Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mirror's Edge

This is in two parts. The first part is me making my typical whiny review of a game (no spoilers). The second is me discussing design details. If you don't care to hear my whining, skip to the "***". The other "***", obviously. I mean, uh, the FOURTH "***".

So I'm playing Mirror's Edge. I'd like to remind everyone that I love moving in games. I love my avatar maneuvering through levels. It's a passion. So, I would say that I am their target audience.

It's not a game I can give a numeric rating to. Like the first Sly Cooper, there's nothing else in the niche to rate it against. Unfortunately, Unlike Sly Cooper, it is a pretty badly flawed game.

It's not a BAD game. It's just that, like its main character, it tends to fall short a lot.

First, the cutscenes are mostly 2D animations done by the Esurance guys. That style works well for snappy commercials, but is ill-suited for anything faster, slower, or more fluid. When they can tween, they run at full frames, but when they actually have to redraw a frame, they drop to animating on twos. There's nothing wrong with animating on twos IF YOU STICK TO IT, but switching framerates mid-scene is horribly jarring. Also, they don't use any animator's tricks, so things like sprinting appear very disjointed and jumpy instead of appearing properly fluid.

If I had to describe their animation style, it would be a graphical quality slightly below that of Teen Titans with the animation quality of South Park. So, not very impressed.

Also not impressed by the character design. All the characters are painfully bog-standard except the main character, who is painfully bog-standard and ugly. I'm impressed by the shoe design, and by the way that the level designers played around with color and luminescence.

Graphically, the game is glitchy even on the 360, with numerous dropped polies and thin black origin lines flickering around. It also features The Return of the Long Ass Elevator Rides Two: Electric Boogaloo.

The story has only one upside: they didn't try to write a romance plot in. Unfortunately, everything they DID write in was painfully stereotypical. The only surprises in this game are in the level design - you won't find any in the plot. The "big twists" were evidently shocking to my avatar, but they only served to make me think Faith is a bit of a retard.

No, I take that back. There were surprises in the plot: when I overestimated them, they consistently surprised me by falling short.

Only bloody-mindedness kept me from skipping the cut scenes, which are badly written and animated in a style I don't much like. At least the audio is solid, with decent voice actors, decent sound effects, and very suitable and listenable-toable music.

The setting is a painfully bland police state with painfully bland corruption running its painfully bland course. At least it doesn't look so standard, thanks to the graphics used in the levels. It's a very CLEAN painfully bland city, you see, which actually adds to the experience.

"But that's all besides the point! It's all about the gameplay! How's this first-person free-running game PLAY?"

Weeeeelllllll... let's leave the bulk of that for the design section. But lets briefly talk about level design and pacing.

The game features a lot of classic navigation puzzlers a'la Prince of Persia, but the pacing is awkward unless you've memorized the levels. The fighting is a shame, included just because nobody can imagine releasing a noncombat game. It's terrible, whether you're kung-fu fighting with ninja (AKA "strafe, slide-kick, press Y") or fighting cops (AKA "Press X, press Y, hold the trigger"). It's not terrible in that it's EASY - you die like a dog - it's terrible in that it's NOT FUN.

The game is laser-focused on its linear path. There is no side exploration, no bonuses, no nothing. The closest you can get to expressing yourself as a player is to find little bags which serve ABSOLUTELY NO PURPOSE. There are no interesting secret zones, very little secret information (a few screens with a bit of text hidden in a corner, a few voice mail messages), very little of interest. There are occasionally multiple paths to your goal, but one is obviously better than the other and neither is particularly interesting.


Let's talk about the design details.

Moving a platformer into first-person view is a dangerous move, but one that's been brewing for a while. Games have become more and more free-running-esque as the years go by and our hardware improves. Prince of Persia has become a nostalgic look into the days when swinging from flagpoles was new and amazing. These days, even the (surprisingly good) TMNT game features more advanced motion than PoP, and games like Assassin's Creed and Crackdown make PoP look like a tinkertoy.

All of these games are third-person for a reason. As you know, Bob, platformer games are mostly about where you are in relation to other things. Like, say, the platforms.

If you can see where you are in relation to other things (IE, you can see your feet), you can know when and how to jump, land, and so forth. This is, as you might have guessed, an important part of your balanced daily not-falling-to-your-deathfast.

So moving to a first-person view offers some serious challenges. You have to keep in mind that your players don't have as clear a view as they normally do. It's very hard to chain motions together because first-person view means they'll only be looking at whatever they are about to hit instead of being able to see everything around them.

