Hardcore Henry comes out this weekend (you can buy tickets here), and to celebrate, we're going to spend the week looking at films that share some element of its first-person, video game inspired aesthetic.
Mirror’s Edge is, without a doubt, one of the most cinematic games ever made. Current-day graphics technology progresses at an astonishing rate, but Mirror’s Edge, developed by DICE (Battlefield, Star Wars Battlefront) in 2008, still looks utterly dazzling. A first-person runner where you thwart government conspiracies with parkour skills, it’s set in the futuristic digital cityscape of Michael Mann’s wet dreams. Beneath every gorgeously rendered surface lurks a fascist police state. Mirror’s Edge is the rare blockbuster video game where you can feel an auteur’s design – one I kept ruining with my ineptness.
The most challenging games are often the most rewarding. When you’re playing a game as elegantly designed as Donkey Kong or Super Meat Boy, you can feel yourself improving with every minute. Mastery comes with practice, muscle memory, and knowledge of the game’s rhythms. Mirror’s Edge is a platformer for the blockbuster cinema generation, raised on The Matrix and first-person shooters alike. It has a strong female protagonist, Faith, who the game never objectifies, whose likability is completely determined by her skill at jumping from building to building. Unfortunately, that skill is entirely determined by you, the player.
There’s a philosophical conflict at the core of the game. Mirror’s Edge aspires to the grace and fluidity of a great action film. But it’s ruled by its unforgiving difficulty, where it’s impossible to not die dozens of times during your first playthrough. Jumps between buildings are easily misjudged; you can’t always outrun a bullet. And the game makes you feel every death - if you fall from a skyscraper, you can literally hear the splat as you hit the ground. It’s as if the developers have crafted the perfect film set with you as the lead actor - and you keep letting the film down.
In search of the “right” way to experience Mirror’s Edge, you turn to speedruns. For most games, speedruns are about breaking the rules, exploiting unintentional glitches - think finishing Ocarina of Time without a shield. But the world of Mirror’s Edge has no seams. Watching other people zoom through levels you barely scraped past, it becomes a purer cinematic experience than actually playing the game itself. The funny thing is, there’s nothing encouraging about it. It’s like watching a virtuoso musician at work - how many hours did it take to get to that level? Why bother mastering Mirror’s Edge when casual perfection’s all over YouTube?
So instead of running headfirst into another potential death, you learn to stop and appreciate the scenery. Game environments usually feel transparently like “levels”, lines of code designed to mask the fact that none of it really exists. But in Mirror’s Edge, life seems to go on without you. There’s something oddly existential about standing atop a skyscraper, watching the wind blow across an endless city. You should be saving the blissfully ignorant populace from their oppressive government, but it’s too beautiful to look away.
Eight years after its release, Mirror’s Edge remains unique. There are more films than video games that replicate some of its breathless experience - Haywire, Edge of Tomorrow, even Mad Max: Fury Road. The game’s sequel, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, is one of the most anticipated games of 2016 - for its photorealistic graphics, because it might correct some of its predecessor’s flaws, and of course, for its potentially even higher difficulty. I’ll play it anyway - because I’d rather fail spectacularly than not try at all.