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Looking Back on Mirror’s Edge: A Beautiful, Underrated Dystopian Gem

You stand on a rooftop amidst gleaming white towers. The city stretches away in every direction as far as the eye can see: An interlinked lattice of buildings, walkways, ladders, and pipes. A pristine blue sky that never seems to change blankets the world. The streets and the rest of humanity are a hazy dream far below. Down there, there is burnished order and gleaming regularity. But up here, you are free. Below you, you see sirens–chasing, corralling, coercing. Up here, only the breeze tugs at you.

Developed by Swedish studio DICE and published by EA, Mirror’s Edge came out on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2008, with a Windows version following a year later. Mirror’s Edge was a first-person free running game that sold relatively well and attracted generally positive reviews. Some people liked the game, some didn’t. Some praised it for its innovative parkour mechanics, others criticised it for its linearity or ill-developed combat. It was one of those games that did most things right while putting a few feet wrong. Mirror’s Edge categorically did not set the world on fire, but it did lodge itself firmly into my heart, and it has been a favourite of mine for over a decade.

‘A favourite’ is actually underselling it quite a bit. I adore Mirror’s Edge. In a gaming landscape dominated by sequels and franchises, Mirror’s Edge stood out immediately upon release just by virtue of being an original property. It stood out even more thanks to its wonderfully striking and against-the-grain visual design. Where most of the biggest selling titles of 2008–games like Fallout 3, Gears of War 2, and Call of Duty: World at War–seemed to have been released as part of the late 2000’s ‘dark ‘n’ gritty’ pact, Mirror’s Edge strode out onto the scene adorned in bold, bright, primary colours.

The majority of Mirror’s Edge’s gameplay takes place amidst the urban canopy of the metropolis known only as the City–an orderly, sterile setting that subtly mixes both Eastern and Western influences. While many other releases at the time traded in muddy browns and muted tones, Mirror’s Edge positively pops and crackles with a colour scheme centred around the interplay between bright red, rich blue, and almost squint-inducing white. Occasionally, you venture into indoor sections, and here the colour scheme shifts, with new palettes being introduced while never diluting the game’s aesthetic vision. The look of Mirror’s Edge is something that immediately endeared it to me. It wasn’t just that the game was graphically very impressive–though at the time that certainly made an impression too–it’s that the developers clearly had something else in mind other than raw graphical prowess: Distinctive art direction. And that’s something that never ages. So while Mirror’s Edge doesn’t impress quite like it did over a decade ago, thanks to its strong design and bold, simple choices, it does still hold up better than many other games of its time.

In Mirror’s Edge you play as Faith Connors, a ‘Runner’: One of a secretive network of free-running messengers that operate in the City, working outside the confines of the stifling laws that govern this repressive corporate dystopia, dashing across its rooftops in an effort to keep information free. (In yet another example of the game breaking from the norm of its time, its protagonist is not a burly white male. Faith is a woman of mixed Asian and Caucasian heritage. That is a rare sight to behold to this day in TV and cinema, let alone video games.) The term ‘repressive dystopia’ often conjures up very specific imagery in the popular imagination. Jackbooted police forces. Brutalised crowds of protesters. Loud and violent clashes between opposing sides. All these are accurate of course, but what I love about Mirror’s Edge is that it examines the oppression in these societies from another angle: The outside. Repressive societies thrive on order. That is their goal. To create–through violence–an unjust yet ordered social structure that benefits the few at the expense of the many. Mirror’s Edge doesn’t resort to cliche or common shorthand to portray its dystopia. We don’t visit the crumbling peripheral districts and the sprawling prison systems. Instead we largely stick to the presentable veneer that authoritarian societies like to cloak themselves in to legitimise their existence.

That’s not to say we don’t see any of the reality behind the facade of the City. We do see flashes of coercive violence in Mirror’s Edge. As Faith, we are constantly harassed by faceless cops and helicopter patrols, and we are aware from the outset that our lifestyle and employment is deemed transgressive and worthy of suppression. But despite that, what the developers are most concerned with here is showing how a society that runs on violence and is built on the subjugation of its populace can often appear utopian if you look at it from a certain angle. As any student of the history of imperialism would tell you, the heart of the metropole can often be pleasing to behold. And indeed The City is in many ways a beautiful sight. A sprawling creation of pristine cleanliness and aesthetic neatness, its wealth worn on its sleeve. Yet it doesn’t take long for something deep inside us to pick up on a hidden undercurrent: It’s all too neat. Too clean. Anything that sterile must be suspect. Even if we weren’t seeing the game’s world through the eyes of someone like Faith, we would feel something tickling at our primordial instincts.

