When should you be good at a game? There are a few different traditional kinda arcs here, right. You’ve got games where you expect to be pleasantly challenged but never overwhelmed the whole way through. These are your typical power fantasy games: they’re about making you feel empowered without requiring anything super strenuous. It’s Call of Duty on normal difficulty. Then you’ve got games where the controls or mechanics are easy enough, but actually understanding the higher-level concepts enough to call yourself ‘good’ requires a whole lot of work. Think about chess, or Magic: The Gathering – or arguably even competitive multiplayer Call of Duty. And then there’s games like Dark Souls, where completing the game is not the same as being good at it. The game is very difficult, but you can also fudge your way through by using relatively easy strategies. For example, I always summon Solaire as a companion when I go to fight the bell gargoyles. I could learn how to fight them myself, and actually get good at that part of the game, but I’ve never felt the need. So I don’t. There’s a high skill ceiling, in other words, and it’s also possible to get help from other players – completing the game is very different to being good at it.
And then we’ve got Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. The sequel to 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, Catalyst took the free-running parkour principles of its predecessor and moved them into a non-linear city environment. Mirror’s Edge was always quite a linear game, despite itself – there were a range of different pathways that you could take, but it was always in a relatively funneled sort of way. I’ve written about this before, back in 2016 – shit, that’s old. Back then, I took the image below as sort of emblematic of the nature of Mirror’s Edge. There are a bunch of different ways down that sluiceway – you could run down the left! you could run down the right! – but whichever way you go, you’re still going down a linear tube. So I was excited by the idea of Catalyst – as an open-world city, it would transcend linearity, and better express the free-running vision by allowing you to move across the city in any direction, rather than forcing you down a tube. And on playing it, I realised – fuck, it’s actually a lot of work getting to know a city.
So this question, right – when should we be good at a game? It’s an interesting one with Catalyst, because you spend a lot of time being inefficient. You can run around the map pretty easily, but you’re always thinking – you know, there’s probably a quicker way to go. There’s probably a smarter way to do this. But you don’t know the area that well, so you kinda just have to keep running and accept that you’re doing a shit job. We see this structure with the time trial missions. You’re asked to run from point A to an undisclosed point B. You can’t see it on the map – you just have to follow the red direction arrows, like a dog chasing a tin can tied to the back of a car. And then you get to the end point, and you’ll have failed the time trial, because the red direction arrows are very inefficient, and then you open your map and look at where you started and plot maybe two or three different routes to your location. And then you go back to the beginning, and you start again. You have to commit to running it badly before you can run it well. And I can imagine some people probably consider that to be a design flaw. It’s inefficient – why not just be transparent so that people can plan their routes without all this mucking around? To me, it’s because of those basic design principles, the way in which you’re supposed to grow your understanding of the game world. They don’t want you plotting a path from the map. They want you to explore the world, reflect on that exploration, and then do something better. You’re only allowed to get good once you’ve committed to that first step of exploring the world in an inefficient way.
Broadly speaking, then, Catalyst is a game that only allows you to be good once you’ve played it a bunch. That’s initially a very weird experience, but also quite satisfying, in that it mirrors how we negotiate and renegotiate our paths through city-space. So, for instance, when I first moved to this suburb that I’m currently living in, I would walk to work. I had a very specific path that I’d take – essentially an L shape. I’d walk in a straight line to the main road that my job was on, and then I’d walk all the way down that road until I reached my destination. Over time, I started to figure out some of the little shortcuts and avenues that I could take, so that my current route – or pre-Covid route, rather – is more like a hypotenuse, stretching between the two tips of the L. There are a series of cumulative little tricks that have built up over time. Not huge time savers, just little things. I realised that if I crossed a certain bridge, I could skip waiting at a big intersection. It’s the things you pick up over time, as you get to know a place. But – you know, there’s no point studying everything on a map and then coming in as if you know everything. Even if you’ve got the street layout memorized, you don’t know how the traffic moves, where there are long stops at intersections, who lives in the different buildings – sometimes you feel safer walking down one street rather than another. You have to learn that shit by doing it. And that’s what Catalyst is interested in. You learn by doing it. If you want to get good, you run up and down and every which way along a street, doing every conceivable different task, and eventually it’ll start to soak into your psyche. It’s less knowledge in the intellectual, academic sense, and more knowledge in the way that you know what your bed feels like. The contours are experiential, rather than abstract, and they operate in an intuitive, instinctive way. I mean, you don’t think about the path you take to work. It’s fucking half past eight in the morning; the only thing in your brain is regret over the fact of your existence. And yet your feet know where to go. That’s why, for me, even if the time trials in Catalyst are inefficient, I don’t really mind. They’re pushing you towards a better way of understanding the city. The game knows how you’re supposed to get good.