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Parkour (or freerunning for those who like to supplement utility with aesthetic) has long been an interest of mine. For some reason or another, I’ve never really taken any kind of personal initiative to develop the skill myself. Either I’m too busy to find the time, too out of shape to put forth the energy required (idiotic), too poor to take a class, or too whatever else to blah blah excuses.
I’m sure you all know the drill. It’s that instrument we never quite learned how to play, or that painting that sits unfinished on the canvas. Perhaps even that girl you never kissed. SIGH
So, when Mirror’s Edge was originally announced, I was quite the eager beaver. Here would be an opportunity to virtually experience the kind of exhiliration and efficiency of movement that I’d long failed to follow through on in my own physical reality! Too bad that the game itself was a mess of fickle mechanics, cheap and lazy animation, and incongruous emergent play.
Yet, every so often, I pop in that disc and try my damnedest to run to my flabby heart’s content. Why? We’ll get to that.
For now, let’s start with the superficial problems; the niggling things that won’t necessarily impact your overall experience of a game, but sure as hell don’t help you to like it any more than you’re already inclined.
Take Faith (you know you want to), a girl who is supposed to be a young, subversive, badass, Asian runner chick. At the risk of sounding as though I’m the worst kind of stereotypist (95 WPM, bitches), did it strike anybody else as curious that her voice delivers every line like a wisened, middle-aged, Caucasian diplomat with unrivaled abilities in elocution and public speaking?
How about we forget those qualifications for a second. The fact of the matter is that, intuitively, Faith simply does not sound like she looks or the character she’s purported to be. And that’s really a shame, because a character that felt completely grounded in the mythos would have made for a much more identifiable and immersive experience (something the first-person perspective was, presumably, trying to achieve).
Combine that with poor dialogue, conversational pacing that makes obvious the influence of what SHOULD BE seamless editing, and a narrative going through all the motions of trying to be interesting and cool while actually being, well … not.
Through and through, Mirror’s Edge is riddled with inconsistencies.
One of the first things that’s presented to you is the aesthetic foundation of the gameplay. Stark, washed-out, sparse and utilitarian environments with glimmers of red, occasionally pulling your eye (and thus your motion) in a general direction of objective. Unfortunately, while the game encourages you to recalibrate your chromatic sensors to this dichotomy of “RED amidst WHITE = GO HERE” and “BLUE amidst WHITE = BAD GUYS”, the game never really follows up on the clarity it suggests.
Don’t get me wrong, I find the majority of the environments to be quite appealing from a purely aesthetic point of view. But once you’ve entered places where ALL the walls and lighting are red, or ALL the walls and lighting are blue, directional cues are all but swept away.
Not only does the colour dichotomy abandon you, but your environments are also highly-saturated with reasonably scalable objects and surfaces, some of which SEEM to indicate level progression (based on your immediate perspective) but actually go nowhere at all. Mind you, this sort of thing does increase your sense of agency and capability as a freerunner, but only serves to frustrate when you have no idea where you’re actually going!
Finding your way from beginning to end becomes less an intuitive, fluid, graceful run, and more a matter of trial and error. Sometimes even spending minutes at a time exploring every dead-end “path” in a localized space to later discover that one spot you missed, thus negating any sense of personal freedom you might have come to develop, no matter how illusory.
Ultimately, you’re too often transformed from a highly-skilled delivery girl into a crazy, spastic bitch hopping on every air conditioner in the room!
Which, by the way, brings me to an aspect of level design that also contributes another brick to the “immersion wall”: Who the hell builds an office building containing at least one floor that consists entirely of an elevator leading down an empty hall to a ventilation grate? Tsk, tsk, Mirror’s Edge. There’s so much that you executed so very, very wrong, when your concept had all the potential in the world.
It’s been done before. In an industry and culture where the first-person perspective is dominated largely by so many shooters, some creators have had the all-too-reasonable idea that maybe other genres could be translated in such a way. Why not survival horror? Why not puzzles?
The answer is, of course, that there is no good reason why not. First-person perspective has the opportunity to impress upon the player a very satisfying and convincing level of immersion (sick of that word yet?), and has only become standard fare in one small niche of the medium’s potential pie. As pervasive as FPS might be, the ratio of the number of mechanics it represents to its size in the culture/industry is GROSSLY out of proportion.
This is why I respect Mirror’s Edge. I don’t feel that the concept is broken, or even the majority of the controls or mechanics themselves (though proper angle of approach can be hard to discern, yielding a lot of missed wallruns, followed by a stream of expletives). The breakdown is between how the game suggests you play and feel, and how the game actually makes you play and feel.
Don’t impress upon me an immediacy of danger and momentum and then throw me off of a got-damned roof or down a sewer pipe because no clear exit was in sight! That ain’t right.
In the meantime, I’ll be running and leaping and falling and tumbling all over the place. Not unlike the unbridled play of rolling around in Katamari Damacy or the satisfying sense of both relaxation and thrill while webswinging in Spider-Man 2 (hush, naysayers). Once you remove from this game the sense of objective or contest, it can provide an exceptionally satisfying state of play, and delivers something approaching that aforementioned sense of “exhilaration and efficiency of movement” that I’d longed for since before its release.
I truly hope that there’s a Mirror’s Edge 2 in the works, or even a peripheral approximation developed by some other inspired team. With a few refined touches — and a greater degree of consistency — this concept could be one hell of an enjoyable and empowering thing.
This promoted blog was written for our April Monthly Musing assignment, “E For Effort.” You too could get promoted if you write something about sex in videogames over on the Community Blogs.