Until five or six years ago, I had never heard of Parkour. My sister, a professional in the field of athletic strength and conditioning, first described it to me as something of a balletic aerobic sport with all the complexity and conditioning of a martial art -one used for clambering up the side of a building in seconds, or clearing two-story jumps without any messy bone breaking.
I still remember how incredulous I was when she acquainted me with David Belle videos on YouTube: this was astounding, real-life vertical platforming, performed by an actual flesh-and-blood human being. How was it even possible for someone to manipulate their body like that?
Even today, it's still marvellous to watch these type of athletes effortlessly Nate Draking-themselves up or across or through urban infrastructure, unhampered by either physics or basic human limitation.
It didn't take long for the art (I don't know how else to classify it) to develop a greater pop-cultural presence. It appeared in Luc Besson's District B-13 (which starred Belle) and 007 reboot Casino Royale, and played a part in the core design for Assassin's Creed.
Yet it wasn't really until Mirror's Edge came along that gamers got their first (and really, only) taste of a game which completely embraced this so-called art of movement.
DICE took the template of a first-person shooter and created a game that was less about the worn, combative conventions of the genre and more about running. The result was an experience as striking as it was divisively original. Still, when the first reviews hit, it was obvious that a lot of people didn't really "get" it.
Probably my favorite complaint about Mirror's Edge from these types is the harping on about the shooting mechanics. You've probably heard the criticisms: The guns feel too heavy. They're clunky and inaccurate. Shooting isn't fun. The game is too hard.
These are somewhat ancillary to the other gripes about the game's trial-and-error design and what is sometimes frustratingly vague linear path. Whinges like these miss the point; Mirror's Edge is about as much a first-person shooter as Portal is, and the supposed inability to find your way through any given scenario is little more than a blithe dismissal - whether intentional or not - of the game's true design strength.
I won't argue that Mirror's Edge is an easy game. Its level layouts and learning curve require you to flex your mental muscles within the game world in order to figure out just how the heck you're going to scale what seems to be an impossible height, or sprint through an army of Blues with as little direct confrontation as possible.
But if you're treating it like a first-person shooter (for anything other than a speed run) and ignoring its conceptual basis - and therefore the fact it's an experience based around the Parkour's tenets and the mantra of momentum - well, you're doing it all wrong.
This probably isn't apparent to most players at first, although it should be. Unlike more typical first-person fare, Mirror's Edge doesn't just put a gun in your hand and send you on your merry way. (In fact you will never have a gun with you unless you forcibly take one from an enemy.)
Instead you're treated to an obstacle course set across the stark, monochromatic rooftops of the sprawling urban dystopia that is the alpha and omega of Mirror Edge's world.
As a Runner, Faith is an underground information smuggler. She constantly skirts the totalitarian law and its omnipresent philosophy of censorship; it makes sense that these network "criminals" would function and operate between the cracks of society, in remote places that are easiest to quickly navigate and move through on foot.
The only combat training involves learning a few basic melee strikes and effective defensive disarms; otherwise it's about working out how to slide and jump over obstacles, and perform tricky wall runs, safety rolls, 180-degree jumps and the like.
From the get-go, Mirror's Edge tells the player how to best use (and maintain) a constant speed, moving through the environment as quickly and fluidly as possible with the least amount of resistance.
And like stubborn mules, most of us willfully didn't get it at first. Distilled down, the point of the training level is really an exercise in breaking established design paradigms, when all we wanted to do subconsciously was play the damn game like a first-person shooter. (You can't at this point-there aren't even any guards in this level.)
Although Mirror's Edge does a great job of initially hitting you over the head with what you should be paying attention to, chances are all that immediately goes out the window once you start in with the game proper.
Mirror's Edge has what most would call a high learning curve, only instead of the difficulty ramping up right off the bat, you need to have a certain degree of finesse to even to make it through the first level.
Like most people, I was intrigued by the idea of a first-person game based around platforming, but still found the game challenging when I actually began playing it. I missed jumps. I had no momentum. I spent a lot of time looking at the scenery, wondering what I should be doing to get past whatever part I was stuck on.
The first few times I encountered Blues, I instinctively tried the disarms only to find the weapons felt extremely sluggish, adding what felt in the game like 50 lbs. of dead weight to Faith's fleet-of-foot presence. I lost count of how many times I sent Faith plummeting to her untimely and aurally sickening death, half out of miscalculated judgment, half mistaken trial-and-error.
