How Does Mirror’s Edge Still Look This Good?

I have a very specific prediction about you.
Ready? We, you and I, have been wrong in exactly the same way before.
Because both of us have at some point thought “I don’t think games can look any better
than this!” Honestly I don’t even know how many times
I’ve said this. I remember pausing and zooming in on Smash Bros Melee, marveling at the perfect
detail on the characters. I wondered how they could possibly improve anything for the next
one. I remember watching the trailer for Resident Evil 5 next to my friend Jeremy, and when
this guy came onscreen, I turned to Jeremy and yelled “he looks more real than you!” And every time we say that, whether it’s
about Resident Evil or Uncharted or Shenmue, we’re wrong. Of course we’re wrong. What,
is tech going to stop getting better? Is the PS5 going to be less powerful than the PS4?
There’ll be more pixels, more shaders, more tech to make wood look like wood and skin
look like skin, animations will be more complex, yada yada yada. Because of this, the games that have aged
the best are usually highly stylized- Wind Waker’s cell shading, for example, still
looks pretty dope, while any attempt to accurately depict humans look…oof. But still, weirdly, my “I don’t think
a game can look any better” remarks were always targeted at that elusive photorealism
goal. I’ve said it plenty of times, I’ve been wrong plenty of times. But almost 12
years ago, I said “I don’t think a game can look any better than this” about Mirror’s
Edge, and here’s the thing. I still think I’m right. Mirror’s Edge came out in 2008. The same
year as some sincerely great games. Far Cry 2 came out that year. Battlefield Bad Company,
GTA 4. But even as I’m showing these, you can see it, right? GTA 4. Mirror’s Edge. Far Cry 2. Mirror’s Edge. Like, we’re not even in the same ballpark
here! So let’s bring in some real heavy hitters. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Mirror’s
Edge. Fuck it, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, the direct
sequel, the game that came out 8 years later and takes about 10x as much graphical power
to run. I still don’t think it looks as good as
Mirror’s Edge. Okay it’s not always pretty. Character models
are demonstrably not-stellar, and closeups of our main character’s hands can look a
little blocky. And I’m not even gonna talk about those esurance commercial-ass story
cutscenes. It’s not that Mirror’s Edge somehow timetraveled and stole a bunch of
graphics tech from the future and brought it back to 2008. In a direct comparison, Kassandra
looks better than Faith just about every time. But still- I know all that in my head, but
when I’m playing Mirror’s Edge, I still get that feeling: “I don’t think a game
can look any better than this.” So what’s going on here? Well, before we get into the meat of it, let’s
talk a bit about genre. Because while this game is first person, and you do shoot, Mirror’s
Edge is absolutely not a first-person shooter. It’s a racing game. Faith is interia personified
in this game, she’s an unstoppable force that smashes open doors and vaults fences
and leaps off walls. And because of this, you’re often moving through environments
at an absolute breakneck pace- when it comes to the line between life and death, all that
matters is your line through all the obstacles in your path. Impeccably textured benches
and cleverly lit subway systems become background detail in the rush to the finish. Faith doesn’t
have wheels, but she might as well be a race car. When you sprint over the cities roofs
and below its streets, little details melt away. But that’s a wholly insufficient explanation
because, well, I can come to a screeching halt and Mirror’s Edge still takes my breath
away. To get to the heart of this game’s look, we need to talk about architecture. Do you have materials that you deeply care
about? Do ya like a silk pillowcase, or a marble countertop? Do you prefer cedar over
oak, do you like ceramics more than plastic? Let me tell you what Mirror’s Edge cares
about. Mirror’s Edge worships concrete. Mirror’s
Edge treats concrete like people treat their children- with adulation, decoration, and
just obsessive attention. Mirror’s Edge knows that there’s not just one kind of
concrete- the kind that fills a vast underground water runoff is going to be very different
than the poured floors of a corporate office, and that’s going to be very different from
the maintenance hallways of that same office. Mirror’s Edge knows that concrete is harsh,
and that painted concrete is even harsher. It knows the vibe. And while concrete may be the game’s favorite
child, it’s certainly not alone. Tile gets a lavish treatment, smashed into geometric
corporate art or scattered across a barren mall. Honestly, these tarps right here are
about as good as a game tarp has ever looked. And through its infatuation with materials,
Mirror’s Edge gives its world a staggering level of legitimacy. Here’s a weird sentence:
I could tell you what temperature any of the levels in Mirror’s Edge are. I don’t know
how, the game certainly doesn’t provide you with a thermometer. But I just look at
this hallway, or this sewer, or this plaza, and I know. And just as important as those materials is
the way they all interact with the light. I’m going to get a little technical, and
comments get ready to tear me apart (because I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking
abouttttt): There are a couple ways of lighting a scene
in a game. One of those kinds is “dynamic-” in dynamic lighting, the game is actually
calculating, on the fly, how light should be falling across a landscape. That means
a game can do a lot of cool things with the lights, if it so chooses, but it also means
that a huge chunk of memory is devoted to figuring out how those lights and shadows
are supposed to fall. Games are made for systems with finite resources, and so spending all
your lunch money on shadows means you can’t afford those sweet sweet polygons to use elsewhere. So instead of making everything dynamic, Mirror’s
Edge uses almost entirely static, pre-baked lights and shadows. The time of day will never
change, no matter how long I stand in this level. These shadows will always be in the
same place. “Pre-baked” really is an apt term for
it- when we watch a cooking show, we’re not seeing the rushed and potentially sloppy
results of whatever they made live- we see the perfect cake they made before the show
started, baked and frosted to perfection. Mirror’s Edge knows what times of day its
levels take place in, it knows what angles you’ll see them from and where you’ll
stand in proportion to them. Mirror’s Edge decorates all its levels beforehand, and pulls
them out of the oven at the perfect moment. And goddamn, can this game decorate with lights. Mirror’s Edge is…really white. Blindingly
so. Where titles like Dishonored delight in showing their society’s history through
architecture, Mirror’s Edge basks in its a-historicity. Everything, as far as the eye
can see is the same aesthetic, same modern facades and same soulless accent colors and
the same fuckin WHITE. And when the blinding sun and razor-sharp shadows are painted onto
these obelisks, there’s a level of artificial hyper-reality that just bleeds through the
screen. One of my favorite things that Mirror’s
Edge does is just blindsides you with its skyline. Again and again, you’ll be running
at a thousand miles an hour through a maintenance hallway or corporate office, smash your way
through a door, and suddenly blam, there you are, tiny against this beautiful white void. Simulating how light bounces around the world
is one of the more challenging parts of our race to photo-realism. It’s rarely something
that we can articulate, but it’s something that we just feel. Does this forest look great?
