One of the interesting things about video games is the idea of replay value. When you’ve finished a game, is it something you want to play again? Portal is like an interesting case study here, because on the one hand it’s a set of very linear puzzles, and on the other it’s got fun humour and writing and is just generally satisfying to play. Anyway, I’ve got a friend who’s started playing Mirror’s Edge for the first time, and he’s reminded me of the initial ‘Oh god which way do I go?’ feeling. I’ve been playing it for yonks now, so I don’t have too much difficulty – but it raises an interesting point when you think about it in terms of replay value.
At the start of any given game, there’s this tension where you need to both a) cater to new players who’ve never seen it before and b) cater to long-term players who’re starting a new game. If the tutorial’s really long and drawn out and boring, you’re going to piss off the players who’ve seen it all before, but if the game isn’t scaffolded enough, it’s harder for new players to get into it. Mirror’s Edge holds an interesting position on this scale, because it’s the sort of game that’s more fun the better you are at playing it.
If you don’t know much about Mirror’s Edge, it’s all about flow and momentum – the faster you’re running, the more momentum you’ve got for jumping or running up a wall or kicking some police-dude in his stupid tinted glasses. The mechanic makes sense: it’s easier to get up the wall if you’ve got a running start. In terms of gameplay, momentum requires you to not stop moving – which means that you also need to know where you’re meant to be headed. This is probably one of the big issues with Mirror’s Edge: it can be very stop-starty when it should be flowy-wowy. The issue is exacerbated for new players – they’re less familiar with the levels (and the sometimes-janky mechanics), and so the whole experience is less satisfying than it is for the experts.
The result of this whole set-up is that the start of the game becomes heavily tilted towards older, more experienced players. If you’ve played it before, you don’t have the awkward stop-starty thing – or at least you’ve got less of it. You’re also going to be generally better at handling the controls. Basically, you as a player aren’t reaching the quote-unquote full potential of the game until you’re good at it, which means almost by default that the game is better the second time round. This is an odd position for a video game to be in. I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood lately, and it’s actually really annoying starting a new game, because everything’s locked and I’m roving round like a tin-pot hobo with no homies and no cool gadgets. There’s not heaps of incentive for me as a player to start a new game. What’s really satisfying, in that sense, is getting to the late game when everything’s unlocked and I can do what I want. We might compare Brotherhood to Home Alone: nobody wants to watch the first part of that movie. All we want to see is the last twenty minutes.
If we extend that metaphor, Mirror’s Edge might be comparable to The Prestige or something – where you watch it a second time and you get everything that was going on. It actually rewards a second viewing. It’s worth noting, then, that the idea of replay value isn’t necessarily restricted to games. We wouldn’t call it replay value for a book or a film – we’d talk about secondary or informed reading, or something like that. The distinction between games and more traditional forms lies, as always, simply in play. When you read a book the second time, you know what’s going to happen, and so you’re anticipating the story in all its particular twists and turns. When you play a game, you know what’s going to happen, but you also know how to play. That knowledge affects the way you experience the story. In Mirror’s Edge, I would argue, it makes it better, because the game is predicated on not being shit at free-running. In other games, it might have different effects.
Part of the reason Mirror’s Edge is better the second time round is that there’s no skill progression – in the sense that you don’t have to unlock things and level up skills and buy the new upgrade that allows you to jump 30 centimetres higher so you can clear that bar and make it to the secret which allows you to unlock another upgrade that – you get the point. It’s kinda like Mario or something – old school Mario, anyway. There’s a static set of skills that require mastery, and that gives the game longevity. There’s a scene in Arkham City where a model dinosaur pops up and roars at you. It’s fun the first time, but after that, it’s something you just suffer through. Sure, that’s a story element, but maybe the same thing applies to gameplay. If you’re used to a certain level of unlocked-skills, having all of the options closed off to you can potentially make a game feel stifling. The slog towards an unlock becomes a drag, because you know what you’re missing out on.
Of course, the other reading is that being consciously limited forces you to look at scenarios in new and creative ways. If you can’t double triple ninja flip a bad guy, how else can you get him out the way? Assassin’s Creed I provides the perfect example here: at the start of the game, arrogant Altair gets all his cool ninja toys taken away from him for being an ass. He’s limited in the same way as experienced players – he’s better than the options open to him, and he knows it, but he has to suffer through because he was an asshole. In that situation, fine, staggered progression of skills has a narrative function. It reflects Altair’s experience. That said, I can’t think of any other games that do a similar- oh, hang on, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood does the same thing. Never mind.