Mindless Iconoclasm is a series of posts where I argue an unpopular opinion of mine. In this edition, some thoughts on Mirror’s Edge.
Back in the 2008/2009 holiday season, when Mirror’s Edge came out, it was hailed for its innovative parkour mechanics and its stark visual style. It was and still is one of the most unique games of the past few years and is one of the few that has successfully implemented first-person platforming. However, the game was not without its flaws: players dismissed the story as trite and confusing, and they believed that the sections involving gunplay ruined the game’s flow. I won’t dispute the first criticism, as it’s one that I have also made. But there’s more to the second than might appear at first glance.
Before I go on, I advise you to watch blogger Chris Franklin’s take on the game. He points out how the shooting sections of Mirror’s Edge brought the game to a grinding halt, a frustrating, sludgy part of an otherwise well-honed experience. It’s the conventional wisdom about the game, and I think it correctly identifies the symptom, i.e. breaking the game’s flow. However, I don’t think it correctly identifies the root problem.
In order to identify that problem, we first need to establish how Mirror’s Edge generates “flow.” The game presents the player with a set of platforming mechanics – sprinting, sliding, pipe climbing, wall running, etc. – and then allows him or her to chain them together seamlessly. These “mechanic chains,” for lack of a better term, are fast-paced affairs, especially for an experienced player. Once one gets the hang of it, Mirror’s Edge is pure poetry in motion, allowing players to swing off bars and jump off walls with ease, combining these stunts with other parkour moves. The end of each “chain” serves as a natural stopping point, allowing players to catch their breath before moving on to the next one. Thus, the speed of the game rises and falls smoothly, creating a sense of “flow.”
The shooting mechanics are actually built off similar principles. Each firearm contains only a small number of rounds, making players shoot quickly and then pick up a new gun. Enemies aren’t bullet sponges; they’re dispatched with a couple of shots. The player character, Faith, can’t take much damage, so the player is encouraged to run and shoot. In a typical shooting section, the player makes it through quickly and smoothly.
So why did players point to the shooting sections as the parts that ruined the “flow?” Firstly, because unlike the parkour, they’re not really essential to what the game is. Secondly, because they do break the flow, but not due to anything inherent in being shooty sections in a runny game. You see, to get to those shooty bits, Faith has to obtain a gun. And in order to obtain a gun, she has to take it from someone else. On a few occasions, enemies can quickly be disarmed from behind. However, most of the time, Faith has to face her enemies head-on, and that’s where the game fails. Miserably.
Faith technically has a few different mêlée attacks that she can use, but they basically do nothing. Most of the enemies the player will face are quite heavily armoured and are virtually immune to punches and kicks. In order to snatch guns off these guys, the player has to stand in front of them, wait for them to swing their guns at you, and then disarm them via a sort of quick-time event. This QTE is nearly impossible without activating slow-motion mode, which slows the action down to a crawl.
Thus, the flow of the game is ruined. Time spent trying to disarm enemies – or fruitlessly punching them – is time not spent in motion. Letting the player quickly disarm enemies via jumping kicks or other mêlée moves would allow Faith to keep running, thereby ensuring a seamless flow between running, jumping, kicking, and shooting. The shooting sections would feel less separate from the rest of the game. In fact, the game could just let Faith carry a pistol with a small amount of ammo with her at all times. It would let players get rid of enemies quickly, but the ammo restriction would encourage them to get rid of enemies via other means too, like hand-to-hand combat.
Just because a game includes guns doesn’t mean that it’s trying to be a shooty brofest. Shooting is a tool, just like any other mechanic, and it can be deployed effectively, even in games that emphasize flow and free running. The shooting in Mirror’s Edge is hamstrung not by anything inherent to shooting, but by being artificially separated from the running sections by hand-to-hand combat that is essentially a glorified quick-time event. I would love to see a sequel to Mirror’s Edge, which is something that developer DICE has reportedly been working on. Hopefully, they refine the game’s mêlée system and achieve an ideal sense of flow that permeates the entire game.