While terms such as “parkour” and “free running” have been used liberally in discussions of Mirror’s Edge, it bears some examination as to what it is that the title actually does differently than other games. Realistically, platform characters have long been able to run on buildings, and leap seemingly impossible chasms. Essentially, that’s what the genre is all about. Even outside the realm of the fantastic and surreal explored by Mario and Sonic, the Tomb Raider and modern Prince of Persia titles have offered acrobatics based on fairly realistic elements for some time. In the context of the platform genre (perhaps the best by which to classify it) what sets Mirror’s Edge apart is that the movement feels legitimate.
Protagonist Faith doesn’t play like a superhero, but rather like someone who is highly skilled in a real art. Parkour is an activity that very few people will be able to experience as it is presented here, but it is quite a real endeavor, and Mirror’s Edge clearly treats it with a good deal of respect and admiration.
Indeed, many of the design decisions that were made are actually quite fascinating. One of the most interesting was the decision to show portions of Faith’s limbs during her her acrobatics, more than one would see from the first person in real life. This decision was made because the more realistic presentation simply didn’t feel right. Clive Thompson of Wired actually argues that much of the visceral nature of the game comes from this the player’s ability to see Faith’s limbs. While this likely is not the first time that a game has had to be made less realistic in order to make it feel more so, the effort to make the experience of running around the rooftops feel authentic shines through in the final product.
The art design in-game is quite sleek and minimal, perhaps most notable for presenting a dystopian future in clean white as opposed to through the more traditional dark and gritty color palette. It is difficult to imagine how better to present “runner vision” (visual cues as to what elements of the environment can be interacted with) than by highlighting particular pieces in a vibrant color, while the rest of the world is largely white. The audio design is similarly well focused, with much of it simply being the noises created by moving around the environment. Clattering fences, heavy breathing, footfalls and other sounds serve to make the whole experience both more intense and more immersive.
The story in Mirror’s Edge certainly exists in order to give players a reason to be running and jumping all over the place, and it might initially seem that without this kind of narrative, players might have little reason to explore the game. Realistically, though, it almost feels as if it gets in the way. In fact, so much of Mirror’s Edge is unconventional, that those parts that are well-tread feel frustrating by their mere presence.
For example, finding and navigating the best path possible, flowing from rooftop to rooftop is both hectic and liberating. While being chased by gun-toting authorities is clearly meant to ratchet up those elements even further, in practice, it can actually serve to be fairly irritating, simply because flow is disrupted. The segments where you either chase or are being chased by characters that are as adept at free running as you are serve to be far more effective at encouraging you to find the best line possible as opposed to just getting through a scenario without getting shot. Moreover, though the disarm mechanics allow the player to take a nonviolent path through the game, it often winds up being quicker to simply disarm one enemy and shoot the rest, the better to be able to focus on the environmental situation at hand without distraction.
In fact, it is the absence of all of these more conventional elements that makes the time trial mode truly brilliant, and easily the most enjoyable section of the game. Mirror’s Edge is clearly an example of strong fundamental game mechanics being most effective when presented plainly, stripped of unnecessary fluff. The ghost system only increases the addictive nature of time trial mode, particularly because you can’t simply download anyone’s ghost and watch it beginning to end. Rather, they are presented as a red shadow, that leaves traces of their last few footprints, as you are attempting to make it through the time trial yourself. At first, this inability to simply watch someone else’s run through a course might seem like an oversight, but what it accomplishes grants the game further longevity. If, for example, you are twenty seconds behind the world leader on a particular level, immediately downloading their ghost will be of little use, because as you try to follow, you will invariably lose sight of it, and therefore not have the benefit of knowing what tricks are being employed. Rather, it makes more sense to learn from a ghost only moderately better than you on the leaderboard, and to improve little by little.
Critical reception to Mirror’s Edge has been mixed, but that may well be because it is easily one of the most conflicted, difficult to classify games of the year. While the in-game visual presentation and controls are both innovative and extremely smart, Mirror’s Edge falters in those places where it relies on more conventional gameplay devices. It’s actually quite unfortunate given how forward thinking so much of the game is that some major elements are not only generic, but frustrating. But what’s done well is done so extraordinarily so, it is difficult not to come away from the game feeling overwhelmingly positive about the experience as a whole.