• "EasyMotion provides a much simpler way to use some motions in vim. It takes the <number> out of <number>w or <number>f{char} by highlighting all possible choices and allowing you to press one key to jump directly to the target." This is very clever.
  • "Parametric models indicate how a change to one component of a structure causes ripples of changes through all the other connected elements, mapped across structural loads but also environmental characteristics, financial models and construction sequencing. FC Barcelona's activity is also clearly parametric in this sense. It cannot be understood through sensors tracking individuals but only through assembling the whole into one harmonious, interdependent system: the symphony and orchestra, rather than the midfield string section, or Lionel Messi as the first violinist." A brilliant article from Max; finally, he's written his long-promised article on 'realtime sports graphics' and it's really excellent: insightful about football and data visualisation alike. Top stuff.
  • "Far Cry 2 invites fatalism, pessimism, and near-suicidal tactics because optimism and strategy went on holiday to Leboa-Sako and got murdered just like everything else. Hoping for the best doesn’t work. Being clever doesn’t work. Nothing good will ever happen to you in Far Cry 2′s Africa, and none of your carefully-designed plans will ever bear fruit."
  • "The optical future of architectural ornament: light with content. <br />
    <br />
    That is, you get home with your digital camera and you click back through to see what you've photographed—and there are words, shapes, and objects hovering there in the street, or inside the buildings you once stood within, visual data only revealed through long-exposures." Brilliant.
  • "After seeing there is a turing complete language in game, I felt like I should do something interesting with redstone in Minecraft. People already have done clocks and adders so I wanted to do something a little different while also be potentially useful. As a result, I designed out a ticker display." At least as crazy as those LittleBigPlanet calculators.
  • "Nelson, as described by IDEO in the video above, does so much work for you. It throws multiple perspectives into the equation, killing the unreliable narrator with the gifts of foresight and hindsight. It does away with the unexplainable appeal of a surprising hit novel giving you a league table of books to pick from according to their “impact on popular opinion and debate.” You’ll struggle to form your own opinion as you jump through the layers that Nelson offers you, given a perspective like a student browbeaten by an overbearing A-Level tutor." I similarly disliked their attempts to not only redesign the book, but to try to redesign narrative, in "Alice" – as if people hadn't tried, and as if what narrative _really_ needed was just a good design firm to take a crack at it.
  • "I thought this was a fascinating take on the need within companies for stories… Companies spend a lot of money looking for these stories. Traditional product companies had to ask people and users to tell their stories, normally through market research. Web companies are at a huge advantage: they have rivers of usage data flowing through their servers, and the problem inverses – how to make sense and tease out meaning and interest from such a torrent." This is very good; I'm looking forward to future installments.
  • "If Ferelden has room for priests, elves, mages and golems then why doesn’t it have room for sceptics and scientists too?" Lovely notion – roleplaying an aetheist in Dragon Age (as best possible within the game). In this case, the player character believes in magic, but not in the montheist religion that much of the world ascribes to; miracles are really just magic at work. Subsitute "magic" for "science" and you begin to see his point. It's a nicely thought-through piece.
  • "The closer has confounded hitters with mostly one pitch: his signature cutter." Lovely motion infographics – informative, and powerfully confirming the narration.
  • "The move during the past 10 years or so has been from cameras being precision mechanical devices to molded polycarbonate containers for electronic components. This has meant a lowering of overall physical quality. What one gets in terms of features, functions and image quality is higher than ever before, but the satisfaction of owning and using a high quality mechanical and optical device has for the most part evaporated. Only the top models within any brand produce a tactile satisfaction and please one's esthetic sense." The quotation is from Michael Reichmann; the discussion that follows is as thoughtful as usual from TOP's readers.
  • "But I think to succeed eReaders need to meet the needs, not just of the direct user, but of those around them, the friends and family who may not welcome their loved one’s absorption in this exciting new media. They are the “next largest context” within which the new device must win acceptance… The first question [with a digital device] is no longer “what are you reading?” It’s “what are you doing?” – a question that somehow already carries a hint of reproach."
  • Beautiful: capturing graffiti with an ultra-basic setup (torch sellotaped to pen and webcam), and then translating that into vector geometry that can be stored as an XML dialect. I like how simple and open it is, and the fact that Graffiti Markup Language is designed to be used in the field (even if it can't be yet).
  • "In one sense, Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker! is a truly exotic bit of esoterica — a game on the Columbia riots, printed back in 1969 in the pages of the Columbia Daily Spectator, and designed by James F. Dunnigan, one of the finest and most prolific designers of board wargames… In Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker! you play either as Columbia University's administration, or as the radicals who have seized control of Fayerweather Hall. You are attempting to influence the opinions of various stakeholders in the university — students of different sorts, the alumni, and so on. Random event cards influence play. Ultimately, the side that gains the greatest sympathy on the part of university stakeholders wins."
  • "Zoom in on that spot there." Blade Runner has a lot to answer for; notably, this.


