Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Considering Mirror's Edge

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
In our first entry we talked about the how the player character in FPS games could generally be likened to a refrigerator box. But is the box the problem, or an unfortunate but necessary convention?

After all, despite the inherent problems the box entails, the player generally isn't aware of the issue. They simply know that they have a frustratingly narrow bandwidth for interacting with what seems like a rich and interesting world. Perhaps it's the narrowness of agency. The inability to "do" anything other than (admittedly exquisite) variations on shooting people in the face.

A game that's addressed much of what was brought up last time is Mirror's Edge. DICE is a veteran FPS developer, and with Mirror's Edge they sought to redress a long-standing conventional flaw of the genre.
They set out a considerable design challenge for themselves: make the first person shooter a first person jumper. By focusing on this as the core experience, they solved much of the attendant issues as well as creating novel gameplay.

Reason would dictate a game about parkour fleetness would best be executed in third person, but DICE stuck by their assumption that first person could sustain such an experience with far greater immediacy, provided enough proprioceptive cues were given and the player was given tools for the tasks at hand.
And to that end I think the game quite successful. It mates a fresh visual style with a carefully nurtured sense of corporeal possession of Faith. For once, our point of view is not a shell-like avatar but a character, which aids the nearness of that corporeal possession to the core gameplay. Gone are the smashed or absent mirrors of Gordon Freeman's world.

The key is that the narrow, exceedingly specific set of verbs given to normal FPS avatars--aiming, shooting, grenade throwing, weapon switching, fire selecting, jumping, crouching--mutated into something tailored to the experience DICE had in mind. Faith is far more nimble than other FPS avatars--but at the expense of verb resolution when it comes to firearms. She's capable of handling firearms; she's just not as interested, and they won't get her where she wants to go.

A critical rejoinder to the above would be that Mirror's Edge approach to making a better first person shooter is to no longer make it about shooting at all.
Which is a fair point. The game makes a compelling experience out of subverting the basic structure of the FPS, not by forwarding it. This is a breath of fresh air in a stale genre, but it addresses standing issues by refocusing gameplay away from the "pure" strain--though the argument could be made that hybridization is the lifeblood of action games (notice GTA games absorbing current genre conventions like cover systems, amoeba-like).
Anyway, I'll be the first to admit that I am still very, very interested in the business of shooting people in the face, as much as I enjoy Mirror's Edge.

Yet even if we're looking to improve the "traditional" FPS game, Mirror's Edge is still a useful study. Modify, limit, reshape the agency of the player in the world and you radically change the world for the player. Control schemes and core "verbs", as some designers like to speak of them, are much of the heart of any given game experience.
So instead of reshaping and refining movement as Mirror's Edge did, think of ways a FPS might be reshaped and broadened in terms of the gunplay.
By clearing debris from the core of what is a very conservative genre and reconsidering basic assumptions of how these things work--you're a man with a gun always pointing out into the world, at friend and foe?--intriguing solutions begin to present themselves.

Next time we'll sketch out just such an approach--not a radical redesign of FPS mechanics, but one that would consider existing actions--drawing, pointing a gun--and give them significance where none existed before.


Johnnyburn said...

Hmm, haven't played it, but I've seen the trailers. What are some examples of how they "modify, limit, reshape the agency of the player in the world"? You seem to have some specific examples in mind..

I suppose that typical FPS actions really only include "shoot" and "use".

Jack said...

I might want to edit the entry to clarify that for people who haven't played the game I suppose. By that I mean that, on a console controller, several of the face button are given over to Faith's acrobatics now--there is a general "up" button as well as a "down" button, used to either hurdle over or slide under an obstacle, respectively. There's also a button to turn 180 degrees, a feature shared by RE4/5 but used in a very different capacity. It allows her to do various wall-jump type moves easier.

And as well as being able to see Faith's body when you look down, the movement code has been given a lot more love than any other first person game I've seen. You carry a lot of inertia once you get sprinting, and a lot of the game is based on the trick of sustaining that momentum, not dissipating it. You get into a sort of "flow" mode where, once you're familiar with the controls and the kind of challenges the level presents, you're able to run the gauntlet of obstacles faster and faster with fewer hang-ups.

Copperkat said...

@Johnny & Jack: You forgot to mention the sound design. Even on regular tv speakers, it really surrounds you like a good pair of headphones. You can tell they took a lot of care to use the sound scape as one of the main ways to get around the proprioception problem you explained in Refrigeration Box.

This one might just be bells and whistles, but they also took care to make your view act like real eyes. As apposed to a handy cam gliding 5 foot above the ground.

After first reading Refrigerator Box I kept thinking of how Mirrors Edge was a nice experiment in the genre. When I saw your post on just that I was pleasantly surprised.

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