still alive: finding the lines on the mirror’s edge and portal

i’ve thought a couple of times about how i wanted to begin this post and all i can honestly think to say is “wow.” i just finished playing mirror’s edge for the second time and i am smitten. in love. this game is amazing. i absolutely am infatuated with this game. now, i know the game is flawed. i know there are parts to the game that are frustrating to no end, but as an overall experience, i can’t say that i have enjoyed playing a video game this much since i played portal for the first time. portal, as a game, redefined how a person should think about the possibilities of a first person game. i think mirror’s edge does the same thing. both accomplish this task in different ways, but essentially, they are attempting re-conceptualize what is possible within the confines of an immersive first person experience.

on the one hand, portal forced the player to think outside of the boundaries of what a person can do with a gun in their hands. it forced you to think about things from a perspective of physics as opposed to firepower or even the geometry of a shooter. most shooters are geometric. if you can see your enemy then he can shoot you. its all angles and sight lines. portal forced the player to say, “what happens when i move like this.” it was a question of momentum.

mirror’s edge, in a similar way, asks the player to let go of the gun and think with their feet, hands, and head. the game becomes intuitive within moments of picking up the controller. once you clear the first tutorial session and the prologue, the moves begin to come more and more naturally, until, by the end of the game, you wonder why it took you so long to clear that first wall run to begin with.

faith in mirror's edge concept art

faith in mirror

if we consider video games as a text, and by that i mean as complete artifacts and entities–from their story to their mechanic to their graphics–everything, then mirror’s edge and portal both exist within the liminality of video games, particularly within the first person genre. the word “liminal” means the spaces between to entities. it is the liminal space that is constantly pushing against the margins of the artifacts of the world and society. it is in the liminal that change occurs. it is always either pushing against the margins and borders or being pushed against. it is shrinking or it is growing. but in its growth it forces the margins of the artifact to change.

portal and mirror’s edge are two such games. even their names mean as much. a portal is a pathway between the two artifacts, that which exists between the two. the mirror’s edge, as defined within the game itself, is the space on the margins of society, the space in which the disenfranchised, the rebellious, the outcast lives in search of freedom. on the rooftops of society or in the alleyways, in the air shafts and the back corridors. this is where the outcast thrives. on the mirror’s edge.

now, i’m certainly not going so far to claim that their narratives, in and of themselves, are life-changing or that the games are the greatest in the history of gaming. i am speaking to the games as text themselves. there is, essentially, no story at all in portal. you play as the ultimate test subject. an inveterate pavlovian dog. the story to mirror’s edge is interesting, at the best, and tangential at the worst. it is as a culmination of its parts and in the reinvention of their gameplay mechanics that these two games push the boundaries of gaming.

with respects to their gameplay, neither one is perfect, either (although portal seems to me to be a more complete experience than mirror’s edge). on the other hand mirror’s edge is more immersive. the clean lines of the city, punctuated by the occasional metaphoric and physical rat, become swiftly engrained in your consciousness–as it should given the fact that it draws on every dystopian vision of a totalitarian future ever put down on paper. there is visceral collective consciousness that mirror’s edge draws upon and then accentuates with its revisionist mechanic.

portal accomplishes the same basic thing on a more cerebral level. filled with dry wit and black humour, portal sublimates the intellect. mirror’s edge does the same thing with a physical liminality, using to great effect its pure kineticism. momentum and speed are everything. guns are evil. anecdotally, my nephew, cj, was continually frustrated with the first level because he kept running back to the four policemen and trying to confront them. he kept dying. finally i told him he was supposed to run away. “really?” was his response.

both games are short, but i think they have to be. as much as i am a fan of ubisoft games, particularly assassin’s creed and farcry 2, i think they fell into the “cut and paste” fallacy. that is to say, if your game has great mechanics and a solid graphics engine, you can cut and past similar missions to make it longer. i didn’t have a problem with that in assassin’s creed, mainly because i loved exploring the cities so much; but in farcry 2 it ultimately became almost unbearable. portal and mirror’s edge both understand their limitations. they play to their strengths. if there had been any levels in either one (specifically mirror’s edge) that took the player out of the basic mechanic then it would have ruined the experience. a similar thing happened in brother’s in arms: hell’s highway. i loved commanding the squads, but when they put you in a house alone the mechanic showed its flaws.

the cake is a lie

the cake is a lie

in short, both these games are comments on society, yes. portal has much to say about the power and purposes of technology, its uses and manifestations. mirror’s edge, similar to much of joss whedon’s work in serenity and firefly, comments on the individuals at the borders of society. but neither are concentrated statements, unlike a xenosaga. rather, both push the boundaries what immersive and interactive narrative can be. by combining the kinetic, the intellectual, the physical, and the emotional, both games push the gamer out of the comfort zone of familiarity and into the the liminal of themselves.

that’s it for now. and remember to keep a book beside your game.


One thought on “still alive: finding the lines on the mirror’s edge and portal

  1. Sam says:

    I loved Portal, partly because my brothers and I played it over Christmas in Montana and had a great time puzzling through the levels, partly because of the challenge of thinking outside the FPS box.

    I never imagined I would see someone equate video games with liminality, but I should have known Ike Reeder would be able to pull it off!

    Keep up the incredible work.

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