Mirror's Edge tried to solve this problem in two ways. First, it painted things red. Red means "jump here", and if you see something red, you'll remember where it is even if you can't see it precisely at the moment. In the game it is used primarily to tell you where it is safe to make blind jumps, but it is occasionally (and in my mind, more importantly) useful in highlighting a path through puzzling terrain. In either way it works to offset the limited view of the player, although in the former application (jumping off buildings) it offsets a limited view that even 3rd-person players have. Crackdown had to zoom pretty far out and up to give you a decent view of where you were jumping to in such situations, and it still wasn't perfect.

The second way Mirror's Edge tries to solve the problem is through level design. Most of the levels consist of climbing up sheer, blind faces (or staircases) for a while, and then running and jumping in a generally downward direction. This is helpful because if you're looking down at where you're about to go, you can get a pretty good mental map of the place even if your viewpoint will be too limited to see much when you're actually in it. This considerably offsets the blindness, especially since you can usually see the red marker showing you where you ought to go next.

However, these methods (and other aspects of their level design) take most of the spontaneity out of navigating the levels. It's all made very linear, mostly a matter of pressing the left bumper at the right times, occasionally while fiddling with the control sticks. When you are "free" to move around (say, on a rooftop), your freedom is pointless as the only things worth doing are moving to whatever is red or climbing to the highest point so you can see where you're going.

My problem isn't that such movement is boring: it isn't. Or, rather, it doesn't have to be. My problem is that they didn't really embrace it at all.

In most modern movement games (Assassin's Creed, for example) a big part of the gameplay is figuring out how to work your way to some location. Sometimes, it's painfully linear, but there's usually a rewarding rhythm and sense of progress - for example, finding a new plot element, getting an upgrade, climbing to someplace high, or finding something weird. Unfortunately, Mirror's Edge tries to do this, but there is never any sense of progress because they wanted to focus on relentless forward movement rather than the slow figuring-and-working-forward pace of normal movement games. They wanted to be more like Sonic, so they don't ever give you any roses to stop and smell.

In other movement games, flow is the point. TMNT and Crackdown are good examples. When these are linear, they are linear in a really obvious way to allow you to know well in advance what buttons you should press when, giving your avatar a continuous stream of uninterrupted forward movement. When they aren't linear, they allow you to freely explore an INTERESTING terrain, rather than a tiny rooftop. Mirror's Edge tried to do this with red things but they didn't take it very far: they wanted to be more like Assassin's Creed.

This has the added problem that Mirror's Edge is entirely first person, which means you are mostly good at seeing places you AREN'T. Fundamentally, I think it's a rotten choice for a movement-based game, because movement-based games are about changing where you are, not changing where you aren't.

Another big issue is that the players are limited by what they can recognize in addition to what they can see. Games like Crackdown make it easy because your method of movement is actually pretty simple and limited, just amped up to silliness. But in a proper free running game, your movement capabilities are going to be a lot more nuanced: you aren't just jumping the fence, you're scrambling over it, or maybe it's low enough to Kong. Similarly, maybe you need to wall jump up to the lattice across the way.

This would be almost impossible to properly see using third-person view, and it IS impossible to see using first-person view. This is why real parkour and free runner folks carefully familiarize themselves with wherever they are before they do anything dangerous: they need to know the "grooves" in the local space, places where their capabilities will allow them to fluidly move through. It's not something that can really be done on the fly.

Most games try to get around this with level design. Oh, look, it's a wall of exactly that height, so I know I can scramble up it, every time. And I know there will never be a wall of ALMOST that height, or a wall of that height I can't scramble up for some reason... and I know that if I vault that wall, I will land safely on the other side, no matter what the terrain.

But this doesn't help chains of movements. You know you can vault the wall, but you don't realize that you need to spring off the wall to the chandelier and then swing across through the window. The only way you can know that is if you've seen all the parts of the chain and have them mapped out in your head. That's much easier to do from third person.

Well, there are a few other options, I think. One is touched on in Mirror's Edge: important elements can stand out (in this case, be colored red). If used more excessively, they can form an unbroken chain of where you SHOULD be going, allowing you to maintain flow. I would actually suggest something a bit less world-centric, such as lines of flowing, floating pips.

This limits the puzzle-ability of your game, though. If there's always an obvious path to get where you want to go, you're not going to have to think about it much. Instead, you'll be more like Sonic or TMNT or Crackdown: navigating is a lot of fun, but many of the challenges come from exploration or combat rather than navigation.

Another option is to remove the realtime element from the game. If you "draw" your path in space rather than navigating it personally, it will allow you to analyze exactly what the situation is in a more relaxed way, allowing your avatar's progress to be fluid and sequenced even if YOUR progress involves tweaking paths for a minute.

