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Persuasive Games: Windows and Mirror's Edge

December 23, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[In his regular Gamasutra column, author and game designer Bogost analyzes EA DICE's Mirror's Edge, suggesting why "it presents a new view of our own experience of the world", rather "a window polished to an incrementally greater shine."]

When we use a toaster, or a sweater, or a word processing software package, we have certain functional expectations. A toaster should caramelize bread evenly and consistently. A sweater should keep a body warm without fraying or stretching out from repeated use. A word processor should help automate the crafting of documents without requiring specialized expertise.

Some of our expectations of such objects are cosmetic. We like our toasters to match the décor in our kitchens, our sweaters to be woven with the colors and styles of the current season.

But the history of software as a tool for work has made most cosmetic demands for software relate to matters of usability: buttons and menus should be in convenient locations, actions should feel consistent and predictable, conventions set by previous iterations of a software package should be respected, even if lightly refined.

Windows and Mirrors

In the field of human-computer interaction (HCI), these values of software design are sometimes grouped under the term "transparency." A good software tool, like a good toaster, is supposed to show us exactly how it should be used and then meet our expectations as users immediately and consistently.

Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala have suggested a different way to look at software, especially software that seeks to explore ideas rather than to serve as tools. Bolter and Gromala point out that the concept of transparency casts software as a window -- a clear surface that seeks to disappear as it reveals a functional affordance.

This conception works well for tools but poorly for art. Instead, the two suggest another metaphor, a mirror. Unlike a window, a mirror's job is to reflect back on its users, to give them a new perspective on themselves and their place in the world.

Video games are software, but they are not meant to serve the same function as spreadsheets. They are not tools that provide a specific and solitary end, but experiences that spark ideas and proffer sensations. Sure, video games have interfaces, like toasters have browning levers, like sweaters have cuffs, like word processors have font menus.

But too often we mistake the demands of these interfaces (and the in-game actions they facilitate) with the actions of tools. We gripe when a game doesn't do what we expect, rather than asking what such an unexpected demand means in the context of the game. 


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Comments


E Zachary Knight
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After reading this article, I really want to play this game. I hear a lot of complaints about it and a few praises scattered about, but this is probably the best breakdown of the game.



I really like games with alternate play styles. These types of games really show you what games are capable of achieving.



Now I wish I had a 360. Anyone got one they want to give me?

The Student
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Great article. I hope we see more games like this.

Jeff Beaudoin
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Well done. I really enjoyed this article.



My biggest critique of the combat in Mirror's Edge is that they encourage you to disarm too much. This is a major part of the combat tutorial, but is by far the worst option at Faith's disposal. Using your environment to chain together attacks while in motion is only hinted at with a single screen after your combat training. Once I realized that running off a wall and kicking an enemy into a daze inducing spin or jumping off a elevated object to tackle someone was much more effective (and more fun) the combat became enjoyable, rather than something I was dreading.



I began treating the combat in the final level like I had been treating the platforming in the rest of the game. I looked for the best way to approach an enemy in order to knock them out by using my environment. This is what combat in Mirror's Edge should be about.

Brice Morrison
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"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."



I remember when I was playing Shadow of the Colossus it was incredibly difficult to climb up that hulking mass over and over, and it was very frustrating. But through the difficulty, what I felt was the agony of actually trying to defeat such a monster. The game ignored the simple goal of trying to be "fun" or make me feel powerful, and instead choose to convey an experience of helplessness.



I wonder what conventions developers will come up with to open players up to new experiences? An obvious departure from the genre, a la Nintendo's Touch Generations?

Ian Bogost
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@Jeff

Thanks for reading. A nice thought about disarming; the other options we both mention are indeed more in-line with Faith's strengths as the game developes them.

Ian Bogost
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@Brice

Right, Shadow of the Colossus is another interesting specimen. The way it forces the player to work against their intuitions, finally rewarding those intuitions rather than the success those actions, was lovely.



I'm not sure I quite get the Touch Generations reference... Are you thinking of the way Nintendo reframed certain games, suggesting that they offered different experiences? I suppose we do have those sorts of genre or formal signals in other media.

