Analysis · Games

How Space (and the player’s interaction with it) Create Meaning in Mirror’s Edge and its Sequel.

Mirror’s Edge was released in 2008 to a mixed reception from the critical community. Its follow up, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, launched in 2016 to a similar assessment. The two games play very similarly, controlling a avatar from the first-person perspective the player uses a broad skillset of platforming moves to traverse their environment. This can be broadly separated into two categories: puzzle rooms, which challenge the player to apply their skills to a space in order to reach the exit; and chases, in which the player is required to evade a chasing threat. Also involved in the two games are light combat elements with aggressive forces. Now, despite the vast similarities between the player’s moveset in the two games, the same modes of interaction serve to create very different meanings when applied to the two different worlds we are presented with.

So in Mirror’s Edge, the plot goes that you play as Faith, part of an underground society known as The Runners. The job of The Runners, we are told, is to relay messages unsurveilled between their clients. While this swiftly gets side-tracked by the plot, involving an assassinated politician for which Faith’s sister is framed, the thematic brunt of the narrative is one concerning the price and value of freedom and how control can be exerted on it by the surveillance and regulation of our physical and digital selves. This isn’t to say the story of the original is perfect, indeed it was one of the major sources of criticism of the game. Mainly that it presents a world and characters that are not given enough opportunity to develop due to the sharp focus on the mystery narrative. Which is unappealingly told, being largely conveyed through visually uninteresting cutscenes that radically diverge stylistically from the game’s other presentational elements.

However, despite these flaws, we can see clearly how the plot thematically ties into how the player interacts with the world. The player’s avatar becomes a figurative avatar for the concept of freedom. The playspace becomes a signifier for the larger world, through which the player, in collaboration with the designers, is expected to subvert the order of the world in order to progress. It’s a simplistic metaphor but one which works nicely and from which a clear ground is made to build meaning upon.

To discuss this further means inviting direct comparison with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Let’s get this clear, I like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, I had fun playing Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, I will likely always enjoy any Mirror’s Edge game that will ever be released. But Catalyst’s use of space and interaction in conjunction with its story is just a complete contradictory mess. Let’s start.

In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst you play as Faith, part of an underground society known as The Runners. Runners, as outlaws, relay messages and packages between clients as in the first game, however the overarching plot here is one of rebellion. In various organisations the Runners act as agitators and insurgents in order to topple the corrupt corpocracy governing the city of Glass. Now, we can see the similarities here, and the player’s verb-set works in a similar vein but the spaces, the spaces.

Mirror’s Edge presents the player with a series of linear levels (although in many areas multiple routes through the environment can be utilised). Mirror’s Edge Catalyst presents the player with a free roaming open world to explore. These present conflicting notions of the player’s ownership of the game space. In Mirror’s Edge the spaces are to be moved through and then discarded, the player is a transient entity within these spaces. In Catalyst the player is the de-facto owner of the space they inhabit, they are provided the agency to move through the space in whichever way they desire.

Changing the nature of the playspace in this way changes the way the player interacts with it, the movement mechanics no longer exist in order to present solutions to problems. Instead the player is now invited to use their interaction to define the spaces they inhabit. The relationship is thus reversed, the player, rather than exploiting the space available to them is now defining it. Through the act of play in such a space the authorial hand departs from the designer and moves onto the player.

This presents a problem when the game is trying to construct a narrative around the powerless, around the downtrodden. How is it possible to recreate a fight against the system when the very systemic nature of the experience is one that puts you in command? Look for example at the two games relationship with the ground. In a game primarily about navigating non-public areas the entry and exit into ground level is important as that reflects a boundary between the public and the private. In Mirror’s Edge, ground level is something that is moved into and out of fluidly, the public space is one that is threatening but which can be freely traversed.

Catalyst’s ground level area differs though, firstly it is clearly separated from the populace of the city. Firstly, it is not designated a public space, it is established as a construction area to which public access is denied. In this space, even the ground we walk upon is gifted to the player. While the other districts may be moved between fairly freely, this area is only accessible through the underground tunnels occupied by your resistance movement. This utilisation of the space undoes all the work done by the prequel in establishing the player character’s relationship to the world they inhabit, in order to provide them with another measure of control.

This clearly jives with the portrayal of the character as an agent of change within this space. Characters talk about how the populace, cynically referred to as ’employs’ need to throw off the shackles of their oppressors, however the space is set up to keep the player deliberately partitioned away from those they are supposedly trying to aid. They are seen in streets far below, behind glass windows, passing through inaccessible walkways. Indeed, the only characters one interacts with not a part of the resistance movement are coded as explicitly privileged people.

The runners still relay messages and items, however in an attempt to clarify the somewhat hazy explanation in the original, here many of the deliveries are given their own stories. You are told what you are conveying, who it is for, and why. Due to the rewards mechanic put in place for completing these missions, credit is gained that allows the player to unlock new abilities, these tasks take on a decidedly more capitalistic framework. You are explicitly completing these goals for payment, both narratively and mechanically. The agents then are represented as those able to afford your services, the upper class (or ‘hi-caste’) populace. While claiming to destabilise capitalist frameworks that disenfranchise the proletariat, the player is forced to engage with them.

Its failure could probably be best exemplified by an early quest, a character wants your help to tag his revolutionary graffiti around the city. None of it is ever applied in a place where it could be reasonably be seen by the people it is trying to reach. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst aims to be a story of anti-capitalist revolution, however, the very construction of the space defies the player’s engagement in any form of socially conscious rebellion. Thereby placing the player as an authoritarian in much the same way as the villain they are trying to unseat.

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