Groping The Map: Book 1 – SAMPLE.

In order to promote my work on Groping The Map: Book 1, I have decided to release a .pdf sample of the first nine pages of the chapter on Nova Prospekt from Half-Life 2. Consider this a “vertical-slice” of the book, as you can see I have made some changes from the traditional format that the articles had when posted directly to this site. I’d greatly appreciate any and all feedback on this sample and please feel free to share this as widely as possible.

In addition to this sample of previously unseen work I have complied the three existing Groping The Map articles into .pdf files for easy distribution, they can be found here, again feel free to share as widely as possible:

Additionally I, along with a collection of other really smart writers have started RunJumpFire. I have a new weekly column there called Design By Example where I analyse one specific game mechanic or mechanism each Wednesday. Currently I have articles up on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Super Metroid, forthcoming this month are articles on Dishonored and Alpha Protocol, the column archive can be found here.

Groping The Map: Book 1

Groping The Map: Book 1

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 2.

“Hey, the City looks almost bearable from up here.”

Life Of The Party 29

Somewhere to the north is your objective, Angelwatch.

Annotated Walkthrough, 1:

From the moment it starts Life Of The Party feels different from the rest of Thief II. Everything is brighter, the surrounding walls no longer tower above you, even the sky seems closer.

Some familiar elements remain, the constant industrial drone that pervades every level, the sounds of civilization layered over it. Somewhere to the right somebody is snoring heavily, while footsteps can be heard ahead of you though something is a little off, they sound close but there is nobody in sight. Those footsteps are indeed ahead of you, but also below you, several floors down, at street level.

For the first time you start a level with neither your objective in view nor the sound of Garrett musing over the task at hand. It isn’t until you’ve moved to the edge of the Bell Tower, upon who’s upper floor you start, that Garrett makes his opinions known and even then it’s more cynical commentary than meaningful advice. You will need to scale the pipework on the opposite roof before he will make any suggestions regarding the best way to proceed. The suggestion to “follow the road north” is an almost cryptic one as there is an inaccessible building to your north and the road in question is aligned east to west.

Life Of The Party 07

Grandmauden Road, your circuitous guide to Angelwatch.

Though initially confusing, the advice is good. It will be difficult to keep Grandmauden Road in view at all times on your way to Angelwatch but it will serve as a landmark by which to orientate yourself as you make your way along the Thieves’ Highway.

Looking down to the street below highlights this level’s inversion of the traditional relationships of space and height; no longer are the buildings of the City towering over you. It is a liberating view of what has until now been portrayed as a uniformly oppressive and restrictive environment. The buildings that once stood as obstacles during your flight from the Crippled Burrick (in Ambush!) are now the very means by which you’ll traverse the city.

Even before reaching this point there have been opportunities to stray from the path. To the left of the Bell Tower a ledge leads to a secret room containing a handful of gold coins and some Water Arrows. While following the snoring takes you to a small room where a liveried guard appears to be sleeping off the effects of a bottle of wine, some more loot can be retrieved from his unsecured footlocker. Heading in either direction very quickly leads to a dead end, but it won’t take long before the routes available will begin to diverge much more significantly.

Having used the pipes to cross Grandmauden Road there is another brief diversion available to you. A ladder on the left descends to a rooftop occupied by a pair of generators, the noise from which it is difficult to ignore. There is an open window in the building to the north, the guard within alternating between facing the roof and the room itself. The window ledge is just high enough to be climbed onto, though if you fail the sounds of your clumsy footsteps are certain to alert the guard even though the ambient noise from the two generators should have been enough to mask any sounds you may make.

Unfortunately the implementation of audio within the Dark Engine is such that even when you think they should background sounds are often not loud enough to completely drown out the noise you make. Occasionally frustrating this also works in your favour at times, as Noisemaker Arrows and other forms of audible distraction can still be employed in noisy areas. Any sound effects associated with the player or other functional elements within the world are always higher in the mix than ambient sound effects. This ensures they are always readable, even in circumstances where environmental sounds could realistically be expected to drown out all other noise.

