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Analysis: Memorable Game Characters,  Mirror's Edge  And Picture Books
Analysis: Memorable Game Characters, Mirror's Edge And Picture Books
December 4, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

December 4, 2009 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
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More: Console/PC



[Writer Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at Mirror's Edge and what makes a memorable game character -- illustrating that when it comes to game narratives and heroes, less is more.]

Mirrorís Edge should have been a picture book. It was the game that should have been seen, not heard, the game that could have been art if it didnít have a plot. Mirrorís Edge shows what happens with games tell a story like a movie instead of a game

There is more emotion in a half second of Mirrorís Edge gameplay than in its entire script. While it's disappointing that the dialogue couldnít live up to the standards of the art direction and gameplay, this is DICEís success, not its failure.

Faithís movements are highly detailed, from the impact of landing to blur of acceleration, and it is these little details that bring the exhilaration, panic, tension, and joy of flying from rooftop to rooftop to life. This wordless story was the real Mirrorís Edge.

Unfortunately, this story was buried underneath an assumption that stories need words, and the same kind of commitment to quality in the game's art direction was not apparent in the writing. While it is tempting to say that biggest problem with the video game narratives is the writing (and it is a big one), in the case of Mirrorís Edge the words arenít just poorly chosen, but unnecessary.

Video games are mixed media. Taking advantage of all the different options is one thing, but there are no bonus points awarded for using all of them. Passage, for example, made players contemplate death with pixels alone, and the experience would not have been greatly enhanced with words (HOW ABOUT THINKING ABOUT SOME DEATH). Thankfully, Passage is more subtle than that. Mirrorís Edge achieved something very close to that level of depth with its gameplay until it was promptly smothered with a cliched plot and undeveloped characters.

Games With Character

Games donít always need stories, but that fact seems forgotten most of the time, especially in AAA titles. It's easy to see where the temptation to fall back on it comes from. Narrative does more than just justify the game world and glue it together for the player. Good stories make the world come to life, and frankly, they're entertaining. So it has become standard to use the same techniques used in film to keep players interested in their games.

Iconic characters also play their part in selling games, although Mario and Sonic are both a testament to how you donít need to have a story to have an iconic character. In fact, Mirrorís Edge has quite a bit in common with those games (at least in their early incarnations) with its emphasis on jumping and speed. It's a shame then that

Faith herself was supposed to be a bold step forward for heroines; tasteful, independent, and not overly sexualized. While she is these things, she is ultimately just built out of less offensive stereotypes rather than the depth of real person. Her somewhat irrationally violent personality is, disappointingly, all too common in video game heroines. Again, Mirrorís Edge seems to step forward only with its visuals: Faithís character design is far more revolutionary than her personality.

One Liners

So what makes people like Snake, Mario, or even Duke Nukem so much more iconic and memorable than Faith? Duke is actually the best example since he, unlike Faith, he has no contrived backstory, no past trauma, and only tenuous motivation. Yet Duke Nukem, of all people, has more depth of character than Faith and all he had to do to get it was wear sunglasses and say ďItís time to kick ass and chew gum, and Iím all out of gum.Ē

That line, in all of its glorious stupidity, is Duke in a nutshell. Itís hilarious, and Duke is one of the few protagonists to this day that gives a running commentary on the action. He is memorable because he has personality, and that shines though in what he does and how he talks. One of his early 2D games started with him going on Oprah promoting an autobiography titled "Why Iím So Great". That little scene tells you everything you need to know about Duke, and he doesn't need to talk about his past because he is so very present.

This is why Duke, conceived as a satire of action heroes, is still a more fully developed character than Faith. Protagonists do not become deeper the more of their family members are killed off, and relatives are certainly not a shortcut for actually developing bonds between characters. Faithís relationship with her sister is supposed to be her motivation for the entire game, but they barely exchange more than a few sentences. ďSheís my sister." Oh, that explains why Faith blew up buildings, ran from helicopters and killed dozens of police officers. No, thereís no need to articulate their relationship at all.

The Story With Words

The plot is supposed to build up some sort of shadowy final adversary (not helped by the fact Mirror's Edge was planned as a trilogy), while showing players that no one in this world can really be trusted. But both of the characters that do the betraying are so casual about their treachery, so unrepentant, that they come off as merely greedy. The twists are melodramatic, since they seem to have the luxury to betray Faith out of greed rather than survival. Rather than conveying the feeling of a society turned against itself out of fear, they reek of Saturday morning cartoon villainy.

