Mirror’s Edge made player movement and navigation an artform in a landscape devoted to the objective marker
It all used to be so simple. Gaming in the ’80s was really just a matter of moving left-to-right. There was nothing complicated about Super Mario Bros.; you started on the left side of the screen and your aim was to make your way across the map to the right-hand side. It made for basic yet compelling gameplay that Will Wright described as “so approachable, so simple, so addictive, and yet so deep.” Shigeru Miyamoto has suggested that the inspiration to make a side-scrolling game came from watching mountains rush by through a train window. And while Super Mario Bros. wasn’t the first side-scroller, the polish of its finished form and the popularity it attained has certainly made it the most ubiquitous.
But this simple, almost monotonous, concept of movement has been present since the earliest days of gaming. After all, Tennis for Two — a precursor to the commercial Pong and regarded as the first video game — may have had you track a “ball” from left-to-right across the screen, but the real movement was up and down. These basic lateral motions were really down to the hardware limitations early game designers faced: whether the implementation was predominantly side-to-side, as in Super Mario Bros., or the up-and-down of Pong’s paddles, early video games existed within a limited two-dimensional world.
That being said, research from 2015 suggests that human beings are possessed of a directional bias that naturally attracts them to left-to-right movement as opposed to the alternatives. The paper, by Dr. Peter Walker, examines thousands of static and moving images and concludes: “There may be a fundamental bias in the way people prefer to see moving items depicted in pictures.” This plays out in a variety of ways, with the focus being on how we overwhelmingly represent positive movement with a forward lean. Pictures will often have characters in motion represented at an angle from left-to-right. And something as simple italicised text — used for emphasis — leans to the right.
Similarly, moving images often track from left; the concept of the end being to the right is universal in the way we view many sporting events. Watching the 100m sprint, we see runners travelling from left-to-right. The same is true for rowing. Even as coverage of such events evolves to include a range of angles, we still utilise that left-to-right view for the most important moments: think of horses crossing the line at the end of a race.
But two-dimensional gaming evolved and the scope of movement increased. The Legend of Zelda and its successors had a relatively omnidirectional movement scheme and Metroid added verticality to its world design. Yet, all were still conceived within limited axes of movement. And what this all adds up to is that, in the two-dimensional worlds of gaming’s early days, it was very difficult to get lost. Technical considerations meant that most games presented a linear and limited navigation, while research suggests we may well be hardwired with a navigational bias that plays into the system’s hands. So if you get lost in Sonic the Hedgehog, not only can you be sure that heading to the right will eventually deliver you to the goal — your brain wants to do that anyway.
Even when two-dimensional games were at their most complicated, having you carefully wind through a combination of horizontal and vertical obstacles (such as in Rare’s Donkey Kong Country 3), there was still an overwhelming bias towards starting on the left and terminating on the right. And this overwhelmingly simple formula governed gaming for more than a decade.
When gaming made the leap into three-dimensions and as developers created larger and more diverse digital worlds, the possibilities it opened up also presented major issues of how exactly to herd players in the direction you want them to go. Many modern games retain a sense of linear progression: 2019’s Modern Warfare maintains the basic tenets of 1993's Doom by pointing you in a certain direction within a contained map and always pushing you forward through objective markers, enemy concentration, and audio instruction. But in open worlds where exploration was more complicated, the shift from single axes of movement meant finding a way to drive players onwards when a player could literally go anywhere.
One solution is to lean into the possibilities of extended movement by making exploration the object of the game. Super Mario 64 may gate off areas but it allows you to freely explore every map to your heart’s content. Breath of the Wild gates nothing and sets you loose to roam Hyrule, in its entirety, at your leisure. Another, and by far the most ubiquitous, solution is to inject some form of rigid navigation. Ocarina of Time was one of the first games to place objective markers on a map and this has evolved into the system we most often see today: HUD-based compasses as seen in games such as Horizon Zero Dawn and The Outer Worlds. Effective though the system may be, few would call it the most immersive or satisfying solution. Even Breath of the Wild, geared as it may be towards exploration, still hands the player a set of map markers they can place themselves.
Given that Ocarina of Time was released in 1998, two decades without meaningful innovation suggests a lack of options when it comes to pushing characters through the obscenely large worlds of modern gaming.
The move to three-dimensions — and a recent focus by major developers on open worlds — has made platform games largely obsolete. Yet the issue of how to navigate a three-dimensional world still looms large. Uncharted will often have players trying to scramble up walls to find the next avenue of progression and while 2017’s Yooka-Laylee was a fun successor to Banjo Kazooie it often brought progression to a standstill as players searched for one final quill or the staging ground for a world’s last Pagie.
So how do you solve a problem like three-dimensions? How do you provide direction to players and keep a game fun and fast-paced? You could do worse than follow the example of Mirror’s Edge.