Climbing, or mantling, is one of a number of secondary techniques within Thief II that extend the standard inputs to increase the scope of Garrett’s movement options. By approaching a low wall, or window ledge, and holding down the jump button while moving forward you can mantle up onto the wall. It’s not always straightforward, you will need to ensure that your view is centred correctly or you will miss the mantle attempt and inevitable make noise as you jump ineffectually against the wall. Extending this technique is the ‘running jump-mantle’, by running towards a wall and holding down jump at the last moment it is possible to grab the edge of the wall and pull yourself up. As well as being useful for reaching areas too high for the standard mantle it can also be used to scale walls on the other side of the gaps. A very useful skill in Life Of The Party, where a number of ledges can only be reached by leaping between buildings. The third of these secondary movement techniques is the ‘crouch-drop’ which is as simple as it sounds. By crouching and walking off a wall it is possible to land without making a sound, though care needs to be taken as when landing from a ‘crouch-drop’ you will automatically stand up again.

Development of these movement skills greatly increases the playable space of the level. Though the majority of locations can be reached through reliance on the standard move set, the directed graph that defines the relationship between accessible and inaccessible, safe and hostile, spaces is altered as each of the secondary movement mechanic are learnt. Two locations that were once only accessible via a third location can now be moved between directly, while routes that once restricted backtracking now become bidirectional.

The presence of these secondary movement mechanics highlights an often overlooked aspect of the Thief games. Despite their name the actual act of thievery is not where the focus of the game systems lie, what you do when you reach the loot is secondary to the means you employ to get there. Thief is a game about movement through space, and the manipulation of that space to increase its relative safety or hostility. As such in terms of its mechanical focus some of it’s closest modern contemporary are not the superficially similar Splinter Cell series which has a greater focus on the tools at your disposal, but rather Mirror’s Edge a game very explicitly about movement through, and therefore mastery of, space. The commonality of the mechanical and aesthetic experience between these two apparently disparate games will become clearer as your progress through Life Of The Party.

If you are unwilling or unable to climb onto the window ledge, there are other options. Positioned directly above the window is a wooden roof support, a good target for a Vine Arrow, and if you are willing to look for one there are plenty of crates and similar objects throughout the level. Whatever method your choose to gain access to the room, timing it to ensure the guard’s back is turned requires either judicious use of a scouting orb or a fair degree of luck. Whether the stack of coins within is worth the effort of attaining it depends on the difficulty setting and your own preferences regarding the acquisition of loot.

Watching over your actions, from a window in a building to the north is a hooded figure, a Keeper, who will have disappeared once more when your emerge from the room. This is not the only member of his Brotherhood to be found on this level though he does manage to be the more subtle of the two.

Moving west again you are soon presented with the first real opportunity to diverge from the straight ahead path. Climbing down a ladder onto a low roof two routes are now available, head inside the building directly east of you or jump across to a ledge on the wall of a building to the south and follow Grandmauden Road as it continues past the building and further east. It is worth noting at this point that the route of Grandmauden Road is not as straight forward as depicted on the map. Though the general direction is accurate the position of the buildings surrounding it often mean it has to go a short distance in a perpendicular direction before turning back on course. This can occasionally make it difficult to orientate yourself with relation to the map, however the road can be seen at enough points to allow you to ascertain which direction leads to Angelwatch.

Life Of The Party 09

Continue along this ledge to eventually cross Grandmauden Road or head through the building to stay to its east side.

Accessed through an open window the building to the east is the first of the self-contained encounter spaces. A corridor, two small rooms and a staircase with a single guard on a patrol route passing through each area. In Thief terms this is a trivial encounter, the corners of the room at the bottom of the staircase offer enough shadow to hide while the guard moves past. A window half way up the staircase will allow you to leave the building and keep heading west, however there is an alternate way out of this building and one that will allow you to bypass a large section of the Dayport streets.

Life Of The Party 10

Access to the Astronomer’s room can be found directly above this position.

Entering from the hallway, it’s possible to spot a hole in the wall directly ahead. Accessible from the roof-beams and partially blocked off by wooden boards this grants access to a secret area and eventually the Shemenov Estate. A Vine Arrow is the most efficient means of reaching the roof-beams as it is noiseless and the Arrow itself can be retrieved and reused.

