Remember when I posted part one of two of an essay on Mirror's Edge? That's okay, I'm pretty sure no one else does either.

Mirror's Edge

The inclusion of a story at all in Mirror's Edge feels a bit unnecessary and problematic; especially in its execution, flabby and perfunctory, it makes the game feel like any other unimpressive video game, plot and cutscenes tacked on because they're expected but not with any real effort put into them.

Yet the idea itself, of an underground struggle against a corporate police state, fits well thematically for a game whose central inspiration is free running. It seems an appropriate marriage of plot and mechanic, of story and mechanic, in the traditional sense of those terms, both using the theme of freedom and oppression.

Freedom Fighters

It's a tall order, though, to make a game about freedom. Plenty of games have had a "fight for freedom" as their plot--any World War II game, usually; Freedom Fighters, of course; and so many others--but most of the time the plot is, again, perfunctory, an afterthought, and therefore no one expects any actual connection between that plot theme and the gameplay. In Mirror's Edge, though, the connection is much more explicit. A promise is, in some way, being made: as much as this is a game about flow, it is a game about freedom. And, as much as it fails to actually flow, and for much of the same reasons, the game fails to actually be free.

On the large-scale structural level, the game's linear and fixed series of levels, coupled with linear and fixed plot advancement, clearly doesn't even have a pretense of player freedom. On that level the game is a movie, just like so many other games: there are characters, they talk to each other in shitty movie dialogue, they fight or run or die, and players get to watch, without any choice or influence.

But this could be forgiven despite the game's promise of freedom if the game offered freedom on a smaller scale, the scale of the gamespace of the levels and the mechanics themselves--that's the more important part of the game, obviously, and what has much more impact on the thematic effect of a game. But of course there isn't any more freedom on this level, either: most sequences have one or at most two or three paths through them, with one branch or another offering little to no impact on future gameplay, and in the constant adrenaline rush pace of the game you don't have the opportunity to think much about your options anyway.

Grand Theft Auto 3

The obvious contrary here is to open world games like Grand Theft Auto or, well, pretty much any game from the past two years, as open world is currently quite in vogue. Mirror's Edge would actually make sense as an open world game, though, giving players something closer to the actual experience of free running, which is as much about breaking social norms, experimentation, and finding new ways to move as it is about looking cool. Mirror's Edge allows the player to do none of these, in fact enforces the opposite of this: you must follow the rigid, strict path set by the developers, or you fail. Experimentation is punished, not rewarded. You are not free.

But even if Mirror's Edge had been an open world game, wandering around the rooftops of the city Crashdown-style and taking conflicting missions from various characters, there would still be the mechanics themselves, conventional--nowadays perhaps even better referred to as old-school--platformer mechanics that are brutally strict, with very little valence between "successful jump" and "death". Higher jumps, true, have a further dimension of whether you successfully roll with the landing, thereby avoiding damage and keeping your momentum, or simply hit the ground hard, leaving yourself limping; but this is still just another aspect of "right" or "wrong", "succeed" or "fail", binaries of morality/efficiency that are antithetical to any discourse of freedom.

If Mirror's Edge, or any game, wants to truly be about freedom, its base mechanics need to reflect that, and that means more results than simply variances on a scale of positive to negative. That means that even the solutions of its platforming near-contemporaries--time reversal, quickload, etc.--would be just as ineffective: they might be more forgiving of mistakes, but they still enforce a strict difference between mistakes and the "right way" to play the game.

Sim City 3000

What's needed, really, are mechanics in which the different results of player choices are not merely "better" or "worse" ways of playing, not mechanics that can be optimized to achieve the most efficient completion. I'm not talking the "morality scale" endemic to (Western) RPGs, either, as that's just another binary system that confines players to developer expectations. Rather I'm talking about something like Sim City, something that's more toy than game, where rather than a structured game with set goals and win conditions the player is presented with a model of a world and a set of ways to interact with that model and then set loose to do what they will.

You can still have "better" and "worse" choices within particular subsystems--that is, you can still have ways that make your city poor or rich, or jumps that lead to your death--but the point is that navigating those subsystems is not the core of the game. They are important, sure, but only in that you have to understand how to navigate those systems in order to achieve your own goals, decided by yourself, and that those goals determine what systems you need to understand, and how you need to use them.

