November 4, 2008

If Looks Could Kill

It's essentially over. In about a week, Mirror's Edge will be released and from my perspective it has run a very strange campaign. This is one of our last opportunities to talk about that process while it's still current and hopefully still interesting, although Mirror's Edge itself will be last-gen and boring as early as next January so pretty soon nobody will be talking about the actual game either. These things have a very fragile lifespan.

The debut trailer in May quickly endeared itself to the constituents of Internet City. Clearly it was something different: artistically striking and an original first-person take on a familiar third-person genre. It invited favourable comparisons to Portal (perhaps unintentionally) as both games appeared to have a visual and a gameplay aesthetic in common.

Obviously they shared a female player character and a vivid colour pallete, and it's unfortunate that those are so rare as to immediately link the games together. Otherwise, they were both first-person games with no emphasis on combat, instead preferring environmental puzzles. Where Portal was the definitive first-person action puzzle comedy, Mirror's Edge would likewise be the first-person free-running platformer, capturing the adrenaline-rush primacy of movement and physicality like few games had before it. Both are minimalist in their design, featuring sparse, bright environments and no HUD. It seemed like a reasonable assumption then to expect that this minimalism would result in a gameplay-endemic storytelling model much like Portal. Early previews suggested that radio communication was an important element, implying, agreeably, that the story would be delivered primarily through voice-over. It was all supposition; DICE never drew the comparison directly. Until, of course, they set lyrics to the official Mirror's Edge theme song and called it "Still Alive". (Sample lyrics: "Ooh, I'm still alive/I'm still alive".)

After the initial trailer, curiously, every Mirror's Edge press release reflected design decisions shockingly unlike Portal. It was as if DICE felt they had the Portal vote all tied up and needed to broaden their appeal to sway some undecideds. The marketing strategy that followed, however, was perhaps not the best move. When they had everyone thoroughly bewitched by the potential gameplay, they followed up by unloading a heavy dump truck full of superfluous lore, possibly into a local river or other municipal resource. We couldn't get the innovative platformer without the gritty saga of betrayal and revenge set in a near-future totalitarian police state/extreme skateboarding park in which sisters are framed for crimes they did not commit. My friend Steve Gaynor points out that Mirror's Edge takes less after 1984 than it does Marc Ecko's Getting Up.

Telling such a story entirely in game presents a writing challenge, as Valve well know. DICE resolved to opt out of first-person and deliver its narrative primarily in a series of heavily-promoted 2D Flash cutscenes featuring extensive expository narration written by Rhianna Pratchett. For Mirror's Edge historians, a tie-in comic book documents the everyday routine of main character Faith before it was disrupted by a video game plot catalyst. The selling of Mirror's Edge is less about making a cool game available to play and more about launching a grand multimedia franchise event. Also, please buy the original soundtrack.

At the time Portal was released, its story was an unknown quantity. It slowly unraveled and became progressively more involving as you played, and did so while remaining non-intrusive. When dispatches of fictional backstory are one of the first things published about a game, before anyone's had a chance to play it, and is revealed in a passive format unrelated to the act of play, then it's not a game, it's homework. Please pay attention to all the particulars about these crooked bureaucrats and Faith's designer sneakers because it's totally going to affect the way you climb over fences. The story is apparently so good, in fact, that it could not be leashed to just one game. DICE quickly assured us that Mirror's Edge was always planned as a trilogy, as if there isn't a game announcement any more cliche and presumptuous.

Reports came in that this was an apparently unforgiving platformer demanding precision, and the heart-pumping adrenaline of leaping across rooftops, fleeing from gunfire and helicopters is always captured perfectly by repeatedly failing at the same jump. DICE made the game's time trial mode a big deal, and promised that there would be special DLC in our future. Platform-exclusive DLC, and so the game gains value as an asset in console wars, which is what video games are all about.

None of it had anything to do with what made the game appealing in the first place, and made the whole package look kind of worse. I'm especially puzzled as to why they pushed the story so hard. My degree in Political Science almost leads me to suspect that it was damage control; getting the information out early and themselves to preempt journalists from busting open a scoop on how the 2D cutscenes were ridiculous (this isn't what we learned in Political Science at all.)