Matt Ponton
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@Ian



I must recommend the ideas I've had for the lovable game Portal. Throughout Portal you are told you are an android - created for testing. You're locked away in a 'cell' just to die. Portal I feel brings on the "helplessness" you bring up in Mirror's Edge. In Portal the walls are extremely tall making you feel extremely small and powerless, your only gun is one that does not do damage but only provides a pathway, Glados is able to see everything you do, the first person perspective restricts you from seeing your sides or back at all times. All of these give the player (who is looking for them) a sense of powerlessness: They are small and insignificant. Even the Portal gun can be deceiving. The portal makes you think you are opening a door when instead it's just an opening to the same room - no new mass or space is created - the small room is still a small room. These are just some of the ideas I've looked at in Portal.



In regards to Mirror's Edge, I have looked forward to this game for a long time. I got the chance to try it out this past weekend and must say I am happy with it. One thing I wish you expanded on was that of the controls: All the jumping, platforming, and sliding were mapped to the trigger buttons. Played at its best you would only need the triggers and the A button to make it through the game. This conflicts with the norm of the main actions being mapped to the face buttons and rarely using the triggers.



Thanks for the article, I really enjoy these types of breakdowns and wish the industry would start looking at the games from these perspectives instead of subjective analysis: "It's short / long / easy / hard / etc."

E Zachary Knight
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Jeff,



Enough of that. Any more of that kind of talk and I may be forced to actually buy a 360.



Could someone give me a 360 and put me out of my misery?

Brice Morrison
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@Ian

The brief Touch Generations reference was that Nintendo made many obvious departures from normal games in order to avoid assumptions on the part of the player. If it has terrible graphics and is about doing math problems, then consumers won't be upset when there's no final boss.



It seems like if you want the player to come in with no expectations, then they need to come in for something they are aware they haven't experienced before.

Ian Bogost
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@Brice

Ah, I see. Yes, I get what you mean, but... I'm not thinking here of different *purposes* for games (although that does indeed interest me). It seems to me that we are already equipped to deal with some media in the fashion I am suggesting (film, the plastic arts, poetry); we are more willing to ask what the things they contain mean, rather than asking that those things meet our expectations. This isn't true in all cases, of course, and marketing can often cloud the waters. The problem may arise due to the interactive nature of games, which sets different expectations.



Nevertheless, I don't think we need to arrive at these or any works without *any* expectations. But I think we do need to try ask more, harder questions of ourselves and our games, about why the things we find in them, rather than writing them off so quickly.

Nicolas Godement-Berline
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I for one really enjoyed Mirror's Edge. Besides the great art direction and tight controls, which are more "conventional' ways for a game to stand out, I don't think I could have put it a better way than this: "a game about [...] feeling powerful again when we reject the convention to fight and choose instead to run like hell".

Great game, great article. Thanks Ian.

Stephen McDonough
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Thankyou, Ian Bogost. It's so disheartening to consistently hear about how Mirror's Edge is 'underperforming' or a 'disappointment'. I truly adore the game and tell everyone that they should really play it. It's one of a kind. I'm glad to see an article that explores the game to a deeper level than its length or inability to match expectations it was never trying to match.



That said, I'm still not entirely convinced on the combat aspect. I feel like parkour has such a strong parallel with skateboarding that a parkour game would be better implemented in a similar way to a skateboarding game. Still, I wish this game all the success it deserves, for it does indeed deserve it.



And Ephriam, do all you can to get your hands on this game. You'll love it if you play it the way it wants to be.

Jonathon Walsh
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This breakdown has really rekindled my interest in Mirror's Edge. As a PC gamer (no 360) I wasn't able to get the game at launch and after this disappointing reviews I wasn't sure if I was going to get it at all. From the breakdown it sounds like a game that I will really love.



I simply love games that inspire feelings other than what you'd typically find in your typical Action/Adventure, FPS, or RPG. Ico, SotC, Portal, and occasionally L4D (when the AI director doesn't wimp out and actually sends *hordes* of zombies at you) are the examples that come to mind.