I realize that this sounds very, very far from the conception of Mirror's Edge. And in some ways it is--but not in the important ways, I think. This could still be a game based on free running--and now it would be a game that is actually about free running, about freedom and experimentation and defying expectations and making your own discoveries, rather than just another linear platformer with an unfulfilled promise of something better.

We live in a world defined by the heterosexual masculine viewpoint. That is, the vast majority of our world is constructed with reference to the position of a heterosexual man (usually white in the West). This is institutionalized sexism on the level of unconsciousness for most, and a terrible thing for those who don't fall into that categorization because they are forced to privilege others' viewpoints, but it's also a terrible thing for those who do fall into that categorization because they aren't. (Yes, it's a very different terrible, and obviously less damaging, but I think it's worth mentioning nonetheless.)

Sotomayor's controversial statement about a woman's experience was fundamentally correct precisely because of this paradigm. Precisely because we live in a straight man's world, and anyone who isn't a straight man is forced to learn what it means to be a straight man, think from the position of a straight man, in addition to their own. Women (mostly) are very aware of their status as (sexual) objects to straight men; they are indoctrinated from brith into their own objectification, and those who oppose it are nonetheless very familiar with. Straight men, on the other hand, have no such forced perspectives. They know their own and no other. Even if they try to seek out alternatives, it is very difficult to find anything, because the world is so dominated by their positional paradigm.

Or simply, everyone would be better off in a more open world.

I wrote this paper for a class on postmodern fiction last year. I'm not sure how interesting it will actually be to anyone else--it references the class fairly significantly, and it's not a particularly unique or new analysis of Bioshock, but I thought I'd put it up here anyway. Massive spoilers for all of Bioshock, so be warned.

The first video games were developed in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1970s that they became a commercial enterprise and not until the past decade that they have begun to receive critical recognition. It is perhaps not coincidental that postmodernism—both the literary genre and cultural phenomenon—arose at the same time; at the very least it can be said that postmodernism and video games influenced and were influenced by each other, even if many involved with either field were not cognizant of the influence at the time. Postmodernism is, after all, deeply connected with the rise of computers and later network technology; and video games are from one perspective simply the narrative entertainment aspect of those technologies—the natural development from books and movies into the new realm of computers. Video games are of course much more than just movies on a computer, and the difference between the two is what makes video games arguably the most postmodern medium yet in existence: consider that if postmodernism is a preoccupation with the culture of the “easy edit”, the ability to change anything and everything at the click of a mouse button, then video games—narratives in which people are not passive readers or viewers but active players who interact with, change, edit the narrative as it occurs—are postmodern in their very bones.

This, at least, has been the argument of many academics in the fledgling field of game studies, if not in so many words: while they rarely connect their work to postmodernism, such academics frequently declare the power of video games to be their capacity for choice, in opposition to the locked linear narratives of almost all other artistic mediums (barring niche aberrations like the infamous Choose Your Own Adventure series of children's books). Yet one of the first video games to generate substantial critical discourse—2K Games' Bioshock, the magnum opus of designer Ken Levine published in 2007—is a game that deliberately, methodically, brutally deconstructs the myth of choice in video games. Bioshock's narrative and ludic climax revolves around a demonstration of the total lack of agency the player has, a demonstration of how everything the player has done in the game has been carefully orchestrated and choreographed, with the much-vaunted choices being nothing more than crude illusions.

Bioshock, a title near the pinnacle of both blockbuster action games—Bioshock sold over two million copies in its first year—and artistic and intellectual games, is a supremely postmodern video game. It is a video game in which body modification, addiction and compulsion, resistance to meta-narratives, self-referentiality, ontology, conspiracies, and nearly every other trope or trend of postmodern fiction appears in some way or another with a significant impact on either the gameplay or at least the narrative. It is a video game that combines an absurd, 1940s adventure serial-esque plot and over-the-top characters, setting, and art style with intensely serious points about human nature and the nature (and danger) of narrative. It is a video game whose first two acts build to arguably the most important comment in video games on video games yet made and then collapses in its final act into cliché and stereotypes, unable to overcome the problems it worked so hard to point out. It is a postmodern artifact both in the sense that it is concerned with postmodern concerns and in that it is itself deeply postmodern.

