Mirror’s Edge – The Emptiness of the Short-distance Runner

Jonathan McCalmont @ 24-06-2009

Blasphemous Geometries sees Jonathan McCalmont taking a run with Mirror’s Edge, a game whose hipster near-future dystopian stylings fail to disguise its underlying theme – freedom is illusory.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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After reading my previous column, you could be mistaken for thinking that only great games have themes and subtexts, and that those themes and subtexts only emerge when designers manage to work together and combine the various elements that make up a game into one shining image such as GTA IV’s initial depiction of the isolation and alienation that pervade 21st Century life. This is not in the least bit true.

Many crap games have themes, too. They have themes because every line of stilted absurd dialogue, every frustrating control mechanism, every poorly-designed level and every generic character all support one idea – an idea that the game designers almost certainly never had in mind when they started work on the title. Mirror’s Edge – from EA Design Illusions CE – is not only a terrible game, it is also a game with a clear thematic message: Freedom is an illusion, and all those who would claim to champion it are hypocritical and deluded fools.

Mirror’s Edge presents itself as the spiritual descendent of a number of classics of recent game design.

Fans of Jet Set Radio, for example, will instantly recognise Mirror’s Edge’s use of cell-shading in its cut scenes, as well as the fact that the game revolves around hyper-trendy young people running around a city while trying to escape from the police. However, where Jet Set Radio’s game-play emphasised conflict with other gangs and territorial expansion, that of Mirror’s Edge moves the focus away from why the characters are running around the city and replaces it on the act of running itself.

The obvious pre-cursor to this style of design is Activision’s Spider-Man 2, a rather loose adaptation of the film that allowed characters to restore their energy by pulling off stunts whilst swinging around Manhattan. The game’s ease of movement, combined with the beneficial results of pulling off tricks, frequently meant that simply moving around Spider-Man 2’s environment was far more fun than the decidedly frustrating boss fights required in order to advance the game’s plot. This same sense of freedom and movement can be found in Ubisoft Montreal’s Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed games, all of which pre-empt Mirror’s Edge in taking their inspiration from the emerging urban sports of parcour and free-running.

However, despite a momentum mechanic whose rewarding of quick and fluid motion through the environment is reminiscent of Spider-Man 2’s energy replenishment, playing Mirror’s Edge is much closer to playing traditional platform puzzlers such as Tomb Raider or Jumping Flash!, where failure to choose the right path invariably results in death and a need to start the game again at the last save point. Indeed, between being constantly hounded by the police, blocked by electrified fences and forced into a series of cramped indoor levels, Mirror’s Edge feels a lot more like Pac-Man than it does Spider-Man – it invariably leaves you feeling harassed, compelled, frustrated and suffocatingly claustrophobic. There’s even a button you can press to tell you where you should be heading, reminding you in no uncertain terms that even though the game appears to grant you some limited freedom, this freedom is entirely illusory. The astonishing disconnect between the way in which Mirror’s Edge is aesthetically framed and the way in which it actually plays is also reflected in the game’s plot and dialogue.

In its beautifully rendered introduction, Mirror’s Edge informs us that we are living in some kind of Orwellian nightmare. Elements in society initially resisted this creeping authoritarianism but the disturbances were quickly put down, leaving only a few closeted
rebellious types and the Runners, who serve as their roof-top couriers. However, while the game’s script presses all kinds of facile anti-authoritarian buttons, it never bothers to explain either what it is that prompted society’s lurch to the right, or what it is that the police are trying to crack down on. All that we really know is that while the police are nameless thugs in uniform, the Runners are a bunch of attractive young people with quirky nicknames, cargo pants, funky make-up and expensive-looking hairstyles. However, all this really says is that Mirror’s Edge has a hilariously generic script (written by Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Terry).

The game’s rather twisted attitudes towards freedom only become apparent once you consider the details of the plot: It revolves around stopping someone who is attempting to frame a police officer for murder so that they can discredit the police force and replace it with private contractors. In other words, the Runners – a bunch of funky rebels – spend the game trying to prevent the destruction of the harsh and repressive society they claim to be fighting against whilst also trying to free from prison one of the very police officers who not only upholds said harsh and repressive society but also, presumably, spends a large amount of her time chasing after Runners and trying to kill them. So instead of thinking of the Runners as funky rebels, it might be more accurate to think of them as a mash-up of fashion-victims and conservative counter-revolutionaries. A bit like the Iranian Basij militia… only with skinny-fit jeans and too much eye make-up.

