Saturday, June 9, 2012

Mirror's Edge Spoiler Post 2, What I would do differently

To recap what I've said about Mirror's Edge, I first talked about the non spoiler related experience of playing, and I went through the entire plot, basically point by point, in much greater detail than could have possibly been called for.

It's taken a while to get here. When I started writing the spoiler post I thought that this would be part of it, when I started writing the post before that I thought that that would be my only post on Mirror's Edge, and actually, originally, the Mirror's Edge post and the Sanctity of Singleplayer post were supposed to be different parts of a single post.

Anyway, I'm here now and what I'm going to be talking about is the handling of the setting and plot in general as well as how I would have done things differently.


After the crushing of dissent the runners became the only means of communication not subject to government surveillance. They would physically deliver messages and such from place to place.

This is the basis for everything in the game.

Without the network of runners the gameplay wouldn't be possible because buildings were not designed around the idea that their rooftops would be pathways, modifications needed to be made to them. Sometimes these took the form of wooden extensions to make the gap between buildings small enough to jump when otherwise it would not be, sometimes these took the form of ziplines which allowed for travel over still larger gaps and also to move across differences in altitude that would otherwise be impossible to traverse.

Without the network of runners the plot would not happen. The people using the runners as a means of communication were dissidents, the last surviving opposition to the administration. If there would be any resistance to the administration, it would come from them. Even if there weren't they could still be potentially problematic, and those in power wanted to be rid of them. Step one is to take out their means of communication. To remove their ability to organize. To get rid of the runners.

To this end, Project Icarus was created. Pope finding out about this led to his death.

No network of runners means no Icarus means Pope isn't murdered, means Kate isn't framed which means there's no plot.

The network of runners is vital to explaining everything that happens in the game, and yet you never really get a sense that there is a network.

Every time a runner is shown or mentioned it is one of three people: Faith (the main character), Celeste (shortened to Cel) or Kreeg. Every time an operator (the people who direct runners, tell them about jobs and look out for any trouble) is mentioned it's one two people: Merc (shortened from Mercury) or Drake. That's it.

It would be one thing if this were because the only time people are mentioned is when you bump into them, but that's not how the game does things. At one point Faith will find herself in a place where surveillance has been done on all of the runners in the city of millions. Not just the runners but the entire network (operators too, for example.) Guess which five names and faces show up?

There is never, ever, in the game some indication that there might be other runners out there other than the fact that the entire plot would collapse if the network were limited to three runners and two operators. You never hear the name of a runner you haven't met in person. You never hear Merc telling you that someone other than Drake passed him information. When you see the list of runners it's only the people you've already heard about.

That's a problem.

What's annoying is that it's an easily solved problem. There at times when people are discussing things when it would be easy to drop in some other names. When talking about the police being unusually quick to pull their guns Celeste or Merc could mention that it's happening to everyone with [handful of names] reporting similar incidents. It wouldn't be hard to have an “and [someone]” tacked onto the end of something, like, “Drake and Iris are saying there's heat at...”

And most of all the list of names should have included names other than the five. If you really want to give a feeling that there's a whole network out there have a lot of names (text only to save the trouble of producing an image for each) scroll by when Faith looks into the files, with most the the names being mentioned nowhere else because the network is too expansive for all of them to come up in conversation in such a short time.

The basic point is that there needs to be the impression that the network extends beyond what is directly seen in the game, by making every singe reference to a runner or operator go back to those five characters it makes it seem like what you see on screen is the whole network.


Another problem I see with the way that the game handled running is that you never really got a feel for the job. You only had one job in the game, the prologue, in which you delivered a bag a middle leg of the journey while police were uncharacteristically willing to shoot.

Since it's uncharacteristic it means that you have exactly zero experience with how these things normally go. And once its over that's it, the plot starts and you will never go on a job again.

Making the runner network seem like an actual network could be done with tweaks to dialog, or some in-game text if they made it so that things like computers or notes could be read. No major changes to the game play necessary, on this point though I'd recommend major changes to gameplay.

Looking at the way the various levels fit into the city a couple things become apparent. One is that, while you might have a choice whether you climb over an obstruction or go alongside, the game is pretty much linear. (There is one path, it just has wiggle room to the left and right.) The other is that none of the levels intersect.