02 December 2008

I’ve been trying to find a way into writing about Mirror’s Edge for about a month now, and during that time, the whole Reviewgate affair sprang up – in which Keith Stuart suggested that some of the reviews of Mirror’s Edge damning it with faint praise, and then suggesting that a sequel might solve some of its issues, might have got games criticism all wrong.

Trying to be critical around a game that kicked off another how-to-review-games (and what-are-games-anyway?) debate suddenly seemed even harder. But nagging at the back of my mind, was the need to write something. And then it made sense: the best way to approach the game was to come at it strictly from the angle of movement, and, more specifically, to examine its relationship to Parkour.

Mirror’s Edge is most notably for being a first-person game where shooting is pretty much optional and, a lot of the time, inadvisable. Instead, it places the act of motion itself front and centre: as Faith, a “runner” (the game’s parlance for traceur) you dart through the City as a free-running courier, free from the tight grips of a police state. Motion is the enemy of lockdown; running the alternative to putting up and shutting up.

I don’t really want to talk about technical aspects of the game very much, so it suffices to say that the engine and sensation of motion are remarkably well implemented; it realises the motion of not a camera at head height but a body superbly, not just showing you limbs at the camera’s extremities but genuinely making you feel like they belong to your character. It’s invigorating to play, and genuinely breathtaking to watch a skilled player navigate rooftops at speed. (If you’ve not seen the game, this is a good sampler).

But enough of that. What I really wanted to talk about was movement itself. Movement, and momentum.

As I played the game and went back (thanks to conversations with friends) to other writing on Parkour, the game’s first-person perspective made a lot more sense.

David Belle‘s comment on the physical aspect of Parkour is a good place to begin:

“the physical aspect of parkour is getting over all the obstacles in your path as you would in an emergency. You want to move in such a way, with any movement, as to help you gain the most ground on someone or something, whether escaping from it or chasing toward it.”

Whilst Parkour is, ultimately, an expressive form of movement, the aesthetic Belle suggests it strives for is one of minimalist elegance, rather than technical audacity. It’s not an activity for show-offs; the efficiency of movement takes priority over the way that movement looks.

Third-person games are great to show-off in. You can always see the player character on screen; it’s easy to understand how the motions the player undertakes with pad or stick translate into movement on the screen, and it’s easy to mentally connect the player to their avatar. Fighting games, notably, make for great spectator sports even for the unskilled spectator.

But by making Mirror’s Edge first-person, it takes the focus away from the aesthetics of motion and places them on the actual act itself – on the skill required. This makes it much less of a spectator sport – it’s always hard to engage with other people playing first-person games if you don’t know the game in question very well.

Mirror’s Edge forces you to approach the world as a runner or traceur, and take pleasure in the elegance and efficiency of your own movements, rather than the entertainment of others.

The game communicates it well through its tutorial. A fellow runner, Celeste, runs Faith through a few manoeuvres to get Faith back in shape after an accident. The advantage of this is that before the player performs each manoeuvre, they get to see it acted out by another character in the third person. Instead of being a form of showing off, this is a way of giving the player a mental model of what they look like in the world when they navigate it. After all, it’s initially quite confusing, relating the flailing hands and feet on screen to actions a character might undertake. Celeste’s demonstration helps to connect those dots. And in Faith and Celeste’s movements, we see another embodiment of Belle’s ideas around Parkour:

“The most important element is the harmony between you and the obstacle; the movement has to be elegant… If you manage to pass over the fence elegantly—that’s beautiful, rather than saying I jumped the lot. What’s the point in that?”