Bioshock is a first-person shooter, a video game played from a first-person perspective and in which the primary gameplay involves shooting enemies with a variety of weapons—the same genre as the infamously less cerebral Doom and Halo. After surviving a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic, the player explores the underwater city of Rapture, an objectivist utopia built at the height of the Cold War that has since collapsed into anarchy. Early on the protagonist injects himself with a “plasmid”, a genetic modification device that allows him to use supernatural powers like shooting lightning from his fingertips; the various types of plasmids, along with more conventional firearms, form the basis of the player's arsenal. The player follows the instructions of Atlas, a man who speaks to him over a radio, as he gradually learns the story behind Rapture, founded by ex-Soviet industrialist Andrew Ryan and eventually brought down by the discovery of ADAM, the material that powers plasmids; the power struggle to control ADAM between Ryan and gangster Frank Fontaine, combined with the delirious effects of prolonged plasmid use, leads to the collapse of civilized society in Rapture and leaves the city occupied almost solely by “splicers”, citizens of Rapture gone mad with plasmid use and their own traumatic circumstances. Unlike everyone else in the game, the player cannot die: when “killed”, the player simply reappears in the nearest “Vita-Chamber”, a resurrection device that obscure audio logs in the game reveal to now be keyed only to Ryan's genetic code.

At the game's climax two-thirds of the way through, the player finally confronts Andrew Ryan, whom the player has been sent to kill by Atlas. Ryan reveals that the player is actually the genetic son of Ryan himself and a prostitute hired by Fontaine; Fontaine took the baby, had one of Rapture's geneticists accelerate its growth and implant it with false memories and mind control conditioning, then transported it to the continental United States until Fontaine called it back. The phrase Atlas uses to “suggest” directions to the player—“Would you kindly . . .”—is the code phrase that initiates the mind control protocol; Atlas is in fact Fontaine. The remainder of the game concerns the struggle of the player, now under the instruction of a Doctor Tenenbaum, to defeat Fontaine and escape Rapture.

Bioshock's plot would not be out of place in a movie commented on by Mystery Science Theater 3000, yet it aims (and arguably succeeds to a significant extent) at intellectual and artistic achievement far beyond such works. One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is the blurring of the distinction between “high brow” culture of art and “low brow” culture of entertainment (Et Tu, Babe's combination of hyperbolic ego humor and cultural commentary; Motherless Brooklyn's combination of detective genre tropes and a realistic depiction of Tourette's syndrome; Choke's combination of sex and sex addiction); Bioshock is near the apex of the tradition. It is after all first and foremost a video game, a medium until the past decade almost never discussed as anything but the lowest brow of culture, that nonetheless strives for a higher intellectual consideration. It is of a genre habitually described as “mindlesss” and its setting and plot are so obviously deliberately ridiculous and over-the-top that it seems difficult to take anything in the game seriously. Yet for every aspect of the game that exists purely for entertainment, there is a counterpart that has little value beyond the artistic: the splicers that the player guns down throughout the game (entertainment) speak with crazed speech that suggests they are not monsters but merely men and women driven mad by the terrible circumstances of Rapture (art); the struggle witnessed and fought throughout the game between Ryan and Atlas/Fontaine, which is both a classic dual between over-the-top villains and an honest commentary on idealism and nihilism; and of course the mind control, both an absurd device and the linchpin for the game's commentary on video games and the illusion of choice. Bioshock moves between the realms of entertainment and art, primeval and intellectual, high brow and low brow constantly and easily, almost daring a commentator to attempt and fail to draw a line between what is worth analyzing critically and what is not. Like postmodernism, Bishock defies categorization.

Early previews of Bioshock, which discussed an underground Nazi laboratory, reveal that only one aspect of the game remained from original conception to publication: body modification. Literally in the name—“shock” being a reference to the game's spiritual predecessors System Shock and System Shock 2 but “bio” being indisputably short for “biological”—the most notable deviation from traditional first-person shooter game mechanics is the plasmids, the biological weapons that the player collects and upgrades throughout the game. The narrative of course is consumed by the story of plasmids: it is plasmids that lead to the struggle between Ryan and Fontaine that brings Rapture down and it is plasmids that spawn the splicers that hunt the player the entirety of the game. Even the first major “boss” of the game is a plastic surgeon who decided after plasmids and ADAM allowed him to shape a person's body to any possible appearance—after perfection became an attainable goal—that he would become the Picasso of the body and free his patients from the tyranny of “symmetry”.

