Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Praise the Conglomerate, I got into the Mirror’s Edge Catalyst beta! Ever since the first one I’ve been a huge fan of movement mechanics in games, and I’m hyped for their next installment. One of the things that the first Mirror’s Edge did well was the blending of level design with the player’s emotional state. When you were scared, you hid in underground tunnels, and when you were confident, you fought in environments with plenty of cover. There was a connection where the player felt the same things that Faith did. So far, Catalyst has tried to use cutscenes to achieve this same effect, and I don’t think it works as well.
WARNING: Spoilers for very early events. This is from the beta, so it might change for the full release.
The Inciting Incident
So Mirror’s Edge Catalyst starts with you leaving prison. Your first major job to get back on your feet is to steal some information from a building. In order to do that, you’re given a little piece of technology called a “shotgun,” which can hack devices and download data. All you need to do is sneak in and put the shotgun on a computer terminal.
You run and jump and slide and wallrun your way into the building until you find a terminal. Shotgun goes off, gets the data, everything’s fine… but then the game switches to cutscene mode. The camera pans out to show a shadowy spy on another floor breaking into a door. Everyone on comms tells you to ignore him, take the shotgun, and leave, but Faith decides to go investigate anyway. And as the player, your only choice is to follow.
This scene is absolutely necessary from a narrative point of view. Faith needs to follow the guy and pick up the item he leaves behind in order for the story to progress. But from a player point of view, it makes no sense. Faith finished her job. If her goal is to pay off her debt to Dogen, shouldn’t she leave? Instead, she awkwardly decides to stay and gives Noah a half-hearted apology for going against everything he’s telling her. Why doesn’t Noah send Icarus in to stop her? Or threaten to dock her payment for going against orders?
The only reason why you chase the spy down is because Faith wants to. You don’t feel like you’re making your own decisions. Even Faith’s own reasoning is sketchy. Why does Faith chase the spy? Because she’s an impulsive person. That’s not how you develop a good narrative or a rounded character. We need more why layers.
Here’s my proposal for a revised version that draws the player into the experience, no cutscene necessary:
Everything goes the same way until you reach the terminal. You puts the shotgun down, and it displays a progress bar. Noah says that it will take a while, and all you have to do is watch over the shotgun until it’s done.
Time passes and the shotgun keeps ticking down. The progress bar flickers and randomizes its ETA. You’re getting antsy: this is a game about moving, and right now you’re just standing still. Noah tells you to wait a little longer.
Eventually, you get bored. Maybe you go look at something on the wall, or go for a little run in the halls. But as soon as you look back at the shotgun, you see a hook from the ceiling lifting the shotgun away. Someone in a vent above you pulls the hook up, grabs the shotgun, and quickly leaves.
Icarus yells at you to chase them down and get the shotgun back. Noah says to forget it and abort the mission. Of course, you can’t really have a choice here: you have to go after the spy. But this setup gives a stronger reason to engage with the narrative. Instead of chasing the guy because Faith wants to, the player has a complex set of emotions at work. There’s anger, and there’s regret, and there’s a desire to prove yourself. You got bored, and now you’re paying the price.
A little bit more work has to be done to make this blend with the rest of the world. Maybe shotguns are very rare, and the people who hired the runners also lent them a shotgun to use. Maybe Faith herself was already stealing data about Kingdom and just didn’t know it. Maybe the spy was from an opposing group who wanted the same thing. But this way, it’s a lot better than “Faith was just doing a normal average mission until she decided to get herself into trouble.”
One rule of narrative design that I like is this: “have characters do interesting things, rather than have interesting things happen to characters.” Instead of having a plot that drives characters forward, you have characters who drive a plot forward.
In the current setup, Faith has something interesting happen to her. She just so happens to see a spooky scary spy sneaking through the building. It’s a random event that could have happened on any day at any time, and through sheer luck it just turned out to happen exactly when she was there to witness it. There’s an argument to be made that her decision to chase the spy actually gives her agency, but that decision is too whimsical and doesn’t have enough why layers.
But in my revised setup, Faith can display her stubborn personality and make the player feel the same way. Noah will still accuse her of being too impulsive, and Icarus will still accuse her of being too incompetent, but you were with her and you’re (hopefully) on her side. Now, instead of feeling like Faith is dragging you along on her linear story, you feel like you’re her partner in crime.
I know that DICE has been talking a lot about their narrative progression and how Faith starts out as being carefree and impulsive, then slowly matures into a serious committed heroine. That would be a perfectly fine setup for a non-interactive medium, but when it comes to games, the player has to develop a deeper connection with the protagonist.
In order to be immersed in a character, you have to understand why that character does things. Right now, it feels like DICE is focusing too much on Faith’s story, and not enough on the player’s experience. I’m sure that they have a really strong narrative, but if it isn’t delivered well, it’s meaningless. None of this requires Faith to suddenly become careful and conservative. She’s got a great personality and I love it, but it just needs to be presented to the player in a more coherent way.
When it comes to people who run on rooftops for a living, of course there are going to be a few screws missing. But the reason why people love Mirror’s Edge so much is because we want to feel like we have a few screws missing too. Story might not be the selling point of a Mirror’s Edge game, but DICE has spent so much time immersing the player through controls and UI. I hope they take the extra step to immerse the player through narrative too.