Belle knows that Parkour can’t just be purely functional, but it’s noticeable that elegant movement tends to lead to faster, smoother passages through the city. And that’s why it’s very noticeable that, despite the emphasis on maintaining momentum and speed throughout levels, Faith is never anything less than gracious in her movements. When her movements become ugly – taking heavy falls, slipping and missing a jump, pulling herself up onto a ledge – they tend to become slower, too.

Mirror’s Edge strives for a more internal understanding of what is beautiful and satisfying within it. Any notion of “showing-off” in the game is confined not to a third-person replay camera, to fetishise the movements of the runners, but to a time-attack mode, where players face off against one another. They are not comparing the aesthetics of the run, but their technique. To borrow a term from martial arts, Parkour is an internal art, and Mirror’s Edge captures that far better than I think many have commented on. It captures the subjectivity of the art not only in its first-person camera, but in its “Runner Vision”, that colours optimal paths through the level with subtle red tints. At times, though, it’s never clear if these are hints or actual objects – the iconic red cranes may well be red, and the coincidence of an environment that demands to be run through highlighting itself is a pleasing one.

It also captures a core idea of games: that movement itself can be fun, especially when moving inside the body of someone who is superior in ability or capacity than the player. Moving through Faith’s world is, at times, a massive amount of fun; it brings to mind a chain of motion through videogames, from charging through levels with B button jammed down as Mario to Sonic’s indestructible careering through Green Hill Zone. The ability to experience that in a much more realistic world is genuinely invigorating.

And momentum becomes a key concept within the game.

In a post I keep linking back to, Iroquois Pliskin explains that the key feature of Survival games is the conservation of limited resources. In Mirror’s Edge, that resource is not ammunition or open ground, but momentum; when you have it, your flight from the security forces is much easier than without it.

Which is why it’s such a shame that the game seeks to tear momentum from the player so often. Whilst the rooftops are reasonably straightforward to navigate with heat on your tail, the interiors are often confusing. Taken slowly, it would not take long to find optimal routes through them – but when you’re being chased by guards with submachineguns, who have the power to drain momentum from you with a single blow or shot, the stakes become much higher. And, of course, when you make those slow, clumsy maneouvres mentioned earlier, you feel as if you’ve failed. Faith should be nothing less than graceful in her movements, and for much of her flight, I made her barely perfunctory. I was letting her down.

And perhaps the worst momentum-killer is the game’s story. The plot itself is fine – the back of the game’s box is lucid in its brevity:

In a city where information is heavily monitored, where crime is just a memory, where most people sacrifice freedom for a comfortable life, some choose to live differently.

They communicate using messengers called Runners.

You are a Runner called Faith.

Murder has come to this perfect city and now you are being hunted.

That feels ideally suited to the fast-paced, no-nonsense world of the runner. In the game itself, however, this turns into a twin sister on the other side of the law, private security forces with too much power, and an awful lot of cutscenes.

The game’s story is at its best when expressed through the environment and motion. At one memorable point, you discover that the police are countering the Runners by training the officers to becomes Runners themselves. You stumble upon a training ground for police-runners; it’s a room built into what looks like an old silo, with a well-designed training course inside it. At the beginning of the game, it might have been a good tutorial, but now you can ace it. The wall has 05 daubed on it, indicating this is part of a more comprehensive training programme.

It’s a nice piece of environmental storytelling – and you have all of twenty seconds to take it in, because you are being chased by two police-runners. I’m not sure everyone will have picked up the subtlety in that room, and it’s a shame, because it’s a really important moment; instead, you focus on the cops on your tail, and run for the next red door at top speed. Similarly, whilst the flat-animated cutscenes provide a lot of exposition, they lack the emotional power of the two highly memorable in-game cutscenes (one about halfway through, and one right at the end) that demonstrate that DICE really do understand this whole first-person camera thing.

Mirror’s Edge is at its best in moments of free exploration, finding new paths over serene rooftops, feeling that sense of flow as you tuck your feet over a barbed-wire fence; when it captures the feeling of a body moving, be it through graceful falls or being violently hurled off a building by a former wrestler; feeling like you’re flying across the city.

