Monday, August 18, 2008

Fighting the Man, Barefisted

The internet tends to be rather excitable. For bloggers (myself not included, of course), rumor is often treated as fact and trailers receive such heavy scrutiny that, by the time the actual film or game releases, the hype has peaked long ago. I try to stay out of such ridiculous, speculative criticism, but sometimes it is impossible to resist. Sometimes this is a good thing. The "Watchmen" trailer that debuted before "The Dark Knight" drove me to go out and pick up the incredible graphic novel that spawned the upcoming film. Trailers can even have a deeper effect. It may just be me, but every once in a while, a trailer comes along and makes me think, "This is what I've been waiting for, and I didn't even know it."

Case in point: "Mirror's Edge."

Call me naive, but I still get excited when I see that trite "The Following Is All In-Game Footage" disclaimer. These days, pretty much every video game trailer touts this, for better or for worse. In this case, my excitement was justified. If this disclaimer had not been shown, I think that a lot of viewers would have assumed that this was some sort of experiment or an overly audacious proposition from the developers.

Why, do you ask, is it so hard to believe that this game does indeed exist? For a number of reasons -- each of which contribute to my excitement. First is the perspective: first person. For years, the first person perspective has been essentially confined to the genre of shooters. (I compare video games' first person shooters to TV's crime dramas -- there is certainly a great deal of potential in the genre, but that potential can never be realized when it is being crippled by a glut of generic fare.) "Mirror's Edge" looks as if it may put an end to the glut. The gameplay is striking. There are few guns, and most are wielded by enemies; most of the gameplay is platforming, not combat. One would think that many gamers would be skeptical, but the game has actually been received with excitement to match my own. It has long been thought that platforming would be impossible in a genre that only recently allowed players the freedom to jump. Here, we see that platforming is not only possible, but it can be both exciting and intuitive. But, this departure doesn't only change the gameplay.

Personally, I'm sick of the compulsive violence we see in most video games today. There is something deeply unsettling about a game that places a gun in your hand without having to answer for itself. You assume a person's identity and are given a certain degree of freedom, but you are ultimately only given one option: kill. Slowly, games are becoming more self conscious, and there have always been the few exceptions ("Metal Gear Solid" is the most notable), but "Mirror's Edge" seems more pronounced in its aversion toward violence. You seem at a distinct disadvantage, going up against heavily armored, shotgun wielding sentries with your bare hands. Yet, this is how the game is intended to be played.

What solidifies this idealistic approach to combat is my second point: the art design. I need not point out the gloom and doom that pervades video games today, just as I need not point out how startlingly unique "Mirror's Edge" looks. The bright, almost sterile city is matched with clean, commercial architecture. The music seems intent on uplifting the player, even with death's constant threat present. Even the sound of the rooftop air brushing past the player's ear seems to give a thrilling sense of freedom.

The city is apparently a bit too perfect, something that is subtly indicated by the presence of police and the uniform nature of the buildings. This is what really sets "Mirror's Edge" apart. Where the average game might consider a dead body its best tool for foreshadowing, details like these create a sense of danger in this game. With an atmosphere that is decidedly bright, hitting an occasional ominous note gives the game's tone an unusual amount of dimension. This is what, I think, made the game really capture peoples' attention when the trailer came out.

Finally, I must point out the makeup of Faith, the main character: she's a woman and she's Asian. It goes absolutely without question in the gaming industry that if you're going to make a video game, and you want to make a cent on it, your main character has to be white and male. There is the occasional exception for buxom, white females, but even that one is surprisingly rare when you think about it. I was thrilled to find that this game will finally have someone different on the front cover. Racism is everywhere in video games, perhaps more so than in any other major medium. This game, for once, is taking a step in the right direction.

We have a few months to go before "Mirror's Edge" hits shelves, but I doubt this particular game will suffer from hype burnout. EA has been brilliant in its marketing of the title. It realized that the title had gameplay and art design striking enough to speak for itself, and in making such a simple ad campaign, it has left room for more traditional, story-centric marketing in the months to come. Indeed, we know little about the plot for "Mirror's Edge," beyond its setting in a near-future dystopia and the kidnapping of Faith's sister. There is no doubt that gamers will be waiting restlessly for more.

1 comment:

keele864 said...

"Violent videogame" redefined.

Good post.