Anyhow, either or both of these options would get rid of one of the stupidest parts of Mirror's Edge: DYING. Whoops, I died. Respawn. Whoops, I died. Respawn. Often five, six times in a row. Unlike TMNT, the respawn is a significant irritation which often takes you back forty or fifty seconds (this doesn't sound irritating until you realize that you have to repeat that minute many times if you're trying for a difficult jump). Also unlike TMNT, it MAKES NO SENSE. There is absolutely no reason given for your amazing respawn talent. It's not part of the game world in any way. It's just there to let the designers create levels that you have to play through several times to be able to beat.

Nothing breaks immersion like inexplicable and unrewarding failure mechanics. :P

All that aside, I think that there IS some potential here. First-person mechanics are inherently more immersive, and you could make a very exciting game if only you could figure out how the player would navigate it.


DmL said...

The team that can make an immersive and fun 1st person free-running game will probably be my most favorite ever.

Mory said...

The idea of a first-person movement game is inherently appealing to me. It's one thing to remote-control something, it's another to "be" it. And I think good movement games are always trying to achieve the latter feeling more than the former- this could just help that cause along. But I'm not surprised to hear criticism of this game- when I heard how much focus the developers were putting on story and fighting and all that other inappropriate nonsense, I suspected these guys weren't qualified to pull it off.

I'm struck by one particular comment you made:
"This is why real parkour and free runner folks carefully familiarize themselves with wherever they are before they do anything dangerous: they need to know the 'grooves' in the local space, places where their capabilities will allow them to fluidly move through."

That's the answer, isn't it? Forget the speed element- not every movement game has to be racing. Let the player stand around, look around for grooves, then test them out cautiously, and only then attempt it without looking. This is possibly something that would require the Wii's motion controls (or preferably, the new motion add-on gimmick they're releasing). Anyway, what if a game just dropped you in the middle of a city, with no goals at all, and let you go around and figure out how to get around? Each building and object has at least one way to get through it, and the farther you go into the city the harder that gets to find. Like you suggest, no respawns -as a matter of fact, I'd go in the opposite direction and make the game actually quit when you die. You should be terrified of falling. You should feel like every bit of the environment you get through is a triumph. As you get to the outskirts of the city, and reach the really hard buildings, and get past those, you should be able to say to yourself: "I have conquered this city."

But this would mean paying less attention to spectacle and common game-making practices, and more to how parkour actually works. Yeah, it's not gonna happen.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I like the idea of a kind of superimposed "pathing" system - jump here, bounce off here, swing here, land. But I understand that simply providing (or calculating) these paths to the player limits the amount of freeform exploration that the player can do.

I think this could be dealt with by only displaying paths that the player has run, seen an NPC run, or has mapped out mentally through careful scanning of the locale.

You might even be able to buy "packs" of paths from various NPCs (or other players) that have done a lot of exploring on their own.

This would mean that you would have to have a world that you revisit a lot. With good level design and changing goals, I think that's possible. The idea is that the levels (which are quite large and intricate) are made important by what goals/plot elements are placed where.

DmL said...

Hmm, yah. Now that I think about it, this would be the first really good use of re-use. Let the player really explore a space... almost a Shenmue or Zelda on the rooftops or something. Only once they know an area do you then require them to "speed through." It would work nicely if you had a homebase that you needed to return from and to.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I would think it would be a very large, contiguous map, sort of like the Crackdown map. But it could morph a bit in meaningful ways: for example, during the day, there are people around, everybody's got their windows open. At night, the streets are empty of vendors/cars. In the winter, there could be snow to mess you up, etc, etc.

I would like to have the topology change, too: maybe solar panels retract and flatten during the night, maybe there's some kind of sun awning that deploys during the day and retracts at night... maybe the runners bring out lots of little navigational aids at night (boards, pads, etc).

On top of that is the change in importance of various routes. Today you need to get to point A, and maybe there are some people who want to stop you at point B... tomorrow, you could be trying to reach point B in order to prevent them from demolishing building C...

Greg Tannahill said...

Thanks for one of the best analyses of Mirror's Edge I've seen so far.

However, while your idea of laying out paths in advance is interesting, I'm not sure it's a fair criticism of Mirror's Edge. In effect it's saying Mirror's Edge would be better if it was a different game, which is like saying Halo would be better if it was Fallout. I'm pretty sure there are solutions available that still let it be the real-time first-person free motion game that it wants to be.

It's also an interesting game in that no matter how much criticism I hear of it, I still really want to play it for myself.

Craig Perko said...

Well, as I said, there's nothing in the same niche to compare it to.

Having beaten all the time trials, I can say that it's a pretty fun game if you play it as just races. But you have to be very familiar with the courses: it's not a game that is appealing on the first pass.

I don't like the idea of a game that isn't much fun the first time through. There seems to be something horribly backwards about that idea.