Lessons in Game Design Learned from Mirror’s Edge

Ah, Steam. Your specials arrive and entice me to play video games I had long ago given up the idea of ever playing.

For instance, Mirror’s Edge. The previews looked awesome; I was excited. But then, by the time it came out, I was busy playing Left 4 Dead. Who needs to be a goth chick who runs around when you can be a normal chick who kills zombies? No one. So I pretty much forgot about Mirror’s Edge until Steam’s recent Holiday Sale. At $5, I figured I may as well give it a download.

The plot of Mirror’s Edge is…something. You run on buildings, because that’s your job. I think. Oh, and someone gets killed. And your sister’s a cop. To be honest, I didn’t try to hard to follow most of it, partly because I accidentally clicked through some cutscenes (more on that later). Your name is Faith, and you are are a Runner in a futuristic metropolis designed by IKEA. I assume it was designed by IKEA, because everything is white, with the occasional brightly colored hallway or door. It may have also been designed by the same people who designed the Progressive Insurance commercials with the peppy white girl wearing too-red lipstick.

There are only a few jobs available to people in this futuristic city. If the Ravers and Goths rejected your fashion choices as “a little too much,” or your awkward face tattoos prevent gainful employment, then you can become a runner. If you have really, really bad aim, you can become a cop. If you have really, really bad aim, are nearsighted, and have the reaction time of a dead sloth, then you can become a sniper. If you like repeating yourself and offering vague bits of “help,” such as “don’t get shot!” or “get out of there!” then you can become a Radio Guy. (I’m sure he has a name, but I don’t know it. Radio Guy talks to you throughout the entire game, “guiding” you. I hate him more than I hate the dog in Duck Hunt.) If you are not any of those things then you can drive a white minivan, far in the background.

Mirror’s Edge is a great idea, and a very pretty game. Faith’s movement is generally graceful, and seeing her arms or legs flail as you jump is a simple, perfect touch. However, there are some basic design flaws that make it too frustrating to play.

Here are the lessons we can learn from Mirror’s Edge.

Show, Don’t Tell

To find your way through the too-similar hallways and rooftops, Mirror’s Edge has Runner Vision. Places that you should go to take on a deep red hue. The problem is, these red clues are way too obvious to be fun. “Where should I go? Oh. I guess I have to climb that ladder. And then this one. And then that pipe. Wee.” Your choices are basically limited to “should I jump on this box, and climb up, or jump on this box, and climb up?”

Far better would be if they used red as a hint, rather than as a club to beat you into going a certain direction or place. Left 4 Dead uses light to subtly clue the player into which direction to move, and most games use similar subtle hints to prod the player towards the goal, rather than force them to the next checkpoint. Mirror’s Edge occasionally uses the red conceit well, as in the level in which you have to make your way towards a red crane in the middle of the city. It is a simple, far away goal to move towards. (In a way, Mirror’s Edge is like The Village in reverse: you want red. Red is good. However, Mirror’s Edge, unlike The Village, doesn’t make you want to slap M. Night Shyamalan in his face.)

For most of the game, however, ladders and ramps suddenly turn red, beckoning you through a basically linear level. The levels in Mirror’s Edge alternate between being so ridiculously one-dimensional that you may as well not be playing a game, to so dark and confusing that you stumble around for a while until you happen to reach the next part of the level.

Have Your World Make Sense.

One simple way to direct people in video games is the same way that people are directed in any building: signage. The buildings in Mirror’s Edge are scrubbed so clean of information and texture that they lack even basic exit signs. Random doors are bright red, which indicates you can bust through them. Others are locked, and painted white or black. It’s a completely arbitrary distinction that the level designers use as a crutch. Run from red door to red door, and then jump on the red ramp.

Has any video game designer, ever, seen a warehouse? Wooden pallets have one use: to go under heavy loads, so you can move them around with a pallet jack or forklift. Know how I know this? Because I’ve worked in warehouses. If a pallet isn’t underneath something, then generally we’d just stack them up, so we could move them around easily and put them away. But do you know what we never, ever, ever did?

We never once put a stack of pallets, precariously perched, 17 stories up, on NARROW SCAFFOLDING. Know why? Because that makes no god damned sense. So why are there pallets everywhere in this game? If you wouldn’t move a pallet jack up there, don’t put pallets there. Sure, there are limited other uses for pallets. Here in NYC you will occasionally see rooftops covered with pallets, to make a false floor. But you never see them just stacked up in the middle of a room for no conceivable purpose.