But more than this, Bioshock's gameplay is consumed by plasmids: the choice of which plasmids to keep in the limited available slots for genetic modification is one of the most important tactical decisions in the game and significantly changes how the player proceeds. Certain plasmids are better at fighting certain enemies or achieving certain effects, and always some option must be sacrificed; in this way even players who pay no attention to the narrative—a significant number—are forced to deal with Bioshock's emphasis on body modification. The choice is not just mechanical but also visual; the appearance of the player's hands (the only part of the protagonist's body visible from the game's first-person perspective) changes radically depending on which plasmid is equipped. Postmodernism is of course obsessed with body modification, perhaps most notably in Et Tu, Babe, with Mark Leyner's geriatric cyborg bodyguards and his own drug-addled physique; Bioshock takes this obsession as far as it can go, and perhaps a little farther.

The plasmids and their effects on Rapture's citizens hit upon another postmodern obsession: addiction. Et Tu, Babe, Infinite Jest, Choke: all are concerned majorly with addiction and addicts. In Bioshock addiction manifests in the splicers, the former normal people of Rapture who have become consumed by their use of plasmids and transformed into vicious killers that stalk the ruined structures of the city. The game's finale is an extended battle with Fontaine after he has injected himself with an overdose of ADAM, gone mad, and transformed into a physical incarnation of the mythological Atlas he previously impersonated. And while the player experiences no gameplay mechanics of addiction, the player is “addicted” to the instructions of Atlas/Fontaine, compelled just as an addict is to take drugs to follow any directions preceded by “Would you kindly . . .”. Bioshock's mind control is of course rather a form of compulsion, the larger theme that includes addiction and which nearly every work of postmodernism touches on in some way or another. For Bioshock compulsion and control is at the heart of its argument and commentary, the centerpiece of its skewering of the illusion of choice in video games that has spawned so much critical analysis.

The narrative of mind control and the struggle between Ryan and Fontaine is a narrative of conspiracy, a topic that recurs over and over in postmodern fiction. From Et Tu, Babe to Infinite Jest to Motherless Brooklyn to The Intuitionist, conspiracies dominate postmodernism, likely because they are a narrative trope that relates to so many more intellectual concerns of postmodernism: conspiracies, secrets, plots within plots mean resistance to meta-narratives, as Lyotard defined postmodernism, and ontology, the question of “what world is this?”. These concerns are at the heart of Bioshock as well, not just in its conspiracies but in every aspect of the narrative and game.

Before Bioshock was released its conception of a failed objectivist utopia raised the ire of some and the cheers of others, all expecting a satire of Ayn Rand's infamous philosophy; the final product, however, is not so neat in its consideration. Those players interested in the objectivist aspect of the game who explore enough to find the various audio logs detailing the city's fall learn that Rapture fell not because of some inherent failure of objectivism (or despite some inherent success of objectivism) but simply due to the human flaws of Ryan. In fact Bioshock is not so much a satire of objectivism as it is a more subtle commentary on the space between idealism and nihilism. Ryan is portrayed not as a deluded objectivist megalomaniac but as a supreme idealist brought down by his own humanity; at the other end of the spectrum is Fontaine, who at first appears as nothing more than a criminal in search of power and money but gradually reveals himself to be a supreme nihilist whose only concern is the destruction of Rapture and the downfall of Ryan. Yet in both cases Bioshock's position is not one of condemnation or approval but simply a dedication to the idea that Ryan and Fontaine are not ideas but men, not symbols of some grand over-arching narrative that explains everything but simply characters with human motivations and emotions that drive them to take the actions they do and leave Rapture in the state that it lies in.

Beyond the characters and conspiracies of Ryan and Fontaine lies a larger postmodern question: “what world is this?” Bioshock's opening text declares that the game takes place in the North Atlantic, 1960, but clearly this is not a historical 1960: while Ryan may be a Soviet emigrant and he may be worried about CIA and KGB spies, Rapture is filled with technologies on the level of science-fiction. Moreso, such ontological questioning demands, especially in a video game, the question of the narrator: whose perspective is this narrative being told? “Whose world is this?” Bioshock's answer, of course, lies at the heart of its narrative: the revelation of the protagonist's identity not as a random plane crash survivor but as a carefully manipulated instrument in a grand scheme to overthrow Ryan is the climax of the game and dominates its final third.