It’s at its worst when, unlike on the rooftops and in the stormdrains, it places obstacles in its path – narrative, out-of-engine cutscenes, action-through-havoc that you can’t escape.

And especially when it makes you fail: Faith is clearly an experienced runner, and there are times where the player can’t live up to their avatar’s abilities. DICE choose to present that in binary success or failure, which has lead to criticisms of trial and error. Perhaps; at the same time, I’ve never encountered a single glitch or unrealistic motion throughout all my travels through the game. The coherence of the illusion is remarkable, and the price for that coherence is a definite kind of failure at times. I am not sure that’s necessarily a good enough excuse for some of the stop-start, but I feel that the coherence of the game’s illusion is something that isn’t praised enough. If only that could be provided without such a sensation of failing – not as a player, but failing the character you play.

It brings to mind Jump London. If there’s one thing Mirror’s Edge gets right, it’s the feel of the city under your feet. Faith doesn’t just exist as a character in a cutscene or as four disembodied limbs; she lies in the seams between her trainers and the concrete.

If anything’s emerging from all the coverage the game – and criticism of it – is getting, it’s that it is not for everybody, and perhaps that Marmite-y nature will prevent it having greater success. But whether or not it is good or bad, you need to understand that it is important. Other games have attempted similarly visceral first-person experiences, and they are few and far between: Trespasser was flawed, far more fatally than Mirror’s Edge; Breakdown wasn’t very good at all; and the excellent Chronicles of Riddick, made a very different use of first-person, primarily using it as a characterisation tool for a slower-moving but more powerful protagonist. Mirror’s Edge really is something new, and something different, and something that countless games and designers are going to learn from in the next few years.

And it’s for that reason you need to play it. It takes one of the earliest videogame-mechanics – moving from A to B past obstacles – and implements it not only in a 21st century manner, but places it at the heart of its philosophy. Not only that, it places it into a world that resonates vibrantly with that of the traceur: one of lines hidden through cities, playgrounds hidden in architecture, and resistance hidden in motion.

  • "The Whale Hunt is an experiment in human storytelling." 3000+ photographs, with what seems like a confusing-and-shiny interface to explore them – but hides a detailed metadata manipulation layer underneath. Beautiful pictures, too. Something really quite special; the "interface" pages should explain more.
  • "Still, overall, Left 4 Dead's opening cinematic is a shockingly complete primer to the rest of the game. With only a few exceptions, almost any player going into Left 4 Dead for the first time will know exactly how to play the game: they already know the gameplay, the weapons, the enemies, the win scenario and the strategies they need to get through the game alive… the only thing not covered in the opening movie is the specifics of the interface." Yes – had this exact same conversation a few days ago. Although John is awfully down on Louis, which seems a tad unfair…
  • "The obstacles that exist are mere impediments to my motion, puzzles placed only to slow me down or stop my free-flow kinetic improvisation. No time to think or overanylize, only time enough to move. This is what the essence of gaming should feel like: a sincere, wholehearted attachment to the action (or actions) that one sets into play. It is a moment where the motivation at hand is intention only, whose aim is exploration and discovery, refined. It is the escape, distilled and realized." GWJ on Mirror's Edge, and never rewinding, never looking back.
  • "Metro Rules of Conduct is a game about the awkward situation of commuting in my hometown, Stockholm. Look at mobile phones, MP3 players and breast for score, but whatever you do – avoid eye contact!" Wonderful; the art-style works really well, as does the head-bob.
  • "Melville was torn between writing a ripping nautical yarn and a metaphysical odyssey, and it shows. Rockstar was torn between constructing a sandbox and a stage, and it shows. The result was a tenuously fused work of genuine Americana: a disorderly paean to the American city, a bit of ultraviolence, a stonkingly beautiful soundtrack, a fable, a simulation, a gonzo critique of capitalism. It's a game we deserve. " Pliskin on what GTA4 meant. Perhaps hyperbolic, but it's an important signifier of this year. The Redding quotation about Far Cry 2 is also a stonker.
  • All 226 entrants for the 2009 IGF. Heard of – and played – some of these, but many are unknown. Exciting to see the list, though, if only to be reminded that there's this many games being made and funded independently, at the large and small scale.
  • "aphex twin + vassily kandinsky + doom 2" – now that's a tagline.