Gameplay-wise, Mirror’s Edge still feels fresh and fun to this day. At the time of its release, the game was the first title to try to emulate the feeling of being a free runner. There had of course been innumerable games set in the first-person perspective by then, but for the majority of those it was the shooting or some other action that was at the heart of the experience. The movement existed primarily to facilitate that mechanic. In Mirror’s Edge the movement is the point. Its animating principle. To let the player bask in the freedom and the euphoria of (relatively) unrestrained mobility, and to experience firsthand the rush of what it’s like to get in the zone during a good parkour flow. It achieves this beautifully. Every environment you encounter in the game is like a little puzzle. One that–unless you happen to be chased–you could navigate at walking pace should you so desire. The game (mostly) isn’t timed, so there’s no punishment for being slow or reward for traversing from point A to point B in record time or the smoothest possible way. No external reward, that is. What there is instead is a feeling of immense satisfaction and almost Zen-like bliss that comes with mastering Faith’s moves, reading her surroundings correctly, and making getting from point A to point B look like a well-executed movie stunt. The act itself is the reward. Of course, you never get a movie vantage point on the action. There are no dynamic camera moves or cinematic angles. The perspective is always fixed from Faith’s point of view. As such, the game relies on an adept series of design choices to engender this feeling: A satisfying weight and heft given to Faith’s body, felt in every jump and climb and slide, with momentum and inertia communicated through the screen; the way her limbs pass in and out of your vision as she moves, with hands realistically gripping surfaces and legs tucking underneath you when you roll; and that glorious blurring at the edge of the screen and increased speed that you are granted with when you build up enough of an unbroken chain of runs and moves to make you feel like you’re moving along some divine track only you can discern.

Much was made about Mirror’s Edge’s ‘deficient’ combat system at the time of release. Faith is naturally firearm-less. She can pick up pistols and rifles off any enemies she defeats, but they have severely limited ammo, feel awkward to handle, and slow you down and prevent you from performing any acrobatics. A lot of people seemed to take this as a mark against the game. To me, it felt entirely by design, and was to its credit, in furtherance of its ethos. Faith is not meant to use firearms. The weapons she does have are her fists, her feet, and her incredible agility and speed. Movement is your weapon. There is an incredible thrill that arises from the enemy encounters in Mirror’s Edge that I have rarely felt replicated in any other game. Most games and popular narratives trade in the trope of overcoming obstacles against all odds. In Mirror’s Edge that feeling is potently realised whenever you happen upon an area crawling with people who want to bring you down.

In a game like last year’s Ghostrunner–a title that owes much to Mirror’s Edge in many ways–confronting an area full of enemies makes you feel like a fast-moving god of death. The game is challenging, but you always feel like the natural order of things is you triumphing. Enhanced by futuristic cyberware and wielding a lethal blade, you dance through a suspended cascade of blood as your foes inevitably fall before you. In Mirror’s Edge, you have none of that. No cyberware. No blade. Just your wits, and your all-too-human limbs. Dashing from foe to foe under gunfire, zigzagging across multiple levels, dodging around pillars and weaving through lines of sight, you engage one by one, positioning yourself in front of one so that the others can’t get a clear shot. Pull off a successful counter and soon one faceless cop lies on the floor. The game then does something really smart: It automatically equips you with their weapon. Suddenly you’re facing one less enemy, and you are armed. But because of the way Mirror’s Edge is designed and the way it feels you know that what would be counterintuitive in most other games here is the only smart choice of action: You toss the weapon aside.

