Mirror’s Edge

Normally, when I write a review I try to divorce it from too many self-referential internal affairs — largely because I’ve learned the hard way that such references age poorly and make little sense a year, two years, or whatever down the road. On occasion however, it’s probably worth exercising my right to be inconsistent, and this seems like one of those times when it might be somewhat appropriate to pad this thing out with a preamble, as this is the fist time Teleport City has published a video game review. It’s not because we had any particular aversion to such forms of entertainment — I just didn’t really play them, and no one had ever offered to write about one for us. I was never particularly good at video games, and it turns out I’m still not very good at them. When I was a kid, I’d waste some time on the Atari and later the Nintendo Entertainment System, but that never lasted terribly long. I was bad at most of the games, and anyway it was sunny outside. While I’m not one of those condescending “you should get out more often and stop playing video games in your mom’s basement” assholes, the fact remains that I had more fun stomping around in the woods, falling out of trees, and getting chased by wild dogs — possibly because I was more adept at each of those things than I ever was at Missile Command.

A few years ago, our household finally upgraded from the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo Wii — a substantial jump, but other than Resident Evil 4 and its bizarre image of what modern Spain is like (full of pitchfork-wielding peasants and psychotic midgets who dress like Napoleon), the games were pretty limited and not really worth writing about in the way that I feel like I might be able to write about video games. That is to say, in the same way that I write about movies. However, I made another technological jump in late 2010 when I got an XBox 360 and could, for the first time since I got and was supremely disappointed by Pac-Man for Atari 2600, consider myself somewhat up to date with the technology, if not the games themselves. I already count travel, snorkeling, hiking, bouldering, climbing, running, movies, and whiskey collecting among my hobbies. There was no way my finances, already incredulous over my treatment of them, could sustain the hit buying new video games would put on them. Luckily, coming to the game late as I have, and gamers being rabidly into devouring whatever is new the very second it came out, there were piles and piles of games with which the world was no longer fascinated but that were all new to me. And the price drop from $60 to $10-$15 meant that I could actually absorb the occasional indulgence.

For me, the expansion of Teleport City into writing about the occasional video game has been a perfectly predictable and organic occurrence since video games are increasingly cinematic and are generally focused within the same genres of entertainment I enjoy in film and literature — though a really good Jess Franco video game remains, sadly, an under-exploited opportunity. Anyway, I don’t want to devolve into the “are video games art” debate, as it’s no different from every other “is it art” debate. In the end, it turns out that I don’t give a DAMN what is and isn’t art. I only like what I like. Suffice it to say that it was obvious to me that video games, and the entire culture surrounding gaming, was vastly different from it was when I thought that Raiders of the Lost Ark game for Atari 2600 was the pinnacle of complex, world-building, collaborative game play. Actually, I still play that GAME on the rare occasion I can sucker someone into being the second player, who doesn’t get to do much beyond control the inventory. And I really hate that branch that pops your parachute when you’re trying to maneuver into that cave. And the fucking thieves’ market…anyway, never mind.

It was this world-building, cinematic quality OF many games that got me interested in them as a medium of storytelling. I have never given and probably never will give a damn about those “versus” style fighting games where two dudes just stand on opposite sides of the screen and the player has to hit a lot of button combinations to do things. There’s nothing in them that I find particularly fun. It seems to me that a lot more could be done with martial arts and fighting than what has been done in those games. Likewise, I don’t really care that much about sports games, driving games, or things starring Mario, though they were fun enough when I was a kid. But that’s not the experience I’m looking for anymore, and they’re certainly not the sorts of games about which I feel like I could write. I wanted something more immersive, more complicated — more like movies, but with which I could interact.

There were three games in particular that initially made me decide I wanted to get a slightly more up-to-date game system: Resident Evil 5, Mass Effect, and Mirror’s Edge. Of the three, two were runaway hits; one is considered one of the greatest video games of all time. And one was a total flop that, despite boasting numerous flaws and poor financial performance, garnered a small but dedicated cult following. Guess which one I chose to review for our first video game article?

