Monday, June 4, 2012

Mirror's Edge Spoiler Post 1, the plot

Originally this was just supposed to be a post where I talked about the the plot and setting and whatnot, but for some reason things like that always turn into me just describing the plot, point by point, with a lot of commentary. Finally I decided to just go with it, and I'll push some of the stuff that doesn't fit into such a format into the next post.

Do you see the problem though? If you don't, that's ok. Here's a hint: That's basically what I've been doing with Deus Ex, where I've written more than 14 thousand words about the training mission without actually getting to the end of the training mission. Here I did it with a whole game.

Mind you this is nowhere near that long, but it is long. Anyway, this post will be on the plot of Mirror's Edge.


First off, it might be worth pointing out that in the comments to the previous post the idea was brought up that the story wasn't an important part of the game, better skipped, and it was further suggested that Mirror's Edge is the sort of game where the sparsest story is the best story. That's a perfectly legitimate point of view.

Portal, for example, had very little in the way of any of that stuff. You could look at backstage areas that had been left open in some places and read the writing on the walls, and you could look into closed off conference rooms and see some powerpoint presentations, but for the most part you had the thinnest coating of story over an excuse to present you with puzzles. In fact, it could be argued that abguvat unccraf va Cbegny ng nyy. Va gur raq gur rivy NV vf fgvyy nyvir, naq va gur erivfrq raqvat lbhe punenpgre vf ab serre guna fur jnf jura fur fgnegrq. Yet Portal is considered a great game. (And I don't disagree with that, I liked it.)

Still, I'm very much a story person, so for me having a solidly told story is its own justification. Not in all settings of course. There's a reason that the trailers for Minesweeper: The Movie, and Tetris: The Movie, are jokes. There's no call for a story in a game like that. But in something like Mirror's Edge, I'm very much interested in story because that's what draws me in and motivates me. Without a story for me to latch onto, I'll probably never experience most of the gameplay of a game, no matter how good it might be.

That's why I'm looking at the story here.



Before the game takes place there's a move toward increased government power in the city (if the city has a name it's never stated) especially in the area of surveillance. Most don't notice or care. A non-negligible portion of the people do. They organize protests, marches, demonstrations, the like. The police crack down, the demonstrations they crack down on become known as the November Riots. People die, including the main character's mother.

As far as the city is concerned that meant the end of public dissent, those who disagreed were criminalized, pushed to the edge of society. As far as the main character is concerned that mean the end of her family, the family fell apart, she ran away from home.

The city became a safer place for most of those who weren't on the government's enemy's list. It became safe and clean. Faith prefers how it was before, “Once the city used to pulse with energy. Dirty and dangerous, but alive and wonderful. Now it's something else.”

The failed dissidents of days gone by weren't particularly interested in identifying themselves by using the government monitored communications methods (which included but probably were not limited to, email, phones, and any face to face meetings anywhere in the vicinity of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras) which created the market for an extralegal courier service. With communications physically delivered by hand there was no space for the government to eavesdrop.

Thus the runners were born.

Faith, the main character, broke into the home of a runner named Merc (apparently short for Mercury, the messenger of the gods) and ended up having that be transformed into a job offer. He trained her as a runner.

Given when Faith ran away, this may very well have been right around the time the runners started, but we don't have really have an indication of how long after Faith ran away that she met Merc.

Faith's sister, Kate, does not run away from home and eventually becomes a member of the police. The CPF (City Protection Force).

Merc will eventually retire from running and take on the role of operator, assigning jobs and directing runners.

Beyond that it's worth noting that the corrupt mayor is named Callahan and he owns a construction company, which might go a way toward explaining why there is so much construction going on in the city.


Prologue: The Edge

The game begins with Faith returning to work after a fall, so she has to go through a brief training thing to demonstrate proficiency, which is the explanation for why you have a training mission.

Then the prologue mission starts with Faith's first mission back. It starts out simple enough, her job is to pick up a pack that's already been stashed, take it one leg of the journey, and hand it off to another runner. The other runner is named Celeste, or Cel, and is the one who guided Faith through the training mission.

As Faith picks up the bag she's warned that the police band is abuzz, a news chopper spotted her and cops (referred to, informally, as 'blues') are on the way.

While crawling through an air duct Faith overhears a news report about the upcoming mayoral election. If the player blows passed she'll hear almost nothing, if the player is interested then Faith can listen for a bit. In that case you'll learn that there are four candidates running. The incumbent, Callahan, is in the lead. Two other candidates are nearly tied in second and third. The fourth candidate, initially dismissed, is gaining fast. He's nearly caught up to the one in third place, which given that second and third place are just about the same place, that means that he looks to be on his way to running second. He will be important to this story, his name is Robert Pope.

I like this method of storytelling. It doesn't slow you down if you're not interested, it doesn't require a cutscene, it doesn't stop the game, and it fits within the context of the game world. Aliens vs Predator II (the game, not the movie) made use of this kind of of storytelling. I thought it worked quite well. If you were interested in what you were hearing you could linger, if you weren't it didn't slow you down. A lot of stuff can be learned from what you overhear while in an air vent or a crawlspace or whathaveyou.