The insane number of times you die when starting out is the threshold which most people who give up on Mirror's Edge reach but do not surpass. If my personal list of mistakes wasn't enough proof, there's a definite procedure to the game, even though it feels frustratingly stop-and-go when you first go at it.
Although it may not seem like it, the very concept seems to trigger some subconscious response in most players that goes against the grain of almost everything we've all learned about video game conventions over the years. Without a practical basis of comparison, DICE's design has the effect of a creating a psychological stumbling block that's hard enough to negotiate, let alone master.
Undeterred, I pressed on. I continued to die (not a small amount), and levels became progressively more difficult to solve. Even Runner's vision, the slick visual cue that paints nearby Parkour-able objects a rich, glossy red, only gave me a vague idea of which way to go. There were times I wanted to quit, thinking this brilliant idea was perhaps nothing more than a failed experiment.
What I didn't realise then is that what I was experiencing was normal - a necessary part of the Mirror's Edge process, if you will. Obviously there are innumerable games that require players to figure out the flow of the gameplay before they can ever hope to be truly successful.
Mirror's Edge takes that idea and runs with it. Aside from death itself, the most obvious case of this is Runner's vision: DICE doles this out sparingly, showing you where you may springboard to gain speed, or what pipes you can climb up. It's a trail of design breadcrumbs for you to follow, and there are still several instances where it's not going to immediately feel like enough.
There's an ingenious methodology behind all this, however. For all the times you come up against a building that looks improbably scalable or don't know what direction you need to go when faced with a number of building tops, you're slowly and perhaps painfully undergoing an initiation.
The developers shrewdly refuse to spoon-feed you the answers to the architectural puzzles of their level design, forcing you to adapt to your current in-game situation and shaping your mind into a different mode of action. Even the hint button, which sporadically points Faith's gaze in the direction of your current goal, isn't helpful when it comes to specific navigational issues.
In essence, the entire time you're playing Mirror's Edge the game is not teaching how to think like a Runner, but how to be a Runner.
It's not a process that will happen at the same pace with any given player, but when it does, the effect is nothing short of extraordinary. Suddenly everything in the game word just clicks; you start to move faster and more efficiently, and can more skillfully navigate a given situation.
The most amazing effect is the way you begin to visualise any random bit of architecture and discern exactly how it's navigable. Much like Neo is able to "see" the Matrix for the first time when he ascends to (for lack of better terminology) enlightenment at the end of the first film, the level design in Mirror's Edge opens up once you gain your personal Runner's vision.
Obviously this doesn't work with every obstacle in the game - crafting a completely open-ended experience with Mirror's Edge's end goal in mind would be a nightmare for level designers and in-game logistics personnel alike. You may still surprise yourself by finding alternate routes and solutions to puzzles.
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In my own experience, I was already floored enough after I realised that I could look at a high structure with scaffolding and know I had run up this wall, spin around in mid-air, use momentum to jump forward, move from this platform to a higher one, turn to jump again and so on.
Once you reach this experiential plateau, Mirror's Edge almost becomes an entirely new game. The first-person perspective takes on an entirely different level of meaning, heightening your senses and adding a visceral edge to movement.
Speed, too, becomes a quantifiable factor (albeit one that's sometimes hampered in the heavily-indoor later levels) - it is an exhilarating experience to simply execute complex strings of moves, and doing so quickly is just icing on the cake.
For me, this also meant embracing flight from the Blues. I hated the few times when the developers forced me into direct confrontations, though eventually I earned the trophy for beating the game without firing a weapon (only worth a silver, sadly).
One my favorite memories is sprinting down a long, multi-level set of stairs toward the end of the game, rushing past a number of Blues in SWAT gear, too fast for them to even get a shot off; the brilliant part is that by merely hopping over the top railing of the first staircase going down and following it with a proper landing, I shaved off just enough time in my escape to bypass all the spots my enemies would be before they had time to properly take their places.
Thus probably most important distinction about Mirror's Edge over a standard action game is that it's always about movement. It's essentially interactive kinesthesis, and it ventures into a mode in gaming that's really unparalleled in the industry.
Even when you're standing still, you're conceptualising exactly what that movement will look like. Chances are that if you're good - and if you've been paying attention you will be - the transition between that instant flash of visualisation and its nimble execution will happen in little more than the blink of an eye.