Mirror’s Edge: Story

After reaching the end of Mirror’s Edge‘s story, I tried the various racing modes, but I didn’t care for them. If I go back into this game, it’ll probably be to find more of the hidden messenger bags. There are three of them in every level, and they’re one of the only ways that Story Mode acknowledges the game’s supposed premise. You’d think that a professional black-market courier would get assigned a courier mission every once in a while. You could come up with all sorts of dramatic situations that fit in with the government-corruption theme: “We can expose everything they’ve done if we can just get these documents to the press!” But instead, you spend the game playing amateur detective, trying to find out who murdered a good politician and framed your sister for it.

Given that you’re in the right, that truth is on your side and your sister is innocent of any crime, it seems downright counterproductive to go around killing cops. And so I didn’t. I resorted to unarmed combat on a number of occasions, bloodlessly disarming the people who shot at me and then immediately discarding the weapons I had wrested from them, but I tried to avoid doing even that: in most cases, all you really have to do is figure out where you’re going and find a way to get there that’s mostly covered from fire. And even though I chose to play this way mostly in the name of efficiency, it seemed like the way to go in story terms too: with every gun I threw away, I was saying “I’m choosing to refrain from shooting at you, even though you’re doing your best to kill me. Are you sure I’m the bad guy here?” Not that I expected this to change anyone’s behavior, but it seemed worth saying anyway. So it was bothersome to see the player character hold off a SWAT team in a cutscene by grabbing a gun and shooting at some Doom-style exploding barrels.

And, ultimately, what’s the conflict about? OK, yes, protecting family member from lying murderers. But why does she need that protection in the first place? The player finds a scrap of paper at the crime scene (and removes it, preventing any legitimate investigation from finding it) mentioning a “Project Icarus”. Several levels later, you find out what this is: it’s a project to train special police forces in Runner techniques, so they can go leaping from rooftop to rooftop like superheroes too. Which is, on the face of it, not a bad idea. The Runners’ abilities effectively put them out of the law’s reach, and in a functioning system, that would be a problem worth addressing. But even in the world we’re given, Icarus is not the public hazard I was expecting, given how hush-hush they were about it. Icarus only threatens Runners. Imagine the headlines if the word got out: “Exposed! Secret Project To Arrest People Who Break The Law”. I understand what they were going for here, Icarus as the Runners’ equal-and-opposite, the dark reflection, the thing that kicks the conflict to a higher level. But it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

The Runners have some high-minded ideals about being the only communication channel left that isn’t under the Man’s control. But we never see any benefit to this. We don’t see anyone who’s helped by the services the Runners provide, or any injustice righted by their actions. As I pointed out, we hardly see them doing their job at all. We just see them fighting for themselves. Perhaps we’re expected to just already sympathize with their ideology, much like how we don’t need to reestablish that Nazis are bad guys in every game featuring Nazis. Apparently there was a point in the early design stages where the Runners were supposed to be less like freedom fighters and more like a street gang. (There’s a bit of unlockable concept art showing this stage.) And the final story still has something of that mentality.

Pretty, though!

Mirror’s Edge: First Person Issues

Looks like I’m not finishing Story Mode today after all. The game crashed in the middle of a recent session, and has since then has refused to start up. Sometimes I just get a splash screen and nothing else, sometimes it gives me an “illegal operation” error, once and only once did it start up successfully. I don’t know why this suddenly started happening after a period of trouble-free operation. Or, well, not quite trouble-free: I had problems at the very beginning with environmental sounds — traffic noises and the like — being entirely too loud and drowning out the voices. Apparently the game was trying to do things with point sound sources that my hardware didn’t support, and the solution was to turn off hardware sound acceleration.

Anyway, I said I’d post about the interface, and I can still do that. Platforming in first person presents some difficulty, especially when the game tries to create a sense of immediacy by shaking the camera, as happens whenever you break down a door in ME. Also, one of the moves you can do to avoid damage and maintain momentum is a tuck-and-roll at the end of a fall, which is rather disorienting, because the camera actually does a quick 360-degree pitch.

The thing I most anticipated having problems with was judging exactly when to jump when running toward the edge of a roof. In part, the game solves this by doing something rare for a first-person game: if you look downward, you can actually see yourself. Most first-person games — which are mostly shooters — display, at most, an arm holding a gun. I can think of only two other first-person games I’ve played that gave the player a visible body: Trespasser (the Jurassic Park game) and Montezuma’s Return (a 3D sequel to the classic 2D platformer Montezuma’s Revenge). Montezuma’s Return did it because, like Mirror’s Edge, it’s a first-person platformer; Trespasser did it out of a misguided sense of realism, which pretty much describes every design decision in Trespasser. At any rate, if you’re really worried about jumping at the right moment in ME, you can watch your feet while you run. But honestly, I haven’t found this necessary. If I find myself missing a ledge by inches, I find it’s more productive to just get a better run-up. Running in this game means accelerating, and a few extra feet of acceleration can mean a lot.

