On Difference: Mirror’s Edge

Mirrors-Edge-logo

At this year’s E3, EA Games announced that they were working on a reboot of Mirror’s Edge. Although it is strange to make a reboot of the series which has only one game, the reboot has sparked excitement on the Internet. With this announcement, I felt that it would be a good idea to look back at the first game. While playing the game, I thought back to my older posts on this website. I have often criticized games for their writing, particularly their portrayal of female characters. Mirror’s Edge stars a female protagonist, a rarity in video games. I wondered what difference it would make to have a female in a lead role as compared to video games which star male main characters. The best way to approach this is to analyze and evaluate the various aspects of Mirror’s Edge and to compare those aspects with more male-centered video games. Let’s begin!

Let’s start by talking about the game’s plot which is tied with the game’s aesthetic and art direction. The game takes place in an unnamed city in which an oppressive government reigns using tools such as mass surveillance, armored police forces and censored media. However, this government is not unchallenged. Subversive organizations employ couriers called Runners to convey messages and transport sensitive material in order to resist the government’s control. The player takes the role of a Runner named Faith. The game starts with Faith’s sister Kate being framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate. Faith swears to clear her sister’s name and to bring the actual assassin to justice. The story is mainly told through animated cutscenes, dialogue and some narration from Faith. The story is not presented as a straight narrative. Many of the game’s characters, such as Kate, Faith’s friends Merc and Celeste and even her opponents such as Jacknife and Ropeburn are not given much detail. The game focuses more on themes than on individual characters or situations. The game’s ruling government is an obvious analogue to the real-life issues of surveillance, the war on drugs (hence the armored police) and the degrading state of mass journalism. The game chooses not to fill in the details of its world, I think, so that the player can more readily draw the parallels between the game world and the real world. The game has a minimalist approach to story, simplifying its plot for the sake of allegory.

While this is a unique approach to writing video game stories, the writing does feel inconsistent and even flat in some places. Although the overall emphasis is on abstraction, there are portions of the story which are given more detail than others. Faith is given a full backstory and personal motivations for her actions: when the government first took power, there were city-wide protests in which her parents took part. Her mother was killed by the police and this set Faith upon her subversive path. Faith is given more detail than any other aspect of the game’s story: important details such as what sorts of information Runners convey, what the anti-government organizations actually do and how the oppressive government actually works are left out. Despite this, there is one major point regarding Faith which is utterly flat: her relationship with her sister. Kate is given no detail whatsoever and Faith doesn’t spend much time talking about their relationship. Kate functions mostly a plot device, something to set the plot in motion and to keep its momentum. Overall, while the more abstract and allegorical approach to writing is interesting, the writing is very uneven. The game needed to better balance when to provide detail and when to leave it out.

The writing ties in closely with the game’s art direction. The game is visually striking. All of the game’s environments and objects are painted bright hues of primary colors, the two most common being red and blue (this is because Runners refer to themselves as “Reds” and the government “Blues”). The sharp contrast of red and blue, beautifully accented with yellow, white and green, makes the game seem like a painting. I’ll let these screenshots speak for themselves:

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The focus on primary colors and the minimalist design of the game’s environments (many of the game’s locations and objects lack detail, sacrificing ornamentation for simple bright colors) emphasizes the game’s approach to story. Few games link their visual presentation to their stories and fewer do so this well. The game is a sight to behold.

The game plays like no other. The game is split into a prologue and nine chapters in unconnected locations. Faith runs through these ten areas, expertly overcoming obstacles and evading enemies using her parkour skills. Faith runs, jumps, runs up walls, slides under, over and down pipes, vaults over fences and leaps from rooftop to rooftop in her quest to clear her sister’s name. The parkour is the game’s highlight. Running and jumping through these levels is exhilarating, the bright colors rushing past you and looming before you. Faith gains momentum automatically as she runs, making you gauge how far you need to run before making a daring jump off of a ledge or rooftop. Pacing yourself in this way creates a sense of rhythm which is unique to Mirror’s Edge.