Ken Nakai
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While I haven't played the game yet (the lines were too long at the conference I was at to demo it), I've watched the game play and I can see why the game reviewers might be "disappointed". After all, while Assassin's Creed made use of a free running style that you could use to get to places most games wouldn't let you, it was incorporated well into the game and was made, as Ian pointed out, easier (i.e. the target and the interpolation the game engine was doing to ensure you found the target worked with you). It was almost like the game designers knew (or focus groups told them) that it was otherwise a pain to get it working. Here, parkour is the main focus of the game. Like I said, I haven't played it through (and I will once I get it) but from what I'm hearing it sounds like the story and your immersion in it were not that compelling.



In this age of gaming, with incredible graphics becoming more of a commodity, the two remaining "legs" of a game's appeal in the market are gameplay and story. Look at Call of Duty 4, a personal favorite of mine. The graphics were great, though not revolutionary, but the gameplay (single player) and story were compelling and really drew you in. Despite some flaws, the feeling that you were part of a bigger story and the scripted parts that moved the story forward (even though I'm more of a freedom-of-movement fan) really made that game.



Setting aside Mirror's Edge's graphics, if the story is largely relegated to lowly companion to gameplay, which is all about parkour--which has become...I can't resist...par for the course--you end up with focus on a feature that can get repetitive and uninspiring after a while.



I suppose the real trick is if Mirror's Edge really is about changing the player's perspective and introducing them to a "new world" of gameplay, then Jeff's comments about how he learned to embrace the movement mechanics and even look forward to their use mean the game is accomplishing what it might have intended. Just like I was looking forward to using the gravity gun more and more in Half Life 2, using the environment in a non-gun-totting way might be the lesson from Mirror's Edge...that you can enjoy an FPS without the use of a gun and without the need for aim and certain reflexes that not everyone has.



This may be the primary reason the reviews were disappointed in the game...after all, FPS and the way we play them is main stream and when you attempt to change the flow of that river, people resist. It's tough to innovate when the market doesn't seem to want to.

Kylie Prymus
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Wonderful play on the game's title Ian! Though I haven't had a chance to play any of it beyond the demo the amount of engaging conversation the game has created speaks to exactly the sort of thing that you're discussing - a shift in perspective. On a meta-level the conversations I've read about the game have been on how it largely failed to deliver in full but has great promise; how difficult it is to change the public's expectations of what games should be and create a new genre; etc. But if a game like Mirror's Edge can generate this kind of dialogue - a dialogue about the gaming conventions and genres themselves - then I would consider it a success. (Contrast this with the other games that have dominated conversation this year - the Fables, GTAs, Fallouts, and even Braids - conversation which has been largely "conventional", that is, which has discussed how the prevailing conditions have been subtly tweaked in ways that worked and didn't work.) Regardless of its success or failure on one level I think Mirror's Edge succeeded wildly. It may not have ground-breaking, industry-changing impact, but it has appeared to have a significant impact in the dialogue about games, about genres, risks, meaning, etc (as this article attests).



Speaking more to the specifics of perceptual shift that you discuss I think the game's artistic minimalism is an attempt at making explicit a shift that players have to make with each and every new game they play. The process of learning and internalizing mechanics involves recognzising the signal-to-noise ratio of a particular world and what to visually (and sometimes audiotorially and even haptically) respond to - and what to ignore. I can think of at least two recent games I've played (Warhawk and Soldner-X) in which the tutorials themselves encouraged the player to learn to quickly recognize different power-ups while warning them that it may take some time to do so. These are games that are very busy on-screen and require the player to really learn to focus on what's important.



I think DICE was wise in their decision to emphasize the path's one could take by toning down the palette and creating runner's vision. It was wise becuase they were attempting something new that would require an excruciating learning curve because player's weren't familiar with the concept. I'm reminded of Echochrome in that respect - it also requires a perceptual shift and it also minimalizes environmental noise by using a limited (in its case a monochrome) palette. The rewards for mastering the percpetual shift in both games are great - the reward of achieving a new understanding and view of the world. In both cases I think the rewards could be even greater if the environment were more fully realized, more busy, more - for lack of a better word - "realistic". Not because I think realism should be the goal - I don't - but because it would more easily translate into the player accepting the possibilities and varieties of percpeption in the world outside of games or art.

Ian Bogost
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@Nicolas, Stephen

Thanks for reading!



@Jonathon

Indeed, I certainly enjoyed the game on a number of levels, and I hope that this piece inspires more people to play the game, who might have passed it over.