The runner network should be like a spiderweb, a collection of paths going in all sorts of directions and intersecting all over. The way the game is set up makes it seem like a collection of one way lines that never meet each other.

I'd change that in the opening levels, extending the prologue in which you're actually doing the work of running and make it so in those levels you saw that, at least when not being shot at by piles of police, the network really is a network, not a bunch of disconnected lines.

One way to do this would be to have levels like the ones currently in the game, but have them intersect. So you'd get a chance to see the multiple directions you can go from a single place, even if you didn't have the freedom to try them all out any of the times you were there (because you were working and thus didn't have time to deviate too far.)

A different way to do it would be to make a large level that, instead of having one path through it, was an area you could find your own paths through, and have the player crisscross it doing jobs.

The downside of making a non linear level is that it means you're doing more work to make it, instead of being able to make one line through the space, you have to make the whole space. The upside is that you can potentially reuse it without forcing the player to retread the same space. There's more of it, so you can get more game out of it.

Also, since the jobs you'd be doing would be, you know, jobs, you'd get a feel for running. Maybe you could occasionally hand off a package to someone who wasn't one of the two other runners in the actual game. Maybe you could have met some clients and gotten a feel for who the administration is planning to eliminate once they're done with you.

Or maybe not. But I definitely feel like if you'd spent more time working as a runner it could have gone some part of the way toward making it feel like the work that runners did mattered.

Also, I would have liked some more time just running before people started shooting at me just because.

I definitely understand the desire to skip straight to the plot. I've seen plenty of movies where it felt like the first half could have been chopped off without losing much of anything and actually improving the movie in the process, but this game seemed like it could have used more pure running anyway, and needed a lot of stuff established that it never took the time to establish, which says more stuff at the start before the plot took off would have been good.

A possible solution to the problem of wanting a solid foundation but also wanting to let people get to the plot soon if that's what they wanted would be to let early missions be optional to a degree. Sort of like how the training ended with you being asked if you wanted to stay or move on, completing a prologue mission could get you asked if you want another mission, or to skip to the main game.

Call it a day and your next mission is the start of the plot and shooting, stick around and you get as much prologue as you want.


As for what needed to be established, other than the importance of the runners, there were a few things. Pope's importance was one. All that we really get of him is Merc saying he'd be good mayor, you need more than that for a political candidate to seem like they matter.

Before the mission where you find out Pope died there is a precisely one reference to Pope, it's easy to miss, and all it says is that he's in the race, he's in fourth, and he's gaining fast the point it looks like he may overtake the near tie between the second and third place candidates.

That tells you almost nothing about him. After he's died, but before you know he's died, Merc will say that Pope is finally someone who can make a difference. The trouble is, it takes more than one person saying that to make it feel like it's true.

You can enumerate the mentions of Pope you get before meeting his dead body (four, if you're paying close attention) and that's not enough to give sense of the real possibility of difference making. Pope needs to be at the head of a movement, he needs to have supporters. He needs to have more than one person indicating that he could make things better.

I'm not saying that it needed to be something as blatant as having to navigate around a campaign rally or crawling through the air ducts of a minor campaign office while the supporters there are talking amoungst themselves about the race.

Not saying those things wouldn't potentially be interesting either, but what I'm talking about is a lower level. A sort of background radiation level of awareness of the Pope campaign. A poster here or there, an overheard conversation or news report (beyond the one that there is in the actual game) sprinkled in. Things so that you can't really point to where you learned about Pope's campaign or that he was a good candidate because it was something that you learned, more or less, via osmosis.

If you'd had something like that, then finding out that stuff was happening to Pope would actually seem like it was important as it was happening.

The player should be hearing about Pope well in advance of when Pope becomes relevant to the plot because otherwise his assassination doesn't feel as significant as it ought to.

There are other people who could use more introduction too. You learn that Faith has a sister moments before you learn that Faith's sister is in some kind of trouble. Not a lot of lead-in there.

Of course, the Faith-Kate relationship is something that's more difficult to establish than Pope's significance. I'm not advocating more cut-scenes. And you can't exactly establish that relationship by having Faith overhear things while in airvents. It is something that can be done somewhat if you've got a homebase with correspondence of some kind (which the original game does not.)

