By Geoffrey Bunting
Platformers used to be a simple matter of left and right and up and down. In Super Mario games, there was no doubt about where to go: you start on the left-hand side of the screen and finish on the right. The same is true for most of its contemporaries. Castlevania utilised verticality as well, as did Metroid, but still employed this opposite bias (entrance at one end, finish at the other) has been a staple of 2D platformers for decades.
The Legend of Zelda gave the player complete freedom to explore without direction. While this was to add to the sense of adventure, it also avoided the messy process of trying to add game-breaking guidance to the game by giving you no order to play it in. Pokémon had a linear design that guided the player through the game but still adhered to this opposite bias in placing the entrance to an area in the opposite corner to the exit. In short, direction was never really an issue in two dimensions, there was never any real need for stone-cold guidance.
This was all well and good in 2D, but when games moved into three dimensions, as well as opening up many possibilities, it presented issues on how you herd players in the direction you want them to go. This was easy in two dimensions, start on one side of the screen with nowhere else to go but right. Now we weren’t dealing with a single digit axis of movement in all directions were possible. In Ocarina of Time it was necessary to add a guiding character to push you in the right direction. Not necessarily to make you play in a sequence, but to cut down on the time you would spend working up to an area only to find you don’t have the item for it or skill for it. Super Mario 64 – which added even more possibilities with its flying ability – pulled a Zelda and left it open for exploration, sealing off harder areas with a star counter. This is a formula it has used since to stop players reaching areas they’re not ready for since.
As games have evolved, techniques to gently guide players in the right direction have had to evolve too. Adventure games and more contemporary platformers provide a litany of mostly irritating but completely necessary guides that are needed to point you in the right direction, tutor you in the basics of the game, and make sure you don’t put it down from dying too often: Kaepora Gaebora and Navi, Bottles from Banjo Kazooie, Omochao from 3D sonic games. These characters are an important part of progressing through the game, but they also break the immersion and, once we’ve got the hang of things, are roundly ignored.
Now, adventure games are, despite being huge, mostly linear affairs. Characters are replaced with text on screen or objective markers that make the whole thing cold – full of constant pausing and checking what the hell to do. So, what do you do when you want to make a fast-paced adventure-platformer in which all directions are possible? How do you let the player know where to go?
You follow the example of Mirror’s Edge.
There is a caveat to Mirror Edge’s design, and that is its art style. Being set in a futuristic society, the designers are given the license to present the world as a predominantly white landscape. This blank canvas look means that any colours implemented in the game are naturally going to stand out against the backdrop. In this context, it works. However, in others it would be a huge design decision that may well not fit the context of the game. It may well prove an interesting art direction for, say, a platforming game in the medieval style, but it could also be a disaster.
But then, perhaps in that kind of game you would not need to move as fast as you do in Mirror’s Edge. You play as Faith, a courier, who utilises free-running to deliver her cargo, escape from authorities, and generally be pretty wicked. She uses pipes, boards, scaffolding, flag poles, and so much more to run and jump through levels at break-neck speed.
She (and by she, I mean you) is aided in this by a function known as Runner’s Vision. This turns viable environmental factors red so you can see quickly what it is safe and/or useful to interact with. In its white landscape, punctuated by moments of blue and yellow, quick flashes of red show up easily against the otherwise muted colours. This high contrast allows Mirror’s Edge to flow at rapid speeds, broken only by the player’s mistimed jumps or the occasional movement in the wrong direction. Whereas some kind of leading trail would break the immersion, these frantic examinations of the environment put us in the eyes of a free-runner needing to make those spilt-second decisions about where and how to jump. Throughout the game the colour red re-occurs to draw you attention to objects: red pipes and boards lead you to jumps, red posters and signs mark your route and surround important objects, while your destination is always branded in red in the distance.
Any platformers these days, in an effort to get more out of themselves, encourage exploration for secrets a la Megaman. While this element is certainly included in Mirror’s Edge, it is more about fast platforming. To the point that making you stop and look around for half an hour for secrets would be game-breaking, rather secrets tend to emerge on alternate paths, or tucked away on your route where you may scope them out for a second as you leap off a building.
This all ensures that the pace that has marked platformers since their early days, and that has often been lost in 3D iterations like Banjo Kazooie and Mario 64, is retained – and then some. Not all of us are capable of speed running, and as games are reduced to inhuman completion times it is becoming something of an art form. But Mirror’s Edge imparts on us a feeling of just that, speed running through a game at an exhilarating speed – until we see the actual Mirror’s Edge speed runners, that is.
But what the implementation of Runner’s Vision shows is that there are ways to direct a player without breaking immersion or giving way to tedium. If Mirror’s Edge included an objective marker and trail, rather than utilising a large structure marked by red in the distance, as its guidance system it would not only be a different game, but a bad one.
Mirror’s Edge succeeds in harking back to the old days. It’s almost Nintendo in its implementation, with a paper thin story being secondary to a gameplay mechanic. The trend in most games now is the exact opposite, and this makes Mirror’s Edge a refreshing interlude between huge games with little or no interesting gameplay. It is short, difficult, and at no point will you be really asking “where do I go?”