Developed by DICE and released in 2008, Mirror’s Edge looked to capitalise on the explosion in popularity of parkour in the west. Utilising techniques like sliding beneath barriers, long jumps, and wall-running, the player guides free-runner Faith over the rooftops and through the tunnels of the game’s dystopian urban sprawl.
With it’s three-dimensional, first-person presentation, Mirror’s Edge felt entirely contemporary beside games such as Far Cry 2 and Call of Duty: World at War. But with its fast-paced action and flowing gameplay, it felt more akin to the speedrunning antics of Sonic the Hedgehog than it did Fallout 3 or Dead Space.
The key to maintaining Mirror’s Edge’s intense speed is its unique art style. Set in a quasi-fantasy dystopia, the game’s designers were given license to present the world as a predominantly white tableau. On such a blank canvas, any colour can be implemented as a tactile waypoint and it would naturally stand out from the muted background. And while many colours in Mirror’s Edge are purely decorative — such as blues and yellows — flashes of red provide intuitive objective markers for the player to sprint towards, whether that objective is a building in the distance or simply the next flagpole Faith needs to shimmy down.
It is the use of “Runner Vision” that allows Faith to paint previously white objects a vivid red and reveals viable paths of progression through levels, and this allows players to maintain the breakneck pace the game intends while also imitating the split-second observations and decisions a free-runner makes on where and how to bypass obstacles.
While red isn’t necessarily the most visible colour in the spectrum, that it has the longest wavelength has a powerful ocular effect on the brain. It has the property of appearing nearer than it truly is and, as a result, will grab the eye before other colours around it. The stimulating effects of red means it’s used in warnings and important notices, such as road signs and traffic lights. In Mirror’s Edge, red is set against a backdrop of white, blue, green, and yellow — all of which have relaxing and calming properties against which red’s energy stands out.
It’s a simple but effective colour combination that allows the human eye to track the game’s long and winding paths and jumps with relative ease. As such, the only thing that can really break the game’s flow is the player. With a variety of routes at the player’s disposal, all highlighted a vivid red, only a mistimed jump or a lapse in concentration can interrupt the pace of a level.
But what is most impressive about this system is its immersion. Whereas a long red trail such as those found in Horizon Zero Dawn would trivialise navigation in Mirror’s Edge, this use of the actual game-world as objective marker and the frantic examinations of the environment it induces only add to the game’s frenetic pace, letting us escape into the mind of a free-runner plotting routes on the move.
It’s a system that the aforementioned Breath of the Wild employed in a very limited way. On an empty map that encouraged exploration, the sight of looming Sheikah towers in the distance provided the player with a tangible short-term objective, even if the route itself was entirely up to the player. But for the use of a kind of telescopic function on the Sheikah Slate that allows you to see far off objects, this kind of immersive objective scouting is mostly absent as other directions are given with map markers and the Sheikah Slate’s active sonar which is used to unearth the game’s shrines.
At its heart, Mirror’s Edge is a game about momentum — a kind of rhythm game in which beats are hit by executing jumps and slides, swinging from flagpoles, and running across walls. These defined rules of how colour is deployed create a simple yet effective communication with the player at all times about where to go and what to do in an immersive way that most games since have failed to achieve. Titanfall 2 clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Mirror’s Edge and its gameplay suggests it’s supposed to be a fast-paced shooter revolving around constant movement. And while its use of flat and abrasive surfaces takes over from the contrast of red on white from Mirror’s Edge, somehow it falls short. New players will often find themselves frozen in place wondering how to approach a long stretch of wall-running, waiting for the projection system to show them what to do. The games may have different motivations — Titanfall 2 is obviously a shooter first, while Mirror’s Edge is all about flow — but it still feels like a game from 2008 is more innovative and refined in its movement than most releases of a decade later.
In 2020, the problem of navigation in a three-dimensional space persists. As games become more and more about enormous worlds and inhuman completion times, what few platformers that exist try to follow suit by adding more content to keep them interesting at the expense of their gameplay. And as such, we see more of the same: map markers and objective-ridden compasses. Where most navigation in games today feels like an afterthought, Mirror’s Edge made player direction an artform.
I recently picked up The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the first in years and I was struck by how much the game comes to a screeching halt once the player elects to travel across the map. By comparison, the fun stops in Mirror’s Edge when you stop moving. Skyrim is a game that becomes increasingly about travelling towards an arrow in the distance, numb to everything that’s happening around you — in which the journey is a consequence of such a large playing area and something to be endured. Mirror’s Edge instead endeavoured to immerse us in the concept of travel, speeding through a beautifully simple environment at an exhilarating pace, in which the journey itself was the real goal. And while games seek to create bigger, realistic worlds Mirror’s Edge is a refreshing focus on individual movement that hasn’t really been bettered since.