Portal was lucky it didn't have similar flaws; luckier still that it didn't have to run the publicity gauntlet that Mirror's Edge has. Portal was never promoted on a triple-A level, otherwise we would have known everything about it. We'd be indoctrinated in the full history of Aperture Science, and the backstories and motivations of Chell and GLaDOS would be well-documented in trailers and character profiles. Previews would have exhausted puzzle solutions. Penny Arcade would have done a prequel comic and Still Alive (the original) would have been Digged to YouTube stardom. Special challenge room DLC would have been announced. As soon as pictures of Chell were published, she would soon be redesigned by fans as a comely fifteen-year-old of nebulous Asian descent.

We've come to demand that level of exposure but it would have ruined Portal's chances at success. Portal slipped in under the cover of Half-Life and Team Fortress. It capitalised on low expectations, and the surprise contributed to players' positive impressions.

Mirror's Edge couldn't work that way. It came up from design documents and out of pitch meetings and was elevated to triple-A status, where it doesn't have the luxury of privacy. When your game becomes a high-profile high-talent cross-media cross-platform franchise trilogy experience, there's a lot on the line. At the start it seemed reasonable to think that Mirror's Edge could stand entirely on the merits of its brilliant core concept, and not need to include extraneous and negligibly attractive features to appeal to as many people as possible. But, no, this is the video game business. Mirror's Edge is big time now and it needs to win, and if that means bringing aboard comic book artists, "well-known music industry producers" and Rhianna Pratchett to push it over the edge, well, that's what you do when you run for president.


Anonymous said...

Portal was also not initially a separate product, but a bundled part of the Orange box (market wise, no comment on its genesis as Narbacular Drop).

This clearly marks a different initial launch from Mirror's over selling AAA enfranchisement pre-release.


Travis Megill said...

Luckily, I haven't read any of the publicity, so my opinions of the game can be based on the fun I had with the demo.

It's unfortunate that sometimes a game has to define itself completely before anyone even plays it, but just like any other hype, most of it can be ignored.

Are people having trouble with the jumps in the demo? I fell a couple times but it was clear what I had done wrong. The acrobatics felt pretty forgiving to me, but I'd be interested to find out what others though.

Julian said...

dhalgren, I felt the same way about the platforming. A little tough, but fair with an eye to err on the side of just letting you have it. I made the wallrun-turnaround-jump on my first try, and I think the only jump I missed in the whole demo was the swinging (I dunno for some reason that was giving me trouble). It's the first level, though. It feels like a solid foundation of mechanics, which is what a game like this really needs.

I've had my gaming experiences damaged by hype in the past, so I too have been making it a point to set the hype aside and judge my experiences with the game on its own merits. It's a shame EA needs to dump so much effort into marketing. Just seems like an awful lot of effort to essentially DEGRADE the game's experience. But despite all of that, my impressions of the game itself have been have been overwhelmingly positive. I think I played the demo five or six times, a rarity for me.

Interesting note about the setting. I don't mind somewhat outlandish settings if they make the game more interesting (GTA's caricature style is a good example), but in some of the flash animation prelude vids, they talk about most people not minding the government. Which could stir up some interesting dilemmas when the population is overwhelmingly HAPPIER trading away freedom of expression in exchange for unprecedented levels of security and comfort. If nothing else, trying for subversion through information instead of force is progressive, especially for video games. When the protagonist is essentially practicing civil disobedience, and the population doesn't want to be "saved," we could likely have some complex realistic plots within the cartoon-world setting. Hopefully. It could always degenerate into juvenile melodrama as well. You never know.

qrter said...

There have been several sigh-heavy moments for me and you've listed them all, it looks like.

I think the biggest one for me was the announcement that it would be a trilogy. Sigh. It has become the instant sign of games that are primarily bland, never daring to actually go anywhere, to make a leap of faith (did you see what I did just there! and my name's not Rhianna!) in any department, be it art design, story, dialogue, etc. Just try to make A Good Game, worry about the franchising later, if at all.

Anonymous said...

It would have been nice if the marketing had been as sexily minimalist as the game visuals are.

And I didn't realise until you mentioned it, but yes I was happier not knowing anything about the story - although the specific vibe intent I get from the flash movies is "Animatrix".