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Branching Dialogue: Display of E-motion


Presenting Branching Dialogue, a weekly, wordy and often worryingly pedantic discussion of video game genres, trends and err ... stuff I didn't think to put in this introductory line.

In his thoughtful review of Mirror's Edge, Eurogamer's Christian Donlan calls it a game "that's easier to love than like." He's quite right. DICE's first-person parkour platformer doesn't hold up to objective scrutiny, often coming apart under a reviewer's bit-by-bit examination. The discordant ratings are testament to that, if not to the claim that Mirror's Edge exudes a boldness and brilliance that's hard to capture in words, let alone numbers.

You can certainly try lobbing several comparisons at the game's gestalt ("It's Sonic the Hedgehog meets Montezuma's Return!"), but its evocative nature really comes through when you have the controller -- and the life of a runner -- in your hands. For as much as Mirror's Edge is about relentlessly pushing you through an urban obstacle course, it's also about capturing a gripping, breathless exhilaration. It's an unfortunate consequence of the mechanical and very deliberate design of games: doing exciting things with an on-screen proxy rarely feels as exciting as it should.

So, here it is. The game that puts you in someone else's body and better yet, a body that's dashing through a relentless sequence of last-minute escapes and vertiginous vaults. It's incredible, and as loathe as I am to connect a completely unique experience to any single genre, Mirror's Edge gives our friend, the platformer, a refreshing and long overdue kick in the pants.

"The jump is important again."

At its core, the platformer presents a very simple question: How do I get from here to there? Except, the question isn't really laid at your feet, but rather the pitter-pattering shoes of someone else. Perhaps a plumber, a busty heroine or an anthropomorphic animal saddled with an XTREME attitude. It's never you. And though you could argue that, as Faith, you're still playing a character fundamentally separated from yourself (I'm definitely not a fleet-of-foot Asian woman, I checked), the first-person perspective is convincing enough to close that gap.

It's definitely a brave choice for the genre, considering the mere mention of it conjures up memories of Half-Life's final and most despicable moments. Jumping around in first-person view usually doesn't work, because it's so difficult to tell where exactly your character is in relation to the environment. Matters are made worse then, when your body is really just composed of two floating arms and an awkwardly held gun.

Looking down is encouraged.

I think Wired's Clive Thompson is absolutely correct when he suggests that Mirror's Edge messes with proprioception -- your body's innate ability to determine where your limbs are, even when you're not looking at them. I don't think Mirror's Edge is the first game to attempt it (Namco's underrated Breakdown landed a few punches of its own), but it's certainly successful in sticking you in the body of an agile sprinter as opposed to the typical, gun-toting tank man.

It's a fairly complex illusion and one I'm not sure I can adequately describe. The instantly convincing camera bob, subtle depth-of-field blur and occasional glimpses of Faith's body as she slides beneath pipes and CRASHES through doors (one of the most satisfying things you'll do in any game this year, I promise) gives you an inescapable, instinctual sense of location and speed within Mirror's muted city. For once, you feel like you're at the helm of an actual human being. Without even considering where your legs are or checking where your shadow is, you'll know in the moments before takeoff whether you're going to make a jump.

That's Mirror's Edge ultimate gift to platforming. The jump is important again. I've jumped over a lot of things in my gaming life, including pits of every size, description and depth, but I can't remember when last I held my breath or lurched forward in my seat as I flung myself over a computer-generated crevice. When you look down, seeing your feet run on air and eventually find a safe landing, it's truly, truly exciting.

That's a feeling you can fall in love with.

Branching Dialogue is written by Ludwig Kietzmann. He regularly writes posts on Joystiq and also wrote the highly narcissistic blurb you're reading right now (well done for making it all the way to the end, by the way). He can be written to by means of this fairly uncomplicated e-mail address:

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