Combine Mirror’s Edge’s game-play with its script, and what you have is a game that cruelly mocks and deconstructs the very concept of freedom itself.

The link between the joys of running and the values of freedom is one with the best of cinematic pedigrees. François Truffaut’s debut feature The 400 Blows tells the story of a young boy who is forever running away from his problems. Faced with neglectful parents and unforgiving teachers, he seeks to cut corners through lying, cheating and stealing – a course of action that will eventually result in his being abandoned by his parents and sent off to prison, which he eventually runs away from. He runs across fields. He runs along country roads. He runs along a beach. It is never clear where the boy is running to, but it is abundantly clear what he is running from – and you cannot help but hope that he will never stop running.

This idea of running as a means of escaping an unhappy life is also explored in Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. As in The 400 Blows, this sees a young man being sent to borstal for a minor crime he was forced into by the wretchedness of his own life. Once in prison, the boy’s skill as a runner comes to the attention of the governor who sees a means of bringing glory to himself and his school in the boy’s athleticism. The boy is allowed to leave the courtyard and practice his running by going for long-distance jaunts through the countryside; runs which see the boy almost frolicking with joy. However, before long he realises that he is not running for himself but for yet another of the pompous authority figures who drove him to crime in the first place and, as much as he loves running, he cannot do it as a slave and a supporter of the system that has treated him so monstrously.

Both of these films manage not only to convey the sheer joy to be had in unconstrained and endless movement, but also show how running can be the only rational way of reacting to an environment that is both unjust and cruel. When their characters run, we run with them – and we know what we are running from. Mirror’s Edge is a grotesque parody of these kinds of sequences. Not only does it make the act of running a frustrating and short-lived experience, it also forces us to run in one particular direction without ever explaining to us why we are running in the first place. In the world of Mirror’s Edge, the only difference between liberty and authoritarianism is how much eye make-up you wear. Its depiction of freedom is debased, compromised and perverted by yesterday’s consumer trends and tomorrow’s empty images. It is a game that runs us off of buildings and into electrified fences and solid walls. It makes us participate in our own futile deaths over and over again. Mirror’s Edge is not a run to freedom; it’s a death march with strong enough branding to secure a sequel.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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6 Responses to “Mirror’s Edge – The Emptiness of the Short-distance Runner”

  1. Wollff says:

    Though some time has passed since my experience with Mirror’s Edge, I still have to disagree a little here.
    Much of what is said here is spot on: the game’s mechanics don’t offer the freedom the large and open environments promise and the story is… let’s say a bit flimsy.

    But you misunderstand the starting situation, making many of your conclusions wrong.

    “In other words, the Runners – a bunch of funky rebels – spend the game trying to prevent the destruction of the harsh and repressive society they claim to be fighting against whilst also trying to free from prison one of the very police officers who not only upholds said harsh and repressive society but also, presumably, spends a large amount of her time chasing after Runners and trying to kill them.”

    The mistake: In the beginning there is no such thing as police chasing after runners and trying to kill them. “The police don’t mind us…”, as the funky heroine puts it in the video here. So the starting situation actually is a state of limited tolerance. Maybe even of starting liberalization, as the expected victory of a liberal politician in the upcoming elections suggests.
    So in this fictional universe it’s not totalitarian winter, with all structures frozen in solid state, but rather spring. In order to save this society from a plunge back into more authoritarian structures, after the murder of the mentioned politican, the protagonists have to take action.

    What are the runners then? Funky revolutionaries is the term here. I also don’t agree.
    They aren’t revolutionaries, at least not in the beginning (but they are twice funky to compensate for that). Rather they represent some quietly tolerated fringe figures, refusing or unable to blend in with normal society. Your typical bum. Or SF writer.
    Maybe those types are willing to change the world, but neither would they take up arms for that, nor would they able to succeed. So they wait and at least some do what they can, representing the prevalent attitude of the early 21st century.

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Wollff 🙂

    The introduction is pretty Manichaean to me. There was a just society, then creeping authoritarianism via CCTV and a crack down by the police. Right there the battle lines are drawn… as the old French slogan used to go : “there is the side of the police and the side of the protesters. We are on the side of the protesters”.