Bioshock's climax is in fact perhaps its most postmodern element. The move is not just a narrative but a mechanical removal of control: unlike the entirety of the first two-thirds of the game, control is taken away from the player and the events unfold in cinematics for the first time. The scene is deliberately muted, then brutal in a way that ascertains no player can ignore it: the protagonist finally meets Andrew Ryan, who appears not as a megalomaniacal monster but as the most sane person the player has yet seen in Rapture, a tidy man in a business suit putting at one of the office golf sets so often seen in movies. Ryan explains how the player has been deceived, demonstrates the conditioning—“Would you kindly . . . run?” he says, and the player runs—then hands the player the club and solemnly declares, “A man chooses. A slave obeys. Would you kindly . . . kill?” The player watches helplessly as his virtual hands raise the club and bring it down violently against Ryan's face, over and over, as Ryan repeats himself, until finally the top of the club breaks off and remains impaled in Ryan's skull. The scene is shocking not just for its narrative content but for the visceral feeling of inescapability it forces on the player: there is absolutely nothing they can do to stop this. But the move is not to create a jarring juxtaposition from the player's previous freedom, it is to demonstrate the fundamental equality with the player's previous experience. The player character has followed Atlas' instructions due to the mind control conditioning; the player has followed Atlas' instructions because Bioshock is a video game and they understand that he is to follow such instructions in a video game. Players do not have a choice, Bioshock says, as much as they would like to: their experience in a video game is just as directed, just as controlled, just as linear, as that of any other medium. Video games merely present the illusion of freedom and choice.

The concept of video games as narratives with choice is of course simply another meta-narrative that Bioshock postmodernly refutes, but it is more than that: it is a supremely self-referential commentary in that most obvious aspect of postmodernism. Like fiction about fiction and movies about movies, Bioshock becomes, in this moment, a video game about video games, a commentary (and in some ways an attack) on its own medium, in a way that no other medium could. It is ironic that Bioshock's most famous and powerful commentary is achieved through a cinematic—essentially, through an in-game movie—but it is so successful precisely because it nonetheless could not be achieved in anything other than a video game.

This afternoon, after some tedious work getting all the updates working, I finally started playing my recently purchased copy of The Witcher, an eastern European RPG from 2007 based on a Polish series of fantasy novels. I've just completed the prologue/tutorial so far, but I'd like to share a story.

After a lengthy opening pre-rendered cutscene (which unfortunately didn't have any sound due to a bug, I assume), the game opens with . . . a very long in-engine cutscene, beginning with the protagonist, Geralt, being carred unconscious on a wagon back to the mountain fortress of the witchers, an infamous group of mutants who hunt monsters, according to the game's omniscient narration. All swell, until Geralt opens his mouth: "I don't remember anything."

Well, if there's anything to create a negative first impression, especially in an RPG, it's amnesia. I know of two games that dealt with it well (Torment, where the basic mystery of it is done away with fairly quickly, and Sanitarium, where it's the entire point of the game), and already it feels tacked on considering that the game has made very clear who the main character is--Geralt of Riveria, the White Wolf, one of the most famous of the surviving witchers.

I realize soon enough that the device is a necessary evil for the game to equally behave as a traditional RPG and allow the player to control Geralt. Amnesia allows the game to introduce the narrative and mechanical aspects of the world as if they were new to the character as well as the player, which is of course the usual reason for its inclusion in RPGs, and also to have the player start with a first-level character, as opposed to the great monster slayer that Geralt is already. (Which seems a bit disingenuous to me. What's the point of playing a famous hero if you don't start super powerful?)

Anyway, the cutscene finally (and I do mean finally, it is damned long) gives way to the combat tutorial as a band of hilariously incompetent bandits attack the castle. But as the prologue goes on, involving Geralt, his sorceress girlfriend Triss, and four other witchers (well, three witchers and a trainee) defending the castle against what they discover is a much more calculated and dangerous incursion, a number of strange things begin to strike my mind.

