Leap of Faith: DICE’s Mirror’s Edge

Leap of Faith: DICE's Mirror's Edge

Battlefield creator DICE wants to "put the person back into first-person" with the upcoming Mirror’s Edge. Can this acrobatic title revitalize first-person game design?

Digg this story here. 

Historically, when firstperson games have demanded acrobatics of even a limited sort, the results have been sorrowful. Even a title as accomplished as Half-Life tripped up by including a forlorn sequence of jumping puzzles (and thus an enervating succession of quickloads) in the final stages of the adventure. So it’s easy to be cynical when DICE tells you that the entirety of its new game, given the preliminary title of Mirror’s Edge, centres on making an energetic use of movement – jumping, climbing, diving – all things that have either been poorly implemented or avoided altogether in firstperson games of the past. Even running is something that most games implement simply as a doubling of the camera’s speed – the character’s legs don’t actually hammer the ground with greater force, arms swinging in rhythm with each powerful bound. But they do in Mirror’s Edge. And this is exactly how DICE hopes to surpass the problems of movement in the past: by creating an acutely physical sense of the player’s body within the environment.

It’s something of a strange paradox that firstperson games, while placing you more directly in the gameworld, mostly offer fewer options for interaction with your environment than thirdperson games. The reason for this, however, is not terribly obscure – there is simply less visual feedback in firstperson to tell the player what his or her digital body is doing. It’s no surprise then that most firstperson games, lacking an ability to convey your physical presence in the environment, tend to reduce the avatar in  question to a floating gun. That such titles then feature shooting as their métier is an inevitability: it’s an interaction based on line-of-sight, the appreciation of which is enhanced by the firstperson perspective, and doesn’t require radical movement within the world.

As such, DICE’s decision to name the nimble protagonist Faith begins to seem particularly appropriate for a character representing both the literal and figurative embodiment of the team’s vision – one which happily flouts convention in a way that must demand a substantial amount of self-belief.

“At the start, everybody thought: ‘Yeah, that sounds cool, but it’s not going to work’,” says senior producer Owen O’Brien. “A lot of other people have tried it and failed, and this is why we think we’ve got something really innovative, because we’ve overcome all these hurdles and got something that really works now. We believe we’ve got freedom of movement that you haven’t seen in this genre of game before – it’s more like what Prince Of Persia has done, but in firstperson.”

“There’s always been a lot of focus on the gun in firstperson games,” says producer Tom Farrer, ruefully. “No one puts that much focus on the movement; how you move around the environment. We wanted to capture a real sense of physicality. Games like Unreal Tournament have movement – double jumps, rocket jumps – but it’s very abstracted. We wanted to place you in the world and convey the strain and physical contact with the environment.”

O’Brien describes the game’s philosophy as a “through the character” experience rather than a “through the gun” experience. “The aspirations of that are that you have a body, that the camera movement is organic – and it should feel like it’s really you, it should feel fluid and realistic. We wanted to work, not on creating bigger and better and more intricate weapons, but on really bringing in the hands of the person.”

The task of projecting a sense of embodiment falls largely in the lap of Tobias Dahl, the lead animator on the project. It’s a change in emphasis that requires a rethinking of the usual expenditure of the polygon budget. “What you usually see when you look at the hands in firstperson shooters is that you have a big loss of volume when it comes to the lower arms, the knuckles disappearing and so on,” he explains. “I would say most of the firstperson shooters just ignore the hands and focus a whole lot on the weapons. We have projects at DICE where we have lead weapon artists and a crew under him or her to develop the shaders for the weapons – but then you have these low-polygon cubic hands holding the weapons. We focused on the hands from the start. So we have no loss of  volume, we have veins showing and knuckles that grow depending on how the hand is bent. In a normal firstperson game you have about 30 animations for the hands – right now, I think we’re up to 300.”

The game does feature guns, however, but they act more like tools rather than as the focus of the game. “Principally, this is an action adventure,” says O’Brien. “We’re not positioning this as a shooter – the focus isn’t on the gun, it’s on the person. As the marketing is saying, it’s ‘putting the person back into firstperson’. So it’s all about you, it’s about the movement.”

moscallout“We believe we’ve got freedom of movement that you haven’t seen in this genre of game before”/moscalloutDICE is aware that its promises of convincing digital embodiment are likely to induce scepticism, but with the 360 gamepad in hand, doubts about the extent of its achievement are rather abruptly demolished. Even just walking feels vividly realised in a way that firstperson games commonly don’t. All too often, looking down, you will see your feet glide over the floor – if you have them at all; here, footfalls feel weighty, as though they are actually engendering movement. And when you speed up, the sense of acceleration is well matched by the sway of the camera, your arms pumping visibly, the sound of your trainers impacting concrete with a fluid increase in pace and power.

“The first thing we wanted to get was the feeling of actually sprinting, to get a feeling of speed and momentum in the game,” says O’Brien.

And, well, it works – and this is before motion-blur or any other full-screen effects have been added to accentuate the feeling of movement. But it’s not only the contact with the environment and the audiovisual feedback that makes the player feel so coupled with the avatar – crucially, DICE has nailed the sense of acceleration and deceleration. The latter is particularly obvious if you hit the crouch button while moving at speed – the avatar throws herself into a slide, feet outstretched in front (useful for evading slowly descending garage doors, for example), and, skidding to a gravellysounding halt, the viewpoint skews with plausible imitation of naturalistic head movement. It’s all suggestive of a friction with the surrounding world that is simply absent from other firstperson games – and perhaps it takes an effort like DICE’s to recognise that there even was a common disconnect occuring in the genre that needed to be addressed.