Mirror’s Edge: Flow, Navigation, Free-running

Seeing as the new Mirror’s Edge game has been given a firm release date, and seeing as I’m thinking a lot about architecture and city planning at the moment, I thought I might do a piece looking at the role of navigation in the original Mirror’s Edge. The main thing that most people complain about in Mirror’s Edge is the combat – it’s really unwieldy and not particularly satisfying. As always, people fail to consider the possibility that it might have been intentional – there’s a great (academic) article by Dave Ciccoricco that suggests that, because Mirror’s Edge is all about flow and momentum, stopping to fight is actively discouraged by the game. It’s not a fighting game, and it doesn’t want you to fight – you can, if you want, but it’d be preferable if you didn’t, because it’s clunky and weird.

There’s a couple potential caveats to my bicker: I’m pretty sure there’s a section at the end where you’re forced to fight a bunch of dudes with fuck-off heavy machine guns, which, if the game is trying to make you not fight, seems counter-intuitive. I’m re-playing the game at the moment, so I’ll think about it more when I get there, but in that situation I’d rather think about what the combat might signify, rather than just complaining about it. I mean, come on – imagine if everybody had just decided that Ulysses was too difficult and gave up on that too. “Well, it’s not smooth easy prose that slips down your gullet, so I guess it’s just shit, really.” Fuck’s sake.

Anyway: so in that end-game fighty situation, there’s another possibility, which is that maybe the developers didn’t mean anything by making combat so clumsy. Maybe they just dropped the ball. That’s always a distinct possibility, but there is a point where we have to respect the text as the text – it’s not limited in terms of meaning to the things the developers put into it, and that applies to their cock-ups as well as their successes. We don’t have to recognise either in the same way that the developers might. Again: you have to get past the superficial reaction and ask what the gameplay might mean, on its own terms, as its own thing. I’m being entirely serious when I say that if we don’t start asking what things might mean in video games, it’s going to be harder for the medium to mature.

That’s all by the by, and not really what I wanted to talk about. It’s just something I needed to get off my chest. I actually wanted to talk about the negotiation of space in Mirror’s Edge, and the role of the city. Let’s start with Call of Duty, and the derogatorily named shooting corridors. In these shooting corridors, you’re moving in a more-or-less linear path from Point A to Point B. A to B is almost inevitable when you’re talking about video games, which are predominantly goal-oriented, but it’s the essential singularity of that pathway that makes people so grumpy. There’s no sense of a dynamic, organic, sprawling historical city – there’s just a series of artificially determined corridors that you move through. Sometimes you do get big open spaces – I’m thinking of the favela in Modern Warfare 2, at least for the early part where there’s lots of different paths to the bottle-neck. However, in that case, the favela doubles as a multiplayer map. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the multiplayer mode took priority in design, and the single-player took the backseat as a series of shooting corridors designed to string the multiplayer maps together.

I’m still getting off topic: the point is that, although there’s some divergence sometimes in terms of how you can negotiate an area, usually it’s pretty linear. The interesting thing about Mirror’s Edge is that it’s so spread out – there are piles of different ways to get to your goal, and, what’s more, they’re colour-coded in terms of difficulty for you as a player. Obviously that relies on a very particular visual aesthetic, but it’s still really cool. It’s probably unfair to compare Modern Warfare to Mirror’s Edge in this way, because Modern Warfare‘s never really tried to be about negotiating space – excepting the most recent Black Ops instalment, which is something of a new direction for the franchise – one resulting, mind you, from the repeated criticisms of the aforementioned shooting corridors.

Anyway – I don’t mention the shooting corridors in order to exemplify Mirror’s Edge as succeeding where Modern Warfare failed, because the two games have completely different goals – it wouldn’t be fair. Rather, I’m trying to illustrate the way in which Mirror’s Edge designs its levels to be negotiated in a much more open fashion. It allows for an organic style of negotiation – it’s fluid, which is to say that it’s not a matter of picking one path and sticking with it. You can flow from the left to the middle, over something on the right and back again – and there’s still bottle-necking, but that’s inevitable to some degree. The point is that there’s a great deal of flexibility in the combination of boxes and buildings that allow you to get around. Case in point:


In this situation, you’ve got three or four choices. Do you climb onto the raised avenues immediately on your left and right? Or do you go straight ahead and hop the barrier? Or do you run up the conveniently placed piping and onto the right hand avenue (or across the barrier onto the left, or over the barrier into the middle again)? There are a whole series of discrete objects that contribute to the environment, and as you employ various objects to move through the space you build up momentum, incorporating these discrete objects into one continuous flow. That sense of flow, as opposed to chunky segments of shifting from multiplayer-map to single-player-corridor, is what builds up the fluidity of negotiation, even with comparatively more scripted pathways:


In this image, you can see the red containers on the left, and the red crane in the center? You have to move from one to the next to the lower crane on the right – there’s a bottleneck there, it’s not optional. How you get up onto the containers in the first place is still pretty open, but the sense of flow reduces the corridor-y linear drudgery of something like Modern Warfare.

There’s more to say, but at this stage I’ve got lots of little bitsy things, and I’m not sure if they’ll cohere into a singular post. We’ll have to wait and see. Until next week!



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