Developer: EA Digital Illusions (DICE)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
KILL THE MESSENGER
Things get dangerous when the government decides you just might be a terrorist
At the 2008 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, designer Ken Levine stood in front of a packed convention hall and delivered a presentation on the art of storytelling in video games. He’d earned the right. His award-winning game Bioshock, released in 2007, delivered one of the most engrossing narratives in the history of interactive entertainment—the harrowing tale of an underwater city called Rapture, founded on utopian ideals, only to spiral into chaos as rampant genetic experimentation morphed the city’s inhabitants into sociopathic brutes. Think Atlas Shrugged meets 28 Days Later meets The Abyss.
Levine stressed the importance of creating roughly three layers of story that allow players to engage your narrative to whatever depth they desire. On the most superficial level, the player is made aware of some overarching objective—a bad guy to kill, a loved one to save, etc. Then you have the second level—narrative elements that help the player appreciate the basic nuances of the story’s conflict and motivations of the characters involved. On the third and final level, you scatter across the environment a novelistic level of detail that players can investigate if they’re hungry for more narrative color—in Bioshock’s case, a bevy of audio diaries strewn about the city by the game’s many characters. These Easter eggs reward the curiosity of players who might just end up writing a paper on the game for a college class or dissecting it on their blog like an episode of Lost.
So why bring up Levine’s pyramidal approach to game narrative in a review of Mirror’s Edge? Because it’s the quality of that exceedingly precious third layer of game storytelling that determines which titles make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing cultural conversation and which ones merely drive enough secondary sales to keep GameStop in business. Mirror’s Edge offers a compelling gameplay experience but it’s the provocative, level-three story that keeps your brain whirring as loudly as the Xbox 360’s cooling fan long after you’ve finished the game and powered down your console.
The game is set in a vast, conspicuously unnamed metropolis that could be anywhere in the world, except perhaps the U.K., given the perfectly sunny days and endless bright-blue skies stretching out overhead. But don’t let the gorgeous weather fool you. The real clouds to worry about here are the invisible surveillance ones monitoring every last citizen’s movements and communications. The specter of terrorism and civil unrest has opened a window for the government to establish a totalitarian regime under the auspices of homeland security. Mayor Callaghan is running for re-election and has no qualms about using fear as a means to keep his leash of influence cinched tightly about the electorate’s neck.
But not everyone has bowed before such invasive governmental action. Dissenting factions exist, but they must now rely on “Runners”—nimble foot messengers who carry sensitive information swiftly across rooftops from one group to another. You play one such Runner, Faith, a Eurasian female who looks like a cross between Aeon Flux and Sporty Spice. The man running against the incumbent mayor, who had stressed the need for reform, has been assassinated and your police-officer sister Kate has been framed for the murder. It’s up to you to uncover the real assassin and set things right.
While games like Call of Duty 4 have dealt with the battlefield aspect of terrorism, Mirror’s Edge is the first to examine the ramifications of domestic safeguarding and how civil rights can easily be trampled under the auspices of security. Playing the game, you occasionally find yourself in elevators and level-three story is delivered in scrolling messages on wall-mounted digital displays. The headline of one such news flash reads, “Avian Flu: Here to Stay?” Luckily for you, Mayor Callaghan is around to keep you safe.
The gameplay is built around parkour, the practice of traversing obstacles in urban environments with grace and shocking athleticism. Remember the scene early in 2006 Bond remake Casino Royale where Daniel Craig pursues a man across a construction site in Madagascar—that’s parkour. As you hop chain-link fences, slide under air ducts and leap across rooftops, you feel the physical impact of each of Faith’s movements as she navigates the unforgiving concrete underfoot.
The game’s visual presentation is absolutely stunning. While the husk of the city and the building interiors are a ghostly white, deeply saturated accents of orange and blue and green burst off the screen. Items you can interact with turn deep red as you approach. The games’ colors are arresting, and yet it took me several hours to realize that the paintbox being used to dress up this savage comment on fear tactics and terrorism was quite simply the United States’ color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System. Damn.