Also, what’s with all the fucking pillows? Sure, they make it easy to do bouncy jumps to higher things, but who the hell is wandering the city like Johnny Pillowseed, dropping pillows in awkward locations? A traveling narcoleptic? Invest some time thinking about the logic of your world, otherwise I’m not going to be able to invest time in the emotion of your world.

Be Consistent.

Over and over again, you will find yourself replaying the same little snippets of levels. Run, run, jump across a chasm. Hit the other side, smack against the pipe. Does Faith grab the pipe? No. And so you fall down, sometimes far down, and die. Why didn’t she grab the pipe? Not sure. So you do it again. Again, she doesn’t grab the pipe. What are you learning from this? Nothing. So you do it again, and, again, and again, until Faith happens to grab the pipe. Why did she grab the pipe/run on the wall/reach the ledge this time, but not other times? Who the hell knows.

I don’t mind repeating the same level, if I’m learning something from it. Is there a new way of approaching this problem that I haven’t tried? An item I haven’t used? Am I not reacting fast enough? In Mirror’s Edge, however, you will repeat the same parts of levels without actually learning anything. I don’t want to do repetitive actions in a video game. That’s what I do at work. That’s what I do in life. That’s what I’m trying to avoid by playing this fucking game.

The problem with the controls in Mirror’s Edge is that they are either way too responsive or not nearly responsive enough. Sometimes you hit space, and don’t pull yourself up, or jump, or whatever it is you’re trying to do. Why? Are you oriented wrong? Is Faith tired? Not sure. Perhaps you hit the spacebar one millisecond too late.

This is particularly problematic during combat. You can disarm opponents by hitting the right mouse button. You can also throw away your weapon using the right mouse button. Which means that, if you press the right mouse button to disarm someone but then accidentally click the right mouse button again, while you’re still disarming your opponent, Faith will keep disarming the opponent, hold up the gun…and then throw away the gun. And then you will get shot, and die. Have fun fighting that cop again. You’re going to have to do it several more times.

Consistency is also a problem with the graphics in Mirror’s Edge. The game itself has a clean, realistic look. But then certain cut scenes were animated in Flash for some reason. And they exist within Flash’s Shitty Valley: if a flash animation is simple enough, it looks stylized, like a 1950s cutout animation (think of the credit sequence in Wall-E). If it is complicated enough, it can look like a rotoscoped piece of animation. This is halfway in between, and so it looks like a bad commercial. We’re used to the realism of the city for 95% of the game. Stick with that realism.

Teach Me.

The key to one level is that you must break through a glass wall to escape. How can you figure this out? Chance. I found out because I was trying to get out of the level, and got shot by several cops. Most of them missed (of course), and so the glass blocking the path I was trying to take shattered. My next time through, I grabbed a gun and shot out the glass. Perfect. I still didn’t make it, but I was closer. Then, I happened to punch through the glass. It broke! Perfect! I didn’t know I could punch through glass!

So teach me. Half-Life 2 was particularly good at subtly teaching the player the mechanics of the universe Gordon lived in. Before you have to load down a cart with heavy items while Gordon is under fire, you first find a simple lever that you can change into a ramp by weighing down one side with some cinder blocks. It’s easy to figure out, but it doesn’t hand you the solution, and once you know you can do that in Half-Life 2 then the rest of the game can use that mechanic, knowing full well that you will try it at some point.

Mirror’s Edge only has a typical, didactic tutorial. “Press space to jump, Faith!” Did they think we wouldn’t try to hit space? And then after that you’re on your own. So any new mechanics that the game brings up, such as glass breaking, you have to chance upon yourself, while under fire. Not fun.

Don’t Un-teach Me.

I think most people, whether they admit/recognize it or not, play video games for the same reason. To figure out the mechanics of a world, and use those mechanics in interesting ways.

Okay, so Faith can break glass with her fist! Let’s smash some glass! Watch out, windows! Watch out, pair of workers in white jumps suits carrying a large pane of glass! Watch out, Phillip and Ira! I can break glass with my fist!

After leaving the room where Faith had to smash her way out, I saw some more glass. Perfect, Faith can just smash this giant, obtrusive pane of glass with her gloved smashing fist!

Except she can’t. Not more than 30 seconds after using the breakability of glass as a key level mechanic, it no longer works. Now the glass doesn’t break. Does this glass look different from the glass that I could break? Not really.

I just learned a rule for Faith’s universe, and then had to unlearn it, because it was apparently only helpful in that one point.