The wooden boards covering the hole need to be broken, though they take no obvious damage when initial struck. Unless you have encountered the few similarly breakable surfaces in previous levels, this can be a little disconcerting as there is no feedback to indicate attacking is the correct approach. If you are trying to maintain a low profile, it will be necessary to ensure that the patrolling guard has closed the door and started up the stairs before you attack the boards as the noise will easily alert him. The sound of the guard’s footsteps as he scales the stairs to the room at the top and then returns, can feel like a ticking clock creating a moment of tension in what is a very simple situation. There is more than enough time to break through before the guard returns but it doesn’t necessarily feel as safe as it actually is.

On the other side of the wall is the attic room of an Astronomer who clearly has a rather dubious concept of both the scientific method and the value of human life; not to mention a single-minded fascination with the moon. It is possible to steal the Sunburst Device described in the Astronomer’s journal and doing so might actually be one of the noblest things Garrett will ever do. A final curious note about the Astronomer’s room is that though it’s possible to switch the electric lights on it’s impossible to turn them off again, they simply flicker a little and remain illuminated. It can evoke a brief moment of worry that lasts only as long as it takes to realise nobody can reach you here.

Thief is rife with moments like this, players, especially first time players, can not always be certain if an area is safe and this knowledge gap between perception and reality can be exploited to imply hostility where none exists.

Moving past some stacked crates, a window in an empty room below leads to the Shemenov Estate and a perfect example of the isolated problem encounter spaces upon which the Dayport sections of Life Of The Party are built.

Life Of The Party 08

Shemenov Estate, a good case study for the different spatial layouts available for a stealth game.

Despite there being at least three ways to reach the Shemenov Estate each require exploration to find and as such this section of Life Of The Party can feel much more isolated than some of the locations to the west of Grandmauden Road. This isolation, along with the limited number of AI agents (Two patrolling guards, one static guard and a civilian) make it a good case study for the various ways in which the Thief series uses spatial layout to promote stealth gameplay.

Stripped of any interaction verbs beyond those concerned directly with movement there are three ways of moving unobserved through a space patrolled by a hostile AI.

  1. Watch and Wait: Find a location along the path of the AI from which you can remain unobserved and wait for the AI to pass you heading in the opposite direction, then proceed across the space.
  2. Bypass: Locate an alternate route through the space that avoids contact with the hostile AI completely.
  3. Follow: Trace the same path as the AI until you find a point that allows you to break contact.

Since method 3 is a variation and combination of the first two methods, there are essentially only two approaches to stealth movement. The tools available to the player can be used to change the environment to facilitate either of these approaches but within most Thief levels it is possible maintain unobserved movement without a reliance upon tools. In general there is a path that offers a near zero change of detection, of stealth failure.

The first and second (external and internal) sections of the Shemenov Estate are good examples of these two methods of stealth movement, and the level design needed to support them.

The external section of the Shemenov Estate, which you enter from the Astronomer’s room, consists of a lower and upper roof space, linked by steps, with two rooms off the lower roof, one accessible from a closed door on the lower roof itself and the other by a second set of steps rising to the same level as the upper roof. This upper room is lit by a torch and has an attached balcony upon which is a guard. The other guard patrols between this room and the upper roof, though he has a tendency to embellish his route with occasionally and apparently random loops that making following him a risky proposition. Arriving on the lower roof, it is initially impossible to see the static guard, while the patrolling guard could also be hidden from view in the upper room on on the upper roof, though as he never actually stops moving his footsteps will quickly give his position away.

The erratic behaviour of the patrolling guard combined with an unawareness of the layout of the upper roof make any attempt to follow him a risky option, with no apparent means of gaining access to the upper roof without taking the steps the only viable option is either to deal with the guard directly or adopt the Watch and Wait approach.

Life Of The Party 12

An example of a room that serves a logical and functional purpose.

