The phenomenon is common enough that one can find it in most game reviews: gripes about controls, about graphical style, about fictional direction. But the most recent title to suffer the wrath of claustrophobic critics desperate to find a window out of their console also carries the opposite strategy in its very title: Mirror's Edge.
Some, like IGN's Nate Ahearn, found the game constricting and overly linear, concluding that it did not deliver what it promised. Others, like the Guardian's Keith Stuart, defended the title on the grounds of experimentalism. When a filmmaker tries to do something new, argued Stuart, we appreciate innovation for its own sake.
Still others, like Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander, attempted in her personal blog to rationalize the game's perceived defects as design lessons. Channeling a designer's input, Alexander suggested that poor level design caused some of the game's frustrating repetition. Eventually she concluded that it just wasn't executed well.
These are all reasonable sentiments about a piece of media. One of the roles of the critic is to point out flaws in a work (here's one: why does a game about rooftop messengers involve no actual messengering?)
But none of these reactions are satisfactory ways of responding to the game exclusively. Asking that a game does exactly what its player expects risks eliminating the possibility that it might offer a new way of understanding the world. Supporting design novelty risks fetishizing innovation for its own sake over the ways such innovation helps construct meaningful experiences.
And focusing on design lessons risks turning each example of our medium into an instrumental postmortem-in-miniature, a tragic progression toward inaccessible perfection, one that fails to allow any single example to speak on its own terms.
In light of these concerns, let's consider some of the ways that Mirror's Edge serves as an immensely successful interactive mirror, in Gromala and Bolter's sense of the word.
A Way of Looking
The photographer Gary Winogrand famously said that he took pictures to see what things look when they were photographed. This apparent tautology is actually a brilliant insight into that medium: the practice of taking and looking at photographs is one of defamiliarizing the ordinary to make it strange, sublime, disturbing, or otherwise revealing.
Mirror's Edge is a game about another way of looking. It asks the player to see a credible, familiar world filled with cars, machines, hallways, and buildings in a different light. Each surface becomes a potential affordance for movement, and the player must learn to see fences, forklifts, ledges, and subway cars as tools of locomotion rather than as objects of industry.
The game's promising, if slapdash, dystopic fiction offers an entry into this practice, by persuading the player that the city is encumbered with a classic appearance-versus-reality problem. Visually, the game brings about this means of looking by literally whitewashing as much of the environment as possible, such that its surfaces reveal very little. The fact that nearly everything is white -- including the plants -- acts as a perceptual reset.
"Runner vision," the feature that colors "usable" objects in red, acts as a means of helping the player overcome such an uncanny way of seeing a familiar world. It might be tempting to see this feature as a cheat, a way to avoid asking the player to do something perceptually unreasonable. But once so much of the game's urban environment is stripped of pigment, the addition of new pigment delivers a means of seeing things.
Like a photograph that highlights an unexpected object through selective focus, runner vision draws the eye to the detritus that would otherwise seem like visual noise, reattenuating it into signal. And because Mirror's Edge is a video game instead of a photograph, it is able to extend a way of looking into a way of moving as well.