© 2009 The Runner

The Run, Episode Six

I’m a solitary kind of person, and I think it pays to be that way in a city sometimes. I don’t dislike individuals, but I’m against the idea of people generally. Closing the door to my room shuts away the drone of commuters for good; they don’t figure into my run.

0

Mirror’s Edge doesn’t have people in it, but it does have individuals. There are fewer than ten speaking parts in the game, and each character is barely fleshed out. In fact, we’ve met all the speaking parts already – Faith’s sister, Kate; the rogue runner, Merc; our fellow runner, Celeste; the ex-colleague Jacknife; the shady Ropeburn and Kate’s superior, Lt. Miller. In a game where everything is pared down to the absolute minimum, the cast is similarly sparse.

In fact, Mirror’s Edge isn’t so much a game about people as it is about their absence. The Runner’s job is necessarily a lonely one – leaping the rooftops where no-one can monitor their movement, hiding in alleys and deserted buildings, seeing no-one but the next messenger in the chain. That loneliness is reflected in the game’s attitude – to level design, to narrative, to its score. While there are plenty of indications that the world is inhabited, the actual citizens are conspicuously absent from every place you run through. If you see someone, the chances are they’re not friendly.

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I’m on my way to see someone very unfriendly indeed. From the phone conversation we snooped on in the last run, Ropeburn seems to be involved in the assassination of Robert Pope. He’s meeting someone not far from here, and I need to be there to hear what’s being said. It’s a short leap across the city, but everywhere is powerfully desolate. Advertising slogans bark down on no-one but the player. Building sites, warning signs, lights left on in rooms – everything hints at life going on behind the scenes.

Mirror’s Edge has no multiplayer modes. There is a leaderboard for Time Trials, it’s true. But there’s no co-op, no real-time racing and no deathmatch combat. It would be quite easy to tack these game modes on, quite simple to slot in a capture-the-bag mode that combined acrobatics and combat. It’s the sort of thing you’d see in most games, but not in Mirror’s Edge. It has a perverse but very admirable desire to be a single-player game; and that is exactly what it achieves.

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Note that there are many games which are single-player in the strictest sense, but strive to be multi-player – that is, they want to add an extra ‘human’ character alongside you. Half-Life 2 is so intent on providing you with a companion that they spent dozens of hours researching and refining the actions of the people you fight against, particularly your female companion Alyx. Mirror’s Edge shirks every bit of this, leaving you alone in the desolate utopia. No backup, no sidekicks, no uncanny valley. You are alone.

It’s this, I feel, that provides the soporific effect I feel when running through the urban wilderness that Mirror’s Edge provides. The only human outlines I see are enemies, to be dispatched quickly or avoided. Other than that, I am barrelling through white and concrete, below an impossible sky, with the solemn, sharp beauty of the soundtrack accompanying me.

3

I arrive at Ropeburn’s meeting to find out that the other party is none other than Lt. Miller himself. There’d better be a good explanation for this. Running up to confront the two of them, I find Miller gone and Ropeburn very much still here. He grabs me and throws me down to a lower level of the building. There’s the briefest of gaps to disarm Ropeburn, in what is probably the most frustrating reaction-based moment in the game. But when you get it, there’s a very satisfying set-piece that leaves him hanging over the edge.

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He talks. But as I offer him a hand up, an assassin in the next building along takes a shot and removes the old man from the equation. The cops are here. What’s the betting they didn’t see the assassin.

On the run again, I drop down an elevator shaft and make my way towards the subway. It’s deserted, but the feeling of something being present pervades.

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It’s a strange and very powerful feeling, akin to dreaming about being in a city. Your brain can’t find the energy to create all of these imaginary people, so instead it just tells you that they were once here – just around the corner perhaps, or just about to arrive. Through the subway station and past some riot police, silhouettes rush past on subway trains, going to a place that you’ll never see.

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It’s time for me to ride the subway too. Fittingly, I won’t be down with the rest of the travellers.

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Multiplayer gaming, particularly when played with people you know well, is a very sociable experience. I’ve been playing a lot of Left4Dead and Team Fortress 2 of late, and the chatter that rings out over headsets and the gentle competition makes the experience of playing Mirror’s Edge even more contrasting. It’s powerfully fresh; it sends my mind back to my earliest days of gaming, to games like Manic Miner which were desolate and lonely simply because that was how things were – sometimes for technical reasons, sometimes for lack of ideas.

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Now we’re connected to millions of gamers and thousands of communities through the web, games that consciously decide to make you feel alone really stand out. Again, I don’t mean experiences like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which most certainly do not aim to make you feel alone despite not having real humans playing the main campaign with you. But games such as Introversion’s, like Tale of Tales‘, and like Mirror’s Edge – they isolate the player in order to heighten awareness of the game itself. I’ve noticed this because every time I play through Mirror’s Edge, I’m captivated by the visuals, no matter how fast I run through. It was effortless to take these screenshots, because you are made so aware of your surroundings.

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The city itself is the only main character besides Faith. It sounds like game design for pseuds, but it’s true. It’s just you and the road.

3 Comments

  1. Atlantic
    Posted August 21, 2009 at 2:18 pm | #

    I wish I had something clever to say but you’ve made me realise one of the reasons I like this game. It is that sense of isolation. This game came at the same time that lots of developers wanted to make every game co-op or at least multiplayer to some degree, but Mirror’s Edge does away with that.

    Looking back, that was very brave of DICE.

  2. Posted August 21, 2009 at 2:21 pm | #

    Absolutely. It’s so cut off, even from the ‘living, breathing world’ feeling that games like Fable like to give. It’s very exact with the atmosphere it provides.

    Glad you’re still reading!

  3. Mike
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 3:38 am | #

    Just like Atlantic,you’ve made me realize that it’s the feeling of “loneliness” and “isolation” that stroke me in Mirror’s Edge…you feel as if people were there not long ago, you feel their presence, but there’s no one…a deserted city, a deserted game. Faith runs desperately in her lonely life, in the lonely city, to free her sister, out of love.

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