It seems like a good way to add depth for those who want it without inconveniencing those who don't.

Another narrative technique that worked well in AVPII, and various other games as well, was the ability to look at documents or computers. If you were interested in the story you could read such things and get a much greater sense of depth. If you weren't, you just walked right on by. Or, more likely, ran.

Both of these seem suited to a game like Mirror's Edge where there's not a lot of face to face time. Of course they're only suited to times when she's in a place where she can overhear or read, but she's actually in such places more often than you'd think.

They both see some use, sort of, but not a lot. I bring them up here in large part because one of my complaints about the storytelling is that it doesn't establish things, it just throws you in and expects you to care about things you never really had a chance to know. Take Pope, for example. If you chose to stop and listen to the whole news report then you found out he existed just now. If you didn't you still haven't heard his name. He's about to have a fateful meeting with Plot, it might feel a bit more meaningful if you'd had a chance to actually hear a bit about him first. You really don't.

If the game had had more things like this before he met Plot, it might seem more meaningful when he does.

Another thing you never really have the chance to get to know is what being a runner is normally like. In theory this level, called the prologue, should be your chance to be a runner before the plot starts. You're doing the job of a runner after all, you're delivering something from point A to point B. Except it's not going to be getting to know what being a runner is like, it's getting to know what being a runner usually isn't like.

The opening cutscene has Faith say of runners, “We keep out of trouble, out of sight, and the cops don't bother us.” Now someone spotted her, which explains why the cops are coming, but when you come out of the air duct you will find that the cops open fire. This takes everyone by surprise. This is unusual, this is atypical. This is strange and outside of the realm of usual running.

This is the only job you'll actually have in the whole game. Everything else is outside of Faith's professional life. And this one example you have of what a job is like, isn't what a job is like.

I'm going to save what I would have liked to have instead for the next post, so at the moment just let me add this: The reason that the cops are suddenly shooty is never explained. Merc assumes that Faith must have done something to set them off, but she didn't. Faith's connection to the upcoming plot will not be known by those who might want to take her out until later. Right now there's no reason, at least none that you will learn about in the game, for the police to suddenly be in a shooting mood.

Faith will manage to pass off the bag, and will execute a daring escape by grabbing hold of the news chopper that spotted her in the first place. One could speculate that the reason for the cops and the news chopper was to get footage of a runner in a firefight with the police so that the upcoming crackdown on the runners would have public support, but that would be entirely speculation because, in spite of promises to look into it, the game never offers any followup on why this happened.

Once you get back to base the plot starts.


Cutscene: The Listener

Faith is at Merc's house, which is not really a house but that's not important right now, listening in on the police chatter. She hears that her sister is going in to take a statement from Robert Pope, for those counting this is the second time his name is mentioned, about a break in he had earlier.

Pope, we will find out later, is a family friend. Which may be why he specifically called Kate.

Faith then hears that there have been shots fired at the exact place Kate just went to. She runs out the door shortly after Merc comes in, just as dawn is breaking. Rewatching this I see that he hadn't actually started asking around about why the cops were trigger happy yet. He said during the night that he planned to do that “Tomorrow” and now that tomorrow has come he's got Plot to distract him.


Chapter 1: Flight

Faith is almost at Pope's place before she tells Merc what she's doing, and all she says is that it's about her sister. Merc asks around and says that Drake, another former runner turned operator, said that there was heat at Popes place. Merc follows that up with, “You know he was running for mayor? Finally someone who can make a difference in this place.”

For those counting this is the third time Pope has been mentioned, the second time the fact he was running for mayor was mentioned, and the first time the fact he was running for mayor was unmissable. It's also the first time there's been an indication that he might have become a good mayor if elected.

Also, I can't be the only one who realized that Pope had very definitely come down with an unfortunate case of death immediately upon hearing that he was someone who could have finally made a difference. Up until learning he was a good candidate anything could have happened with those gunshots. He could have murdered Kate. He and Kate could both be locked in a firefight with terrorists that you'd play a decisive role in. Zombie space squid could be attacking. Any number of things really.

Once we found out he would have been a good mayor, all hope was lost.

On the other hand, if he hadn't been killed then stock plots 101 says that he would have turned out to be evil in the end.

Back to the plot. Faith soon makes it to the building and to the game's first elevator. The elevators disguise loading screens and serve as pauses in the gameplay. They also take forever and leave one with an agonizing need to start moving and a desire to hit the emergency stop, pull out a crowbar, and just get the hell out. (Which cannot be done because the elevators lack an emergency stop button and Faith has no crowbar.)

If you're lucky, the elevators might have some reading material in them. Never enough to make the ride seem not-long. In this case you get an editorial from Robert Pope. For those keeping track this is the fourth time he's mentioned, and it is completely missable. Sure, you're trapped in an elevator with it, but you really don't have to read.

It also happens to be the last thing you'll hear about him before you meet his dead body.

