Monday, December 01, 2008
Thanksgiving leftovers: Mirror's Edge
Still trying to recover from a long weekend spent gorging myself on turkey, stuffing, gravy, pie, potatoes, cranberry sauce, egg nog... (Note to international readers: You might be wondering how a holiday centered on gluttony differs from an average day here in America. Shut up.)
Although I spent much of my weekend traveling and visiting with relatives, I squeezed in a little bit of gaming time. Mirror's Edge continues to baffle and frustrate. I keep reading things that sound like high-minded defenses of the game, or at least more charitable interpretations than my own. And there is something strangely alluring about this game in the abstract. Each time I load it up, I find myself a little excited, thinking that this time I'll crack through that shell and get to the delicious nut inside. That feeling lasts no longer than two minutes.
But considering how varied the reaction to Mirror's Edge seems to be, I'd hesitate to tell anybody they should avoid it at all costs. Lots of people seem to love it. I think this is yet another situation where we bump up against the different reasons people have for playing games. For some, the punishing, trial-and-error style of Mirror's Edge's story mode is a virtue. For me, it's a dealbreaker. I want a little breathing room in there. It's a six-hour game, but I think it could be made twice as long by adding more laid-back platforming sections, with less at stake. Not only would ME not suffer from its wider focus, it would actually benefit. Its insistence on constant chase-scene mechanics is a detriment.
Yes, this is the opposite of what I say about 99 games out of 100. Hang on, I'm going somewhere with this.
The reason Mirror's Edge exists is to showcase its first-person free-running mechanics. I don't think that's in dispute. Matthew Gallant compared it in that respect to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, which is a comparison I've also made. There's a game that provided you a new way to control your avatar, and then wisely stepped back and let you experiment with it. THPS had game-like goals -- hit switches, collect letters, find secret areas -- but permitted you the freedom to pursue them or not, according to your whims.
Another comparison I'd make is to Crackdown, which was a more traditional platforming game, but whose main appeal also came from the way its characters interacted with the game world. Your character could climb buildings, and eventually jump over them. There was some old-school run-and-gun action in there, which was necessary if you wanted to advance the story, but the game was most fun when you just prowled the rooftops for agility orbs. You had that option. You could play it your way. The designers didn't give you a set of tools and then refuse to let you use them.
Granted, that's not a perfect analogy to what happens in Mirror's Edge. This game's designers give you a set of tools and expect you to master them immediately. When I said the game could use more breathing room, this is what I mean: there simply isn't enough time or opportunity to learn the game mechanics in a consequence-free environment. As a result, you're stumbling through what are supposed to be fluid chase sequences. Unless you're an expert, your character jerks to a halt every few steps, and dies as often as most people blink.
(I loved the way Chris Dahlen put it: "I’d say that its core problem is that it looks like Rock Band 2 but plays like Mega Man 9; you want to settle in and enjoy the thrill, but imagine if Rock Band stopped the song every single time you hit a bum note.")
So often I feel like my argument against a game is, "I don't like this because I am bad at it." I feel a little bit like that now. But I wasn't good at Rock Band when I started playing it, or Tony Hawk, or Street Fighter, or Quake, or anything else that was new or different. How a game guides you up the learning curve says a lot about its priorities -- and, I'd argue, about its quality.
Huh, I was going to talk about Left 4 Dead in here, too. Guess we'll just save that for tomorrow.