Itís not just that the scenery and gameplay conveys the world with more depth and subtly than the narrative does. Sure, the plot could have been fixed with better writing, but it never needed any writing to get its point across in the first place. Ironically, Mirrorís Edge is a brilliant example of why games donít need narratives, not only for gameplay, but for art as well. After all, music and the visual arts find the inclusion of a narrative to be quite optional, and both can tell a story without the use of words at all.

The Story Without Words

The real story of Mirrorís Edge is told through the constant presence of police and cameras, the propaganda in the elevators, and the sensation of running itself. Mirrorís Edge is wonder of visual design, and nothing else looks quite like it. The stark colors and blazing sunlight paint a picture of a city that is as beautiful as it is unnatural. All of these elements contribute to the gameís conflicting themes of repression and freedom. By running and weaving through the rooftops, it feels as if Faith could almost escape to the sky, if gravity didnít always brings her back.

This sensation is entirely visual and gameplay driven, and best of all, occurs in real time as the player goes through the game. In contrast, Faith just sort of vaguely describes a history of protests and riots against a mayor that seems dedicated to taking away freedom without a clear reason. Since the mayor is never seen in the game, itís hard to really understand why, although this narrative given by Faith provokes that very question. This empty premise stands out when the world itself so vividly conveys the feeling of oppression. The history lesson is really quite superfluous, and doesnít really convey anything that we donít already know other than the breaking apart of Faithís family, which is dealt with so shallowly that it is hard to care about.

In fact, games may have greater potential as non-narrative art. The fact that there is more emotion in a gameplay than story is not a bad thing. Itís a testament to the inherent strength of video games. Mirrorís Edge could have articulated the struggle for freedom in a repressive society through the act of running alone, and that is art in the way only a video game can be.


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Comments


D H
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I recall reading an article here not too long ago stating that the Mirror's Edge writers came on board towards the end of production. They tried to wrap a story over the game after all the levels and gameplay had been completed.



The story was obviously not the strength of this game, and probably ended up hindering the game design. I wonder if Faith had to kill as many people in the original design, when she was clearly so bad at fighting.

Steven Conway
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Good article Andrew.



Yet I think you go too far in separating play and narrative so clearly, it reminds me of early ludologist writing; remember that narrative can emerge through play.

Chris Underwood
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When you have a paper thin reason for progression in a game, it's so non-existent that you may as well count it as such. But at the back of your mind you know there is a motivation of some kind. Would Sonic be better games if there was no Eggman to chase across the zones? I believe not.



Ideally you would have a excellent story but I'll take a bad story if thatís' all you've got. Ask me to go from A to B because the gameplay and I'll enjoy the trip but ask me to kill Baron Von Evil in his Magic Castle and youíre giving me a target.

Sean Parton
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Just like how a movie needs to explain (or clearly hint to) what the final conflict will be within the first few minutes, a game needs to do the same. Passage is not a great comparison to use, because it only lasts five minutes, and as such is effectively exempt from needing to explain itself.



Chris has it right; you need some sort goal to work with. Sure, an arguably bad story is never a great thing to experience, but in the absence of a good one (which we can't always be at liberty to have at our disposals), it's far better than nothing.

Jonathon Myers
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This article gave me a lot to think about, so thanks for that Andrew. I do think that it's very easy to blame "the writing" and reduce the problems of a process causing a disjoint between good visual design, good gameplay and bad narrative design to simply "bad writing." From what I can tell with recent games, writing is coming to mean a lot more to the industry now. And by writing I don't necessarily mean dialogue. Anyway, this gave me so much to say that I posted a blog response. The goal is to add to the discussion, so I hope this isn't inappropriate:



http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JonathonMyers/20091204/3736/RE_Ana
lysis_Memorable_Game_Characters_Mirrors_Edge_And_Picture_Books_by
_Andrew_Vanden_Bossche.php

Luis Guimaraes
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I think it's the best article I have read in months. Excelent.

Samuel Batista
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I don't really agree with Chris or Sean. In fact, I believe that the strongest examples of what our medium can accomplish are of games with very little/no narrative in the traditional sense. Consider the following examples: The Sims has no traditional narrative of any kind, the game allows the players to create their own narratives through their experiences, and this is all driven through the gameplay mechanics of the game. Also consider ICO, yes they have plots, but it is never presented to the player in a straightforward fashion, instead the player develops a connection to the game through gameplay, and the story is slowly revealed as the player gets more and more emotionally involved with the game characters.