So lets recap the establishing of Pope's character:
-News report most people probably didn't hear which says only that he's in fourth place and rising
-Kate, Faith's sister, is going to take a statement from him.
-“Did you know he was running for mayor? Finally someone who can make a difference in this place.”
-This editorial you might not notice.

And that's it. I really did like the game, but I swear this is like a Jerry Jenkins introduction:

Then the authors suddenly remember that Rayford gets married on page 425 of this book and here we are on page 312 and so they'd better get on with introducing his love interest, even if it comes across as kind of abrupt and out-of-the-blue:

You might be thinking, “That's not so bad, there's still a hundred and thirteen pages to establish the relationship.” Oh, how little you know. The mention isn't much of anything and Ray doesn't even meet her until 16 pages before the wedding, 16 pages that, as I recall, don't have a lot of her in them.

Pope gets established even less.

If the dead body on the desk is going to have some impact we need more than a mention that he was running for mayor and he could make a difference. If we'd been getting hopeful indications for a longer period then sure, but as is all but one of the references to his run took place after his death. The one that didn't was the most missable of the lot. Before he died the only thing we could be counted on not to miss (assuming we didn't skip the cutscene and were paying attention) was that Faith's sister Kate was going to take his statement.

A longer lead up could have given the impression that Pope actually mattered, because there would have been opportunities to get a sense that he mattered beyond one person saying, “Finally someone who can make a difference,” after he's already dead.

Anyway, the editorial is the only actual sense of Pope we'll ever get, so I'm going to reproduce it here in full:

An Editorial by Mayoral Candidate Robert Pope

We live in a city of millions. A safe city. A kind city. And yet, not long ago, this city lay burning in the fires of civil dissent. We've made great strides in these years since the November Riots. Raised public security to an admirable standard. We are comfortable in our homes, have all the information we need filtered, cataloged, purified. We have been made to believe that the past is the the past, and to meditate on it too much is to invite it back into our lives. But this is wrong. We have built our memorials, shed our tears, been told to forget. We have been told, nothing is wrong now.

And that's it. That's the whole of Robert Pope. If you bothered to read the annoyingly scrolling texture in the elevator. It does at least give us an idea of the population of the city. Millions. At an absolute minimum that means two million, it probably means more. Which in turn tells us that, even though the dissidents were a minority, there could be lots of them.

There's very little to say about Pope. It feels like they realized, “We're going to base this game around this guy's assassination, maybe we should mention he exists,” so they threw in Merc saying he'd be a good mayor, though saying nothing as to why, and a newsreport saying he was running, and then the paragraph above.

But saying, “Finally someone who can make a difference,” doesn't actually give a sense of, “Finally someone who can make a difference.” For that you need more than one mention. So we walk into his office knowing almost nothing about Pope and, as a result, there can be no sense of significance to his death.

You know even less about Faith's sister. You've known she existed since the cutscene that sent you off here, and mentioned she existed one time outside of that. (When Merc asked what Faith was doing.)

Pope's assassination sets the events of the game into motion, but the only reason it can do so is because Faith cares about her sister Kate.

The two things in the room, the dead Robert Pope and the live Kate drive the entire story. Without Pope the events can't take place, without Kate Faith has no interest in getting involved. As such, I think the story would have been a hell of a lot better if we had reason to care about either, or both, of these people at this point.

It's actually very easy to get me to care, I watch bad movies for fun. As such, I will care about these things without good reason, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't prefer good reason. It doesn't mean that I forgive bad storytelling when I can see that it could and should have been better.

The story in this game depends on these two characters having a sense of significance. They really don't, and so even if you do care about them it's a very shallow sort of thing. The same will be true of other things later on. The story goes through the motions of something, but because it never bothered to establish a sense of significance earlier that just doesn't really work.

Anyway, Kate is being framed for Pope's murder. He called up about a break in he'd suffered earlier, and also asked about Faith. Which Faith points out is weird because she hasn't seen him in at least ten years, she didn't even recognize him when she saw him.

When Kate got there she was knocked unconscious and her gun was used to murder Pope. She left her radio in the car and couldn't call it in. Other police are on the way. We'll learn later that Kate was not specifically targeted, which ruined my initial theory on why the cops tried to shoot Faith in the last mission (that they were going after the family.) Kate was instead framed for the murder because the aim is to discredit the city's police force so that a certain private security company can get more power. Thus Kate was framed because she was convenient. Pope called her in, and once he was in the same room as a cop who could be framed, he was toast.

Faith initially tries to get Kate to run, Kate counters it would make her look guilty, Faith countercounters that given that Kate is being framed the battle on that front is already lost. Kate asks for help (for Faith has contacts), Faith initially says no, but then moves in the direction of yes, notes a scrap left on Pope's desk, steals it, and runs like hell. Before she does Kate suggests that if Faith finds anything she should share it with Kate's boss, Miller.

There is a bit more to the conversation, it touches on the non-freeness of the media early on, for example. Apparently Faith doesn't follow the Parliament jester's foist on the somnambulant public news.

