Gaming Whiplash and the Tragedy of Expectations

Looking back at games like Mirror's Edge or The Wind Waker it seems that when video games offer unexpected experiences, the results are not always pleasant.

After writing about how my lack of preconceived opinions impacted my response to Lugaru HD, I've spent some more time thinking about expectations and how they impact players' experiences and games' receptions. All of it leads me to conclude that while the hype cycle keeps the medium's business side running, it is usually bad for the artistic side. Realistically, no one can be expected to keep themselves hermetically sealed off from a game, but hasty comparisons and preconceived notions can easily hurt both players and developers.

Gaming Whiplash

I tend to play a variety of games and as such have experienced what I call "gaming whiplash." After acclimating to a particular game's rules or tone, jumping into a new game can be a jarring experience, even if the second game well-made. Most recently, this cropped up after I finished Vanquish and decided to test out Mass Effect 2. Having never played a Mass Effect game, my expectations were formed by advertisements, previews, and friends' descriptions, all of which suggested Mass Effect 2 was a more action-oriented, fast-paced shooter than its predecessor. As anyone who has played both games can tell you, going from Vanquish to Mass Effect 2 is like swapping a Ferrari for a lawnmower.

But, as most people would rightly argue, Mass Effect's goal differs greatly from that of Vanquish. Mass Effect is a space drama in the tradition of Star Trek, in which words can be the most powerful weapons. Seeking something other experience will only result in a jarring sensation that ultimately obscures the game's strengths.

For me, this is a familiar danger. When I was a kid, gaming whiplash almost ruined the The Legend of Zelda for me. Until playing Zelda for the first time, my experience with games was limited to arcade style challenges and Mario-esque platformers. Imagine my surprise when I was thrust into a world in which I could not jump, was forced to manage an inventory, and tasked with charting my own course through an open world. The experience was an abrupt shift in how I conceptualized video games and was made more difficult because my six-year-old mind was stubbornly set in its ways.

While Zelda is generally considered a conservative series, it has caused its fair share of whiplash. Perhaps the most notable episode of mass mis-direction was The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker's art style. After Ocarina of Time, many folks expected a smooth path towards photorealism. While some initially mocked its cel-shaded art style as "Cel-da," the years have been kind to Wind Waker. Its vibrant, stylized world has held up over the years and will maintain its beauty as technology marches on. Its biggest sin was giving people something unexpected.

The Tragedy of Expectations: Mirror's Edge

Unfortunately, some games are unable to overcome this sin. Since its release, Mirror's Edge has been a divisive game, due in large part to the discordance between what people expected from it and what it gave them. While critically lauded for boldly diverging from the path of other shooters, it failed to gain the broad support required to secure its future. It was a game that confounded what people had come to expect from first-person games specifically and from video game design more broadly.

Aside from its impressively photorealistic art style, Mirror's Edge was a game from another time. As many reviews noted, it was an extremely difficult game that forced players to achieve an unusual amount of skill before being able to traverse the levels without failing. In a post-Modern Warfare world, a first-person game whose gameplay was more challenging than experiential clashed with what people had come to expect from games. The game looked very modern but felt more like an old Mario game; stages and enemy encounters were designed to be learned and explored rather than simply traversed.

As Eurogamer's review noted, though Mirror's Edge and Assassin's Creed came out around the same time, nevertheless, "each game's take on gameplay (and on parkour) couldn't be more different" (Christian Donlan, "Mirror's Edge - Review", Eurogamer, 11 September 2008). Assassin's Creed's auto-traversal system minimized player input but allowed people to act out parkour scenes worthy of YouTube highlight compilations. Mirror's Edge provided a much more realistic, if painstaking prospect. The player could pull off amazing runs, but only after learning the courses and honing their reflexes. As Eurogamer discovered, "Previews [of Mirror's Edge] promised something you hadn't seen before, but on closer inspection, DICE has brought huge chunks of the tired and familiar along too". While Mirror's Edge rivaled Uncharted in terms of its artistic splendor, it eschewed the latter's largely experiential platforming for dynamics that resembled skill-based games like N.

It did not help that, somewhere along the line, many people came to the conclusion that Mirror's Edge was meant to be played non-violently. While shooting was definitely an ancillary focus, Mirror's Edge was by no means a pacifist's game. Scripted story sections clearly demonstrated that Faith had no qualms about using guns and many of the enemy encounters that people found so vexing could be expedited by a few well-aimed rounds. Even so, many people forced themselves to play through the game in a way specifically designed to be extremely challenging.

In his insightful essay, "How to Fix Mirror's Edge", Sinan Kubba articulates the unfortunate thought process many used in regards to Mirror's Edge's combat: "Clearly, Mirror's Edge wanted us to avoid any violence beyond disarms; there was even an achievement for it, not to mention how deliberately woeful weapon handling was" ("How to Fix Mirror's Edge", Paste, 12 April 2011). True, weapons inhibited movement, but they also allowed for more powerful attacks at a longer range. Like operating a machine gun turret in Halo, weapons in Mirror's Edge have certain disadvantages that incentivize different strategies for different situations. Mirror's Edge does not want a player to play the whole game like Call of Duty, but neither does it force the player to want someone to repeatedly be outgunned.

It could just as easily be argued that the existence of an achievement for not shooting any enemies actually suggests that such a strategy is an unusual or unorthodox way of playing the game. Achievements are often used to highlight extreme examples of game dynamics or to provide extra challenges for players willing to test their skills. Would anyone argue that the "Pacifism" achievement in Geometry Wars represents the standard way of playing the game or that playing Liar's Dice without losing a die in Red Dead Redemption is the only worthwhile way to participate in the mini game? Most likely not. They are achievements meant to highlight unconventional challenges that the player can pursue. Yet, in the case of Mirror's Edge, many people seized on a single achievement, augmented it with impressions from previews, and formed expectations the game could not fulfill.

Tragically, the game never sought to fulfill such expectations. Although not perfect by any means, Mirror's Edge's biggest failing was one of timing and context; it was released as popular tastes were shifting towards experiential, rather than skill-based first-person games, and it shared the market with games that offered instantly accessible versions of virtual parkour. Folks did not expect the lengthy, unbroken runs showcased in the Mirror's Edge trailers to be so hard to earn and, smarting from the whiplash, turned to titles that could provide instant highlight reels. It's been years since Mirror's Edge was released, and there is still no solid information about a potential sequel. While this is unfortunate, it is not unexpected.


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