In the long, scorching, cabin-feverish summer of 2009, a single thing kept my sanity afloat. At night, when the tarmac had cooled and the commuters had subsided, I went running. Not the Nike ideal of running – no tight shorts and trainers, no pumping the London streets with adrenaline-fueled fury. Instead, I loaded up the free-running masterpiece Mirror’s Edge, and dove in. Night after night, visions of the game’s clean and bright cityscape blotted out the day’s loneliness, depression and insecurity. I found freedom in the space, the air, the momentum. But there is one aspect of my sanctuary I refused to consider in detail until now: Mirror’s Edge failed.
Mirror’s Edge is an impossible game. Its publisher, Electronic Arts, is one of the largest in the world, reviled by many gamers for its love of repetition and safe bets. Its developer, DICE, is a one-trick pony, an experienced developer of large-scale multiplayer shooters. And what game do these two organizations come together to produce? A risky, innovative platformer-cum-shooter with an emphasis on the avoidance of combat rather than the reverse. It’s a paradox, but a beautiful one nonetheless. Look at any preview of Mirror’s Edge from mid-2008, and you’ll see an optimism that goes beyond the usual cautious compliments of a preview. There was a genuine excitement about how powerful it looked, how original and bold.
This largely translated into the way it played. Mirror’s Edge is fresh in every sense of the word, a platformer with an emphasis on movement and momentum, inspired by the athletic ballet of parkour, where runners use agility and speed to overcome physical obstacles. That means daring rooftop leaps, scaling construction sites and an elegant bounce to every move. The game’s story and setting, while important, are ultimately secondary to the experience it offers: It shirks the more traditional third-person viewpoint and instead puts you in the eyes of the protagonist, so that you felt every bodyslam, tumble and fall.
The city that you sprint across is a surreal vision of the future, with architecture by Mondrian and society by Orwell. “Stark” is the watchword throughout – stark, but not bleak. The environment was designed with intentional bursts of color, but the palette has pure white at its core, and the UI follows this minimalist tendency as well – there isn’t really one. A single dot sits in the middle of the screen to orient you while you’re running, leaping and rolling through the city; besides that the screen is filled only with your motion. There is a singular vision at work here, and it’s worn proudly on the game’s chest.
But for all of Mirror’s Edge‘s unique ideas and vibrant atmosphere, it was deeply flawed. Perhaps the game’s most enduring black mark is its combat. Though the game’s marketing emphasized the “flight, not fight” aspect of its free-running in the run up to its launch, there are a lot of men with guns. Sometimes it’s handled elegantly: A particularly beautiful piece of level design in the last mission has you fend off several of the toughest soldiers in the game with nothing more than a few kicks, for instance. But at many other times it locks you into a series of tighter and tighter spots until you’re forced to disarm opponents, steal weapons and rely on your twitch-shooter reflexes. Mirror’s Edge only works when it’s being Mirror’s Edge, and many gamers felt understandably let down when it forced them to play something else.
The less obvious story of Mirror’s Edge is it’s an uncomfortable game to play. Most gamers are happy to slip into character when they throw in a game, and titles like Mass Effect play up this sensation and use it to their advantage. Players like to believe in the person they’re taking control of, but the protagonist of Mirror’s Edge, the plucky Faith, is a woman constantly forced into states of contradiction by the developers’ scrapbook approach to gameplay. Sometimes vulnerable, sometimes in control; sometimes on the run, sometimes standing to fight – Faith is a hard character to relate to because her actions are impossible to understand. Mirror’s Edge could have been truly immersive. Instead, it’s disorienting.
The impact of these combat sections is amplified because of the game’s length. It plays out over the course of a short six hours or so, and though many great games have lasted less than that, they are rarely sold at such a high price. Because of its short length, Mirror’s Edge keeps a pace that many gamers had a hard time matching. It’s too keen to switch things up and too eager to kickstart the plot before players even have a chance to get their bearings. Speed things up too fast and the starkness of the environment begins to creep into the gameplay – instead of having your feet firmly planted in the world, you feel disconnected from it.
Mirror’s Edge is plagued by this feeling of vague discomfort, and although it suits the story in many respects, it pops up in too many unwanted places. Last August, one of the game’s writers explained how the plot was written after much of the game’s content had been fleshed out or partially implemented; but it’s hard to develop these elements out of order and find that the seams match up perfectly. There are simply too many breaks in the game’s continuity and not enough of the flow that the gameplay thrives on. Faith is a runner; she lives off momentum. It’s practically the concept that defines her as a character, yet the game is broken up into disjointed pieces. Are you supposed to run or fight here? Is this room another series of platforms, or does it have narrative importance?
Mirror’s Edge was a foray into new territory for a developer who has demonstrated its ability to create very good first-person action games. There is every reason to have faith that they can perfect this formula. But the problems demonstrated here are more interesting than the average videogame failure story, because they’re new pitfalls that we’ve only begun to see in recent years as games try harder and harder to be as visceral, powerful and emotional as possible. The notion of forging a new IP seems to entail only one thing: finding a hook for your game and pushing it to its limit. Mirror’s Edge does this well, and EA’s confirmation of its quality as a franchise is a testament to its success. But as these hooks become increasingly about the psychological experience of playing the game, doing one thing and doing it well isn’t enough. It has to be a well-rounded experience.
For some gamers, Mirror’s Edge remains a playable and enjoyable experience. But ultimately, it should serve as a lesson for developers that no trick can replace a solid foundation. While independent developers can afford to experiment, to sacrifice the quality of their game in order to investigate a new feature or idea, DICE and its peers are at the mercy of a player base that will rarely stand for such things. What Mirror’s Edge presents to us is interesting, valuable and certainly worth exploring. But by focusing on those aspects and neglecting the core of their game, DICE missed out on the greatness that their game deserved.
And so, the run ends for now. Hopefully when we reach for the sneakers and running shorts next time, Mirror’s Edge will have the stamina to push on a little further.
Michael Cook’s not about those joggers who go round and round and round …