After the final cinematic for Mirror’s Edge played, the credits rolled, and the trophies for completing the game and never shooting anyone popped up, I was sad that it was over. It was a surprising feeling because during the campaign there were at least four moments during which I nearly gave up entirely and/or came very close to snapping my controller during an expletive filled moment befitting The Big Lebowski. I should have been feeling relief.
My relationship with Mirror’s Edge — well, more specifically, with its “story mode” — can be summarized as an Onion article: God Help Him, But Area Man Loves That Crazy Bitch. It’s an unhealthy relationship. Mirror’s Edge treats me poorly, patronizes me, insults me, frustrates me, stresses me, and it brings out the “fuck”s out of me like I’m a cuss-filled pinata, but gods help me, I still love this game.
There’s a very fine line between frustration and reward and Mirror’s Edge straddles it as well as any game that I’ve played. The problem is that the dividing point is a moving target based entirely on the player’s level of skill, and if it’s hard for me, an experienced gamer, then I can’t imagine how it is for the occasional dabbler. As much as I want the game to succeed and as disappointed as I am with its weak holiday sales, I can’t say that I’m particularly surprised by them. With a top twenty dominated by mostly safe bets — Left 4 Dead was a surprise though — an unconventional and unique release like Mirror’s Edge had no chance.
The real question to ask isn’t why the game failed to sell to expectations but “why the expectations were so untenable to begin with?” As early as September, DICE’s marketing director was predicting sales of three million units, and those were, in his words,
conservative. With those targets how could it be anything but a disaster on the sales charts?
EA foolishly saw Mirror’s Edge as a holiday season triple-A blockbuster. Imagine what it would have been like if it didn’t have this burden. Would they have spent so much time on the story, creating cinematics, writing all that dialogue, recording all the voiceovers, and creating all those scripted events if it was never positioned as an AAA release? How much money would they have saved not trying to create a universe and forming a setup for a sequel? How much more focused would the game have been if it was true to what it really is: an arcade game.
That is what it does best. It offers up a number of challenges, gives you everything that you need to do them from the start (indeed, Faith never learns new tricks or upgrades any abilities during the course of the game, which is a refreshing design decision,) sets some target times and leaderboards, and it lets you loose. That’s why the upcoming downloadable content is so enticing to a lot of people: it disposes of any objective representation or narrative and turns the game into one giant, abstract set of challenges. It turns Mirror’s Edge into an arcade game, something that it should have been from the start.
I’m reminded of another game that was overlooked this year, a modern take on that very same arcade lineage, Bizarre Creation’s The Club (one of Tom Chick’s best games of 2008). It, too, sold poorly. It’s a niche genre with a limited audience. It’s unreasonable to expect three million sell-throughs. That’s perfectly fine, of course, as long as it is positioned for that market and properly budgeted for that market. Every game does not need to go platinum to be considered a success.
That’s why, even though I’m glad that EA isn’t abandoning Mirror’s Edge, I’m filled with apprehension when I see John Riccitiello say:
We’re probably going to look into some issues around the design to make sure strong IP is married with strong business.
There’s two ways to take that and I can’t help but think of the wrong way. I just hope that in the future we see more of what works in Mirror’s Edge and less of the forced story and its forced urgency. In the meantime, I’m going to go and work on my time trial records.
- “Disaster” is how it is seen internally at EA, according to Jeff Green on GWJ’s podcast.
- For more on the trials and tribulations of John Riccitiello , in musical form, see The Ballad of John Riccitiello, as performed by Chris Remo.