Mirror’s Edge initially caught my eye during the pre-release advertising campaign. The television commercials that ran for it made it look interesting, or at least they made a point of highlighting that it looked different. Even before I finally made the “commitment” and started playing games, I knew I’d be sticking to the well-worn pathways of my interests at large — horror and science fiction. And just about all horror and science fiction games, even the good ones, look more or less the same, and look more or less like all of the movies from those same genres. Mirror’s Edge looked like it would fall into the nebulous realm of science fiction, but with a very different take on the genre, something far apart from “dude with gun walks down dimly lit metal corridor and blows chumps away.” The promos highlighted the game’s bright, sunny, chrome and glass and white concrete world — a decidedly better lit, better scrubbed, and better organized world than one usually found in games.

Plus, what was that not in your hand? A gun? What kind of game doesn’t feature a character just walking through a world blowing shit up? Instead, Mirror’s Edge was about movement, about running and dodging and jumping, disarming and evading and balancing. Yeah, it turned out you could disarm then use the weapons you got, but those weapons only lasted for a few shots before you had to throw them away, and as I quickly discovered, dealing with them was almost always more trouble than they were worth. Although I know from decades of experience never to trust the trailer — video games are no different from movies in that regard — I was really interested in the style and idea behind Mirror’s Edge.

When I finally got a game system, Mirror’s Edge was one of the first games I played. By then — several years after the game’s release — I’d read plenty of reviews, most of them tepid. There was apparently a lot wrong with the game, though just about everyone seemed to admire the effort. I figured people say the same things about most of the movies I watch, so I’d go ahead and give the game a whirl. I’d managed to stoke my interest in it by getting a copy of the soundtrack — mostly ambient — and listening to it on near endless rotation, usually mixed in with the soundtrack from the Aeon Flux cartoon and a bit of Front 242, a combination that actually transported me to the future on several occasions.

Having now finished Mirror’s Edge, including a second play-through to take advantage of the fact that by the end of my first game I’d finally figured out what the hell I was doing, I have to say that most of the criticisms of the game are valid, and that for me most of the cult fan praise is valid as well. The game ended up being frustrating, flawed, and fun; sometimes infuriating, sometimes breathtaking, sometimes trying, sometimes enthralling. In short, I can’t think of a game that would more accurately reflect the character of many of the movies I end up championing with an adoration most sane humans find appalling.

The story casts the player as Faith, a “runner” in the shiniest, sunniest, most inviting dystopian future ever — which was, again, what initially drew me to the game. The littered, grimy, gritty version of a shitty future was fun for a while, but it’s become so rote and predictable now that it no longer packs any power or meaning. Mirror’s Edge posits a much cleaner, and a result, more subtly sinister (for someone of my social and political temperaments) future where the streets are clean, there’s a lot of new construction, everyone seems satisfied and everything seems shiny — but there is near ubiquitous state surveillance and just about everyone bows down without question to whatever authority the police decide they might have that day. I don’t want to veer terribly far into politics — after all, the game itself really only skirts the surface of such issues — but I’m the kind of guy whose blood gets angered up by things like police arresting people for videotaping on-duty officers in public places (and often destroying whatever damning evidence against the police side of the story those videos may have documented) while we ourselves are searched, videotaped, and monitored constantly. And don’t even get me started on the whole, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide, so why complain?” attitude, because I’ll just flat go off on that one. I’m a pretty mellow lad, but Jesus, people!

Anyway, runners are basically bike messengers without bikes, using freerunning (or parkour) as their primary mode of transportation as the deliver packages of sometimes dubious nature around town, sticking to rooftops, alleyways, and anywhere else where they might evade the blanket of CCTV cameras keeping an eye on people. Faith ends up in the middle of a nebulously defined conspiracy theory when her police officer sister is framed for the murder of a pro-reform politician. Your mission then is to recover evidence and clues, track down the real culprits, and figure out what’s going on, all while being pursued by a steady stream of beat cops, SWAT guys, snipers, and shady private security contractors who want to kill you.