Don’t Make Me Wallow In My Own Suckiness.

Mirror’s Edge is primarily a game about running and jumping. Unfortunately, that means that really the only way to fuck up is to get shot or to fall down. There are no points, unless you count the satchels hidden throughout the levels. (Every game now has some random shit scattered through levels for you to find. Finding these pieces of shit is never fun, but I always feel bad if I don’t do it. “I mean, I’ve beat the game, but there are still 4 packages of yogurt hidden in the Volcano of Doom Level! I hate that level, but if I don’t find those packages of yogurt, I won’t get 100%!”)

Because the only possibility for failure is getting shot or falling down, you get shot a lot, and you fall down a lot. In fact, too much. When you fall, you tend to fall very, very far. Which gives you time to contemplate how much you suck. In some levels you must scale up tall heights, bit by bit, ledge by ledge. Fall off, and you get to look at all the ledges you will have to scale all over again. Then you hit the ground, die, and start over again.

You also have access to something called “Reaction Time.” It’s a little like Bullet Time, in the same way that Bart Simpson’s “Shinning” is like Danny’s “Shining.” Hit the R key and time momentarily slows down. In theory, this helps you time punches and disarming maneuvers more easily. Unfortunately, you’ll often find that, if you hit the R key at the wrong moment, you then have to watch Faith get the living shit beaten out of her in slow motion, while you try in vain to punch back. You can’t seem to exit Reaction Time. Sometimes you go into Reaction Time just to find that Faith is now getting shot in the head in slow motion. Oh boy! I get to see how much I suck in slow motion!

You Are Not Making a Movie.

It is possible to give us plot without taking control of the character. Half-Life 2 did this particularly well,  as did Doom 3 and many other games made in the last couple of years. Mirror’s Edge doesn’t do this. Instead, some cut scenes grab your character, forcing Faith to walk towards whatever character is saying something supposedly helpful. These cut scenes, unlike the badly done Flash cut scenes, are rendered in-game. Couldn’t they just have the character stand there, and let us choose whether or not we want to walk up to them? Or give us a reason to stand still?

Again, Mirror’s Edge is basically a linear experience, with a weak plot.

Give Me Variety

Jump. Swing on a pipe. Slide down a pipe. Pull yourself a ledge. Walk across a pipe. That’s about it. Great level design could use these simple mechanics well enough to give the game some variety. Instead, there are 2 basic levels. In one, you jump across rooftops. In the other, you run through a vague, basically featureless office building. Sometimes there’s a bit of combat, but it feels very, very repetitive.

Mirror’s Edge is a frustrating piece of crap, mostly because it is almost fun. They tried to create a new game mechanic, but didn’t really experiment with it. They used it to do the same crap video games have done before.

Curtis Retherford

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4 responses to “Lessons in Game Design Learned from Mirror’s Edge

  1. In film, if a movie is bad, it’s sequel is going to be worse. In games, a sequel can fix everything wrong with the original, while making improvements that we never even considered complaining about missing. Do you think they should make a Mirror’s Edge sequel? How about a squeakquel where they add some female chipmunks?

  2. Really enjoyed this. A lot of the complaints I had cut from my own review, you raised in insightful ways.

    The most interesting part, for me, was the bit about pallets in ridiculous places and other ways the world doesn’t really make sense. I’ve never been in a warehouse, so those oddities don’t jump out at me – it’s easy for me to file them under “acceptable breaks from reality.” But I can see where it’d be really problematic if you have enough relevant experience that these things just scream “WRONG” to you.

    “Invest some time thinking about the logic of your world, otherwise I’m not going to be able to invest time in the emotion of your world,” strikes me as a great rule to remember.

    Thanks for commenting on my blog and mentioning your review. I’ve subscribed to your feed. 🙂

  3. I for one actually liked the game, everything you say is true the game is very straight forward but at the same time very misguiding. Though if you play this game I suggest using a controller, I know I like computer games too but somehow the controller just helps with this game. And when you start getting the hang of fields the game becomes kind of thrilling, and note that the red marked areas are usually just the simplest path, try looking for the more out of the way ones or finding small tricks that get you through fields faster. It may not be the best game but it can be pretty fun if you stop taking it so seriously and just go for beating an old record or finding new ways to kill people, check out the achievements they’ll give you some ideas. I enjoyed your reviews, what do you think those pillow things are anyways?

  4. YES, the dog mad pipes! Why won’t she grab it?! Who the hell knows! Thanks for writing this, I thought I was alone. So very close to fun, it is true.

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