Regardless, away Faith runs, with Merc reminding her that the cops have been unusually shooty. And so sets off a frenetic scramble to get away from what seems like everything on earth shooting at Faith, including fire from a helicopter, she finally makes it into an elevator, doors close bullets dent the doors, and the elevator starts to move, the first time I played I let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding in at the same time as Faith, to which Merc said, “Yeah, you can breathe out,” for it was that kind of playing. Which is to say it was good.

This was also the first of many times when I was worried that elevators aren't the most secure options. Won't the police just stop it, trapping Faith inside, I wondered? I looked around for a way out, there was none. I think I remember being told once that about half of elevators have trapdoors in the ceiling, meaning that half do not. Mirror's Edge tends to have the ones that do not.

Faith was not trapped in the elevator, and continued her escape, finally meeting up with Kreeg, another runner. He works, as near as I can tell, under Drake, but he comes to the aid of Faith when Merc called him in and he and Faith escape together.

As they do Merc again promises to try to find out why the cops are so trigger happy, though at this point they've got a pretty good excuse, and promises that they'll figure out a a way to help Kate.


Cutscene: Back at Merc's

There's a certain amount of discussion here between Merc, Faith and Cel about what's going on. They know that Pope's murder is a contributing factor to the police's heightened presence and shootiness, but none of them seem to think it's sufficient to explain the change. Merc speculates that someone's become extremely jittery for some reason, and then we move to the piece of evidence Faith stole from the crime scene.

Pope's diary was stolen, I forgot to mention that before, and Faith thinks the scrap of paper she found was from it. It's got most of the word “Icarus” and on the next line, “to the high-,” which Faith interprets as “to the highest,” written on it.

Merc recaps the story of Icarus, placing all of the focus on the sun though flying to close to the water didn't help either, and then suggests that there's someone who would know what is going on. Faith isn't a big fan of that plan, Cel has no idea who they're talking about.

Turns out to be a former runner whom Faith would prefer to avoid forever. His name is Jackknife.


Chapter 2: Jackknife

Getting to Jackknife first requires getting to the old runner training ground where he's hanging out, then chasing him down.

First the plan was to follow a canal, but when that didn't work out due to excessive gunfire Merc did the operator equivalent of a GPS saying, “Recalcuating,” and sent Faith though the storm drains. Much deeper underground. Anyway, once Faith reaches Jackknife he runs away, but he's clearly not trying to get away so much as be an annoying jackass. He'll wait for Faith in a taunting way at various spots.

It's still possible to lose him if you're too slow, but if we're looking at this from the perspective of narrative rather than gameplay, he wants to get caught.

He probably doesn't want to get caught by having a bar he tried to swing on collapse and leave him briefly unconscious, but he was planning on having this meeting, so when Faith catches up to him he explains that he knows what she wants, does more taunting by saying he heard a cop killed Pope, and then finally sends her in the direction of a former wrestler, who headed up Pope's security. Travis Burfeild, stage name Ropeburn.

Jack's description of Rope burn is, “[...] he's really just a thug who got lucky. And sometimes people are too ignorant to see their place. Always want to swim in the big pond... never see the bigger fish.”

This level is, I think, the first time we see evidence of the partnership between Callahan Construction and Pirandello Kruger Security. Callahan Construction belongs to the mayor, Pirandello Kruger (PK) is the private security firm that will gain power when the scandal of Kate allegedly killing Pope comes to light.

It's a pretty sound partnership, Callahan gets rid of his challenger and gets a private army not bound even by the laws restricting the already totalitarian CPF, PK gets all of the perks that come with being a state sponsored but non-governmental military force. Including money that otherwise would have, presumably, gone to the CPF. But for the moment, the only signs of a connection we have are the fact that they're working together on the Eden Estates project.

So this is, sort of, some of the kind of foreshadowing I'd like to see elsewhere, there are hints of things to come if you pay attention. But this is something where if they hadn't set up in advance there'd be no problem, where the lack of introduction to Kate and Pope makes the driving force behind the game's plot fall flat to an extent.


Cutscene: Miller

Kate told Faith to take anything she found out to Miller, so Faith goes to see Miller.

Kate hasn't mentioned having a sister, but Miller either accepts Faith's claim or has figured out on his own. She tells him about Icarus, though not about Ropeburn. He says he wont stop her, saying that he owes that much to Kate, but plenty will try.

The situation on his end is that Kate's been arrested and he can't get in to see her. Nor can he do anything to help Faith.


Chapter 3: Heat

So Faith breaks into Ropeburn's office. Overhears him talking on the phone. He just takes orders, something doesn't look good for the person he's talking to and zir little gang, Rope burn tells zir to take that up with “them”, he doesn't expect Faith to last long, none of the runners will, Project Icarus will be fine, and he sets up a meeting.

He goes to get food. Faith drops into his office. This is seriously a place where one might want to insert story. The player character is alone in a bad guy's office with his computer and his files. There will never be a better time to snoop around and discover story. Once again, I'm not advising that this be forced on people, but if you could use the “use” button to use some of these things and actually read something and thus make the time alone in his office seem not-wasted that would have been nice.