The level design in the Thief series makes a lot of use of what appears on first glance to be purely logical territory. Each level is full of small rooms and little nooks that seem to exist simply because such locations would exist in a bank or a warehouse. However an understanding of the dynamics of Thief shows that these locations are in fact just as much functional territory as logical territory. They may contain little, or even nothing, in the way of loot, and are likely undisturbed by guards or other NPCs, but their very emptiness makes them prime locations from which to observe the behaviour of the NPCs and plan your next move.

The room behind the door on the lower roof is a prime example of such a space. Ostensibly it is a guard barracks, with a double bunk and a small foot locker, however its position makes it an ideal place from which to observe the movements of the patrolling guard. It is away from his standard route and though illuminated by an electric light there are enough dark corners to allow you to wait undetected.

Life Of The Party 13

An alternate view of the Shemenov Estate showing the upper roof, and chimney to the Kitchen.

Despite the multiple ways you can leave the Shemenov Estate the route that will keep you heading in the direction of Angelwatch requires heading inside the estate itself and finding another way out to the north. The only way to gain entry to the interior is via the chimney on the upper roof where a Water Arrow is needed to dowse the flames in the fireplace before you can descend.

Even with the fire out the kitchen still presents a hostile environment, a torch illuminates the floor ahead of you which is made up of hard stone that is difficult to cross inaudibly, while a servant performs her duties in the corner. Once alerted she will scream and run for help from the guard on patrol inside the Shemenov Estate. If you move slowly you can leave the kitchen without being seen, however opening the door to the hallway without first taking the time to listen for what is on the other side is a risky proposition.

On the counter opposite the fireplace and behind the servant is a scroll that contains the latest in a series of missives concerning an Alchemist’s and the arrangements of two people to meet therein. This minor subplot is detailed in various scrolls found within several of the previous levels, even as far back as the third level Framed.

Life Of The Party 14

Not only a good hiding place, this storage area contains what feels like an intentional trick.

The second patrolling guard can be found in the interior of the Shemenov Estate, his route taking him from a small storage area opposite the door to the kitchen up two flights of stairs and out onto another roof.

Within the storage area beneath the stairs there are two chests,of the kind within which loot or other useful items are usually found, however in this case one of them contains a bucket that you will automatically pick up. Putting this bucket down creates a lot of noise which may alert either the guard himself of the servant in the kitchen; assuming you haven’t closed the door behind you. Though it’s a simple task to wait until the guard has moved away before dropping the bucket, it is equally simply (and more likely) to discard the bucket as worthless, allowing it to clank nastily on the stone floor. The placement of his chest was not unintentional and it feels like a slight admonishment against not thinking things through, against acting too quickly. After all which is more likely to be found under the stairs, gold or cleaning supplies?

Though the storage area provides a good hiding place from which to avoid the AI, as it marks one of the end points of his patrol it will not be possible to wait here and then proceed past him. Because his entire route cannot be observed from any one location exit from the Shemenov Estate will require you to take a risk and follow him up the stairs.

Each of the two landings is lit by a single torch and once plunged into darkness either makes a good point at which to wait for the patrolling guard to move past. Continuing up brings you out onto an unguarded rooftop with a high wall to the north. Mantling this wall and moving across another roof leads to the intersection of Grandmauden Road and The Baron’s Way, a well guarded intersection and the point at which all paths through Dayport converge.

Continuous Meaning.

As has been discussed previously it makes no sense to analyse a game mechanic devoid of the context in  which it occurs. At an abstract level Jump is a mechanic that exists in many games from Super Mario Galaxy to Mirror’s Edge or Far Cry 2. The context within which each mechanic is performed is what imbues an otherwise similar action with a different meaning. The Jump mechanic in Mirror’s Edge is not possessed of the same layers of meaning as the Jump mechanic in Far Cry 2. Neither is a Jump performed at one point in Far Cry 2 as meaningful as a Jump performed at another point; the circumstances surrounding the mechanic have changed.

The specific context in which a mechanic exists is always in flux, previous actions influence the context of future actions.

If I am standing in the desert in a far corner of the world with nobody in sight then Jump has a decidedly different meaning than it would if I was in the middle of a frantic fire fight in the capital city.