I applaud this article, games that present a story and narrative through non-interactive cutscenes followed by short gameplay segments until the next cutscene arrives, are a marriage of movie and game. And the strongest and most influential games don't try to copy the success of movies, they simply use inventive gameplay to create an emotional attachment to the game that allows for unique, and highly personal experiences, that cannot be achieved by any other medium.

Christopher Enderle
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This article is pretty spot on for me. Really, it was the first trailer of this game, that simply showed gameplay with the theme music faintly playing in the background that sold me on it. When they later released the plot trailer my reaction was firmly, "meh" and I replayed the first trailer to pump myself back up. The aesthetic of the gameplay was completely unique. They basically wrapped a diamond in a paper bag. Think of all the money that could have been saved not trying to prop up its shaky plot.



But then again, a AAA not trying to ape movies? What producer would stick their neck out for something so... "artsy?" How would you sell that without sounding like a quack? That connection you talk about that comes from deriving your own narrative from implied details within the game is something that doesn't seem to occur in most people. It requires a bit of close observation and critical thought. How often do you take the time to observe your environment and critically address its elements? Sounds too adventure game-ish, and when was the last AAA adventure game? Myst? The audience is generally waiting to be told and guided, and if they aren't they'll put down the controller and turn the game off.



I can't believe the the game would have sold better, or had less polarized reviews, if it weren't for its traditional plot. The population of people that can't look past a throwaway plot and still glean the experience you describe is much smaller than the population that can't look past the absence of a plot. And who expects games to have a good plot anyway? Just keep feeding people what they're buying.

Christopher Wragg
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I enjoyed the plot well enough but agree that it could have been hadnled better. Even if writers did come in late into the game there is a lot more that could have been done to reinforce the characters relationship with her sister.



For instance you have a 5 second death scene when you miss a jump, instead why not place a vision of an activity Faith did with her sis when young in front of the falling animation, just before that splat. Playing in a sand pit, protecting her from a bully, comforting each other crying on a bed, anything would have done the trick. More of thier relationship could have been displayed the same way that the totalitarian nature of the government was. For instance one could be crossing near a park (or see it clearly in the distance), and faith could easily give brief exposition about some experience she and her sis had there.



In truth "she's my sister" is indeed enough rationalisation for what faith does (as many people who have siblings will attest to), but that doesn't mean that the player is well enough in touch with the depth of that particular bond (teaching male gamers for instance about "sisterhood" is a complex concept).



I have to agree with the poorly thought out history lesson, it's never truly conveyed well enough that both children chose different sides of the equation because of the way thier parents died and their different perceptions of that occasion. Even if the player gets this it's never delivered with terribly much impact. I'd even think that perhaps a small scene where the player plays as a young faith getting seperated from ma and pa, then seeing them killed or what not may have been a better solution to that particular narrative conundrum. Far better to attempt to inspire that sense of helplessness and distress than to blandly tell of it.

Victor Gont
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What bugged me the most about the game was the forced conflict. From what i saw prior to the game's release, i was expecting a beautiful exploration/arcade experience through a sterile urban environment. Faith's character was intriguing and she had the chance to become one of the most unique personnas ever to be played. Instead, we got the good-old heroine with a twist in the form of her rebellious appearance.

After i finished the game I wished DICE could have developed a sandbox mode to be enjoyed while collecting hidden trophies or some other minor activity instead of the uninspired narrative design.

Christopher Wragg
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@Victor

"What bugged me the most about the game was the forced conflict"

This is a bit of a point of contention as there are only 1 or two places in the game where fighting is the optimal(or only) solution to a problem. The issue with the design here is that it would take a good player several tries to find those optimal paths around conflict. A new player, especially one taken from a previous fps environment, will confront the enemies instead, as they aren't provided with an obvious alternative in many situations. In addition there were far too many instances where the player couldn't plan a route through a room, for instance they'd come into a room and immediately be assaulted by the 6 enemies in that room (so without prior knowledge just fighting the enemies feels like the only solution). The game would have been improved by either a) having the enemies bust in after a short period or b) giving the player the ability to sneak into the room and get a good look around.

Matthew Woodward
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I'm kinda surprised that nobody's mentioned Half-Life yet.

Heliora Prime
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Great article, good read! I totally agree. But I also think that story has to be connected to gameplay. You may have this cool deep character thought out, but why do you need to come from a burned down orphanage to shoot 40 people each mission?


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