As is, Faith sees something on the desk with a PK logo on it, has some moments in the office with nothing to do, and is then informed that she must have tripped a silent alarm because the cops are on the way. She runs, they follow, and it works its way up to a scene where she jumps from one skyscraper to another in spite of them not being close enough to each other, instead bridging the gap via the cunning use of cranes.

If Callahan were in the coffee business, and thus his corruption didn't result in the city being littered with construction, the runners wouldn't have nearly as many options available to them. Don't get me wrong, they are proactive, building wooden extensions to buildings so that one can jump between them when, unmodified, that would be impossible, but they definitely benefit from Callahan Construction.


Cutscene: Standoff

Faith tells Miller that Ropeburn was definitely involved in framing Kate, Miller says that Ropeburn is dangerous, and then pulls a gun on Faith. He apologizes first, but with private firms muscling in on CPF jurisdiction and just waiting for the CPF to fuck up, he thinks the only way to stop them from taking over, and the only way to save Kate, is to give them Faith.

Faith, as you might imagine, disagrees with this plan of action.

She manages to get Miller's other gun (he wears two) and then gives it back to him. She says that she's letting Miller go for Kate's sake, but warns she'll kill him if he pulls a gun on her again. Then turns her back and walks away, delivering an insult as she leaves (“And right now, I think I'd be doing the city a favor.”)

That's not necessarily a wise way to deal with someone whose problems might be solved by killing you and trotting your dead body in front of news cameras, but it works in this case.


Chapter 4: Ropeburn

Faith goes to the meeting between Ropeburn and unknown-person-on-the-phone. As she approaches a helicopter arrives, it looks like a CPF one. When she gets there Miller and Ropeburn are talking. Faith assumes the worst.

I, personally, did not. It seemed like a distinct possibility, of course, but Faith just told Miller that Ropeburn was behind everything. It makes a certain amount of sense for him to be talking to Ropeburn. If he found out Ropeburn was going to an under construction building that would be empty that day, with no prying eyes, it might have seemed an ideal time for a meeting.

A news report that Faith hears on the way indicates that now that Kate being the prime suspect has gone public confidence in the CPF is going down, while mayor Callahan is promising to keep the city safe no matter what. In other words, all of Miller's fears are coming true, he's been told by the only other person who seems to care that Kate was framed that Ropeburn is involved, and he might have reason to suspect that those above him are in on it which makes for a good reason not to waltz into Ropeburn's office. So it seemed like he definitely might be there legitimately.

Going back and listening to Ropeburn's phone call more closely it seems even more like Faith shouldn't jump to any conclusions here. The way he talks about “blues” (the term used for cops) in third person but, “your gang” in second makes it seem like he's talking about two rather different things. Thus it makes it sound like he's not talking to Miller.

Of course the biggest thing making me think that Faith was jumping to the wrong conclusion was that she immediately reached that conclusion but couldn't hear a word that was being said. That's narrative speak for, “It's not what it looks like.”

Anyway, she makes it to the roof, Miller has apparently disappeared but the helicopter has not (which is weird to say the least.) And Ropeburn takes Faith by surprise and throws her off the roof onto a somewhat lower roof, which he jumps down to and tries to throw Faith off of as well.

If you don't hit the disarm key at just the right time, he will succeed and you'll have to go through that whole sequence again. If you're bad at hitting keys at just the right time, as I am, you will hate this sequence with the passion of ten thousand premillennial dispensationalists. (For all their many damning failures, those people have passion. Actually, that might be one of their failures considering how they direct it.)

Especially since I don't like that kind of thing anyway. I don't play a game so I can watch a forked cutscene where my ability to hit a certain button at the right moment determines which fork the cutscene takes.

Regardless, Ropeburn ends up hanging off the side of a building and is quite willing to talk in order to get pulled back onto the building. He tells Faith that he hired a professional to do the killing, and that he's scheduled a meeting with said professional. He doesn't tell Faith what Miller wanted instead saying that he'd tell everything once he was pulled up. Faith agrees, and that's about when Ropeburn is assassinated by someone in white clothing.

Faith runs away. This involves meeting your first elevator with a trapdoor, and running through the subways. Faith meets up with Celeste and moves on to the cutscene with her name on it.


Cutscene: Celeste

Back at Merc's lair Celeste asks Faith what she's thinking about, Faith tells her about trying to catch up with Pope's murderer the next day, Celeste says to lay low, it's not Faith's fight. Faith talks about her parents, how they'd been friends with Pope, thought the city was worth protecting, tried to bring about change. Her mother died, she ran away, met Merc, stuff that I already talked about in the backstory section above.

Cel says that what Faith is doing is the fastest way to get herself killed, Faith says, “They got my sister involved Cel. I have to clear her name. I owe her that much.” As of the end of the game, she will have utterly failed on that count.

Faith invites Celeste to come with her the next day, Celeste says she's on a job. They part.

Before they do, Faith says she'll survive, Celeste responds that survival is overrated. You have to live.