It’s natural to expect that the more meaningful a mechanic, the more obvious, and potentially dramatic, the reaction it provokes. If I am alone and I start to Jump the action is not very meaningful at all, so little to no response is expected. If I am in combat in an object rich environment and I Jump the action is rich with meaning. Consequently I respect the world to response in an equally meaningful manner; enemies will change their attack patterns, objects will move if I knock them over, I will land on other objects if my Jump enables me to reach them.

The same actions performed in different contexts should lead to different, but contextually appropriately responses.

Some mechanics are, by their very nature, more inherently meaningful than others. Shoot, is a mechanic full of cultural and psychological implications that imbue it with much richer layers of meaning than those associated with Jump. However if I Shoot when standing alone in the middle of the desert I still expect to elicit very little response, despite Shoot being more symbolically meaningful. This is because a lot of the meaning associated with Shoot is dependant on there being other objects around to act upon. Shoot is inherently more meaningful than Jump but only in certain circumstances. Shooting when in combat in the middle of a city is an action where a dramatic response is expected.

The meaning of a particular mechanic is governed not only by the inherent symbolism and cultural associations of that action (Shooting is symbolically and culturally more meaningful than Jumping) but also the specific context in which each action occurs.

An example of this can be seen in a very specific manner in Mirror’s Edge. The movement options available are highly dependant on the current speed at which you are moving, which is turn is influenced by the previous moves you have performed. No action occurs in isolation as every previous action has some influence on the current context and therefore your range of possible actions and the potential responses to them.

Because all actions alter the state of the game world in some fashion, the context of future actions is determined by the previous actions that led to the current state of the game world. This means all actions that alter the context of the game world, in affect any and all actions, are meaningful as they have an impact on future actions.

All actions are meaningful if they alter the context of future actions.

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (regardless of which, the fan reaction means it may well be changed) it’s impossible to play in fullscreen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and triggered a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there’s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing, and where it is in relation to you, can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for its ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing its bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier – when my wavering sanity permitted – caused me to form a horrific image of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked before about how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound of undeterminable source; tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (and regardless of which, the fan reaction means it’ll likely be changed) it’s impossible to play in full screen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact I found the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and cause a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there ‘s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing and where it is in relation to you can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It’s should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for it’s ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing it’s bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier, when my wavering sanity permitted, caused me to form a horriffic of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that almost tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked beforeabout how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound who’s source you can’t determine. Tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.

Out of your control.

Warning: The following post contains plot spoilers for the final chapters of Mirror’s Edge.

“Complete the game without shooting an enemy.”

This is the description for the “Test of Faith” Achievement in Mirror’s Edge, and it highlights one of the more interesting ways to play the game. It is also a lie, in spirit if not in fact. As worded it is possible to earn the Achievement but it is technically impossible to accurately fulfil the requirements of it.

At the end of Chapter 7 there is a cut-scene where Faith take a handgun from the adversary she has been chasing throughout the previous level and uses it to shoot an oil drum between her and a force of approaching paramilitary Private Security personnel. The resulting explosion is responsible for the destruction of a building, and according to a news report heard later the death of dozens. Even if, as Faith believes, the news is not to be trusted the likelihood that anybody nearby surviving the blast is negligible.

From that moment on Faith has become a murderer, in an act totally beyond their control she has taken actions that could well be entirely at odds with the desires of the player. Up to that point I had chosen to avoid combat, and though I had been forced to disarm and incapacitate some of my pursuers I always left them breathing; or at least I could tell myself that. There was that one exception where I kicked somebody off a building, but that was an accident and I actually did felt bad about it, leading to a surprising moment of reflection.

I was smarter, faster, I didn’t need to resort to violence and everything about the game supported this as a valid option, Faith’s actions and attitude throughout the early cut-scenes gave credence to this, she wasn’t a killer. Even the Objectives screen made a point of informing me that “So far, you have not fired a shot at anybody”, it knew the kind of person I was.

