[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.]
Mirror’s 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 didn’t have a plot. Mirror’s 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 Mirror’s Edge gameplay than in its entire script. While it's disappointing that the dialogue couldn’t live up to the standards of the art direction and gameplay, this is DICE’s success, not its failure.
Faith’s 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 Mirror’s 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 Mirror’s Edge the words aren’t 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. Mirror’s 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 don’t 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 don’t need to have a story to have an iconic character. In fact, Mirror’s 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, Mirror’s Edge seems to step forward only with its visuals: Faith’s character design is far more revolutionary than her personality.
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 “It’s time to kick ass and chew gum, and I’m all out of gum.”
That line, in all of its glorious stupidity, is Duke in a nutshell. It’s 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 I’m 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. Faith’s relationship with her sister is supposed to be her motivation for the entire game, but they barely exchange more than a few sentences. “She’s my sister." Oh, that explains why Faith blew up buildings, ran from helicopters and killed dozens of police officers. No, there’s 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.
It’s 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, Mirror’s Edge is a brilliant example of why games don’t 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 Mirror’s Edge is told through the constant presence of police and cameras, the propaganda in the elevators, and the sensation of running itself. Mirror’s 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 game’s 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 didn’t 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, it’s 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 doesn’t really convey anything that we don’t already know other than the breaking apart of Faith’s 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. It’s a testament to the inherent strength of video games. Mirror’s 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.