Mirror’s Edge

Mirror's Edge

Mirror’s Edge was developed by Stockholm-based Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (DICE) and published by EA Games (EA also owns DICE). It is set in a near-future city governed by an oppressive, totalitarian administration. Many citizens have either rejected the false, controlled perfection of mainstream society or are excluded from it. The the city monitors all electronic forms of communication. However, healthy underground communications network sprouted up, demand fuelled by citizens who want to communicate discreetly. Faith is a Runner, a courier who traverses the city’s skyline and rooftops, physically delivering messages on behalf of clients.

Rooftop Seen from Shinkansen

The premise of the story is that Faith’s sister, Kate, is framed for the murder of a politician and taken into custody. Faith embarks on a mission to bring the real murderer to justice and save her sister. However Faith discovers a plot more complicated than just dangerous political ambition. The story sounds really promising, but I think it’s actually one of the weaker aspects of Mirror’s Edge. It is not particularly innovative nor unpredictable. Having said that, the ending is satisfying and has far-reaching consequences for the city as a whole, though the player must stay through the end credits and make inferences from information given. I really liked the fact that the player has to draw connections and conclusions on their own, rather than being spoon-fed. The ending definitely leaves it open for a sequel, and indeed it was announced last year that the story of Mirror’s Edge was planned as a trilogy.

I respect DICE’s decision not only to feature a strong female protagonist, but also their conscious decision to deviate from the industry standard — typically white, hyper-sexualised women created with the male gaze in mind and marketed as sex objects. Faith has an athletic body — realistic for a woman who’s profession involves a lot of physically demanding activities.

Faith is attractive and while she is sexualised, I did not view the marketing as particularly objectifying, nor did I regard her treatment as sexualised to a ridiculous degree.

I wish more developers thought along these lines, as the people at DICE did for Mirror’s Edge:

We really wanted to get away from the typical portrayal of women in games, that they’re all just kind of tits and ass in a steel bikini. We wanted her to look athletic and fit and strong [enough] that she could do the things that she’s doing. We wanted her to be attractive, but we didn’t want her to be a supermodel. We wanted her to be approachable and far more real.

I suspect that the DICE developers faced some resistance from EA or the marketing department, who probably wanted to market Faith in a way that would sell more boxes — by pandering to the sexist, juvenile mentality of what they see as their target market — straight, white, young, males.

Another noteworthy aspect of Faith is that she is a woman of colour. Not only are positive, non-exotified, non-stereotypical representations of people of colour uncommon in videogames, it is even rarer to find the same in a woman of colour in games at all, much less in the lead role. As an Asian woman, Faith has meant a lot to me personally. I rarely ever see anyone like myself represented in the media, and when I do, she is typically hyper sexualised, and hyper-exotified, like Nariko from Heavenly Sword. I didn’t view the marketing or portrayal of Faith, in terms of her race, to be particularly problematic, and I was definitely looking for it. I fully expected the marketing for Mirror’s Edge to be alienating and aggravating to me as an Asian woman, but I was happy to be proved wrong.

Buildings in Akihabara

I love how urban spaces are depicted in Mirror’s Edge. I absolutely love the art direction and modern design aesthetic. Due to the strength of the art direction, the city is itself is a prominent and vibrant “character” in Mirror’s Edge. Bright, vivid colours stand out starkly against the clean, white rooftops. Indoors, colours are strong, but not overwhelming.  I think the DICE team made very good use of colour to bring the city to life. Many settings, such as office spaces, seem touched by Scandinavian design sensibilities. The exteriors, particularly rooftops and distant buildings may be reminiscent of densely-populated East Asian cities like Tokyo or Hong Kong. You can often see signage written in Japanese (possibly) scattered throughout the environments in the form of warning signs or billboards.  There were many times throughout the game where I just wanted to explore the city, to see what was out there. The DICE team did not model the unnamed city in Mirror’s Edge after any one city, but it’s clear they drew inspiration from different places. Altogether, these  visual design choices create a unique urban world.

Colour also plays an important role in game play. “Runner Vision”, which highlights objects you can interact with in red, gives the player clues as to possible routes and hints on what to do.

