Monday, November 17, 2008

Why Does "Mirror's Edge" Need Guns?

Violence and a need to express it is hardcoded into our DNA. Put a stick in a boy's hand and it becomes a broadsword. Put an L-shape twig in a boy's hand and first thing he does is shoot the bad guys with it. Ask a boy to design a game from a first person perspective and he will immediately stick a gun in the middle of the screen. Then, if he works for Epic, he will put a chainsaw bayonet on the gun because having a simple firearm isn't enough, and then fill the surrounding environment with objects that look like they were constructed of tinfoil, slathered in vaseline.

Nothing wrong with that; it is catharsis on a massive scale, a generation of you men and women, pent up in plastic and plywood cubicles, getting in touch with their primal need for blood through Team Deathmatch.

However, when a video game developer is bold enough to say, Hey, there is this great thing we could do with a first person camera in a game and it doesn't involve a gun, that feels on first inspection like some form of Gamer Heresy. What you are going to put me in a first person world and then tell me I'm not going to shoot people for 90% of the game? GUARDS! TAKE HIM AWAY!

Unless you're like me and happen to be overly fond of heretics. Then the polar opposite over-reaction kicks in. The one that jumps up and down on your Mom's couch yelling, "OMFG this is the greatest thing, the greatest game ever ever EVER!" Even though you know it isn't and that you are acting like a 13 year old girl at a Insert Popular Boy Band Here concert.

This is how I arrived at "Mirror's Edge". The latest attempt by DICE to do something different with a first person game other than have you run around shooting people. "Mirror's Edge" works most of them time because you don't run around shooting people. "Mirror's Edge" oddly but unsurprisingly doesn't work some times when they make you run around shooting people, or make you run around trying to disarm the people who are shooting at you so you can shoot back at them.

This where most of the complaints by reviewers (I can't call them critics with a straight face) derive the complaint that combat in "Mirror's Edge" sucks. Actually, Enthusiast Reviewer, the combat does not "suck". The combat is fine. What "sucks" is you are in a world where you have to use hand to hand combat but everyone else possesses a large firearm.

About halfway through "Mirror's Edge" I began to think new, fresh heretical thoughts (is there ever such a thing as old heretical thoughts?). I said to myself, what if ... What if "Mirror's Edge" didn't have guns at all? What if the Blues -- the cops in Mirror's Edge -- just had tasers, and batons, and that non-lethal foam "stuff"? Well, that would at least even out the combat, wouldn't it. I certainly wouldn't be dying every time I miss time a punch on a SWAT Officer who then shoves me to the ground and pumps me full of lead. What if the Blues tried to arrest me instead of just shoot me, and then the combat mechanic could also double for an escape mechanic... What if ...

I hear the protests already. But how does that work with the story line? Cops that don't shoot? I mean, wtf? You're crazy! I'm going to stop reading this site! Mom! Get me a Hot Pocket and a Mountain Dew! Mom! But think about it.

Most cops nowadays do not shoot on sight. Even SWAT doesn't shoot on sight if they can avoid it. And "Mirror's Edge" is set in a kindly totalitarian city where the control is derived not from guns but from control of communication, control of the media, control of the people. The all prying eye that sees All.

How would an underground group or a resistance get guns into a city where privacy has been completely stamped out? Wouldn't massive, intrusive gun control be the first law you'd pass if you were planning to rule anything as a dictator? And why arm the Blues, the cops, when you already have complete control of the city? Arming the police just makes them a possible contender to your throne, a Praetorian Guard in dress blues, and also increases the likelihood of people doing exactly what I started to do about halfway through the game, disarming the police and turning their guns on them.

This is all a thought exercise, running through my head as I played the game, trying to come up with a coherent, consistent logic for omitting guns in "Mirror's Edge" altogether. Then once I arrived at a sound way to do it my thoughts turned to those nebulous Whys. Why does "Mirror's Edge" need guns at all? I'm not talking from a pure design perspective, but a more philosophical space. Why does "Mirror's Edge" need guns?

And it is one of those questions I do not have a great answer for. You can go for the soft underbelly and blame it on game designers lacking in imagination, or a video game audience that is still stuck firmly in the juvenilia stage that expects every game to have guns and an option to kill in them.

But I think, while maybe true and maybe not true, the answer runs a bit deeper. I think we've grown so accustomed to a violent world dominated by the gun and the sword that we -- We in the Collective sense; the societal We -- cannot fathom a world rid of power through guns. Even if that world is a near-future one of enforced Utopia, controlled by corporations and fascists mayors, we cannot conceive of it existing without guns. Almost instinctively there seems to be a voice in the back of our primal heads that whispers, You'll never be free. Violence, and death, and murder, and the weapons that come with them will always be here. Always. An inescapable fact of life.

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