I recently read Catcher in the Rye, and I loved it. Nothing could have been more piercing to me at a time of adolescent uncertainty. I really connected with Holden Caulfield in a way that validates the experience of reading more than I could ever express, and at the same time I would understand if you read Salinger's vaunted work and totally disagreed.
I once wrote a story about a boy and a girl who rode an elevator up to heaven. It was pretty lame, but hey, I liked it, and it meant a lot to me. I got the idea from a game called Mirror's Edge, a first-person style game about free-running and parkour. It's a game whose beauty lies in its environment and the player's capacity to interact with it. In it, you play a free-runner named Faith, a fairly a petite asian woman who practices parkour as she navigates the rooftops of an urban paradise. It's about sublimity through immersion.
Faith's sister, Kate, is framed for a crime she didn't commit. The government in this city is corrupt, and it needed a patsy on which to pin its political bile. Faith has a chance to save her, but only if she gathers the information she needs and stays away from the police. It's the narrative impetus for all the running around.
Nothing about Mirror's Edge is gratuitous, and that alone inserts a mile-wide chasm between it and most video games today. Her city is painted in sugary swatches, bright colors that emphasize simplicity you're allowed to reach out and touch. One of the best things about Mirror's Edge is its first-person viewpoint. Because it's a game centered around fluid platforming, looking through the eyes of Faith invites an experientially unprecedented level of intimacy with the environment, a sentiment which serves no functional purpose. In fact, it kind of makes things harder.
If you've seen a game from the first-person viewpoint, chances are you were looking down the barrel of a gun. First-person is largely reserved for shooters, and those have rarely include platforming (with good reason, since your options are usually move and jump awkwardly). Cliff Bleszinksi, game director at Epic Games, once said that shooting is the most commercially viable and dependable way to let a player interact with a game. Guns, he said, are the player's conduit to the environment – a destructive, albeit effective way to reach out and "touch" the world – but no where along the line did I feel that was true in Mirror's Edge.
In Mirror's Edge you're allowed to run up to the environment and grab it — use it and feel it. It's almost cheating the way it gives you a sense of immersion just by letting you be close to what you see. So when the game does let you pick up a gun (one of two combat options; you're allowed to either shoot enemies or run up and use hand-to-hand combat), it's actually disengaging. The experience of "touching" something by shooting it feels dirty by comparison.
There is something inherently beautiful about interacting with the environment the way you do in Mirror's Edge. In other games, looking at one's feet reveals a lack of anything. In Mirror's Edge when we look down, we see Faith herself. She sports a pair of red and black running shoes and some khaki pants. When Faith runs, she breathes. She huffs and puffs. When she picks up speed, you can hear the wind slice past her ears, her footsteps pound as her vision blurs slightly. Immersion has never been so sublime.
And yet Mirror's Edge is not the most fun experience. No, of the things Mirror's Edge is, fun is not the most apt adjective. As a toy – something that functions solely for our entertainment – it falls short. Its mechanics of traversal are not perfect. The first-person perspective makes platforming tough, maybe tougher than it would be with a different perspective. Sometimes you'll get caught staring at a wall, puzzled as to where you are exactly, or maybe you'll misjudge the distance on a jump because your line of sight was focused on an upcoming obstacle. Sometimes, this is all very frustrating.
This is a game whose sum of its parts is greater than their individual worth. You're going to get mired into some awkward level geometry. You're going to be at a loss as to why Faith didn't make a particular jump. You're going to get mad. But you're also going to be put in a position of awe. Games don't do this too much, but interesting emotions are stirred when you stare a challenge in the face, unconfident in your ability to surmount it, and then are allowed to consider your achievement once you have. It's slightly ineffable, but it makes you feel efficacious, a skip and a hop away from legitimate pride. Mirror's Edge does this often. There is a point in the game where your sister is on her way to incarceration, and it's your last chance to save her. You're desperate, you'll do anything. You come to a room several stories tall. It's gargantuan, and it'd be a miracle to climb it in one piece. And then you realize you've no choice but to climb it.
Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee – I find this the most apt axiom for Mirror's Edge. Somewhere during the time when you're immersed in this game, playing with it as a toy, enjoying it as a playful experience, it switches into the sublime, and it creeps up on you. It creeped up on me.
Inspiration is deeply tied to the sublime experience. After playing and finishing Mirror's Edge, I had strange dreams, dreams where I'd be exposed to the most beautiful vistas my mind could conjure. Have you ever explored what you think is beautiful? Somewhere inside the confines of our brain, our mind is cataloging such things, patiently storing them for the day we root for inspiration with which to create. One particular sequence in Mirror's Edge is special to me in this regard. Toward the end of the game, you're on your last leg of your fight to reach your sister. You're ascending in an elevator to the top room of a gigantic skyscraper called The Shard. It towers over the city, and your sister is supposedly at the top of it. As you ride the elevator, you're treated to a few fleeting second's glimpses at the city you've been spending all your time in. Imagine a heavy blue skyline of buildings, coating a bluer ocean.
I don't know why, but this scene sparked something in me, and I went on to try and articulate this scene, incorporating it amongst the other pools of inspiration collecting in my adolescent mind. This setting evolved into a dream I had, which I tried to put to words. I don't think my articulation did it justice. But if I could describe an iota of what's in my mind, I'd probably be moved to tears.
I guess that's the nature of sublimity. If I had to guess, I'd say it's only a few times in our lives do we encounter an experience that provokes the mind into a stupor of inspiration, and I think it's because the sublime is not necessarily universally shared. A lot of people I know piss all over Mirror's Edge for being too frustrating, for weak AI and incongruous level design. And it's okay, I get that. Some things will mean different things to different people. I will probably never share my little short story, not because it isn't good, but because it's good on a level to which I feel I alone am privy.
The question of "are games art?" is pretty moot, in my mind.