Absolutely. Am I mistaking it for a real forest? For a million reasons, of course not. But
where games still can’t quite land the organic, Mirror’s Edge embraces hard lines and uniform
surfaces and the sheer cliffs of this future urban landscape. The inherent artificiality
of a video game simulation is the perfect compliment to this inherently artificial city. In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair.
Can you think of the most recent worlds fair? (It was in 2015, in Milan. Who knew!) 100 years ago though, these fairs were actually
a pretty huge deal. Previous to 1893, the World’s Fair was in Paris. It was where
they unveiled the Eiffel Tower. This was basically the craziest architectural thing anyone had
ever seen at the time, and so Chicago was suitably panicked- how the hell were they
supposed to follow that up? How were they supposed to show that American cities, still
in their infantry when compared to most of the world, could do impressive stuff too? The answer Chicago landed on wasn’t to adapt
their old city- it was to build a completely new one. The White City. A far cry from the
dark alleys, dirty streets, and proto-skyscrapers of the actual city, this new construction
for the World’s Fair would be different. The White City would be a neo-classical paradise-
because, of course, its architects believed that greco-roman design was the pinnacle of
human achievement. Each building would be a palace, a temple, to the gods of the new
age- industry, agriculture, science. It would gleam in the sunlight. It would glow
at night. The White City, unlike a huge proportion of the world, had electric lights. The White
City, unlike a huge proportion of cities, was intricately planned and designed from
its outset. It would be welcoming to visitors, easy to
navigate, pack visual appeal into every turn. It would have sights that these people had
never seen before. It would promise what a city could be. And for the 1893 World’s Fair, the White
City did exactly that. It was awesome to its visitors, and I mean that in the true sense
of the word- it inspired awe. “Never, since the world began, had there
arisen such a bewildering vision as that which made the name of the white city immortal.
Never again will that miracle of loveliness be recreated. On the shores of Lake Michigan,
in the heart of the most practical country on earth, bloomed the white flower of perfect
architecture, and unto the eyes of all nations was opened the Book of Beauty, whose pages
were illuminated by the passion flowers of Art.” Self-important, overblown, masturbatory- all
these things are true. I suspect the White City I’ve created in my head is far more
incredible than reality. All I have to go on is carefully staged photographs and books
declaring it the “white flower of perfect architecture.” These descriptions don’t
mention the thousands of homeless, the exploited workers. They don’t mention the abject racism. But despite all of that (and I can thank my
privilege for a lot of this), I’m still susceptible. I look at this explosion of Western
fetishization and I’m still hit with a wave of wanderlust. It’s an emotion that’s
all the more pointed because both the fair, and the sense of wonder created by the fair,
don’t exist anymore. We have piles of photographs from the world’s
fair, and all of them look almost unreal- the level of grandeur, the perfect cleanliness.
It’s a familiar unreality too- they look like a movie set. The White City, though it
hosted hundreds of thousands, wasn’t built to be a ~real~ place. And as such, behind
all its lavish columns and sculptures and new technology, the white city hid a wooden
facade. The World’s Fair advertised a new kind of urban environment, one that was beautiful
and “cultured” and intentionally designed. But after the fair’s year in the spotlight,
it was quickly abandoned. The fairgrounds stood empty, as unsanctioned homes for Chicago’s
vagrant populations, and shelters for workers on strike. Then the city burned to the ground. The world of Mirror’s Edge is a dystopian
perfection. Its flawless blue skies and sleek towers of glass belie a corporate corruption
and violent police presence that somehow surpasses even our own. The city’s striking architectural
unanimity is because of top-down thought control, each building intentionally scrubbed of any
reminder of protest or rebellion. Faith spends so much time on the rooftops, staring at the
skyline, because her existence is illegal. She’s not welcome on the streets. But for fleeting moments while playing Mirror’s
Edge, while flying over roofs and through windows, I- and Faith- get to forget that
oppression. In the quiet seconds between conflict, we can look out on those gorgeously modeled
textures, pitch-perfect lighting, and carefully considered skylines. We can get swept up in
that artificial majesty. I know, of course, that Mirror’s Edge isn’t
photorealistic. But these century-old pictures of The White City arent’ photo-real either,
not really. They’re presenting a hyper-reality, a version of real-life that’s elevated far
past our everyday experiences. And even though I know about all the rot hiding just out of
view, this fantasy still grips me. I just don’t see how games can look any
better than this.

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