s Edge?

I could not escape the parking garage without the knowledge I gain from replay, and it’s only through this sort of trial and error that I’m able to finally master the game. As the Prince, I may wield the mystical Sands of Time to undo my missteps and avoid catastrophe, but as Faith, I hold similar powers. My mistakes are never final, my uncertainty is always short-lived and sooner or later I’m able to negotiate the world with perfect foresight. I might never have such prescience in my own life, yet I can always attain it in videogames. It just takes a few replays.

I kick open the door, slide beneath the pipes, break for the stairs, ignore the blue, charge down the ramp, turn left, duck behind the cargo truck, smash the glass wall, hit the elevator button, duck inside and casually wait as the doors close behind me.

Pfft. That was easy.


Robert Buerkle is a visiting professor of videogamery at the University of Pittsburgh (where he also teaches film studies). When he’s not teaching, he writes stuff.

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