Before I get to game play, let’s talk about story, since that’s what we do here (sort of). Mirror’s Edge is a bunch of pieces of a great story, but the ideas in it are never developed or clearly communicated. Half the time I’m playing, I have no clear idea what it is I’m supposedly accomplishing other than pulling some cool wall runs and disarming trigger-happy cops. The scope and purpose of the conspiracy is fuzzy, as is just about everything else in the game’s story. When the finale rolled around, I had no idea what I’d succeeded at. As far as I can tell, I kicked an asshole out of a helicopter then jumped back down onto a rooftop crawling with SWAT guys who still wanted me dead and still thought my sister was a murderer. I guess somewhere I picked up enough evidence to exonerate Faith’s sister, but that doesn’t change the fact that I spent the past twenty-four hours running rampant through the city, kicking and occasionally killing a bunch of “blues.”

All of this was pretty familiar territory for me though (the holes in the writing; not running around town and kicking cops in the face — so far as anyone knows). The script here is really no better or worse than you’d expect from a low-budget direct-to-video action film. If this game was a movie, it would have been made in the early 1990s and starred Karen Shepard and Jeff Fahey, and I would own it on VHS. Man, I really wish that movie existed. The writing has pretty much the same problem as the writing in those movies I so dearly love — unclear points, gigantic holes, baffling lapses in logic. Part of the overall confusion probably also stems from the nature of the game play, in which you are almost constantly in motion with very few chances to stop and think about, let alone remember, what it is you just did. While this makes for some exciting gaming, the story is almost pummeled out of existence by the breakneck pacing.

As for the world through which Faith runs, jumps, slides, and tumbles, I think most of the details of it were filled in by my own paranoia regarding aggressive monitoring of citizens, the erosion of civil liberties in tiny steps — each one seeming reasonable and justifiable on its own — and the disinterested complicity we as citizens have in inviting this society upon ourselves. The game itself implies much of this, and then I assume it assumes that from that point you either don’t care that much and just want to play the damn game or you’re already a gibbering crackpot who can fill in the rest of the canvas without any additional help. Whatever the case, I love the world that developers DICE created. It’s compelling, menacing, inviting, gorgeous, — and largely under-explored. A Fallout 3 style open world structure to a game like this would be mind blowing.

Which I guess will bring us to game play itself, which ends up being a pretty perfect reflection of the problems with the story. This is almost a brilliant game, which makes it even more infuriating in a way than if it’d just been crappy throughout. First, I love the concept, that you are a freerunner navigating a hostile city without any weapons. You can acquire a gun by disarming a cop, but you don’t have any weapons of your own. Like I said earlier, whatever weapons you do acquire are only good for the few shots until the bullets run out, and most of the time dealing with guns at all ends up being more trouble than it’s worth (I can’t count the number of times I died because I was trying to fiddle around with a sniper rifle I’d just acquired when I should have just thrown the damn thing away and gotten on with my business). The game even rewards you for not shooting anyone.

Instead of the “march down the hall and kill stuff” structure of most action games, you’re expected to run, evade, jump, climb, and when necessary, figure out how to separate your assailants and disarm/knock them out. It seems a simple enough variation on a theme, but so many games stick to the same run-and-gun formula that for Mirror’s Edge to come out and not only be bright and colorful, but also encourage you to evade rather than slaughter, makes it a surprisingly fresh feeling game. A game that puts so much emphasis on motion and evasion needs to nail the mechanics of movement within its universe, and that’s where the admirable ambitions of Mirror’s Edge fall short of what it actually accomplishes. While the first person point-of-view makes the game more immersive, it also means that simple actions become extravagantly difficult at times thanks to the lack of peripheral vision and, more importantly, the lack of depth perception that comes from trying to mimic real human sight on a flat television screen.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the game is taking a swing at a cop and realizing that, contrary to what it looks like to you, you are actually too far or too close to land the blow, which means you’re getting hit in the head and, unless your lucky, probably dying since this game is also very unforgiving with the amount of punishment you can take (it’s a more realistic amount of punishment than real life, but every once in a while, a little more leeway would have been nice). One eventually figures out how to manage it, but not before it’s become irritating. Similarly, much of the jumping in the game is made harder than it should be by this same limitation in depth perception and peripheral vision. Since one fall frequently results in death, it means that unless you are a more adept gamer than me you’re going to be dying a lot and trying to pull the same difficult move over and over as the game resets you to a pre-determined save point. The subway sequence was particularly difficult to deal with for me, and the challenge of it quickly crossed the line into irritation. When I finally got the thing right, it was more like completing the Bataan Death March than there being any sort of elation or satisfaction at conquering a difficult segment or move, as happened many places elsewhere in the game.