That all came tumbling down at the end of Chapter 7, whatever feelings I had about Faith as a character, whatever decisions I had made about the type of person she was were invalidated by a “cool” cut-scene. There was no need for her to murder those people, she’d escaped worse situations before, I know, I was there. It is true that Faith had just found out she had been betrayed, was angry but that is not much of an excuse. She had never let emotion get in the way before, if she had she’d never have been able to keep moving while under near constant duress. Furthermore if she’d not seen that particular betrayal coming she really hadn’t been paying attention; but that’s a complaint for another time.

It is a perfect example of the dichotomy between game mechanics and narrative. The former allowed me to express myself in a way that the latter would subsequently invalidate. In one I could be the agile runner, who avoided violence whenever possible, in the other I was the driven murderer, out for revenge and to hell with anybody else. I could not reconcile both, and so lost all respect or empathy for either.

There is simply no reason for the actions portrayed in that particular cut-scene. It is possible to show Faith escaping in a way that is fitting for both players who engaged in combat and those avoided it. In one moment the game had broken the tacit agreement between us. It had failed to respect my character decisions, it had made a pretense of allowing me to define whether Faith was violent or not only to pull the rug away at the vital moment and strip all control. It lied. Any actions I might have taken to avoid combat up to then were for nothing. It had failed to show me respect so had lost mine.

I can’t say that the storyline of Mirror’s Edge is compelling but it had been interesting enough for me to be invested in finding out how things would play out. From Chapter 8 on I was playing simply to finish the game, I had lost any interest in the characters or their fate. It had been made abundantly clear that nothing I did had any really impact.

When any choices I make about my character and their role in the world are going to be ignored why should I even bother making them? Why should I care at all?

Life on the Edge.

Mirror’s Edge feels like a game made specifically for me. I’ve worked in offices, shopping centres, and warehouses and am now being asked to exploring highly stylised but authentic recreations of such spaces, using my new abilities to gain a mastery over these environments that I could never hope to achieve in my day to day life. It even borrows a move (the running slide) from Far Cry 2, which is fortunate as I’ve been attempting it in every game since. A few hours play and I had started to look at the world in a different way, no longer did I see window ledges, pipes, or rooftops. I saw paths, escape routes, leaps of Faith.

There’s even a subtle sense of the Looking Glass Studios aesthetic in the game mechanics: application of a limited set of tools to turn the environment to your advantage. In this case the parkour abilities of runner Faith instead of the elemental arrows of master thief Garrett.

Mirror’s Edge is at its best when being pursued. The pounding of your feet on the ground, the rush of the wind as you leap between buildings, the kinaesthetics are outstanding. There are times where all the elements gel and you are able to lose myself in its core fantasy…

Barging through a door I see the rooftops, a patchwork of stark white and grey metal spreading out ahead of me. I’m giddy, a child again, but the police are closing, they are armed I’m not. None of that matters, up here I have the power, this is my playground. I sprint to the right and leap off, tucking in my legs at the last moment I land with a roll on the building opposite. Moving again, losing no time, sliding under the pipes I need to get over that fence, how? There, that wall, that air conditioning unit. Two steps up the latter I turn, spring across to the wall then off again. Up and over the fence. I hit the ground hard, a stumble. Bullets chew the floor around me, but I’m still moving. Arms pumping heart pounding, a gap in the roof. No time to think about it I angle towards the wall my momentum taking me up and along over the gap…

Sorry forgot where I was for a minute…

Extreme Window Cleaning didn't really catch on.

Unfortunately such pure moments of sensation don’t last. Much too frequently you are faced with a jump or other obstacle that slows you down, that seems for a moment impossible to pass.  A section that will inevitably lead to trial and error and death, repeated, unpleasant and rarely educational death.

At the heart of both those moments of total engagement and those of controller-snapping frustration lies a control system and movement list that is at once straightforward, intuitive and barely explained.

Beyond standard first person analog movement and camera controls there are only three buttons required for navigation of the environment; up, down and a 180 degree turn. Combinations of these are all that’s required to pull off even the most complex sequence of jumps and climbs. It’s context sensitive yet strangely intuitive. The simplicity of control strengthens the connection between you and Faith. Up is always up. Standing still it’s a simple jump, moving forward at speed it becomes a leap. Running towards a wall it’s a climb. Fast enough and you’ll take several steps up the wall before grabbing the top, too slow and you’ll clamber up and hang there.

