Mirror's Edge Level Design: What we can Learn - Part 1
Mirror's Edge was released in November of 2008, receiving mostly positive reviews even though it never reach its predicted sales records. Despite that, Mirror's Edge provides some brilliant moments for players and is able to create a language that bridges the intentions of the designers with the understanding of the players. The result was simply a fun to play game and as Kevin VanOrd puts it Mirror's Edge is, "many things: invigorating, infuriating, fulfilling, and confusing."
I have been playing this game since its release in 2008 and continue to do so because of its level design. For a while I wasn't sure why but it seemed to resonate with me, in truth I was really impressed by the fact that no matter how difficult this game was at times I still wanted to push forward. So I thought that I would take some time to break down the level design of Mirror's Edge and see what we can learn from this game; even today.
Principles of Level Design
There are no hard and fast rules that apply when it comes to level design but there are some basic principles that serve as guide lines.
In my option a good level encourages the growth of players skills throughout the entire game rather than just at the beginning so that players remain engaged and are encouraged to try something new; which is something that I believe Mirror's Edge does very well within its' first few missions. For the remainder of this article I will be breaking down the third mission in the game entitled Flight.
See full walk-through of Flight below.
Keep in mind the Players Goal
It is important that the player is able to identify their goal and is then able to work toward this goal. As designers we know that it is important to get the player from A to B making it as enjoyable as possible while still getting the player to hit any important beats. These beats could be important story moments or they could be an opportunity for the player to learn something new. Whatever the case the player must always have the end goal in mind and should be reminded of it; one of the best ways to do this is to use visual "weenies".
Originally created by Disney's Imagineering visual "weenies" are an architectural term used to describe "visual magnets" which are used to draw peoples attention from one area to another ("THEORY OF THEME PARKS: Wayfinding in Themed Design: The “Weenie”," 2015).
Like theme parks games also make use of weenies to help guide or draw the players interest from one section of the world to another. At the beginning of the level Flight the player finds themselves standing the the edge of a building looking up at another which just so happens to be the players intended destination, so right off the bat the player is being shown their immediate goal.
This helps orient the player so that they know which direction they are supposed to be moving in. It is also worth noting that each level starts by giving the player a quick view of the area allowing them to asses their goal and throughout various levels the Shard often ends up in the players line of sight; showing the player the larger goal and where they will eventually end the game.
Teach, Test, and Challenge the Player
In general one could say that a level designers job is to teach the players gamplay, test the players knowledge of the gameplay and challenge the player's understanding of the gameplay; and every once in a while throw in some surprise to keep them on their toes. Each of these elements are important when crafting a level, as Dan Taylor states "good level design constantly teaches the player something new;" in his article Taylor mentions the Bethesda's use of the Learn, Play, Challenge, Surprise loop as a way to measure constant learning across a game to, "make sure that each level delivers fresh gameplay" (10 Principles of Good Level Design). Although Mirror's Edge does have a tutorial section in the runner's Training Area at the start if the game, the designers constantly change elements of the levels that encourage the players to find new ways to tackle a given problem. A good way to plan this out is to use a beat map, which can be used to map out the entire game or individual sections. For example, take the level Flight...
Teach: The level starts by getting the player to run, jump and swing to the RP&A building. All mechanics that they have learned in previous levels but by having this area before moving into the building returning players are given the chance to reacquaint themselves with the controls and continuing players are allowed forgiveness if they have not yet learned or feel comfortable with these mechanics.
Rest: From the diagram above you can see that there are a couple elevator rests, which not only help give the game a chance to load the next section of the level but also provide breaks for the player as they move into more challenging sections.
Test: While inside the RP&A building the player is asked to do everything they had just done (run, jump, swing etc), but they are now in a more confined area and are being chased.
Surprise: Upon exiting the building the player will find themselves on a balcony with no where to go and helicopter shooting at them in the sky. It becomes clear that you are meant to slide down the side of the building, something that the player would not have done in the game so far; creating an exciting moment for the player where they can feel like a runner.
Challenge: From here on out the player's knowledge of the game is challenged as they are chased outside they are faced with a much more open area and several more paths that they could risk taking. All while being chased by a helicopter and having to fight against cops.
Create a Common Language
When I say create a common language I'm not being literal, what I mean is that there needs to be a way for designers to communicate with the player through the game so that players are able to identify their goals and meet them.
A visual language is most commonly used, for example it is commonly known that red barrels explode in games. Designers will use colour, signs, sounds, lighting, or even small amounts of text to communicate important information to the player without having to our right tell them. In Mirror's Edge this can be seen through the use of the colour red. Objects highlighted in red are used to show the player the main pathway as well as their ultimate goal.
The image above was taken from the level "Heat" and shows Faith exiting a building that immediately points her in the direction of two large cranes in the distance that she is meant to reach.
By following the red path players practice running through various spaces, however not all intractable objects are highlighted in red. Even though the levels are linear there are multiple pathways players can take to reach their goal. This is often done in linear games to allow players the freedom to approach a situation in the way that best suits their abilities and play-style.
These paths are not obvious and present much more of a challenge; this is my favorite aspect of Mirror's Edge. Since you have been practicing the "language" of the game by following the highlighted path the player naturally starts to see these alternative pathways. Players start to actually think like runners seeing new ways that they can add even more challenge for themselves.
The above map shows the multiple paths to be taken at the start of the Flight mission with the actual game footage in the top right corner.
As Dan Taylor mentioned it is important to tell the player what to do but not how to do it. By creating a common language we teach the player how to interpret and anticipate events in the game space so that they can succeed in their goal and as designers we do this by teaching, testing, and challenging the player.
Edit Jan 18th 2018
Part 2 will cover balancing risk and reward; allowing the player act, recover and react; and the importance of a level being functional, usable and fun. For the full article click here.
Header image from Elisabetta Silli's talk in the GDC Europe 2010 panel about level design.
Jeffrey Pidsadny | 3D Level Design and Environment Development |Sheridan College 2014
Elisabetta Silli | Level Design Challenges & Solutions
Dan Taylor | 10 Principles of Good Level Design
Mirror's Edge - Chapter 1: Flight [Video file]. (2015, December 19). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSi8jWVNo8Q
THEORY OF THEME PARKS: Wayfinding in Themed Design: The “Weenie”. (2015, August 16). Retrieved from http://theoryofthemeparks.blogspot.ca/2015/08/wayfinding-in-themed-design-weenie.html