Mirror’s Edge is probably one of my all-time favourite games, one of those rare few games where the core gameplay controls are close to being mechanically perfect. The free running in Mirror’s Edge is like the skateboarding in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, or the air strafing in Quake engine games of old; there’s never been an implementation of freerunning in videogames quite like the one found in Mirror’s Edge, and the mechanic is so fluid and well-executed that to most people it exceeds the story or progression in being the main appeal of the game.
Of course, whenever Mirror’s Edge is discussed in the gaming community, it is often because of its graphics and striking visual style.Despite a 2008 release being firmly within the early half of seventh generation games consoles, Mirror’s Edge‘s visuals still manage to hold up well against modern titles. If like me, you’re the kind of dullard who engages in conversation about videogame design, you’re probably very familiar with a specific description of Mirror’s Edge’s visual design.
“It’s clean”, is where the conversation inevitably leads to. “Mirror’s edge is clean. Look at all of those clean visuals. Look how clean this city is. It’s clean… it’s clean”. Is that really the right way to describe the visual style of Mirror’s Edge, though? There are certainly these surreal, pristine areas in the game, but can the iconic sprawling rooftops of most of the game actually be described as clean? I don’t think so. I think people are often left snowblind by the white painted walls of the city in Mirror’s Edge, and in actual fact, ‘clean’ doesn’t really describe the visual design of the game well at all, not as a singular word at least.
Let’s take a look at the games iconic rooftop sprawls for example. These areas are littered with skylights, vents and air conditioning units, all rendered in as much detail as would be expected for any other game of the last generation. Far from a clean and minimalist look, these objects denote an attempt at photorealism, from a geometrical standpoint at least.
The buildings share a grounded realism too, with most of the architecture being firmly planted in modernity, but also often outdated or even decrepit. Even the most iconic building in the city, the now unfortunately named “Shard”, could only be described as a fairly conservative concept drawing at its most outlandish. It’s in between these fairly mundane buildings that the majority of the game takes place. Some of these buildings are clean and modern, many are well worn or industrial. Sometimes you pass through immaculate plazas, more often you run through litter-strewn alleys and the depths of the cities storm drains.
For all its widely accepted failings in storytelling, Mirror’s Edge is perfectly communicative about its core plot point throughout the length of the game. Faith is on the run, caught up in the framing of a political assassination, and this forms the sense of threat and core gameplay loop throughout the entirety of the game’s length. That’s hardly of note in itself, the typical videogame arsenal of voiceover, cutscenes and cinematics are there to hammer that point home.
But more than just being an outlaw, the game extends this into a theme of exile. To avoid a life of wrongful imprisonment, Faith must choose to give up her place in the society she has lived in her entire life. Every time you visit a location in Mirror’s Edge, you do so by trespassing. You visit a brand new mall but enter through the side door, and exit via maintenance walkways up in the ceiling. You descend into a subway station and are forced to run down an occupied track by pursuing forces. And, to clear your name, you make your way to the office of the mayor but are forced to climb there through elevator shafts and air conditioning ducts.
This is the main theme of the game that most are familiar with. The world in Mirror’s Edge depicts a masked dystopia, where an apparently utopian cityscape serves as a thin façade for a far more sinister city of coercion and corruption. Faith and the runners live on the borders of this society, only able to look inwards as the price for their liberty.
The genius thing that Mirror’s Edge accomplishes is that this theme is reflected not only by the locations that you visit but by the visual designs of these locations themselves. The offices of citizens are indeed clean and sterile, their utopia a reward for their subservience and the forgoing of liberty. But in between these spaces of apparent utopia, Faith and the runners find themselves in the squalid surroundings to which they belong. I believe it is the use of these alternating environments which add a needed layer of depth to a story that appears shallow at face value.
So, when you think about Mirror’s Edge, don’t think of it as clean, but instead as a pair of thematically contrasting aesthetics; A clean perfect society and the filth to which you are condemned.
It’s worth mentioning the 2016 reboot of the franchise, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Whilst I haven’t played and thus am unable to correctly critique its design, there are a few points to make from a distant observation.
It does appear that the game either chooses not to — or perhaps just fails to — adhere to the design language of the original game. Whilst cinematics and storytelling seem to double down on the runners as insubordinate to society, this is not reflected in the visual design. The city is now almost uniformly clean, with areas such as the Runner’s hideout a glossy and ultra modern penthouse.
I’d have to play the game, to make a conclusion of these design choices, but I do have to disagree with the prevailing opinion that Catalyst is somehow a logical evolution of the visual design of the original game, when it is, in fact, a drastic change in direction altogether.
Also, Mirror’s Edge looks way better than Catalyst. But that’s for another time.