DICE tried to capture every aspect of the physicality of parkour, or as much as they could in a videogame. I think the DICE team did a great job of conveying the physical experience of being Faith, whether it is through hearing Faith breathe in exertion as she runs, the chaotic first person view of the world as she tumble to the ground to cushion a fall, or her vision blurring for a moment when she’s hit by gunfire. I’ve read some reports where players became dizzy or motion sick whilst playing Mirror’s Edge, but I had no problems myself.

One of the underpinnings of this game’s design is freedom of movement. It is an absolute joy to run, build up momentum, and execute a successful combination of moves that get you past obstacles.

Faith has to be unencumbered to perform her fantastic feats of agility. Weapons slow her down. Faith has some martial arts training and can handle hand-to-hand combat with one, perhaps two enemies, but any more than that and she’s most likely a goner. This is realistic compared to other games, which feature nigh invincible characters capable of shrugging off dozens of rounds of bullets without dropping. Faith can disarm enemies, steal their weapons, and shoot everyone up. Mirror’s Edge is very deliberately not centred around a character who is an expert at wielding weaponry or fighting off hordes of enemies in melee. Speed and evasion, not brute force are the keys to success in Mirror’s Edge. These were conscious design choices that provide the player with challenges based upon a logical premise. A game based upon freedom of movement and avoiding combat is all well and good, but there are some bits that almost require you to fight, and it’s those parts that prove frustrating.

Stairs in an Osaka Train Station

The game focuses on running and running away from conflicts, but there is a heavy puzzle element in the platforming game play, with the environment acting as the puzzle. You know you have to get somewhere, but you have to figure out how. Many of the environmental puzzles are quite challenging and often frustrating and adding enemies to the mix ratchets up that frustration.

My skills at 3D platformers, from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed to any Lego game, are mediocre. I am even less good at 3D first-person perspective platforming games (like the Metroid Prime series). I am still worse at 3D first-person platforming games that require your character to engage in all sorts of funky acrobatics and the player to perform precise button combinations, like Mirror’s Edge.

The learning curve is steep and the unforgiving controls force the player to have a high degree of precision. These design choices, coupled with difficult physical obstacles and many encounters with heavily-armed enemies, make for an often frustrating game play experience. The free running and parkour elements are incredibly fun, but there are just one too many moments where there are 950 squillion riot cops in heavy armour, wielding machine guns, between you and the the exit and you need to figure out a flashy parkour method to get there because taking the stairs or the elevator or another direct route would be way too easy. There were several parts like this that I was able to get through only after a half dozen or more tries. There were certain obstacles that were really difficult to get past without the worry of enemies shooting at you, yet still caused almost as much stress as having to find a path under fire. The controls require you to precisely execute moves and if you are just a millisecond too early or too late, you plummet to your death. There were more than a few moments where I wanted to throw my controller at the screen or where I swore aloud in frustration and anger.

Escalators in an Osaka Train Station

Why do I like this game so much if it’s so bloody hard? It’s the feeling of satisfaction after I finally get past a difficult area or shave a few seconds off of my time in Time Trial Mode. While that feeling of accomplishment is enjoyable, other games have given me far more satisfaction after meeting their challenges than Mirror’s Edge. The sense of satisfaction I felt when overcoming obstacles was stained by a lot of frustration. The joy of parkour and free running isn’t enough to compensate for much of that in Mirror’s Edge. I think the game should have been a little easier, the control requirements less precise, the moves easier to execute. However, when Mirror’s Edge is fun, it’s really fun.

The game shines in Time Trial Mode. Here, Mirror’s Edge becomes a first person parkour racing game. Apart from some certain sections, where you need to be absolutely perfect with your controls, it’s a lot of fun. It’s pure parkour without the encumbrance of story or enemies. The downloadable Time Trial Map Packs have you running through an abstract environment of brightly coloured blocks, floating above an endless ocean. I played through the free map on the PlayStation Network, and it was great fun. I’ll be getting the full Map Pack at some point in the future.

Mirror’s Edge
gave me a mixed game play experience, but I enjoyed the game as a whole. Mirror’s Edge has some serious flaws, and for many those flaws were deal breakers. They weren’t for me.

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