I was going to say email account, I actually did and wrote about it for a while without the obvious hitting me. Faith's entire line of work is based on people not trusting email. She might have an account open for sanitized communications with someone like Kate (Kate probably doesn't use runners), but for most of her contact she's going to have something else. Maybe physical letters, maybe electronic communications delivered by other runners on flashdrives. If the latter checking it might be identical to checking email, but settingwise it's sort of important that there's a difference.

Anyway, a fair amount of story can be told by giving something like an email account to the main character.

That actually could have gone a long way toward a lot of problems with establishing things.

The three problems I've brought up so far are the runners not really being established as anything other than the tiny handful of people you personally interact with during the game, Pope's campaign having almost nothing referencing it until after he's dead, and the relationship between Faith and Kate seeming to pop into existence out of nowhere moments before “Kate's in trouble,” became the driving force behind the plot. I'll add to that that we never really got much of anything setting up the friendship that Celeste was supposed to be betraying, which makes it feel like not much of a betrayal.

A not-email account could go a ways toward dealing with all of that. Runners who never show up could contact Faith or be mentioned in contact with her. (The fact that she just returned to work could justify some welcome back messages.) Hell, she could be invited to a runner get together or something. If she does have an actual email account (which again, is something that she wouldn't use for most things) she could be getting spam from the Pope campaign, or see him mentioned in passing in other messages. She could have correspondence with Kate and Celeste.

On the one hand, it sounds like I'm stealing ideas from X-Wing Alliance, on the other hand, it worked in X-Wing Alliance. Not as well as it could have, but it did manage to establish relationships and add some depth to the plot. (And no, I wasn't thinking about X-Wing Alliance when I started thinking about his idea.)

What I definitely wouldn't have be like X-Wing Alliance is the way that there was a completely different interface for the downtime between missions. That was necessary in that game because the game was a flight simulator, for Faith to check her mail wouldn't require anything of the sort. I've already talked about how I think it would have been a good idea to let the player read things in game (think Deus Ex or AVPII) so you'd just have one of the things that can be read be Faith's personal computer which would, I'm guessing, be in Merc's lair. (If she had a home of her own I see no evidence of it.)

Instead of just having cutscenes between missions you could have, for the ones where Faith has actual downtime (as opposed to things like “Race to Harbor” where she's simply going from point A to point B), a playable area where you don't have a mission. Somewhere that you could practice without being on the clock or on the run, and in that area you could have a computer available to check.

It would be tempting to model such a thing off the UNACO HQ missions in the early parts of Deus Ex where you could talk to various people which provided information on story, general depth, and diverse perspectives on what was happening, but Mirror's Edge is very much not the kind of game that Deus Ex was, and introducing a conversation system to it, and having to do the work associated with those conversations, would be more deviation from the original than what I'm taking about.


I'm pretty sure I had plenty more to say, but I can't remember what it was and I want to finish this post today.

The reason that the police [err... correction at the end of post] are suddenly in a shooting mood is never explained. They had an informal truce with the runners (“the cops don't bother us”) which they broke the day before Pope's murder and basically everyone who commented on it didn't think the assassination was sufficient to explain their shootiness afterward. Something had them violent, but it's never clear what.

Explanations can be made up (I can think of several), but none ever came close to being provided. I would have either have an explanation, or held off on the cops being shooty until after Faith was a suspect in an assassination.


Summing up, the major thing I would have done differently would be to expand the prolog so that you'd do more work as a courier and have more time to get acquainted with the setting and characters before the plot got moving.

If possible I'd have this expansion involve less linearity, so that you'd have more freedom in choosing your path, and get the impression that there are an interconnected network of paths throughout the city, not a bunch of linear trails created for the game.

If not possible to have a more open level, I'd have the linear levels intersect with each other, so that you could at least see that being in the same place doesn't always mean going in the same direction.

I'd also try to make a space where you could do running in downtime without the constraints of a job telling you where to go, or police trying to kill you. I figure this could have been done by making Merc's lair and the surrounding rooftops a playable intermission level. And I figure that such a level could include correspondence between Faith and others, thus fleshing out the setting and story.