@Ken

The story in Mirror's Edge isn't its best feature, but I saw it as a kind of paste for the rest of the stuff rather than as one of the three legs of a stool. Maybe the expectation of a "whole package," of videogame as Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, is a flawed one.



That said, it's not the new world of gameplay in Mirror's Edge that interests me so much as the new world of in-game perception, which might then also yield new appreciations out of the game.



@Kylie

I'm all for the kind of discourse you point out, and I think that it will help push our medium forward. That said, I also think conversations like this are worthwhile insofar as they help us understand *one* game in particular, as a work of human creativity.

Ian Bogost
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@Jeffrey

I don't think that free running is necessarily about freedom in the sense of doing anything you want; it's also (even moreso?) about mastering a topology. I think Mirror's Edge does a great job of getting this sensation across to the player. Likewise, the frustrating combat scenes served a purpose too, albeit in an unusual way. I tried to explain these opinions in the article.



That said, there's nothing wrong with disliking the game of course!



As for the sequel stuff, I know that DICE has talked about the game as the first in a trilogy, and that seemingly everything is a trilogy these days. I empathize with Keith Stuart's gripes about sequels; it might be more cost-effective for DICE to make another Mirror's Edge game rather than a wholly new title, but I don't think the game (or its players) ought to need a sequel to justify the worth of the original.

Sam Moggach
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The game had me hooked right from the beginning because it was interesting and what kept me playing until the end was that it kept getting increasingly difficult and increasingly interesting. I was forced to find creative solutions throughout the whole game.



On a side note: I finally got to play the Bourne Conspiracy for xbox 360 a while ago and thought it was a huge disappointment. Bourne is always on the run. When I was finished playing Mirror's Edge it became quickly apparent that this is the kind of game Bourne Conspiracy should have been.

I can't wait to try the first game that uses the concepts discussed in this article in a spy game.

Ian Bogost
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@Sam

Nice point about the Bourne pictures. I didn't play the game adaptation (I didn't read the books either), but certainly the films have this strong sense of motion and chase, which an adaptation would have to accommodate. Bourne also embraces the idea of keeping ahead of an opponent, which is something we get a bit of in Mirror's Edge but not in a way that carries over from level to level.

Justin Roberts
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@Ian

Thanks for the terrific and well articulated suggestion to analyze design implementations by considering the game's theme and context, rather than comparing how it meets a player's preconceived expectations.



Too often, in my view, the multitude of design implentations from one game are held to an ad hoc combination of standards from multiple other games.



Similar to complaints of ME, Resident Evil 4 received complaints that the controls were slow/clunky (and relatively unaltered since the original iterations of the RE series). Authers of such complaints usually seemed to prefer a run/strafe and gun style such as Halo, COD, etc. As with ME, RE 4 contained certain control implementations that were used very specifically to advance the overall design of the game.

Danny Day
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@Ian, Jeffrey



Ironically enough, free running isn't really about being able to go anywhere. There are any number of restrictions on where you can do something and where you can't, ranging from angry security guards and controlled access to simple overwhelming danger.



As with all forms of expressive "sport" (for lack of a better term) free runners usually end up constrained to a specific area, which they then use to the best of their creativity and ability. A good free runner will visit the same area multiple times as they improve to see what else they can achieve with the same resources. To me, Mirrors Edge didn't feel constrictive because I knew where I had to go, it felt like there were just enough options in most areas to really let me experiment and find my own path. Even the sections where you were constrained to a single viable set of movements made sense: You weren't magically contained by invisible walls; You were hemmed in by steep drops or impassable concrete tunnel walls.



I can't help feeling that a lot of the linear complaints would have been silenced by giving players a choice of next level to go to. Just one loading screen as a result of going somewhere different or obviously "alternate" path would have served to ease in gamers unwilling to make the perceptual leap the game requires.

Ian Bogost
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@Justin

RE4 is an interesting comparison. In fact, here's a related take on that game that echoes what you're saying from a historical and even technical perspective: http://www.destructoid.com/how-survival-horror-evolved-itself-int
o-extinction-114022.phtml

Ian Bogost
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@Danny

I probably could have made a more precise distinction between free running and parkour in the article, since they are distinct forms of the same general concept.



