Video Game Analysis by Will Partin


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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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).[3] 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.[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6]

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.]”[7] With this in mind, consider the game’s trailer.[8]

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.

[9] 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).[10] [11]

[1] Phillip Deen, “Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics,” Game Studies Vol. 11, No. 2 (May 2011). Accessed February 8, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 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.

[4] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” Art & Literature No. 4 (Spring 1965): 193-201.

[5] Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).

[6] EA Digital Illusions CE, Mirror’s Edge, 2008.

[7] Owen O’Brien, Interview with Stephen Totilo, March 7, 2008. Accessed February 8, 2012.

[8] EA Digital Illusions CE, “Mirror’s Edge Trailer” (EA DICE, 2008). Accessed February 8, 2012.

[9] Sega Corporation, Crazy Taxi (1995).

[10] Roger Ebert, “Answer Man,” Chicago Sun Times, November 27, 2005. Accessed February 8, 2012

[11] Roger Ebert, “Games as Art: Ebert vs. Barker,” Chicago Sun Times, July 21, 2007. Accessed February 8, 2012.


4 thoughts on “Video Game Analysis by Will Partin

  1. cchung9 says:

    The use of graphics to lead the character’s path is beautifully done in Mirror’s Edge. It was so seamless that I had not noticed it during my first viewing of the game’s trailer. The use of red is subtly conspicuous. Rather than a gigantic arrow above the players head, this game brings the player to believe that it has more power over the player and that their choices are not dictated by apparent directions. The gameplay is to use momentum to reach a goal and the hints of red are vital to the game structure and the player’s gamplay for each scenario. This is definitely something deemed as diegetic aesthetics.

  2. jwildberger says:

    Your analysis of how Mirror’s Edge inheres gameplay information into the diagetic space was very thought provoking. For an action games like Mirror’s Edge, I agree that this aesthetic style will probably gain popularity due to its intuitiveness and minimalism. However, I find the media maturity argument unconvincing, because I’m not sure that video games have an essence.

    While interactivity may distinguish videogames from many artforms, videogames could also be distinguished by their use of rules or by their ability to simulate. Further, it does not follow from the fact that videogames are uniquely good at one thing that all mature videogames should focus on this one thing. Just because the videogame medium can allow one to visualize non-Euclidian spaces better than any other medium does not mean a good, or mature, videogame will take advantage of this unique potential.

    Not all good games fully embrace interactivity. For example, Japanese RPGs, like Final Fantasy, often include non-interactive cutscenes and storylines. I do not believe that this make them less mature. In addition, they rely on menu systems to manage the party and equipment, and it is difficult to see how this information could be integrated into the diagetic space. Some genres, like turn-based RPGs, seem to require these non-diagetic menu systems.

    I think the media maturity concept can still be a useful critical tool as long as one takes into account the full variety of tools the videogame medium offers, instead of one essence. This means playing close attention to genre especially, since genres are great indicators of the medium’s range of possibilities.

  3. Sean Steffen says:

    I enjoyed your argument and agree that Mirrors Edge is often over looked in terms of its sophistication. One point I would like to raise, however, is that one could argue that the arrow in Crazy Taxi is a legitimate aesthetic choice for that franchise. Crazy Taxi was developed for arcades and was only later ported to consoles. Like a lot of arcade games, it’s broad, silly and very self aware. It doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s a game. In fact, it flaunts it. It’s part of the enjoyment. In other words, non-diagetic elements are a primary part of the aesthetics of that franchise.

  4. bnoble6 says:

    I agree with your points on how well “Mirror’s Edge” pathway for leading the characters through the game blends right into the world of the game itself. And as was mentioned above, I did not even notice it when watching the original trailer. I remember being very intrigued by this game when it was released but just never getting a chance to play it. So after your presentation Monday, I downloaded the demo on the Xbox Marketplace to give it a hands-on try. I must say, all the progress I felt they made with the red path system and seamlessly blending the player into the video game was immediately negated by how unnatural the controls felt and the cheesiness of the dialogue. I think the dialogue was almost forced to be bad at times because they wanted to quickly convey information to the player but didn’t want to clutter the screen with text, so I’ll be a little lenient on that aspect. But as someone who has played a countless number of first person shooters, I just feel like there is a universal way they all feel at this point, and this game completely missed the boat (i.e. using LB for jump and LT for crouch). I was wondering if you feel the sacrifices made in terms of some of the dialogue and the (in my opinion) questionable controls could be related to more time being spent on the visuals, and if so, do you think the sacrifice is worth it?

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