February 8, 2012 by wcparti
Diegetic Aesthetics in Mirror’s Edge
Last fall, while exploring the possibility of a research paper on the history of aesthetics in gaming, I came across an article in Game Studies entitled “Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics.” In it, the author argues for the inclusion of John Dewey’s aesthetic theory in game studies because “[it] gives a central place to interactivity and embodiment, critical elements of video games.” Ultimately, the article was a little forgettable, but it did incite me to ask, “what theories from my own discipline (twentieth century art history) might allow for interactivity?” The answer came to me almost instantly: Clement Greenberg’s theory of media maturity, not so much because the theory ever had interactivity in mind, but because it ascribes itself to be universal in its application.
By way of introduction, Clement Greenberg was a preeminent modernist art critic best known for his championing of abstract expressionism in the early 1940’s, several years before the style gained widespread popularity. He is also remembered for his irrepressible devotion to “formalism,” which required all arguments about a work of art to be formed from observations on the canvas, i.e. formal elements—line, color, texture, form, et cetera (were Greenberg to be a game critic, he would have little concern for ‘play’ and ‘cultural context’—only rules and perhaps ontology). From this conceptual anchor, he eventually laid out his theory on media maturity, paraphrased as follows: as each medium reaches artistic maturity, it narrows to what uniquely defines it. In the case of games, this is, of course, interactivity. As the designer Warren Spector noted, “The word ‘interactivity’ isn’t just about giving players choices; it pretty much completely defines the game medium.”
On one level, of course, all games have interactive aesthetics; what the player sees on screen is one mean of interfacing with virtual space. But games are a synthetic medium: they are a unity (as I see it) of artistic, literary, musical and cinematic conventions. Virtually every modern game has a plot, a score, and a concern for its visual appearance, with the ability for interactivity embodied in each of these. It stands to reason, then, that for the medium to become mature, a la Greenberg’s definition, all of the components that build up the medium must become mature. That is, each of these individual arts integrated into a gaming platform must come to embody interactivity. For the sake of space, I will leave out music and plot for now, leaving us with the question, what does an aesthetically mature game look like? For the answer, I would like to turn to the woefully underappreciated Mirror’s Edge, a game that I believe to be unmatched in its control of aesthetics to heighten its particular interactivity.
Mirror’s Edge takes place in a utopian city under the control of a totalitarian regime, where freedom is tightly controlled and information even more so. You play as twenty four year old Faith Connors, one of an elite group of young women known as “Runners,” agile couriers who deliver sensitive communiqués across the city. As the game opens, Faith becomes entangled in a conspiracy to bring down a rising, anti-authoritarian politician, whose murder and its investigation becomes the central narrative. The majority of missions are constructed around Faith rushing to a destination, which frequently requires darting through office buildings, scaling skyscraper facades, leaping across urban canyons, all while dodging the faceless information police. The influence of parkour (“free-running”) is made very clear in the game’s mechanics of conserving momentum. While the destinations are invariable, the routes there are not and there are several ways to complete each level. Because of this, it could be easy to lose one’s way in the game’s sterile urban maze; however, the game guides the player through this labyrinth in a clever way that utilizes aesthetics. On the game’s unique visual style, designer Owen O’Brien says, “the art direction grew out of the gameplay. We wanted to give people a sense of the world very quickly and move through it very quickly. We initially stripped out all of the colors and then just put in red [to guide people to objectives.]” With this in mind, consider the game’s trailer.
What at first seems like a resourceful trick on the part of the designers carries far greater significance for game aesthetics. Thinking back to Greenberg’s definition, Mirror’s Edge’s designers have produced a game whose method of interactivity is heightened by aesthetic choices relevant to the particular game space, or as I would like to call them, diegetic aesthetics. A less mature corollary, for example, would be Sega’s Crazy Taxi.
 Once again, you race to a destination through a web of urban space, but you are instead directed by a clunky arrow above the taxi, which does not feasibly exist in the game space. The genius of Mirror’s Edge is maximizing the player’s ability to successfully interact with the game space while sacrificing absolutely none of its illusionism.
The color red as an indicator of direction is not alone in its resourcefulness and efficiency of visual space, but it is certainly the best example for our purposes. The game’s use of oblique lines that indicate the player’s speed (critical knowledge for judging whether a jump will be under or overshot), and the flashes of red that indicate the player’s health also fall under this general heading of diegetic aesthetics. They are visually believable referent to the game space. Mirror’s Edge is a game of agile embodiment; there is no user interface, and whatever information the player needs to know to effectively interact with the virtual space must be indicated through other means. The decision to embody these clues literally within the actual game world represents a serious step forward for gaming. These decisions are particularly ingenious because of the nature of Mirror’s Edge’s agile gameplay: stopping for even a second will almost certainly cost you your life. Information, therefore, must be conveyed in the most efficient way possible, while not distracting the player from the game space (thus ruining the sense of embodiment). Otherwise, the game becomes a frustrating exercise in futility (on higher difficulty levels, the directional indicators are removed and the game does indeed become infuriatingly arduous).
There is more to say here about aesthetics, particularly color symbolism (the exclusivity of primary colors reminds us of the primacy of the values that are at stake in Mirror’s Edge—security, freedom, and the balance between the two), but these indicate the aesthetics’ dialogue with elements other than the interactive (in that example, setting and plot). Mirror’s Edge is an incredibly mature game, in the most Greenberg-ian sense. It is well in tune with the conception of how the individual arts may be manipulated diegetically to heighten embodiment and interactivity in a way that I feel remains unmatched in gaming. I didn’t talk about music in this paper, but you can take my word for it that the sonic cues in Mirror’s Edge, musical or not, are similarly concerned with augmenting the interactive.
Mirror’s Edge is not a perfect game. Its plot is far too linear for my liking, it is ultimately quite short (<10 hours), and carries little replay value. Returning to Greenberg for one last time, we can say that perhaps these elements are not yet mature. Just like the aesthetic and the musical, one must have gameplay about interactivity, as bizarre as this sounds. That, however, is a separate discussion entirely, one that I hope to explore in my article report (tentatively planned to be a response to Roger Ebert’s high modernist critique of games—art history will once again be the clue to deconstruct and refute his argument). 
 These four methods of inquiry for video game analysis are derived from the textbook Understanding Video Games. While not universally agreed upon, they provide a useful corollary for understanding the nature of Greenberg’s inquiries into a medium. Simon Egenfeldt-Nielson, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca, Understanding Video Games (Andover: Routledge, 2008): 10.
 Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” Art & Literature No. 4 (Spring 1965): 193-201.
 Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).
 EA Digital Illusions CE, Mirror’s Edge, 2008.
 Owen O’Brien, Interview with Stephen Totilo, March 7, 2008. Accessed February 8, 2012. http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2008/03/07/ea-discusses-mirrors-edge-sickness-concerns-lack-of-color-green
 Sega Corporation, Crazy Taxi (1995).
 Roger Ebert, “Answer Man,” Chicago Sun Times, November 27, 2005. Accessed February 8, 2012 http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=ANSWERMAN&date=20051127
 Roger Ebert, “Games as Art: Ebert vs. Barker,” Chicago Sun Times, July 21, 2007. Accessed February 8, 2012. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070721/COMMENTARY/70721001