© 2009 The Runner

The Run, Episode Seven

I’m not cut out for my job, which is why I loathe it, why I run from it. In another life I’m a writer; someone who thinks and writes and tells. This is what I see when I run through Mirror’s Edge.

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When Rhianna Pratchett gave an interview to Gamasutra and explained that she was brought in to write a story long after the game was designed, many people were surprised. I think there are two very good reasons for this. The first one, which many picked up on, is that this way of working seems counterintuitive. The second very good reason is that this meant that the game designers did almost as much writing as Pratchett herself. Because the world itself speaks as loudly as its narrative does.

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One of its major themes is the notion of freedom, governmental control and personality. Faith tells us that the city we run in was once normal – it had a crime rate, it had lowlifes, it had slums. During a period of civil unrest, a variety of social reform laws were passed and a powerful police force installed to keep the rules enforced. What we see in Mirror’s Edge is the aftermath – not a ragtag rebellion, but a more realistic sense of pure, simple acceptance. No-one cares.

Faith does, however, which is why she’s going to take Ropeburn’s place at a meeting today in the New Eden Mall, still under construction. Whoever killed Pope is going to be there. Faith talks things over with Celeste before moving on.

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The commentary on the power of government is barely hidden in the narrative, but it comes through in a lot of the game content too. The only people you ever meet in-game, besides the occasional brush with a fellow runner, are police; armed soldiers looking to kill you. The default position is one where you are in constant conflict with those in authority, and that acts as a powerful partner to what’s spoken in the cutscenes.

Faith sneaks past a police convoy and nips across some railway tracks. The New Eden Mall is due to open in a day or so, making it an ideally deserted meeting place. Once we pass the train tracks, I can make my way up to open ground, the lead-up to New Eden.

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It’s along this route, in amidst several ambushes by riot police, that we meet another of the game’s key themes.

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The vast, empty, single-colour buildings are only ever broken up for one reason – to bark slogans at you. Commercialism is something that often goes hand-in-hand with commentary on modern governments, and everything from the lifts to the subway stations are pleading with you to buy, hire and rent. They’re perfectly pitched too, leaving a sickly taste in the mouth after reading them without appearing too overtly ‘commercial’.

The concept of Mirror’s Edge can sound trite to some – you’re a noble freerunner, leaping across a white, faceless city in order to fight back against a corrupt government and the forces of capitalism. But it never feels that aggressive when it’s being played. Yes, you are ultimately trying to unravel the political conspiracy that killed Robert Pope. But as for the subtexts, the social comment and so forth, it’s really left as an exercise to the player. You may not even notice it for the first few missions. And this may make it even more thought-provoking when you do.

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Then there’s the colour pallette. I spoke much earlier on about how colour is used in Mirror’s Edge to direct the player, but the impact of colour is made by the blank canvas onto which it’s placed. The whiteness of the city seems normal from the outside, but once we venture inside it becomes too pervasive. It’s all part of the veneer the game tries to give the city. It’s not just clean – it’s too clean. As if it wants to repel you from every surface that you touch.

These themes work together, and they’re designed to work together. It’s not merely a case of Pratchett brushing her narrative on top of the finished game; the game itself was designed to speak and to communicate without the need for the story.

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I run into a good example of this just outside the mall. A flock of birds scurries away into the air as I approach – when inside, down in basements and corridors, rats will scarper to and fro. Outside, the birds flock and fly above the city. They’re subtle visual cues, but unlike the colour they’re designed to be conscious ones. You’re watching, and you know what you’re being shown.

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The mall swiftly turns into an ambush. The assassin deftly escapes through a squad of police officers, and I’m forced to take to the rafters to get out.

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Here the narrative themes of escape, of fleeing, are conveyed in gaming’s most powerful way – through interaction. While Faith is often given the opportunity of combat, in many positions it’s made an impossibility. In the New Eden Mall, the police presence forces me to find another way around. I take to the roof, and make one of the trickiest jumps in the game so far.

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If you were going to deconstruct a videogame such as Deus Ex or Planescape you’d probably find a larger number of themes and of layers of meaning than you would in Mirror’s Edge. But Mirror’s Edge is a game with a simple message to give; the beauty is in how it presents it. If anything, it benefitted from the late inclusion of a writer, as the impact of this appears to be that its story has become part of the game itself. The themes of exclusion, of being chased, of the acceptance of oppression; these are all conveyed to the player not just in the cut-scenes and the set pieces, but in the world they play through, the small incidental sights along the way, and the very actions they perform in each level.

It all adds up to that big word – immersion. Because by making you feel part of its agenda, Mirror’s Edge draws you further into the character it wants you to be.

One Comment

  1. Mike
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 3:55 am | #

    I find your reviews of Mirror’s Edge wonderful because you seem to have been struck by the same things as me and to have felt the same things as me. It’s like what you’re saying, the things you felt and thought, were coming out of me!

    I found a good fan-made brief instrumental to Mirror’s Edge..it’s someone who made it and I think it fits perfectly to Mirror’s Edge. I have a lot of images of dramatic moments of Mirorr’s Edge that would fit with this music…so I’d like you to listen to it if you want:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SibO4glUQHs (I am the user WorldOfSnakes in the comments, if you care:P)

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