Speaking of which, I'd let Faith actually read things. She keeps breaking into places with people's computers and physical files and then not really looking at anything. This could also put some substance on the bones of the story.

And random other stuff that's not really important.


I am very tired.  If the above is incoherent, that is probably why.



Sometimes the people at TV Tropes are not paying attention and say things that make me facepalm.  On the other hand, sometimes I'm the one who isn't paying attention.

They said that the enemies you face are all PK troops rather than CPF officers, which is to say all private security instead of police.  Now I knew that most of them were PK rather than CPF, but I was pretty sure that some of them were CPF.  Specifically, I was thinking that the least well armed, least armored enemies were.

So I went back and took a look.  As the game progresses two things happen, one is that the PK take a bigger and bigger role in city security, the other is that you tend to encounter more powerful enemies.  So if one is looking for the ordinary cops instead of the private army, the beginning is the place to look, which is just where I expected to find them.

I thought, for example, that the first people to shoot at you were CPF officers.  So I took a closer look, they're PK.  I thought that the people who pulled up in police cars after the Pope assassination were CPF officers.  Took a closer look, they're PK.

I have a feeling this pattern would continue if I stopped and looked at every one of the enemies I thought was CPF through the game.

This is a problem.  At the beginning of the game PK is supposed to be trying to move in on the CPF's jurisdiction.  That's the whole reason for framing Kate in the first place. They are not the police, they have not replaced the police, they have to discredit the police and then use propaganda and political maneuvering to pick up the power the police lose.

If PK is already the police none of this makes sense.

After the gunshots are reported from Pope's building you hear that all units are being called in to respond, and yet every single unit that does respond is a PK unit.  If they're already all units then why bother discrediting the CPF?  They've already replaced them.

What should happen, and what I thought did happen when I was running away from the shooters rather than taking a look at the insignia on their sleeves, is that the the CPF should have been who you were seeing earlier in the game, and then they should have been gradually replaced by PK as the game progressed, which would coincide with their growing power that you heard about as you played through.  (The ascendancy of PK and the descent of the CPF is one of the things that the game does managed to establish pretty well, mostly via overheard news reports.)

How this relates to the thing above, is that while the cops don't bother the runners, that says nothing about PK.  PK isn't breaking the informal truce because they never were a part of it, but this still doesn't explain why they suddenly started shooting.

The only way them being PK instead of CPF would explain the overnight change from not shooting to shooting is if it were PK's first day on the job.  That would make no sense.  They're using police cars, they're using what appear to be (based on what Faith says elsewhere) police helicopters, they're using police frequencies, and they somehow manage to constitute all units in the vicinity of Pope's office.  They are a major part of the policing force in the city and if that had happened overnight it would have made major news.  If they had the clout necessary to make it happen overnight then it's very doubtful they would have needed to discredit the CPF.

Given how large a part of law enforcement they are, and the fact that them being a large part of law enforcement is something that's not really being noticed by those, like Merc, paying attention to law enforcement, this would have to be the result of of gradual process rather than it being their first day on the job.  Which means the question of, "Why shooting, why now?" remains unresolved.  Instead of being, "The cops leave us alone, wait, why the hell are they shooting?" it becomes, "PK has left us alone before today, wait, why the hell are they shooting?"

It's not that there can't be explanations, it's just that none are offered.  Merc promises to look into it for at least two days straight, but we never hear back about the results.

A simple explanation for why could be that, in preparation for the unveiling of Project Icarus (assuming it was ever supposed to be publicly unveiled) they wanted some extremely peace disturbing incidents with runners. "We have to get rid of these people," is more convincing when coupled with, "These people are the reason that you've been hearing machine-gun fire in our normally peaceful city."  But there's no real evidence for that.  (Well, there is the newschopper that called in the cops in the prologue mission.)

Some people think that it's because Faith was already being set up, along with her sister, but that doesn't fit with what we know.  Kate was called in by Pope, not the people who assassinated Pope.  (And it really was Pope doing it, Kate talked to him.)  That's not something the other side could have predicted or controlled.  Moreover, the one who did the actual work of framing Kate didn't even know about the relationship between Kate and Faith.  Framing Faith's sister was accidental and unanticipated.  It was not something they could have been basing their decisions on the day before the assassination.