And there’s a breezy disdain to the way Faith is animated doing this that tells you everything you need to know. This is not your way. Your way is better. And by automatically equipping the weapon the game makes you make this choice each time. You can almost imagine the other cops freeze for a second at seeing what Faith does. Before they have a chance to un-freeze, you’re a blur again, sprinting for the next target. By the end of the encounter, the area is littered with agents of a repressive regime and their weapons of choice–all proven to be useless against one woman who took them all down without firing a single shot. Now that is how you convey the feeling of overcoming the odds, and of the respective power dynamics at play in the world that you are trying to build. It wasn’t quite as polished as it should have been, but it was a satisfying as hell ‘anti-combat’ combat system that fit neatly with the themes of the wider game.

If you were to observe the City from high up above, you would see a methodically laid out suit of glassy armour, all right angles and regimented structure. Yet if your eye lingered for a second you might spot a tiny, rapidly moving speck that revealed the truth of the place. Zoom in and the speck would resolve and you would see Faith Connors, sprinting and leaping her way across the rooftops, gliding along the liminal space between order and freedom, her existence proof of the beating heart that the rulers of the City would like to snuff out.

This is of course how the modern capitalist city operates. We don’t need to travel into the realm of fantastical dystopias to see it. Since the triumph of a particularly aggressive form of capitalism called neoliberalism in the late 1970s/early 1980s, we have seen the continual erosion of the state and the blurring of the line between public and private, resulting in our cities being transformed from places where people could enjoy their public spaces with the same rights as everyone else to an urban area pockmarked with territories owned and ruled over by corporations. Journalist Jack Shenker described this situation as it currently is in London in The Guardian:

‘Pseudo-public spaces – large squares, parks and thoroughfares that appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers and their private backers – are on the rise in London and many other British cities, as local authorities argue they cannot afford to create or maintain such spaces themselves.

Although they are seemingly accessible to members of the public and have the look and feel of public land, these sites – also known as privately owned public spaces or “Pops” – are not subject to ordinary local authority bylaws but rather governed by restrictions drawn up the landowner and usually enforced by private security companies.’

He continues:

‘Under existing laws, public access to pseudo-public spaces remains at the discretion of landowners who are allowed to draw up their own rules for “acceptable behaviour” on their sites and alter them at will. They are not obliged to make these rules public.

The result is that unless landowners choose to volunteer the information themselves, members of the public have no way of knowing what regulations they are bound by at some of London’s biggest open spaces and whether activities they enjoy a legal right to in other public areas – be they taking photos, holding a political protest or even simply sitting down and having a nap – are permitted, or whether they will result in removal by security guards.’

Often, you will have no easy way of knowing when you slip from one area to another. No immediate indication of having left a common area in which you exist as a citizen and enter a private one in which the default nature assigned to you is either one of consumer or trespasser.

Mirror’s Edge evokes the feeling of a city completely enveloped by this tendency. There is never really any hint in Faith’s story that our determined heroine will overturn the unjust order that governs her world. Faith’s life may be one long act of bold rebellion, but the narrative we play in the game is relatively small, mostly concerning her clearing her sister’s name after the latter is falsely implicated in a violent act of corporate and political subterfuge. As events progress, the scale of things mushrooms, but not to any overly dramatic effect. By the game’s end, Faith may have saved her sister’s life, but the epilogue informs us that the only reported effect of her actions is a tightening of the City’s security apparatus and an intensification of its crackdown against the Runners. Faith may have won her battle, but–the game heavily implies–the war is long lost.

And yet, despite what in some ways may seem like such a dour, defeatist ending, Mirror’s Edge leaves you with a different feeling. Or at least it did for me. What I experience when I think back on Mirror’s Edge is not sadness, or despair at a fictional world looking more and more like ours as time goes on. No, instead I feel a sense of joyous freedom coursing through my veins. The buzz of adrenaline. The life-affirming pulse of resistance. I see a limitless blue sky with a distant horizon. I feel a lonely breeze tugging at my feet as I stand on the precipice of oblivion. I hear the wind roaring past my ears as I race along the edge between order and freedom. Mirror’s Edge never left a huge mark on the gaming landscape as a whole, but for me it remains a minor masterpiece that I think of frequently, and with great affection.

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Petr has come to peace with the imminent fall of civilization. He thinks that as long as dogs, beer, and the Before Sunrise movies survive, then maybe it all wouldn't have been for nothing.

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