There’s been a lot of criticism leveled at the game’s cut scenes as well — those non-interactive animated segueways and moments of exposition that move a game from one scene to the next. They are often described as looking like an Esurance commercial (which I guess doesn’t count, now that the company has moved on from Erin Esurance to “The Saver”). They are sort of cheap looking and, given the crisp, fluid graphics that define the rest of the game, I’m not sure why they couldn’t have made the animation in these cut scenes a little smoother. I don’t mind the style of the artwork itself. I guess when it comes right down to it I really don’t mind the cut scenes that much at all. They’re a minor consideration, at best.

I also mentioned that the soundtrack, as much as the look of the game, initially got me interested. It’s an electronica and ambient score composed by Sweden’s Magnus Birgersson, who performs under the moniker Solar Fields. Swedish singer Lisa Miskovsky also contributed the game’s main theme song, “Still Alive.” I absolutely love the music for the game It fits perfectly for the action on-screen. The part of the game where you guide Faith up the arm of a crane and make a death-defying leap over and down to another crane is wonderfully synced with the music, and even though that’s not a particularly important moment in the game, the perfect melding of mood and music makes for one of the most breath-taking instances in a game that delivers a lot of hair-raising high-rise thrills.

So overall, my first play-through was pretty rocky. If you were watching it from afar, it would have been a hilarious highlight reel of freerunning fails and martial arts mishaps. While it sometimes tested my patience, I knew that part of the problem was with the game, but part of the problem was also occurring somewhere between the couch and the controller. I decided that, as with most movies I review, a second go-round was required before I could really make up my mind. And it turns out that the second run, with me more familiar with the controls and less confused by some of the puzzles that dead-ended me for a while the first time, ended up being a hell of a lot of fun. The flaws were still there, but they were easy for me to not care about.

By the time I was kicking that snide jerk out of the helicopter at the end of my second game, I was firmly within the camp of the Mirror’s Edge adherents. I said when I began this needlessly long article that I’d love to see a video game based on Jess Franco movies. Mirror’s Edge is no Jess Franco film (there was no jazz club with avant-garde strip routines), but the experience of playing it was similar to the experience of being a Jess Franco fan. You have to reconcile yourself to the quirks and flaws. You have to be willing to roll with them. If you’re not — and there’s no reason you should feel like you’re required to do so — then Mirror’s Edge, like Jess Franco, has little to offer you besides boredom and some nice art direction. However, if you do submit to its short-comings, as I did, it becomes very easy to understand why it has such a dedicated if small cult following. I understand the complaints and the detractors — hell, I even agree with them — but I find myself firmly within the camp of the adherents. Mirror’s Edge has lofty ambitions it can’t quite achieve, but the attempt never the less provides a great deal of entertainment if you’re in the right frame of mind. The game world is full of a lot of games that are basically the same. While Mirror’s Edge ultimately wasn’t that different, it was different enough to prove itself something special, even if it wasn’t a total success. Hopefully, they’ll still find some room to develop the series further, but if they don’t, then Mirror’s Edge still remains an admirable, though not totally successful, attempt to shake the game template up a little.