The first is as I'm sent to sound some bells in a high tower to damage a giant monster vulnerable to loud noises. In a cutscene (arg!), the stairs, which circle a bit that falls to open ground rather than a stone floor, begin collapsing. Geralt gets to the top but the bandits pursuing him are left behind as I watch agape and wonder, how does an inhabited castle have collapsing stairs? The next time Geralt meets up with the other witchers their leader apologizes and comments that one of the others was supposed to fix it, to which the witcher in question McCoys that he's not a mason.

For the rest of the sequence I'm too concerned with stopping a powerful sorcerer, regaining some magic powers, and getting upset over the trainee's death at the hands of an assassin awesomely called "The Professor" to notice other odd things, but once combat is over and I'm sent to collect the ingredients for a healing potion for Triss, things get stranger. As the witcher leader warns me that there are still some stragglers about the castle--bandits they didn't kill--I begin to question the narrative integrity of this game.

Would they really let any of the bandits get away? It seems ridiculous except as a device to provide more combat during this fetch quest. And where are the rest of the witchers, anyway? The opening cutscene showed a huge castle, yet all I've seen are five other people here. Shouldn't the rest of the castle been helping to defend against the attack? That would have made it too easy, of course. And would there really be no significant defenses against an incursion into the witchers' most secret sanctuary, the laboratory they never allowed even Triss to enter?

As I explore the castle, I'm confused by its appearance more as a ruin than an active fortress. There are huge cracks in the walls, more collapsed staircases, a flooded basement, and many rooms that are either empty or hold only a few random pieces of junk--a dusty, broken chest, a twisted metal bedframe. Beyond the central area the witchers stay in with the wounded Triss and a few select rooms--a library, Triss' bedroom at the top of a tower--the castle is an abandoned relic.

I begin to question my cynical analysis of the game, and slowly I realize the story behind all of this. The four witchers and Triss are the only people left in the fortress, they alone maintaining a glimmer of whatever former glory the witchers might have once possessed. And they're not enough to maintain a massive castle, of course, and so they maintain a few areas they use and leave the rest to rot. The bell tower was seldom used, and the witchers aren't masons, and so the stairs had never been repaired. The stragglers were left to roam the castle because the witchers didn't have enough men to confidently root them out and still defend their central living area. The laboratory was undefended because everyone in the castle was already fighting.

At first I'm not sure if this is the truth or just me coming up with an explanation that gives the game more credit than it's worth, but when I return with the potion ingredients and speak to the witcher leader, one of the optional dialogues leads to him telling the story of an attack on the castle some twenty years earlier, in which the then twenty-four witchers and several dozen trainees were all murdered, save for himself, who survived by hiding among the corpses. (I assume he simply fails to mention the numerous servants that must have kept the castle running, but in fariness, he probably wouldn't mention them, being beneath the consideration of such a powerful man.)

There's another fact that emerges from this dialogue, too: there will be no more witchers. While the laboratory contained the tools necessary for the brutal process of chemical and magical mutation that produces them (which is itself an interestingly scientific position in a fantasy setting), they didn't have a mage powerful enough to perform the necessary rituals, and it's unclear whether the witcher leader even knew said rituals, himself being quite young when the rest of the order was slaughtered.

And thus my respect for the game shoots up immensely. Perhaps they could have done a better job introducing the status of the witchers and their castle, but once it becomes clear, the story is tragic and touching. And it lends a fatalistic quality to (at least the start of) the game's main quest, which is to find the mysterious sorcerer who led the attack. The witchers split up for the four corners of the world in search of clues not hoping to stop some great evil or save the world but simply looking to avenge their fallen comrade and retrieve their stolen potions that are of no use to them. Even if they succeed, it's likely that more of them will perish in the quest, and they'll have gained nothing for it. But they can't gain anything anyway--they are the last of the witchers, and they know it.

Which, despite everything else, is a great way to start to game.

She tells us from the beginning: it's about flow.

Mirror's Edge

Mirror's Edge is a fascinating game in many respects. It's a first-person platformer, which is unique enough, but it's through its mechanical and narrative focus on replicating parkour/free running that the game truly shines as something new and interesting.