Most levels have you go from point A to point B but the routes the game makes you take are creative. In one level, you ride on top of a subway, jumping from car to car while in another you climb the scaffolding of an atrium, using the unfinished beams and poles to go ever higher. The game marks those objects with which you can interact by coloring them red and, by pressing the O button, Faith will look towards her objective. Although you will find yourself always on the run, the game does guide you in what you need to do and where to go. However, there are times when these systems don’t work. There are certain times in the game when you have to perform moves which are rarely used. It takes a lot of trial and error (and many deaths) to figure out which move you have to perform. For example, in the final chapter of the game, there is a section in which you have to grab unto a pole linking two walls which are very close together. Faith can jump from wall to wall if they are in close proximity but this the only time in the game when you have to perform that move. Using a game mechanic one time is a poor design choice which only confuses players. Despite this flaw, the game’s core mechanic is unique and well-designed.

There is some combat in the game. There are times when Faith can’t run from an enemy encounter and has to defend herself. She fights primarily with melee moves but, once she has knocked out an enemy, she can take his gun. The emphasis is on using Faith’s body as a weapon though. The combat is one of the game’s weaker points. The lack of a lock-on system makes it difficult to aim Faith’s punches and kicks. I have found myself dying to enemies because my blows went slightly too far to the left or right. The other problem with the combat is that it goes against the game’s central mechanic. Faith is a Runner, she’s supposed to run from battles! Some of the most tense and creative moments in the game are figuring out escape routes away from enemies who have cornered you in a room. Kicking through glass doors, running up walls, climbing on office desks and vaulting up chairs and tables to reach the exit just before the enemy puts a bullet through you…situations like these are among the game’s finest. Making you fight and, even worse, placing a gun in your hand, contrasts unpleasantly with the game’s escape sequences.

The game’s most fatal flaw is its controls. The main problem is the L1 button. This one button controls jumping, vaulting, wall-running and wall-jumping. The game will often become confused as to which action you are trying to take and fatally misinterpret your input. The worst offender of this misinterpretation is wall-running. In order to execute a wall-run, you first have to run alongside a wall. Then, you have to hold the L1 button. There have been many times when the game interprets this L1 input as a jump and not a wall-run, sending Faith flying over a ledge or a rooftop, plummeting to her death. There are also times when you mean to vault over a fence or to springboard off of some boxes but the game registers the L1 input as a jump, ruining your momentum. While I did praise the parkour in the previous section, I only give it praise when it works. The controls absolutely mar this game, tarnishing what could have been great.

Now that we’ve evaluated Mirror’s Edge, we can try to answer the question which prompted this post: does having a female protagonist affect the game’s design? We can clearly see differences between Mirror’s Edge and a game like Zone of the Enders 2 for instance. Mirror’s Edge tells its story (having subversion and rebellion as its main themes) with a heavy emphasis on art direction and abstraction while the art direction itself is minimalist in design. The game also focuses on parkour and avoiding combat. ZOE2, a more typical game, tells its story through straight narrative cutscenes. Its art style is typical of anime-inspired games and is heavy on combat. These differences in story, art and game design might very well derive, at least in part, from the game’s protagonists. The world seen through the eyes of Dingo, the male protagonist of ZOE2, looks different from the world seen by Faith. The game developers, crafting the two games around two different characters, produced products with different emphases. This is not an argument for gender essentialism however. I am not saying that all games with female stars will focus on abstraction and agility and that all games with male stars will focus on traditional narrative and combat. I am arguing that the perspectives of men and women differ and that creating art centered on men or women will show these different perspectives, as can be seen with Mirror’s Edge.

Despite the clear contrasts between Mirror’s Edge and other games, there are some similarities as well. The most important of these is the skeleton of the plot. Faith’s adventure begins when her sister is arrested and ends when Faith rescues her. This plotline should sound familiar to everyone reading this. So many male-centered games use this exact same plotline: Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, the list goes on. While it is troubling to see the damsel-in-distress trope make an appearance in this game, at least Faith’s active role in the story counterbalances Kate’s disempowerment.

Overall, while Mirror’s Edge is a deeply flawed game in terms of its writing and its controls, it excels in its art direction and its parkour mechanics. It also provides insight not only into the question of what happens when a female leads a video game story but also the need for diversity in games. Mirror’s Edge’s uniqueness might very well stem from its female lead. If more games had more diverse characters, we would see many different types of games, not just the same old tired tropes in which the video game industry is mired.

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