Celeste will later say to Faith, “I tried to warn you.” I think you've got to give her credit on that point because she's dripping with, “I'm evil,” in this scene. There's foreshadowing and then there's using thermonuclear weapons on already deceased horses.

Celeste's betrayal would probably feel more like a betrayal if it weren't for the fact that this scene here, where she's obviously on the opposing side, weren't the majority of her pre-reveal characterization.

All that we've had from her before this is that she led Faith in the training mission, which didn't involve much of anything that revealed character, that she got a handoff from Faith, ditto about revealing character, and from the pre-Jackknife cutscene, that she thinks cops are slow, she's vaguely familiar with the name Icarus, and she doesn't know (or claims to not know) who Merc and Faith are talking about when they discuss Jackknife without using his name.

None of that really establishes friendship, and as they said in Bite the Bullet, “If it ain't by a friend, it ain't betrayal.”


Chapter 5: New Eden

It's a new mall, not finished yet. It's called New Eden. I'm told that fish think it contains slimer slime, but that's not mentioned in the game.

The mall turns out to be an ambush, warrior in white shows up but does not actually fight Faith, leaving that to PK people.

I think something with PK's name on it showed up in an elevator just as you were getting out of it, before the screen in the elevator switched to error message, but I'm really not interested in sitting through one of those elevator rides to find out exactly what it was.


Cutscene: Jackknife

Faith faith tracks down Jackknife, bangs him up against a wall and accuses him of being the reason for the ambush at the mall. He allays her suspicions by appealing, basically, to her sense that he's incapable of organizing such a thing. She dismisses him as insignificant.

On the one hand, I've seen this mistake so many times, on the other hand this is a no win situation. If Faith concludes that he isn't involved, that means he is. If she concludes that he is, that means he isn't.

It's like the thing with Pope. If he's good then he dies. If he lives then he'll later be revealed to be evil. No matter what the outcome is bad.


Chapter 6: Pirandello Kruger

I think it was the movie where Clint Eastwood is the master thief who witnesses the president commit a murder that commented on the difficulty of breaking the security of a security company. I could be wrong about that though.

Anyway, Pirandello/Kruger is a security company that I will resume writing incorrectly after this sentence because the slash just looks silly to me. Faith breaks into said company.

In this level there is a phone that says it has a message waiting, use it and you'll hear Ropeburn being pissed of about the break in. So one would guess that no one has listened to the messages in a few days. It also has a computer screen you can read. Not use the computer, there's writing on the texture on the screen. For that matter there's a note taped to another computer screen.

All of these things are fairly decent ways of delivering narrative without breaking up the flow of gameplay, as I've said. If you're interested you can take a moment to read, if you're not it inconveniences you not in the least. They're not implemented the best (reading the computer screen as it is set up is annoying, for example) but they're there. It would have been nice if things like this had seen more use because that sort of thing can really fill out the gameworld, making it seem like a world exists outside the bounds of the levels, and also reinforce story.

By the time I found the phone you could use I'd given up on the idea I could use the “use” button on anything but buttons and valves. I'd tried it on all kinds of things. Computers, notepads, whathaveyou. I mean, in the game I'm theoretically trying to figure out who is framing my sister, if I should have access to such a person's documents, wouldn't I want to search them? Nothing actually responded to such attempts.

The level actually does a lot to progress the plot as well.

Faith finally meets Project Icarus. It turns out it's a program to train and equip a new kind of enforcement officer, one specifically designed to combat the runners. When Faith learns of this she tells Merc to put the word out warning everyone because the plan is to take them all out.

There's a storytelling problem with that though. When she opens up the files on Project Icarus six images come up on the main display with various bits of information displayed elsewhere. Those six images are (this is in no particular order): Faith, Merc, Celeste, Drake, Kreeg, and the standard Project Icarus trooper. On seeing this Faith says that they're coming after all the runners.

Which gives the impression that there are three runners and two operators in total. The runner network seems to have a population of five.

This will not do. In the level you'll find out that anonymous polls have revealed that more than half the city's population have used illegal methods to transport information at least once. Doubtless there are methods other than runners, but that still tells us that even if we take the most conservative estimate possible for the city's population (two million) the runners have a potential client base of over a million people. Over a million people have used the runner's services or similar (even if something they improvised themselves.)

Faith sees five faces and concludes that they're coming after all the runners? Five faces that happen to be the five people in the business whose names we've heard so far?

There isn't a need for an exhaustive list of all runners in the city, but the names and faces she sees shouldn't just be the ones the game has mentioned because that gives the impression of a very small world. The story should suggest that there's more to it than what we see. There should be names that we've never heard of. Perhaps even names that Faith has never heard of.

If there are only going to be five people, they definitely shouldn't all be people who have already shown up. Even having the mentioned characters be two of the five would kind of be pushing it.

Anyway, now that the secret is out the Icarus-cops have no reason not to chase Faith through the city. So they chase Faith through the city. She eventually loses them by jumping on top of a train.