To me, the bigger way that the first-person view affects things is when you’re climbing ladders and pipes and the like. For a game with such gorgeous scenery, you spend a lot of time facing into walls. When you reach the end of a climb, you often need to twist the view around to locate the next pipe you need to jump to, and then your vantage can make it difficult to judge if it’s close enough and whether or not you’re actually pointed in exactly the right direction to grab it. The game has a clever way around this: when something can be grabbed, the player character will reach towards it with a visible hand. It took me a while to figure this out. It’s invaluable feedback once you recognize it, but I think it’s telling that tricks like this were necessary.

It’s been pointed out before that a more traditional over-the-shoulder view allows the sight of the player character’s body to substitute for a sense that’s otherwise lost in games: proprioception, the sense of one’s own body’s position. ME gives you occasional body glimpses, but proprioception isn’t constant. The people who say that ME is immersive partly because of its first-person view really have it backward: if it’s immersive, it’s in spite of the first-person perspective, because it’s found ways to overcome the limitations of its viewpoint and its lack of normal sensory information. And sometimes it fails at that. That roll move is disorienting in part because it temporarily takes away the intuitive sense of which way is up, something provided by by the way the camera movement normally works in the game, and by the sense of balance in real life.

Mirror’s Edge

Ah, Mirror’s Edge, you beautiful little victim of the hype machine. Highly promoted, widely derided, deeply discounted. Having played through half the levels already, I’m not yet convinced that the basic gameplay here deserves the complaints that have been directed at it. Apparently some people have tried to treat the game like a shooter, and were disappointed, and even more people tried to treat it like a GTA-style open-world game, and were even more disappointed: you can vary your path through the levels, but not that much. But taken on its own terms, it’s not bad. (A bit unvarying, perhaps, but I expect to finish Story Mode before I get tired of it.) Basically what we have here is a 3D platformer in the mold of Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider, but in first-person perspective, and with people shooting at you to encourage you to keep moving. You can shoot back if you like, but why would you? That would just slow you down, and that’s clearly not what the game wants. Whenever I look at the mission objectives tab, I see a note in the corner stating that I have not yet fired a single shot, and this feels a lot like the “conduct” challenges in Nethack.

I should say some words about the visual style right away, because it’s the game’s shiniest feature. While the rendering is photorealistic and the world is reasonably detailed, the use of color is stylized. Everything looks like it has a fresh coat of paint: it’s all gleaming white or highly-saturated solid colors over large areas. It’s like being inside the world’s largest modernist sculpture, and it’s definitely the cleanest-looking urban dystopia I’ve ever seen.

The really interesting thing, though, is the way the colors figure into gameplay. For example, losing health causes the colors to desaturate, as if the bright look of the world is simply a function of the observer’s outlook. (Perhaps to the average man on the street it looks more like a normal city.) Also, color is often simply used to make significant items pop, particularly through what is called “Runner Vision”. Runner Vision means that special opportunities for movement, such as pipes you can climb or planks you can use as springboards, are colored red. While some things seem to be permanently red, Runner Vision is basically dynamic: white things fade to red as you approach them. If I had been told to implement something like this, I’d probably have done it through colored lighting — changing the light on specific objects, as seen in, e.g., the Thief games (where it’s done to highlight the object currently in focus), is pretty easy to do in most graphics engines. But it doesn’t seem to have been done that way here. The red things look like they’re lit the same as always, just painted red now.

Moving through this environment with a cocky swagger are the Runners, outlaw couriers who oppose the system and promote freedom of information with the power of parkour. Runners are basically superheroes, albeit ones whose main power is running away. Seriously, the way you leap from rooftop to rooftop here is something that used to be the exclusive domain of people who were explicitly superhuman, rather than just free-spirited and driven to great lengths by oppression. The first thing I was reminded of by the largely rooftop-based environment here, and the way you interact with it, was the Treyarch Spider-Man games. (Particularly the first one, which has a chase scene with the supervillain Venom that’s very similar in feel to the chase scene with another Runner in level 3.) The villains are similarly comic-bookish, clichés of corruption covering up some kind of secret project. The cutscenes between the levels emphasize this by switching to a more cartoony flat-shaded look, which is distinctly weird in context. Traditionally, pre-rendered cutscenes are more realistic than interactive content.

Anyway, it’ll probably take me only one more day to wrap up Story Mode. I’ll have some things to say about the mechanics of the first-person interface tomorrow.