Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

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.

Now that every single game has parkour, it’s hard to appreciate how innovative the original Mirror’s Edge was. The designers had to break the ingrained assumption that enemies are meant to be defeated, and instead incentivize players to run away while somehow making them feel badass and powerful for doing so. When you encounter hostile cops for the first time, the level uses several creative tricks that nudge players to play the game differently than they would play any other game.

Open vs Closed Spaces

Most of the beginning of the first level takes place in very wide, open spaces where you’re able to test your momentum to its limits. As the tension ramps up, you end up in a narrow enclosed passageway, then climb through an air vent, and finally encounter the first set of enemies. This gives players the sensation of free motion, takes it away, and then gives it back right when they want it the most.

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At the end of the introductory open segment, the player must leap across a wide chasm to grab onto a pipe on the other side. This is meant to be a high-adrenaline moment, the conclusion to all of the momentum you had built up earlier, but you feel confident about it because of the wallrun across a slightly smaller chasm just before. When you make the jump, it takes a while to climb up the pipes because Faith’s climbing speed is so slow. The time allows players to rewind, calm down, and think about what a crazy thing they just did.

As the player climbs up onto the ledge, the color palette changes dramatically from bright white lights to subdued dark blues and greys. Obviously, being inside of a building will do this, but the shadows are cast in such a way that this happens as you enter the door. Subtle artistic shifts like this aren’t usually noticed, but they create the underlying feeling that something is going to be different.

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The doorway leads to a “puzzle” segment where you must figure out how to get to the ledge above. In a game about freerunning, it seems counterintuitive to have a puzzle where the player must stop and think about what to do. Even though it only really takes a moment, that’s a moment that could have been spent being fast. However, the designers know this and they use puzzle segments sparingly in order to create downtime and a moment of calmness, even though the player does not realize that this is happening to them.

After this you enter a vent which forces you to crawl at a slow speed. By this point the player is itching for a chance to stretch out and run with all their might. The vent makes several turns which can throw off the player’s sense of direction, and then the game does something unnecessary: a message prompt shows an image of cops and the caption “you should always try to get away from hostiles.” While this is true, it’s something that the players should naturally adapt to rather than being explicitly told to do so. The rest of the encounter is designed with this in mind, and it feels as if they simply weren’t confident that it was enough.

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The vent ends in a hole that the player drops through. This hole is designed to give the player very little depth perception so it’s hard to gauge exactly how high it is, which means that players will usually not perform a roll to break their fall. Instead, they will land badly, taking some damage and being stunned for a moment. They have also dropped into a room with four cops who immediately turn and order Faith to submit.

This scene has many overlapping feelings and emotions. The player is feeling vulnerable, afraid, and disempowered, because they have been trained to avoid bad landings. At the same time, they are feeling restless and eager to move thanks to the slower-paced puzzle segment and the vent. Finally, the shock value of seeing cops for the first time and watching them draw their guns immediately instills a sense of fear. All of these come together to make the player turn around and run away.

Disempowerment vs Empowerment

However, there is still one more prominent emotion: the desire to defeat enemies. Mirror’s Edge has to counteract this emotion which has been built up by all the tropes of modern gaming. Players feel ashamed when they have to run away. It makes them feel like they are weak or cowardly, like they have done something wrong.

The disadvantageous situation in Mirror’s Edge counteracts this by giving players an excuse. They can think to themselves “This is totally unfair, I just dropped into this room with absolutely no knowledge that these enemies were here. The game is tricking me. I’m not being cowardly or afraid, I’m making a tactical retreat. I’m evening the odds that were stacked against me.” Through this thought process, the player is able to overcome the will to fight without feeling bad about it.

In the sequel Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, this is flipped almost completely on its head. Throughout the introduction you are taught how to fight against enemies using a holographic training program. Noah delivers some cheesy dialogue (things like “Be brave, I know you can fight these guys who are designed to be beaten by you, good luck”) and you feel excited and prepared to beat down some blues. The following combat encounters all place the player in a situation where they are surprising the enemies, whereas the original game had this the other way around.

At first glance, it would seem that the first encounter in Mirror’s Edge was very disempowering, whereas the first encounter in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was very empowering. However, the first game made players feel smart and clever about running away. Meanwhile, the second game’s use of overdramatic tutorials makes the player feel belittled and patronized.

The sequel follows the structure of a traditional action game more closely by giving players battles that are very easy in order to make them anticipate the next battle with excitement. But in the original, players never look forward to encountering enemies. Cops are either associated with a sense of dread and danger, or seen as a stepping stone with no real threat.

Both of these games had the difficult task of helping players understand a strange new way of confronting enemies. First encounters always have to be designed carefully to give them the right impression and the proper mindset. The original Mirror’s Edge dedicated many scenes to the buildup, climax, and resolution of the first encounter, and it worked well enough to kickstart a whole trend in FPS gaming.