As I understand it, free running focuses more on personal improvisation, parkour more on efficiency. But as you point out, free running isn't about going wherever you want, but about being able to invest your own flourish in the means by which you master a space. In that regard, I think Mirror's Edge allows players to choose between these two movement-sport influences at different times. Then again, the optional time trials modes certainly bear stronger parkour values.



About the levels: something I found myself wishing the game had asked me to get back to the safe house or make other transitions more manually. The level in which Faith has to get to the mall concourse was particularly satisfying to me, and I would have enjoyed more of that. But another option, one I mentioned but didn't discuss in the article, would have been to incorporate more of the messengering that supposedly constitutes the main job of "runners" in the first place.

. .
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Mirror's Edge features parkour, not free running.



parkour is not the same as free running.

. .
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also, it is an action-adventure game, not a platform game.



super mario galaxy is a platform game.

Ian Bogost
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@anonymous (". .")

See the comment just above yours on parkour v. free running. On the genre pedantry I have no real comment. Is that really the most interesting gripe you came away with after reading?

Nels Anderson
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Brilliant, brilliant article. I'm one of the minority of folks that absolutely loved Mirror's Edge, and I'm not normally the kind of player who'll go iterate over a game, trying to improve upon scores/times. While it didn't have the polish or narrative depth some of the other triumphs of 2008 did, Mirror's Edge was incredibly ambitious and I think it succeeded far more than a lot of people will admit. Glad to see I'm not the only one that saw this.

Ron Overton
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It's difficult to express just how happy I am to read this article. I love this game to death and it's constantly disheartening to read criticisms that just don't seem to "get it." What was even more frustrating was how difficult I found it to express what is so great about this game to others and I am deeply grateful to you personally for finding words to do it justice.

Ian Bogost
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@Nels, Ron

Thanks for the kind words; glad you enjoyed the article.

Jed Ashforth
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A lot of people I've spoken with have said the same thing - the demo basically gives you almost too much of a taste for you to need to bother with the full game. If discovering play mechanics is what drives you, this seems to be the case - the demo allows you full play of all the movement abilities Faith has, but also aptly demonstrates the 'gamey' lack of realism in the level constructs (who builds a 100ft pipe between rooftops or extra platforms where there's no functional requirement, etc), the annoying and punitive nature of the constant failure/restarts, the disposable storyline and characterisation, and the beautiful feel of getting the 'flow' of running right. I loved the free running / parkour, but genuinely thought the rest of it was substandard. The demo gave me enough to say 'I've experienced that, and the good stuff there wasn't enough to outweigh the bad that's in evidence'.



If the parkour is the strength of it (and that seems to be the case) nobody should expect the gaming public to swallow the multitude of negatives just to taste the sweetness at it's core. For a title this big and this important, it should be ALL sweet. One clever bit at the core simply isn't enough in that marketplace.

. .
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you are inexact and inaccurate.



pedantry has nothing to do with it.



a heart is a heart and a lung is a lung. do not call the heart, a lung.

Rodrigo Dotto
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Man, it may be a little late to comment on this game, but its major flaw is the runner vision. Sure itīs a great hand in the beggining, to get you into the machanics, to familiarize the world, but it awfully entangles you in a linear path and takes you away from imersion, imersion that comes out of thinking "inside" the game, looking for the (without runners vision) possible exits. I actually played it entirely without it and it takes the game to a new level, better to say, to a new relation. It achieves a simmilar end in gameplay like portal and penumbra, to use the enviromment for your (the player) own sake, in different ways, of course, but without disconnecting from the game ends, althou it would be a little more variable, not the same "looking for a pipe to climb". Never felt it overlly difficult (which is something almost impossible for someone who played NINJA GAIDEN, CONTRA or never got to jump the little gap near the end of TMNT), althou required some trials. But it almost never felt repetitive, with short loading times, short enough not to take you away from the constant fluidity of movement. In the end, its like the opposite side of prince of persia, which means that in a sense, its completly different, for the efort/ effortless experience and, on another, its the same neverending beauty in the connection of movements, claiming for the player to not stay idle and think while running. Sorry for the bad-not-native-english-speaker-spelling.


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