This is the first in a regular series of contributions from Dead End Thrills creator Duncan Harris, exploring the art and science of gaming’s most historic projects. Lovingly captured galleries of these and other games can be found at Dead End Thrills.
The best possible reason for a sequel isn’t to build upon success, but to build upon the right kind of failure. Mirror’s Edge is not a great game, but Mirror’s Edge 2 could be incredible. DICE’s ultra-desirable anti-FPS may have stumbled in the execution, but the need for such a game seems more urgent than ever. It was an embattled project faced with early Unreal Engine 3 code and changing expectations (at EA) of its role. But its bleached and blown-out vision of a future surveillance society is perhaps, still, the best implementation of Epic’s ubiquitous technology to date.
Much of the credit for that belongs to prodigal environment artist Robert Briscoe, who this year gave us a masterful remake of thechineseroom’s Dear Esther. Clearly a man who thrives upon games where scenery dictates action, he has now delivered three of the most memorable venues ever: the quietening Hebrides of Esther; The Shard, the sky-piercing mirage at the heart of Mirror’s Edge; and the world’s only gorgeous storm drain (Mirror’s Edge again). It’s not the most obvious path for a military hardware specialist to take – but, then again…
“I literally didn’t want to see another bloody tank, plane or warship again in my life,” he begins, recalling his previous job as a modeler for military recognition systems. “One of my friends who worked on a mod with me was working on Battlefield: Bad Company, and got me the interview at DICE. I was pretty sure I was going to go and work on that but, towards the end of the interview, they mentioned this new IP coming up. I was sceptical but they were looking for environment artists, so I thought it could be all right.”
Details were not forthcoming until after Briscoe signed on; Mirror’s Edge was a secretive and risky venture from the outset, something the old demoscene DICE might have dreamt up before Battlefield, EA, and the withering global recession.
“Do we need to go completely white, though?”
Mirror’s Edge was “basically just an art test at this point, set in Shanghai or somewhere very much like it,” recalls Briscoe. “It looked cool, but generic.” There were rooftops, but not until two months after Briscoe joined did art director Johannes Soderqvist, returning from holiday in Spain, think to plaster them all in, well, “this brilliant white plaster you get over there. He took all these pictures of it; he was fascinated by the light and the colours bouncing around. The clean, fresh look of it.
“Another part of it was that some of the 3D artists we had on the team tended to just block stuff out really quickly, not put any textures on things. And they did these really cool renders of the city, just detail models. He loved that as well. So those two things came together and that really turned the art direction around.”
Briscoe wasn’t quite sold on it, though. “I was sceptical. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, do we need to go completely white, though? That white? Because all I’d seen was just a couple of very small art tests.”
“We needed to get a better lighting engine because the one we had with Unreal was bad,” recalls Briscoe, “Really bad. They hadn’t changed it since Unreal 1. We were looking at some of the Gears Of War levels at the time – we got hold of some of their source artwork and stuff – and they had thousands and thousands of lights in there just to simulate bounced light. They were manually placing all of them. And we just took one look and everyone was like, ‘There’s no bloody way in hell we’re spending two months doing that.’”
Help came in the form of rendering company Illuminate Labs, which at the time specialised in a Maya renderer – a global illumination lighting engine – called Turtle. After lengthy discussions, DICE convinced it to port the tech to Unreal as an external renderer called Beast (which would later appear in BioShock Infinite and the Starbreeze reboot of Syndicate).
“It was just a case of building the impossible.”
Briscoe had no advanced knowledge of what he’d be working on. Artists were assigned to level designers already at work on the maps, few of which had much identity. What had stemmed from the game’s concept, though – ruthless cops and renegade traceurs in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse – was a projection of today’s most hubristic urban landscapes. “It’s almost over-developed,” says Briscoe. “It’s like Dubai and stuff, where you’ve got these amazing buildings that are built and then no one occupies them.”
And it just so happened that the biggest, proudest and coldest of these monuments fell into Briscoe’s lap. The Shard, a dominating skyscraper wired into every CCTV camera and affair in the city, was actually invented prior to the identically named, visually similar project currently underway in London’s Bridge Quarter.
“To be fair, it’s an amalgamation of architectural designs and stuff that were studied at the time, so there might have been an influence in there,” says Briscoe. “But we had this idea of what we wanted to do, which was this triangular, almost impossible-looking building just to dominate the skyline.” It was a paradox that DICE’s level designers, artists and concept artists had to tackle together. “Just a case of building the impossible, which is this kind of theme throughout it all.”
Much the same could be said for the London Shard, designed by architect Renzo Piano, which early on promised a glazed facade much like its virtual predecessor. This has yet to appear, however, leaving just a gradually rising spike of exposed cubicles and strip lights. The Mirror’s Edge Shard still stands alone.
“It was supposed to look like a complete mirror,” notes Briscoe.”There’s no real light visible throughout. It would just blend into the background – not completely, but like an aberration effect, this weird optical illusion of a mirror in the sky.”
Thanks to Half-Life 2’s Citadel, The Shard serves a familiar purpose. As an orienteering device, it allows Mirror’s Edge to explore a broad range of times and locations without losing its sense of geography. You can see it from just about anywhere in the game – and it, you feel, sees all.
“It’s just one of the things that Half-Life 2 did great, giving you this goal from the get-go,” says Briscoe. “You get out onto the square and straight away you’ve this huge, ominous, looming /thing/ in the background that you know… that’s where shit’s going down later on. It’s gives you a goal right away, and that’s what we wanted to with Mirror’s Edge. You had this hub where all of the tech was being monitored, where everything was being controlled. I don’t know if [DICE] would appreciate me saying it was a direct influence, Half-Life 2, but it’s not really deniable.”