Since this is the what I would do differently post, here's how I think I would have handled it.

If I retained the existing prolog chapter, which I probably would do as the the last thing before leaving the extended prologue missions I discussed above, I'd still have it be PK troops who opened fire on you, but for Chapter One (Pope's assassination) I'd have either exclusively CPF or a mix of CPF and PK tending toward CPF.  Then as time went on in the game you'd see a general shift from one to the other.  Initially PK would be rare to see outside of settings where they were contracted by private companies (for example, you should probably see them in places like Ropeburn's offices because he hired them) but as the game went on you'd see them taking on more and more of a general law enforcement role as the CPF's power dwindled.

Having Merc discover that it was PK rather than CPF who initially fired on Faith could allow him to actually get back to her about his promised looking into things, and it could turn out that the increased force used against runners was strongly correlated to times when PK units were the first to respond.

* * *


  1. This is, I suspect, why many action-type games (as opposed to CRPGs) are set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland rather than a functioning society: it's much easier to justify having a small number of people to interact with. Mentioning names would certainly have helped, but really it would be much better if one could interact with people. I suspect I'd use a procedural approach: have models that can be mixed and matched, Sims-style, and generate dialogue and interaction off a personality trait system.

    Taking a Portal-ish approach would see a game of two halves: the first half is the running-as-job, the second half is the Big Plot. Couple that with your optional-mission idea, and you have a trainer mode: the player can keep doing standard missions to build up movement skills (and perhaps reputation, if there's a way for that to be relevant) until she decides to push the "start plot" button.

    The ultimate sandbox version would be to have the whole thing take place in, say, a square mile - that had been mapped thoroughly. You can fit an awful lot of parkourishness into a space like that.

    If you've watched the Doctor Who remake: the "Vote Saxon" posters towards the end of series 3 sound like the sort of foreshadowing you're talking about. Blatant and unsubtle, sure, but they get the job done.

    1. I've been trying to respond to this for a couple days, but it's been difficult to find the time.

      In no particular order, both the Portal-ish approach and the ultimate sandbox version sound like good games.

      There are two things that I go back and forth on when talking about something like this. One is whether what I say should be confined by what is reasonable given the resources. For example, reasonably, a much larger prologue would have required making cuts to the rest of the game, and there's not a lot of game to cut. You could possibly get rid of the boat and the chapter with the convoy without losing too much. (Shift the fight with Cel to the PK level, have Kate be taken to the Shard as plan A.) But would that be enough for the kind of extended prologue I'd want? Probably not.

      The other is where the difference between, "This would make the game better," and, "This would make it into a different game that I would have liked more," lies and which side of that divide discussion would be on.

      So, for example, I would have liked it if you could interact with people, but Mirror's Edge doesn't really allow for that all that much.

      Which is sort of why I look to AVPII for how you could learn about the story and the setting. Obviously there's a big difference between a gun heavy game set in the space-faring future on an alien world and a gun light game set in the near future on earth, but in terms of storytelling options the two have a lot in common. Outside of cutscenes you pretty much never meet anyone who doesn't want to kill you, the one exception being the person talking to you over the radio, you're constantly on the run, so forth.

      The utter lack of interaction isn't exactly unusual for an FPS (at least not the ones I've played) but how it effectively AVPII was able to communicate story and setting during the actual gameplay sections given that lack of interaction was impressive. Following in that model could, I think, have allowed for a reworking of Mirror's Edge that had a much more solid story while still remaining, fundamentally, Mirror's Edge.

      I feel like introducing interaction beyond, "Give me the bag," "Take the bag" and "I'm going to shoot you," would be changing Mirror's Edge into somthing it's not. Maybe something better, I would have liked it at least, but something different.

    2. how it effectively AVPII was

      That "it" isn't supposed to be there.

  2. AVPII was a severe letdown in gameplay terms from the first game... but I very much liked the way the story was handled.

    I think the ultimate-sandbox version could at least break even on resources, because there'd no longer be a need to design one distinctive route per mission.