You’ve undoubtedly come across at least one video or gif online where someone narrowly avoids death during a Parkour trick — a backflip atop a skyscraper which almost leads to tragedy, a barely successful jump connects one rooftop to another. Just watching these near death experiences can cause the palms to moisten. So when Mirror’s Edge and its sequel, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst base their core gameplay mechanic around free-running, that naturally means that there are consequences for Parkour failure. Simulation of death as a result of failure is after all, a hallmark of video games.
The only problem is that failing at Parkour is absolutely terrifying.
The action in Mirror’s Edge primarily takes place atop Apple-esque skyscrapers hundreds of stories high. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop, the game’s heroine, Faith Connors, acts as a free-running courier who delivers sensitive materials under the watch of a Big Brother-style corporation/bureaucratic agency. The sense of freedom and movement is a big draw for the Mirror’s Edge series. The sequel painstakingly improves upon the Parkour mechanics of the first game, which many agree was a good idea, but perhaps a bit undercooked.
That good idea, however, essentially inspired the film Hardcore Henry, which built a film around a similar, first-person, Parkour perspective. If you’ve seen the film you’ll understand the basic gist of what it’s like to play Mirror’s Edge. For those of you who haven’t, death-defying acrobatics performed by the player in a first-person perspective is both exciting and satisfying, thanks to the game’s fluid controls and seamless level design.
The Parkour action is seriously cool right up until the part you miss a jump. Then it quickly becomes hideously uncool. You see, I’ve never experienced video game death like I have in Mirror’s Edge. In games like Resident Evil, dying triggers a game-over screen with red blood splashing across the words “You are Dead”. It’s very much similar to Dark Souls, except the words shown across the screen is “You Died”. In Mirror’s Edge, you experience death by falling in first-person.
Mirror’s Edge forgoes the kill screens in favor of a more direct approach. When you miss a jump and begin plummeting to the ground, you remain in first-person perspective right up until the moment before you hit the ground. All the while, Faith begins panicking, her vision blurring. Then nothing. It’s all very gruesome stuff without being either bloody or tasteless. Instead, it’s a testament to the power of video games and simulation that this scene (which I’ve encountered plenty in my time with the game) is able to elicit a visceral response from the player.
This is a conscious design decision by the developers at DICE. There were a numerous ways they could have handled game overs in Mirror’s Edge, and even more ways they could have handled the death sequence they went with. For example, missing a jump could have quickly cut to black immediately, saving the player from the actual terror of falling hundreds of stories down.
Alternatively, they could have held off a second longer and record sound effects that portray the aftermath of such a fall. Instead, the screen cuts to black just mere moments away from touching the ground. The sound of wind rushing past you while gasping for air cease just as immediately. It’s death, but it’s designed for maximum impact, without venturing off the ledge of good taste.
The controlled experience is somehow even more amazing when you realize that it cuts out the exact moment the brain expects to witness actual death. It’s a testament to the game that you can find artistry in how the developers decided to portray failure, but that the process of failing is brutal enough to discourage its repetition.
How many times was the falling animation in Mirror’s Edge revisited before the developers found the perfect moment to cut to black? In a 2011 study by the University of Glasgow, neurologists have shown that the brain completes information that our eyes don’t actually see. This predictive mental imaging is partly why the sequence works as well as it does. The experience left me with an after-image of death that was never actually portrayed. The psychological sleight-of-hand by DICE is something worth examining, if only for how the game cleverly works around the myriad complications around the topic of portraying on-screen death.
Death is, after all, a subject that honestly has been trivialized by entertainment. It’s been trivialized, minimized, fictionalized. By giving the player the keys to imagining death, the effects become darker, and in a way, more moral. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst does have problems in terms of the game’s overall pacing, narrative, and characterization. But death could have been another problem for the game, only for it to become a graceful, maybe even unintentional point of interest for representation of death in fictional media.