Merc sets off to put the word out of the coming crackdown. Faith heads off to the harbor because while she was examining the surveillance in the Project Icarus room she noticed the warrior in white on a ship. Said assassin basically has the standard Project Icarus outfit, just in a different color. Also the standard Icarus-cop carries a tazer, she goes for a more lethal approach.


Cutscene: Race to Harbor:

See the name of the cutscene? That's literally all that happens. If by “Race” we mean “Run” and by “to Harbor” we mean, “through generic cityscape in a direction that presumably leads to the harbor.”


Chapter 7: The Boat

Faith saw that the assassin who killed Ropeburn, and possibly Pope, was on the boat, so she sprinted over as fast as she could. When she arrived she snuck in by hopping in the back of a truck.

She eventually made it to the assassin, had a fight, the assassin ran away, there was another fight.

I don't think it's ever established why the assassin was on the boat, what the cargo was, or anything like that. Lot of heavily armed guards though.

Worth noting that the involuntary noises of pain that the assassin makes when Faith hits her are, well, female sounding. Certainly such things can be misleading, but it really seems like Faith should at least consider stopping using male pronouns after the first fight. Also, if making a game, don't have the character say, “Damn, lost him,” if the person being chased is still visible on screen and not that far away.


Cutscene: The Assassin

The distraction of a helicopter allows the assassin to escape again, but Faith cuts her off and soon discovers that the assassin is Cel.

A couple things, one is that given Cel's obvious dark side affiliation and attempts to make Faith give up and do nothing, this isn't much of a surprise. Cel is the one who Faith told about the meeting at the New Eden Mall, the meeting that would turn into an ambush. When Cel says she tried to warn Faith off, she's being honest.

The second is, as I said before, this doesn't really have much in the way of emotional impact (a term that calls to mind apocalyptic events producing craters) because you seriously never got to know Cel. It's not really a sense of betrayal if you never get a sense of relationship.

Moving on, there is some actual plot here.

Celeste says that Faith needs to learn to let go, like she did with her family, and then pulls a gun. They have a nice conversation. Cel says that the runners are screwed, Icarus is just the start, and she wants to live, “not just survive.”

We learn that Pope started threatening the wrong people, “High up people,” so they had Cel kill him. She says it was him or her, but I don't think you just get the job of assassin like that. I think you probably have to work your way up before they trust you with a critical piece of the plan. Otherwise how would they know that Cel wouldn't just warn Pope about the orders and side with him. In other words, “Him or me,” seems like it's a way to avoid responsibility which can't really be weaseled out of that easily. It may have been the case, but -even if it was- her choices doubtless led her to that point.

Of course, avoidance of responsibility is pretty standard for evil people. Cel has a long way to go before she reaches, say, the Cullen level.

Cel also reveals that she didn't know Kate was Faith's sister, and then her allies with big guns show up and start shooting. It's Faith's turn to make use of a distraction, she steals Cel's gun and uses it on some barrels of volatile explodability. Cel escapes from Faith, Faith escapes from the guys with the big guns.

Merc heard everything and reports (via Kreeg) that, thanks to the swift justice program, Kate has been tried, found guilty, and will be taken to jail via convoy in less than an hour.

There was originally going to be a prison level (concept art survives) and some speculate that it would have gone here, largely because the times don't add up. There will be a convoy, but it won't be in less than an hour. The time is predawn, the convoy will be at two in the afternoon.

Also, there's a serious oversight here on the part of the characters. Celeste knows where Merc lives. Her cover has been blown. She no longer has any reason to not do things that would compromise her position amoung the runners.

Merc should be packing up and moving right now. The special runner stopping police force is no longer in hiding, and the spy who knows where he lives no longer has any reason not to send them to his home.

This isn't necessarily a plot problem, sometimes people do stupid things, but it is a serious mistake from the characters.


Chapter 8: Kate

The plan is to use a sniper rifle to stop the convoy, Drake is sending Kreeg to drop it off in advance for Faith. Faith just has to get there, use it on the engine, and then grab Kate. Which is what she does.

Also in this level you find that the long awaited memorial to the November Riots has been canceled by the mayor citing security concerns.


Cutscene: Kate's rescue

The police van Kate was being transported in is upside down, Faith breaks her out, there's a hug, and then Faith gives Kate her earpiece so that Merc can guide Kate back to her place while Faith leads the cops away.

How is this a bad idea? Let me count the ways:

-Merc's lair is compromised. Someone working with the runner-beating team knows exactly where it is.
-Faith is cut off, without her earpiece she can't be warned of problems or called in to help. If Kate gets into a bad situation on the way to Merc's, Kate is screwed.
-Kate isn't a runner. Faith's original plan was for the two of them to run together. This made sense as Kate probably couldn't do it on her own. Kate is, presumably, a capable individual, she's a trained cop, but she's not a runner and there's only so much that one can teach someone via an earpiece while the learning person is fleeing all police everywhere.
-Merc's lair is compromised.
-“Let's split up” almost never ends well.

It is a little over six and a half hours later when Faith returns to Merc's place. As one might expect, it is now the smoking remains of Merc's place. Kate is not there.

