Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Mirror's Edge

Mirror's Edge is like a Jackie Chan stunt: exhilarating when pulled off correctly, but frustrating and irritating the five or six takes it demands before it's done right. For that reason, I would not say that Mirror's Edge is a bad game, but just a failed game. It has the right ideas and direction, but fails to pull them off in the correct execution and/or presentation.

There's no question that the game does something right: it offers the chance of freedom, exploration, and the thrill of the chase across city rooftops and narrow corridors. However, it has an equally fair share of problems that diminishes this enjoyment from being the centerpiece of the game.

What I am going to do is discuss what Mirror's Edge does wrong, and how it could be improved to create a tighter, more accessible, and less frustrating experience.

Things That Need to be Changed
1. No-Error Policy
People are always going to make mistakes, especially when learning new ideas. If the penalty for these mistakes is death (and a quick load dozens of second prior) like it is in Mirror's Edge, then it becomes annoying and frustrating to the person making the mistake. This is an unavoidable pitfall, because making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process.
In Mirror's Edge, if the player jumps slightly to the left too much, a tad too short, or lacked a tiny bit of momentum on a wall crawl, then that player is punished with death, which becomes frustrating as a recurrent penalty.

How can this be fixed?

The first thing you can do is to create a gentler learning curve so that the player can master the essential game mechanics before being exposed to a more dangerous environment. This is what Portal did. It allowed the player to learn all the core functions of the Portal gun and its mechanics in a controlled environment where they weren't threatened by death at every corner. If Mirror's Edge extended it's "safety net" for the player, then that would give the player more time to become comfortable with wall running, kick-jumping, and the like before the consequences of failure are death. This can be accomplished by removing the pits and deadly drops below each wall run or failed climb. If the player can make mistakes without having to worry about dying, then that player can master the game mechanics much more quickly.

The second thing the game can do to alleviate its "no-error policy" is to create a series of safety nets for the player. This means that the game will catch the player from falling whenever he or she makes an innocent mistake. A game that does this well is Assassin's Creed, which also prodded itself upon the aspect of free-running. In Assassin's Creed, if the player walked off a nearby edge accidentally, the protagonist would fall off but catch onto the ledge to avoid certain death. This avoided many frustrating scenarios of dying by careless mistakes. On the other hand, in Mirror's Edge, if the player walks off nearby edges many times, he instead falls off to his impending doom every time. It would be much less stressful if the game "caught" the player in instances like these instead of allowing him to die. Little features like these allow the player to make tiny mistakes without having to face dire consequences.

The third thing Mirror's Edge can do to become less frustrating is to add gameplay "indicators," letting the player know when a jump is attainable or not. Many times in the game the player faces obstacles or gaps in which he or she is unsure that it can be crossed. For instance, there is a zip line hanging over a ledge which is just out of reach. If the player knows for sure whether or not a jump would reach the zip line, then she would not have to guess after every jump if she will land at her destination. This indicator need not be on a HUD, but could just be a simple display of the character's hands in a certain 'ready' position. By using these indicators, the game prevents the player from performing many blind leaps of faith in hopes of reaching the other side, a feature which will lower the stress level of the player if implemented.

2. Abrubtly Flowing Gamepay
The second main element that would benefit from a change is the abruptly flowing gameplay. As it stands now, the gameplay in Mirror's Edge runs akin to something like this: Enter a new rooftop; run to the edge and scout for possible exits and/or paths to progress to the next area; jump across the correct path (after failing several times) and land in the new area; stop, turn around, and then scout again for the next path.
Because of this, the current flow of the gameplay is somewhat jarring and abrupt. There is rarely a free-flowing feeling of continuous momentum, which unfortunately ruins the free-running aspect of the game.

So how can this be fixed?

Part of the problem with this lack of awareness on the player's part (which requires them to stop and check their surroundings so often) is due to the first-person nature of the game. However, the first person feature is partly what gives the game its unique quality: to put the player directly in the shoes of a free runner, not in the position of a detached third-person camera.

An alternative way of solving the problem of brevity--without changing the camera view--would be to somehow distort the camera so that the player can see a wider view than currently possible. This would allow the player to see more routes and pathways than just a narrow tunnel vision ahead of him. With this feature, the player can then make decisions about where to go without having to wait to reach the very edge of each roof.
A second way of solving the problem of abrupt flow is to include a map feature, however arbitrary this may be. This would allow the player to see where she is going without having to stop at every edge and peek over before deciding the next course of action.
Lastly, a third way of solving this problem is to massively expand the amount of available routes in each level to make the game much more non-linear. This would mean that there is no one direct route for the player to progress through a level, and can instead jump off to any which way that he or she desires. Expanding the available routes would mean less time searching for the one way the designers' intended the player to go, and instead more time jumping around and free-roaming the accessible rooftops, improving the flow of the game.

3. Lack of Complexity/Progression
Finally, Mirror's Edge also suffers from a lack of complexity and progression in its gameplay. There's only so much you can do with the same gameplay mechanics re-used over the course of an 8+ hour game. Assassin's Creed is a prime example of this; it keeps the same ideas and mechanics that it uses in the first two hours, and then repeats them over and over throughout the rest of the game, with little variation or development. This creates a stagnant gaming experience primarily instigated by repetition.
Mirror's Edge suffers from a similar quality, in that it never grows beyond the mechanics it establishes in the beginning of the game. At the beginning, the player is presented with crawling, jumping, wall-running, double-wall jumping, and several varieties of combat options. By the end of the game the player has not gained any new abilities, items, or weapons, which makes a somewhat lackluster gaming experience.

Even a bit of variety beyond the free running mechanics would have made the game somewhat more interesting. Currently, the majority of the game is spent running to and fro from various locations. If the game managed to chop up these running sections with something else (for instance, assassinations?) then it may become more interesting (but then it would be copying Assassins' Creed, as well).

What Mirror's Edge can do to make the latter half of the game more interesting is to introduce new abilities, such as the already incorporated increase in speed during the last levels. If the player got new acrobatic abilities, or boosts in their current attributes (running, jumping, crawling) then it would provide some much needed variety and development in the game.


That being said, Mirror's Edge is still not a bad game despite these problems. It has some truly innovative and unique ideas and experiences that make it stand out from the rest of the conventional brown, murky, space-marine-infested insipid shooter crowd. If you can endure the many hardships of failing the same jump over seven times, then you will be rewarded with an exciting free-running sequence that is rarely found in another game. For that reason alone it is still worth playing.

In conclusion, what is the main game-design lesson that is to be learned from Mirror's Edge? I would say it's this: Don't punish the player too severely for making mistakes, especially early on and when learning, for this can cause an annoying amount of player frustration (but alternatively, it also makes a challenging game, which also forces the player to continue to play and get better). Players need to be able to learn without being afraid of dying every several seconds. It doesn't matter if a game has the best, most innovative concept in years, unless it can execute it in the correct way for the player's enjoyment.

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