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Four Things EA Must Do to Salvage the Mirror's Edge Franchise After Catalyst

After the disappointment, it's time to reflect on what went wrong and how to improve the latest installment of the Mirror’s Edge franchise.

Electronic Arts (EA) and EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE) released the first installment of the Mirror’s Edge franchise way back on November 11, 2008. Featuring fresh gameplay mechanics and an audacious art style, the game gathered a passionate following on the Internet.

Then dedicated fans spent eight years craving a sequel. And during the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), they got what they wanted -- EA announced Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. With the promise of improving the original formula and providing new features, the second entry in the series became one of the most anticipated titles of 2016. Upon release, however, the excitement of the fans shriveled as their frustration blossomed.

Scoring a 6.9/10 on Metacritic (for the PlayStation 4 version), Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is perhaps one of the most disappointing productions of this year, considering the downgrade from the first installment of the franchise, which earned a 7.9/10. Despite presenting the gaming community with a dazzling visual experience, achieved through the Frostbite Engine, the complaints from critics and players were plenty -- ranging from a mediocre story to an underutilized open world map.

But what really went wrong with Catalyst, and how can EA improve to make another Mirror's Edge game that will capture fans the way the original did? Let's find out.

[Note: This article is spoiler free, so proceed without caution.]

1. Layer on more meaning and real-life social commentary.

Set in a futuristic dystopian society, Mirror's Edge Catalyst features a metropolis where corporations heavily monitor information. The developers depict this scenario as detrimental to the well-being of the population, demonizing the conglomerate that maintains control over every bit of data.

We may not like to admit it, but considering the current state of the real world, Catalyst portrays an accurate representation of how our near future may look, for today’s societies already feature plenty of aspects from this fictional universe -- information monitoring being one of them.

Unlike other action games, which are set in battlefields or uncharted lands, the Mirror’s Edge franchise feels close to home in both its setting and themes. With this premise, developers at DICE had a product with potential to be greater than a mere game. It could have been a means to send a powerful message to its audience, thus making it reflect on the current state of affairs. The narrative of this production could have had a greater impact, if the developers had given it more thought when constructing the universe and writing the script for the story, as other productions have done in the past.

Video games, from the Metal Gear saga to BioShock, have thrived in this endeavor before -- and in doing so, they transcended and ceased to be mere games and became timeless pieces of art. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst had potential to do the same, but with a shallow narrative that simply states “corporations = bad”, the potential of the core idea was lost. A philosophical touch to provide social commentary was not only welcome, but needed. The open world featured therein could have been more than just a playground. EA could have used it as a tool to deliver a message.

Which leads nicely into our next must-do for the series...

2. Show...don't tell.

This is one of the basic principles of storytelling, and it applies to video game as well. It serves the purpose of creating a more organic narrative -- allowing players to discover elements of the plot by themselves, rather than through dialogues and exposition dumps. In this process, players feel valued by the developers, because they feel entrusted in the task of putting the puzzles of the story together. If the game merely tells the player about crucial elements of the universe where the story takes place, it risks making the players feel as if the game designer is insulting their intellect. An image is worth a thousand words, after all.

The developers of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, however, seem to have ignored this rule. Throughout the story, characters often have conversations regarding the negative impact the monitoring of information has on the inhabitants of the city. In and of themselves, these dialogues are not detrimental to the quality of the narrative. But the issue is that apart from few glances, the game rarely shows to the player how bad this dystopian society actually is.

As previously stated, critics accused Catalyst of underutilizing its open world. DICE could have taken the time to show players the reality of the city through well-constructed scenes, rather than merely telling the audience about it. It would be far better to live in and experience the struggles of this corrupted city firsthand.

Ideally, when in free roam mode, the game should allow the player to walk through the streets of the city and access public areas, thus adding depth to the gameplay, setting, and story. The idea is to provide the players with the opportunity to venture inside the universe and explore it in order to see with their own eyes the lives of those who dwell there. DICE could have even incorporated gameplay elements with the exploration to keep it from feeling stale -- perhaps by adding police officers to the map who would chase after Faith if she got too close and the officer identified her.

The aforementioned suggestion would fix the “show, do not tell” issue, but implementing it in the game would consume valuable resources and take a lot of time -- possibly making it unviable, considering the budget and schedule constraints the team was operating under. With that said, at least one mission should have been set in street level, forcing the player to go through public areas that show the data monitoring being enforced and how it impacts the inhabitants of the city. Doing so would create a more meaningful experience to the player.

3. Create a stronger sense of purpose.

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose -- these are the three elements that motivate people to engage in an activity, according to New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Daniel Pink. In game design, these three items provide a solid bedrock for delivering a compelling play experience.

Autonomy stands for the desire players have to choose their own approaches, whereas mastery concerns how the audience progresses through the game, learning and mastering its mechanics. With an open world map and a system that allows the player to level up, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst covers these two factors. But fails to give the player the final element of the motivational triad -- purpose.

Game designers often implement the “purpose factor” in their games by allowing players to alter the world around them. The idea is to give to the audience the sensation that the actions taken throughout the game have a greater meaning.

This needs to be introduced carefully in a game's design, however, because humans are visual creatures -- and players need to see with their own eyes how their actions influence the universe of the game. Productions such as the Mass Effect and Fallout series have provided the gaming industry with great examples of how a sense of purpose can engage players in an experience. But how could Catalyst have appealed to that? 