This allows you to feel capable and skilled from the very beginning. Within minutes you are being asked to perform tricky manoeuvres and pulling them off with speed and style. Mirror’s Edge succeeds in making you feel skilled very quickly. The downside to this is that the tutorial only provides information on the more basic movements, with little subsequent reinforcement of those lessons. It is easy to forget certain options are available and therefore become frustrated when faced with an obstacle that requires a rarely used part of your movement vocabulary; Faith’s ability to press herself through narrow gaps, or jump backwards from a wall run being the most common culprits.

Besides these moments the only movements required for the majority of the game are variations on jumping, ducking, and wall running. With the need to only think about these base abilities movement at speed quickly becomes instinctive. Almost every obstacle can be overcome with one of these and enough momentum. Here is the core of Mirror’s Edge, conservation of momentum. The need to keep moving; to keep your speed high and carry it through into each subsequent move. It’s a vital concept that is described once early in the game and never expanded upon. There is little education or reinforcement regarding which moves help to conserve momentum and which don’t. This lack of clarity is compounded by the need to approach certain obstacles with a counter intuitive thought process. In order to retain the most momentum there are times where it is better to avoid the obvious path, sprinting around otherwise scalable obstacles because the direct path will slow you down too much.

With every ability available to you from the start the skill comes not from working out the required route but in finding and following a path that allows you to keep moving. It is a game to be played at full speed, every new rooftop analysed in the time it takes to make the leap onto it. The path over, under or around each obstacle selected moments before you reach it, will your momentum take you up over it or do you need to dart around the side? Keep moving, stop and you’re dead. There is barely time to look before you leap and what little you have needs to be spent looking ahead to the next jump. Everything has to be done two moves in advance, no time to look around when you get to the other side, you need to be moving, if you don’t they’ll be on you.

"Don't... Look... Down!"

When you understand the abilities available, how they can be used and combined you find yourself stringing together convoluted routes with little conscious thought. Feet pounding, wind rushing past, the sense of speed, movement and mastery of your environment is incredible.

Fluid movement isn’t the only act required of you in Mirror’s Edge, or more specifically it is but the game seems to go out of its way to imply otherwise. Combat is an option, and often you are advised by you in-ear guide and mentor Mercury to “get ready for a fight” moments before making the jump into an areas with three or more hostile NPCs with a long climb up a pipe your only escape. The obvious impression is that you need to either incapacitate or kill everybody in the immediate area before attempting to climb the pipe. Although direct engagement is an option, and you have a number of ways of shifting the odds in your favour, combat is not one of Mirror’s Edge‘s strengths, and it does itself a disservice by implying otherwise. Especially as a little thought and a fair degree of cunning will allow you to get through each encounter engaging at most two hostiles and occasionally avoiding combat alltogether. Using your superior speed and athleticism, you can play cat and mouse with your pursuers, drawing them away from your escape route long enough for you to make a break for it. This style of avoidance based gameplay again has a distinct Thief vibe to it and feels like a truer fit to the core fantasy of being a free-runner than the timing based disarms and melee combat moves.

That is the core of where Mirror’s Edge falls down, it tries to over extend itself, break out of its own fantasy and be more than it is capable of. It’s a game about being smarter, faster and more capable than your adversaries. It’s not a game about guns, combat or revenge. It’s about fluid movement and mastery of a limited contextual move set. It’s not about getting stuck for nearly half an hour because your forgot some obscure ability it’s likely you were never actually told about in the first place.

When it remembers what it is best at it feels like no other game, but when it tries to be something it’s not or requires you to act in a manner contrary to that which the game mechanics imply is correct it fails. Levels are designed with an eye towards allowing you to pull off impressive moves yet they often require precise alignment that comes at the expense of the very speed required to achieve them successfully. It is a game that rewards mastery while failing to give you the information required to attain it. It is a game best played avoiding confrontation that goes out of its way to force it upon you.

When it works Mirrors Edge can be a joy, when it doesn’t it feels like a chore and there are few worse sins for a work of entertainment to commit.