I’m writing an article on Mirror’s Edge at the moment – once it’s all drawn up I’m hoping to send it off to a journal and get it published. In the course of my research, I bumped into an interview that was put out as part of the marketing of the game all the way back in 2000-and-something. You can read it here: basically the thing that struck me was how they talked about the depiction of the environment. They’re talking about the art direction on the second page:
“The first person perspective, puts a really explicit focus on your surroundings, and on the very stark art design. You guys have a very specific art design going on.
NC: Yeah. And that’s specifically because that’s how she sees the world; it’s that the game is played out through her eyes. When you’re on the rooftops, that’s how she sees the city now. It feels like a very cold, austere place to her; it’s lost its vibrancy that it once had, through the control. And that’s how we make that connection.”
So basically what they’re saying is that there’s a difference between how the world really is, and how the world is perceived by Faith. Let’s break this down a bit. When you’re watching something animated – say, Monsters. Inc – it’s not realistic, in the sense that it’s animated and the world doesn’t look like our real world. It’s not trying to represent this reality. However, what you see on the screen in Monsters. Inc is what the fictional world actually looks like. It might seem a bit weird to talk about what fictional worlds ‘actually’ look like, given that they’re fictional, but what I’m distinguishing between is the fictional world ‘on its own terms’, and the fictional world ‘perceived’.
Another example might clear things up. There’s a scene in Chicago where Richard Gere is playing spin doctor with the press:
The scene jumps between the fictional ‘reality’ (the press conference), and the metaphorical puppet-scene used to represent it. You can see this split between the ‘reality’ of the fictional world, and the figurative representation of what was going on. There’s two different levels of the fiction that exist – if we talk in terms of fictional worlds, the press conference is ‘reality’, and the puppet-scene is not actually happening. Another point of reference might be the ill-conceived Sucker Punch – whenever Babydoll is dancing, there’s an extended action sequence representing that dance. Returning to Monsters, Inc, everything that happens in there is basically ‘reality’ – it’s all part of the core fictional world.
In Mirror’s Edge, then, what that quote is telling us is that what we’re seeing on the screen is definitively not how the city actually is. The game is played out through her eyes, it’s how she sees the city – basically it’s that second level of reality, similar to the puppet-conference. I mean, sure, the puppet-conference is a sort of extended metaphor, while Mirror’s Edge is more about filtering the ‘reality’ through Faith’s perspective, but it’s a similar sort of thing. In both cases, there’s a split between the fictional world ‘on its own terms’, and the fictional world ‘perceived’.
So if you’re seeing where I’m going with this distinction, you can appreciate that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two types of representation (that is, ‘on its own terms’ and ‘perceived’) in video games. Imagine an enemy with a ridiculously huge gun who soaks up heaps of bullets before he dies – it could be ‘perceived’ representation, because it’s ridiculous, but at the same time, that’s kinda just how video games work. Similarly with Mirror’s Edge – it’s super heavily stylised, in terms of the art direction, but that could just be how the fictional world is. Think of Portal – that’s heavily stylised, but that’s just how it is. It’s not stylised because it’s only a ‘perceived’ reality – it’s just a stylised reality. It’s the same as Monsters, Inc – it’s not ‘perceived’ reality just because it’s animated. That’s not sufficient evidence. It’s animated because that’s the ‘reality’ of the fictional world – it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the ‘reality’ of our world, but that’s not really important.
So here’s the thing about perceived realities. Usually, the whole point of them is that at some point you get a glimpse of the ‘real’ fictional reality, and that sort of dissembles the ‘facade’ of the perceived reality. In Chicago, you know that the puppet thing isn’t literally happening. It’s a visual figure of speech. We can tell that it’s not actually happening, because the point of view keeps switching between the actual press conference and the stage. There’s a shift that makes it clear what’s perspective and what’s reality. That shift is really sort of necessary if you’re to start seeing the perspective as just a perspective – if you don’t have any measure of ‘reality’ itself, there’s nothing to compare to. This is my problem with the quote about Mirror’s Edge – there’s no measure of ‘reality’ itself. So we can claim that it’s all just from Faith’s perspective, but it’s kind of a moot point, because we don’t have any relationship with any other reality in the text. There’s nothing to compare it to – this is the only thing we can access.
So let’s engage in a little exercise in the hypothetical. Maybe the world is seen from Faith’s perspective. It’s not something you’d necessarily assume, unless you’d read that particular article, and I’m not convinced it adds much to the game anyway. The interpretive options are either ‘the city is cold and corporate’, or ‘Faith thinks that the city is cold and corporate’. If Faith’s right – and the game doesn’t give us any reason to doubt her opinion – then her ‘perspective’ on the world is basically just objectively correct – at which point it stops functioning like a perspective. Probably the strongest argument in favour of subjectivity is the Runner Vision – basically important things turn red so you know to hit them. You can argue that it stems from Faith’s long career running the rooftops – the important things sort of stand out to her more. If that’s the case, I’d be interested to hear what their explanation of Hard Mode is – if I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure Hard Mode turns Runner Vision off.