Let's go back to the idea of allowing the player to reach street level in free roam mode. DICE could have expanded on this with more freedom of choice and serious consequence to add that purposeful layer to the game.

I'll paint an example. Considering that corporations oppress the people of the city, the player could find police officers attacking innocent citizens who have been found guilty of breaking an absurd law, such as “no walking in the streets after 10 PM”. With this curfew hour, the streets of the city would be mostly empty during the beginning of the game, for the citizens would be afraid of leaving the safety of their homes at night.

Following this encounter, perhaps the game could present the player with the option of disabling the security equipment the police uses to monitor every inch of the city, blacking out one street at a time in order to make stealth gameplay easier. But then an unforeseen consequence may occur -- with the lack of surveillance, a small group of people feels safe enough to break the curfew and walk in the streets at night again. But the police catch and attack them. It's then up to the player to decide whether to help these citizens or not. If the player rescues them, they will swear to help to cleanse the city from the corporations.

The idea is to create a sort of butterfly effect that alters the course of the game from one small act. Continuing with the example, if the player repeats the surveillance disabling process and repeats it enough times, they'll start to see more characters out in the streets at night.

Once enough individuals unite in the streets, using the main character as inspiration, they could unite and fight the police -- commencing a civil war with the player and their choices as the catalyst. Whether they will emerge victorious from their fight will depend on how many people the player decided to help during free roaming. Throughout the game, the player would visually notice the change in the city, due to the amount of people frequenting public spaces at night and with the conflict erupting later on.

This is an early thought on a concept that might be more difficult to execute than it seems. But it would definitely provide to the players the “purpose factor” to see how impactful their actions are inside the game and in parallel with the main story.

4. Reinvent the dead parent trope.

In contemporary games, it seems to be a basic requirement that protagonists must have at least one deceased parent. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is no exception, as both Faith's parents died when she was a child, in the riots that occurred during the implementation of the information monitoring.

The main problem with this trope is how often writers use it, which has made it difficult to deliver that sort of backstory in a refreshing manner. Its misuse creates a cliché character who is not unique, which is exactly what happened with Faith Connors.

Few games pulled this trope off in a convincing way. Some games, like Max Payne, have found a way to make it work really well. But that's more of an exception than a rule. The question that begs answering is why -- why did using this trope work in Max Payne, while it failed in Mirror's Edge Catalyst? 

A basic rule of character development is that in order to the audience to care about a situation, the characters involved in it must care about it first. In Max Payne, a game that critics regard as one of the best third person shooters of all time, the protagonist mourns over the loss of his family. Most importantly, the game consistently reminds the player that Max feels devastated by his loss. Through actions and dialogue, the lingering consequences of his tragic life are always present and perceived.

But in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, the death of Faith’s parents does not affect her actions or psyche in a meaningful way. Quite frankly, she seems totally unaffected by it at all. And if the protagonist who survived such an ordeal doesn't care about it, then the audience certainly won't care either -- and thus will not bond with her as a character.

This is a prime example of misusing the dead parent trope. To fix this issue and improve on the character development of Faith Connors, the game's writers could have used two different approaches. The first one would be mimicking Max Payne, by placing more emphasis on Faith’s emotions about that traumatic event and how they influence her actions. This would make it easier for the audience to show empathy and become more emotionally engaged with her, and thus more invested in everything she does.

Alternatively, the game could do away with that part of the backstory entirely. think about this line from the introductory cutscene in the original Mirror's Edge:

“They chose a comfortable life. Some didn't. And those who refused to conform were pushed to the sidelines, criminalized.”

This opening line from the first game reveals an immediate conflict between the people who conformed and the ones who refused to. The writer could have used this dichotomy as the backbone of the inner emotional plight for Faith Connors. What if Faith's parents didn't die, but they conformed? What if she refused to give into the status quo and rebelled against the system -- against the very people who raised her? 

Perhaps Faith's parents knew that her mission would be dangerous and tried to do everything in their power to convince her to conform and live a mundane life. And perhaps even though they failed and Faith is gone rogue, their words of discouragement linger in her mind throughout the game and create an emotional conflict between her own desires and her need for parental approval or acceptance.

Faith is aware that her mission may send her seven feet under. What if she had to wrestle with the idea of leaving her parents to grieve should something happen to her? To save them the pain and disappointment, should she give in to what her parents desire and commit to a safe life, or keep fighting to free the city? The decision is hers -- but the player will definitely want to see how the emotional arc unfolds as they play through the game.

Conclusion

I don't want to diminish the efforts of the developers at both EA and DICE --producing a worthy successor to a game as widely acclaimed as Mirror's Edge has got to be difficult. But the core concept behind the Mirror’s Edge franchise has so much potential to bestow a masterful experience upon the gaming community.

But Catalyst hasn't lived up to the series' true potential. And in some ways, neither did the original. However...with a few key changes and some serious re-evaluation of what these games focus on, they could become what every fan knows they can be. 

You may or may not agree with the ideas I've put forward here, but I hope to inspire a conversation that drives the community forward and creates a collective desire among Mirror's Edge fans that perhaps the developers will take notice of. So share your thoughts with me in the comments below and see if we can make a difference in where the series will go from here. 

Published Oct. 20th 2016

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