[In his regular Gamasutra column, author and game designer Bogost analyzes EA DICE's Mirror's Edge, suggesting why "it presents a new view of our own experience of the world", rather "a window polished to an incrementally greater shine."]
When we use a toaster, or a sweater, or a word processing software package, we have certain functional expectations. A toaster should caramelize bread evenly and consistently. A sweater should keep a body warm without fraying or stretching out from repeated use. A word processor should help automate the crafting of documents without requiring specialized expertise.
Some of our expectations of such objects are cosmetic. We like our toasters to match the décor in our kitchens, our sweaters to be woven with the colors and styles of the current season.
But the history of software as a tool for work has made most cosmetic demands for software relate to matters of usability: buttons and menus should be in convenient locations, actions should feel consistent and predictable, conventions set by previous iterations of a software package should be respected, even if lightly refined.
Windows and Mirrors
In the field of human-computer interaction (HCI), these values of software design are sometimes grouped under the term "transparency." A good software tool, like a good toaster, is supposed to show us exactly how it should be used and then meet our expectations as users immediately and consistently.
Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala have suggested a different way to look at software, especially software that seeks to explore ideas rather than to serve as tools. Bolter and Gromala point out that the concept of transparency casts software as a window -- a clear surface that seeks to disappear as it reveals a functional affordance.
This conception works well for tools but poorly for art. Instead, the two suggest another metaphor, a mirror. Unlike a window, a mirror's job is to reflect back on its users, to give them a new perspective on themselves and their place in the world.
Video games are software, but they are not meant to serve the same function as spreadsheets. They are not tools that provide a specific and solitary end, but experiences that spark ideas and proffer sensations. Sure, video games have interfaces, like toasters have browning levers, like sweaters have cuffs, like word processors have font menus.
But too often we mistake the demands of these interfaces (and the in-game actions they facilitate) with the actions of tools. We gripe when a game doesn't do what we expect, rather than asking what such an unexpected demand means in the context of the game.
Free Running on Empty
The phenomenon is common enough that one can find it in most game reviews: gripes about controls, about graphical style, about fictional direction. But the most recent title to suffer the wrath of claustrophobic critics desperate to find a window out of their console also carries the opposite strategy in its very title: Mirror's Edge.
Some, like IGN's Nate Ahearn, found the game constricting and overly linear, concluding that it did not deliver what it promised. Others, like the Guardian's Keith Stuart, defended the title on the grounds of experimentalism. When a filmmaker tries to do something new, argued Stuart, we appreciate innovation for its own sake.
Still others, like Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander, attempted in her personal blog to rationalize the game's perceived defects as design lessons. Channeling a designer's input, Alexander suggested that poor level design caused some of the game's frustrating repetition. Eventually she concluded that it just wasn't executed well.
These are all reasonable sentiments about a piece of media. One of the roles of the critic is to point out flaws in a work (here's one: why does a game about rooftop messengers involve no actual messengering?)
But none of these reactions are satisfactory ways of responding to the game exclusively. Asking that a game does exactly what its player expects risks eliminating the possibility that it might offer a new way of understanding the world. Supporting design novelty risks fetishizing innovation for its own sake over the ways such innovation helps construct meaningful experiences.
And focusing on design lessons risks turning each example of our medium into an instrumental postmortem-in-miniature, a tragic progression toward inaccessible perfection, one that fails to allow any single example to speak on its own terms.
The Mirror's Reflection
In light of these concerns, let's consider some of the ways that Mirror's Edge serves as an immensely successful interactive mirror, in Gromala and Bolter's sense of the word.
A Way of Looking
The photographer Gary Winogrand famously said that he took pictures to see what things look when they were photographed. This apparent tautology is actually a brilliant insight into that medium: the practice of taking and looking at photographs is one of defamiliarizing the ordinary to make it strange, sublime, disturbing, or otherwise revealing.
Mirror's Edge is a game about another way of looking. It asks the player to see a credible, familiar world filled with cars, machines, hallways, and buildings in a different light. Each surface becomes a potential affordance for movement, and the player must learn to see fences, forklifts, ledges, and subway cars as tools of locomotion rather than as objects of industry.
The game's promising, if slapdash, dystopic fiction offers an entry into this practice, by persuading the player that the city is encumbered with a classic appearance-versus-reality problem. Visually, the game brings about this means of looking by literally whitewashing as much of the environment as possible, such that its surfaces reveal very little. The fact that nearly everything is white -- including the plants -- acts as a perceptual reset.
"Runner vision," the feature that colors "usable" objects in red, acts as a means of helping the player overcome such an uncanny way of seeing a familiar world. It might be tempting to see this feature as a cheat, a way to avoid asking the player to do something perceptually unreasonable. But once so much of the game's urban environment is stripped of pigment, the addition of new pigment delivers a means of seeing things.
Like a photograph that highlights an unexpected object through selective focus, runner vision draws the eye to the detritus that would otherwise seem like visual noise, reattenuating it into signal. And because Mirror's Edge is a video game instead of a photograph, it is able to extend a way of looking into a way of moving as well.
Parkour, or free running, serves as a primary inspiration for Mirror's Edge. The construction of another way of looking and moving offers the first means to adapting that activity: like the skateboarder, the free runner sees the world differently: as a set of affordances for previously unintended means of locomotion.