Merc is. Faith finds him under a couch, prepared to shoot. He's near death and lives long enough to tell Faith that he heard they were taking Kate to The Shard, a massive skyscraper that's home base to the mayor. He also tells Faith not to be sorry, and not to let them win. Then he loses consciousness and presumably dies.

Faith initially wanted to get him a doctor, he said it was too late for that. Given that there's no evidence Faith tried to get a doctor, even if Merc was wrong on that point he probably still died, and I think we're meant to assume he was right.


Chapter 9: The Shard

Faith breaks in, makes her way through the building, and reaches a point where she meets up with Miller, who saves her (shooting two PK guards in the backs in the process) and gives her an earpiece of his own. He sends her to the roof (Kate is to be transported via helicopter) promising to hold off those who might come from behind and contact you once he has a chance.

Remember what I said about feeling like the police would shut down an elevator while Faith was in it? Yeah, that's something that did in fact occur to the developers as well. Fortunately it had a trap door.

Some rerouting is necessary, then Miller overrides an elevator to Faith's advantage, and finally she reaches the center of surveillance Miller suggests that causing a catastrophic failure in those systems will open some doors she needs to get to the roof.

Then she loses contact with Miller, there's a gunshot involved, he may or may not be dead.

At the roof Jackknife has Kate, and talks to Faith for a bit. This is one of the times that a villainous speech actually makes sense. He's keeping Faith's attention focused on him so that PK troops can take up positions behind her without her noticing.

What comes out from this chat are a few things. One is that the assumption someone like him can't be involved in anything of significance is something that he's been able to make good use of. Another is that he knows who the big fish are, which given that he's operating out of the mayor's building with the mayor putting into practice all of the changes that these events have been orchestrated to effect, it's probably not a surprise that Faith can guess who he's talking about.

Finally he explains exactly why the runners are being targeted: they're the lines of communication. Without them the dissidents lack a means of organizing which means that wiping them out should be much easier.

Faith says that Icarus is only the beginning in response to this tidbit, Jackknife says he see's it as the end. The end of the old city. When characters are debating whether it's the end or the beginning, that means its the end. Jackknife takes off with Kate in the helicopter but doesn't go very far because he, along with the troops who snuck in behind Faith, tries to shoot Faith.

Faith jumps to the helicopter, knocks Jackknife to his death, as he falls he fires his weapon disabling the helicopter, it crashes, Kate and Faith make it out first. The troops have disappeared at this point, the music picks up, and the game ends.

During the credits a news report reveals that, in the aftermath of the “terrorist attack” on The Shard, Pirandello Kruger is stepping up its role in the city's security, suspicion is being cast on the runners, and Kate and Faith are on the run.

Pope is dead, Project Icarus is in operation, the runners are seen as a terrorist threat, Pirandello Kruger is on the ascent, the CPF is on the decline. The bad guys' plan appears to be working. Everything is falling into place.

The only thing that isn't going according to the evil plan is that Faith kind of sort of screwed over the surveillance systems for the entire city*. Thus they put out a warning not use email or phones because they can't be sure they're secure. (Translation: they can't spy on them.)

And that is where the game ends.

Before this post ends, I want to again point out that I think there should have been more done to establish the runners. The reason behind the whole plot is that the runners are an important communications network, and so long as they exist resistance can use said network to organize. Of this network we see five runners, one is secretly working for the other side, two are retired.

It doesn't feel like a significant communication network. You serve as a courier all of one time. You never really get a feel for there being anyone out there besides the small handful that you meet.

It feels like too small of a world, and if the idea is that the runners are being targeted because they're the dissidents' lines of communication, you need to feel like they're meaningful lines of communication. It can't be the case that every time you hear about someone involved with runners it's always one of the same five people of which you are one.

Basically, there needs to be a sense of a world beyond the bounds of the level, and when it comes to runners there needs to be a sense that those you actually meet are just a small handful of the actual runner population. There's nothing to provide that sense. If an operator is mentioned it will be Merc or Drake. If a runner is mentioned it will be Cel or Kreeg. (Or Faith.) When files showed up on Project Icarus, out of all the runners and runner associates in the city, those five were the ones to come up.

It makes the world seem like a closed loop, containing only what's on the screen. For it to work as a story it needs to seem like it extends beyond what you see in all directions.


* Which is also the reason that I don't think Miller was helping Faith in order to make a bigger scene that could be used to discredit the runners and convince people that increased security was necessary. Prior to that there was a possibility that he was one of the bad guys, but knocking out the surveillance system would be too great of a loss for them to endure for what would amount to a publicity stunt.

* * *

1 comment:

  1. I know nothing about the genesis of this game. But it sounds as though the mechanics and the primary Faith-Kate-Jackknife plot came first and second, and the background was just slapped on as needed to make it work. Which is, of course, more than many games bother to do...

    This does rather spike its possibility of a sequel, though. After the brilliant training-as-rehab conceit, you're left at the end of the game with a situation which the player is going to want to play out - not pick up another game that starts with "six months later". (But if you do get to play that out in the next game, how do you work in the training mission?)