Mirror’s Edge came out last fall, but other games captured my attention and armed with the knowledge that third-party Xbox 360 games get cheaper at a fairly steady pace I decided to wait it out. Both Gretchen and I were very interested in the aesthetic of it, the pristine dystopian future that uses color to highlight the path through the game’s obstacle course of a city. It was the first game I played after we got married.
It’s a short game, and when it comes down to it the whole thing is pretty much the same thing. They do a good job of mixing up the window dressing, though— you run through rooftops, construction sites, warehouses, office buildings, subways, and industrial ventilation-type areas. It feels like you’re moving through an entire city, even if they’re all punctuated by the same catwalks and pipes and ledges.
The visual style is nice— a mix of the gritty, over-textured, over-shiny pieces of the Unreal Engine it was built upon along with its own art direction of bright colors and near-future architecture. I was a bit confused why most of the cutscenes took place in a strange, poorly drawn 2D animated style that had everyone recalling the animated “Esurance” commercials. Two of the game’s most important scenes take place in the game engine and work just fine. I’m also split on the music— I really like the main theme and the other tracks that are more subdued and ambient, but found the songs that play during action sequences grating. Whenever I encountered a large group of enemies I found myself pausing and reaching for the remote control to lower the volume temporarily.
After the wedding in March, I took a few days off. Our real honeymoon isn’t until August but I figured it would be good to be able to actually spend a week in the same place as my wife, a luxury I don’t have right now while I’m working in Chicago and she’s going to school in Indianapolis. So I found myself at home in Indianapolis with no real plans other than to relax and spend time with Gretchen, and a portion of that ended up taking the form of playing through all of Mirror’s Edge. Granted, the game isn’t particularly long, but I don’t remember the last time that I played directly through a video game without playing anything else in the meantime. During that week, I was focused entirely on that game’s controls and on its challenges. I’m still not entirely sure if the troubles I had with the combat in a few points were due to failures in the controls or in my inability to time it correctly, but I can definitely say that whenever I was really moving, really climbing and jumping and dashing and sliding, the controls felt amazing.
In some recent video games, the protagonist’s strength lies in his agility and grace. In Assassin’s Creed you could climb all over buildings and do all kinds of amazing feats practically solely by pointing the stick in the direction you wanted to go. It was effortless and dull. In Prince of Persia, the concept was complicated somewhat by requiring button presses during certain types of tricks, but the timing was far from demanding. If you were running on a wall or something else similarly ridiculous and you saw a giant ring, you knew that you could press the “B” button sometime in the general vicinity of the time that your character is within arm’s reach of that ring and he would grab onto it, swing off it, and extend the move he had been doing further in the same direction. But the timing was so strange and not important that you could just kind of mash the B button once you saw the ring and you could safely assume that he would pull off the move you wanted. In Mirror’s Edge, the timing is the game. With the first-person view, you are the one doing the jumping, not an on-screen character that you happen to be guiding with your controller movements. If you don’t jump high enough, you might grab onto the ledge ahead of you— but you’re going to feel it, as you slam against the ledge and pull yourself up. The timing of the jumps and the grabs and the ducks were the entire point of the game, and when you kept a running pace, landed every jump, did a somersault onto a rooftop, slid down a zipline and planted your feet squarely in the chest of a sniper whose laser sight you had been outrunning for some time, you felt good. You didn’t do that because your character was the ultimate in parkour and gymnastics, you did it because you had achieved that level of skill, that understanding of the environment. Your reflexes had triumphed over the game’s obstacles.
In that way, Mirror’s Edge feels very old-school when you break it down. The points where I got stuck were somewhat obviously designed to be choke points, tests of your ability to handle particular extreme situations within the system of the game. I was never stuck for more than 20 minutes and like I said most of them may have been my own fault for not being good at disarming enemies. Overall I’m extremely glad to have played it. The game got me thinking about a few things, too, including how far EA has come in the past two years and what it means to have a vulnerable protagonist, but I think those topics are going to have to wait for another post.
(originally published on April 19 2009 on topghost.tumblr.com)