    The impression I got was that while the use of helicopters and a shoot-to-kill policy was a departure from the normal order, the runners spend most of their time being chased. Hence the fact that they use the rooftops and are called runners. If they were tolerated presumably they’d just use the bus or whatever.

    So, given that Mirror’s Edge’s society is presented in such starkly black and white terms from the beginning, the fact that the runners come in to help a police officer and then try to maintain the status quo makes them counter-revolutionaries. Rather than being on the side of the protestors, they’re fighting to save the police.

  3. Daniel says:

    I’d have to disagree with you Johnathan. The rooftops are taken as an alternative to the streets not because they are being chased but rather because they don’t wish to provide the police forces with reason to chase them. I also cannot completely agree with you feelings on the underlying theme. You’re half-right but completely wrong. There is the feeling of a false sense of freedom. However, the runners represent the ability to move through the heavily veiled lie, this pseudo-liberation, to finally achieve the liberty desired. And while it is true you often are set into structured environments with only one destination you choose how you REACH that destination, once again moving past the feelings of claustrophobia, and turning the authorities’ attempts back towards them, giving them the false sense of being in complete control while the Runners reach the objective as they please. And as another note against the enclosed feeling you seem to receive from this game, if you had been looking from an optimistic viewpoint perhaps you would have seen that after you leave that building or that ventilation duct you reach a city that is expansive, where you can see thousands of unique buildings, none of them copied and pasted. After being put into such ‘cramped’ environments, with the beautiful visuals the liberation from the building is almost breath-taking. It’s a city under construction that shows the pinnacle of human achievement, not yet accomplished but well on its way, and perhaps these, “funky” revolutionaries will usher in this new era, with a little helped from ex-cops, reformed from their restricted/restrictive ways.

  4. Jonathan M says:

    Daniel,

    I think that your take on the game is pretty much what the game is trying to say. Particularly the stuff about the endless city-scape.

    The problem is that a lot of this is just posturing. Colourful, attractive posturing certainly, but posturing none-the-less.

    Consider, for example, the idea that the Runners are pushing through the lie. Clearly, what is meant by this talk of living on the mirror’s edge is that the world the runners have withdrawn from is a lie. The city is all shiny, there are beautiful tower blocks but in truth, the society is harsh and repressive. The runners have seen through this lie and as a result are marginals, living on the outskirts of that society.

    But what values do they actually embody?

    We never know what is being transported so we can’t judge them on the basis of that, but we can judge them on the basis of what they do. And what they do is to try and defend one of the people who spends her time chasing them. One of the people who defends the lie that the Runners have broken through. Then, when the Runners get a whiff of a plot to overthrow the society they have rejected, what do they do? they try to undermine those plans.

    So in effect, while they reject the lie that is society, they don’t really do anything to undermine it. In fact, they go out of their way to help the defenders of that society and even move to attack the people who WOULD undermine it. Judging the runners by their actions alone, they are conservative counter-revolutionaries. Yes they’ve rejected the lie that is the mainstream of their society but rather than seeking to destroy that lie they’ve effectively created a new lie for themselves… namely that they’re ‘fighting the man’. In truth, they’re not doing anything even close to that.

    As for the wide-open city-scape. The problem is that you can’t actually visit this city. There are a few paths towards your goal but there’s always a goal and you’re never allowed to just run off in a random direction. This is the same kind of freedom as the freedom to be a billionaire in our society : Yes, we could all become billionaires in theory but in practice we can’t actually get there so the promise of massive wealth (like the promise of freedom in this game) is largely illusory.

  5. Tu Madre says:

    Somebody sounds jealous that they can’t do parkour. Ha ha…just kidding. I personally really liked the game, I think that the focus was on parkour itself and not so much on the story. I’m glad that parkour is becoming more widely known. A few years back no one knew what it was, and now people are alot more interested in it. I thought the gameplay was fun, but I do agree with you on the story and script, both were pretty generic.

  6. Jonathan M says:

    Actually, since I’ve been getting fitter I have been tempted to try my hand at Parkour. But if I did I wouldn’t wear trousers hanging halfway down my arse and consider myself some kind of revolutionary because of it 🙂

    It is quite a cool sport though. I’m always very very impressed when I see people doing it.