The problem with platformers is that they too often devolve into frustrating puzzles where players calculate and repeatedly attempt a series of jumps and other special moves, failing and iterating their technique until they find the intended solution and reach their goal. (Perhaps it's thus fitting that platformers are often referred to as "adventure games" on consoles, leading to genre confusion/ignorance.) But while true adventure games are often predicated on the satisfaction of solving a puzzle after much mental anguish, platformers are usually intended as much more visceral, continuous experiences. Games with flow.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

It's the same problem that has plagued shooters and led to the introduction of health regeneration in Halo and others, and in platformers of the time rewind mechanic of The Sands of Time and the ultimate quickload in the latest Prince of Persia. And yet many of these games still have a natural rhythm of starting and stopping, still have a pace that lulls and rises. I don't know of any game that has demanded a constant pace and flow as Mirror's Edge--a game that knows nothing of the above devices.

Mirror's Edge is game so focused on the constant adrenaline rush--so focused on keeping players running that even the protagonist's title is "runner"--that players never have the opportunity to stop and contemplate their options, analyze their surroundings and figure out the best method of jumps and climbs and wall runs to get to where they're trying to go. Almost any time you stop in Mirror's Edge, the "blues" (antagonistic police) show up quickly, forcing you to keep running (or engage in the game's feeble combat system, which is both poor and out-of-place, although the guns are suitably lethal that if you are willing to use them combat is at least laughably easy).

This isn't intrinsically a bad thing. In fact it's an interesting scenario, putting players in an unfamiliar situation where they're on the run, not the bad guys. Most gamers are used to being gods compared to their enemies, who are only dangerous in mass numbers; Mirror's Edge manages to make players truly feel hunted, as if they need to run in order to survive, which is certainly an accomplishment to be applauded.

The problem is that the game's spaces don't take this into account. They're designed like most platformer spaces, with lots of red herrings and only one or a few routes to the goal. It's extremely easy to miscalculate a jump and fall to your death, and even if you make it's hard to be sure you're going the right way. And you don't have any time to think, because the blues are coming. You have to run and run, and you don't know where you're going, or what you're supposed to do. And so the game becomes simply frustrating instead of tense.

Half-Life 2

Part of the problem is the game's art direction. Its minimalism is brilliant but I can't help but wish the game's art director had learned a bit from Valve and Half-Life, the masters of subtly drawing players' attention. Throughout Mirror's Edge their are voice overs that theoretically point you towards your goal--some distant building, usually--but frequently the building blends in with its surroundings (despite the saturated and limited color scheme allowing for strong definition, as the runner's sight mechanic demonstrates), and even if you can locate it the route is usually so opaque and roundabout that sighting your eventual goal is next to worthless.

This, I assume, was the genesis of the "runner's sight", the mechanic whereby helpful ramps, bars, walls, etc. turn strongly red as the player approaches, explained as the protagonist's runner intuition. It feels like a cheat (and indeed the hardest difficulty mandates turning it off), a way to guide players because the developers' couldn't figure out a better way. It's such a blatant way of directing players, putting up a giant glowing sign saying Go Here!, that I sometimes felt offended, like I was being treated as a child. But most of the time I didn't, because most of the time I needed those clues because there weren't any others in the game. And sometimes even when I had those clues I still didn't know where to go.

But ultimately I think it's a problem of unfocused goals. It seems the developers just weren't sure what kind of game they were trying to make, how their game was that different from most platformers, and what other changes they needed to make to make those differences work. When you know where to go, Mirror's Edge approaches brilliance, the experience reaching towards the exhilaration and terror the game seems to be aiming for. But every time you screw up, the experience is ruined; and you screw up a lot.

House of the Dead

At times while I was playing it I almost wished the game was something that might be termed a rail platformer, a platforming version of arcade rail shooters like House of the Dead, whereby instead of shooting the zombies at each screen you simply jumped at the right time, or made simple choices to go left or right, etc., at various points. A node-based platformer, in which the mechanics of actually getting a jump right were left behind. Because that seemed the easiest way to actually accomplish the experience Mirror's Edge aims and fails to achieve.

But that speculation got me thinking about a much greater problem I have with Mirror's Edge, one that gnawed away at me as I played the game at a place low enough it didn't even register consciously for some time. And that's the fact that in a game about free running, it seems to forget about the free.