But there is something else about parkour that Mirror's Edge translates deftly: a sense of fluidity. The free runner does not simply see the city differently, he sees it as such without hesitation, moving immediately from step to wall to landing to ledge to ground. This sense of effortless continuity is what makes parkour beautiful to watch and, I presume, gratifying to experience. Not only must the successful free runner make alternate use of familiar surfaces, but also he must do so as smoothly as possible.
Mirror's Edge deploys two main strategies to create the experience of fluidity. The first is its first-person perspective, an unusual, risky decision that alienates some players, those unable to get over the fact that Unreal Engine 3 would have afforded a more straightforward third-person viewpoint. The game would indeed probably have been easier to play with the camera locked behind its main character, Faith.
But the game's purpose was not to make movement predictable and easy -- to make it transparent, in the lingo of HCI. Rather, Mirror's Edge attempts to create a sense of vertigo which the player must constantly overcome in order to reorient Faith toward her next objective. The rewards for success are remarkable: running to a sprint and properly vaulting a fence produces a sense of physical mastery commensurate with the parkour expert.
The second is its unusual level structure, one designed for difficulty. Mirror's Edge is a hard game; the number of times a player, even a good one, will fail is utterly enormous. When such failures occur, the game often asks the player to restart from a particularly punitive location, demanding that he work back to a point where, inevitably, he is likely once again to tumble violently down to earth.
Unlike Assassin's Creed, which adapts the fluidity of parkour by making movement consistently easy, Mirror's Edge adapts that fluidity by making it hard. But what initially seems like a punitive design gaffe actually carries a crucial payload: requiring the player to reattempt sets of runs insures that the final, successful one will be completed all in one go.
This is not the same type of frustration that one finds in Mega Man: the punitive levels are not conduits for final accomplishment and trophy, but for mastery over the very process of moving through the levels themselves.
Though it emphasizes running, jumping, ducking, and vaulting, Mirror's Edge also lives up to its first-person camera by offering gun-toting. While it's allegedly possible to finish the game without offing any hostiles, most players will find such an achievement hard to accomplish. But more importantly, trying to do so would mean missing out on one of the game's best features: its simulation of weakness.
Faith is not strong in combat. She is easily overcome by a few blows of a firearm stock or far fewer shots from its barrel. Her fragility in combat is no greater than her fragility in movement (death is easy in this game), but the player's sensation of Faith's weakness in the former help accentuate her strength in the latter.
Faith can run fast, jump accurately, slip in-between and under obstacles for shelter. She can bounce off walls with ease and balance on precarious outcroppings. But she can't really melee without becoming overpowered. And she can't wield a gun like a Delta Squad soldier.
The player's best strategy for combat is close range fighting while in motion, either with jump-kicks launched from vaults off a higher surface, slides and shin-kicks that disable an opponent, or weapon take-aways that require precise timing. All of these gestures are acts Faith is good at performing; she is a runner, after all.
Then there are the firearms. Once Faith picks up a gun, her movement slows considerably. She becomes less agile, and certain acrobatics become unavailable. She can't easily withstand the kickback of larger guns, which require careful aiming. Yet, stopping to sight an enemy is antithetical to the expressive mission of Mirror's Edge; it is a game about rapid, fluid, human movement, not standing still with a slab of dumb machinery.
Combat in Mirror's Edge is consequently miserable. Miss the right timing to grab a rifle and down you'll go. Lumbering through a gun battle feels brute force and ungratifying. It's not uncommon to enter a new area, see a hostile, and feel genuinely angry and disappointed at having to deal with him. The game is a shooter that makes you hate to shoot.
Instead of reading the game's combat system as a weakness, we can understand Mirror's Edge instead as a game about a character's weakness. Whereas so many games simulate unlimited power, Mirror's Edge shows us the limits of power -- not only that of Faith, but that of the entire first-person shooter genre.
Its lack of on-screen interfaces undermine the idea that "health" is a valid way of representing ability. Instead, Mirror's Edge replaces the pleasure of violent engagement with the pleasure of running away, footfalls tapping pavement gratifyingly as bullets zip by.
Seeing More Than We Want To See
Mirror's Edge is not a perfect game, perhaps, but it is something more important: it is an interesting game. It can be played and experienced on its own terms, for its own sake, if players would only allow themselves to take a single videogame specimen at face value rather than as yet another data point on the endless trudge toward realistic perfection.
While Keith Stuart's rejoinder against meeting expectations does remind us that innovation offers an important avenue for creativity, to privilege experimentalism still implies a view toward titles of the future. We must stop looking at the games we make and play in terms of how well closely the vistas they open match the ones in our mind when we come to them.
Rather than seeing these works as mere toasters or word processors meant to deliver on our expectations while we await a better version to come along, we must begin to understand what a game can offer us today: how it can serve as a mirror that presents a new view of our own experience of the world, rather than as a window polished to an incrementally greater shine, facing that same green pasture of familiarity.
With Mirror's Edge, we have one such example: a game about looking and moving in an unfamiliar way, about feeling frail when we are used to feeling powerful, and then feeling powerful again when we reject the convention to fight and choose instead to run like hell.