Years ago, EA’s building in the UK was a Foster and Partners number in Chertsey. And it had a handful of interesting features. There was a moat. There were ducks involved, or maybe swans. The front of the structure came off (on purpose) and leaked (not on purpose). From the air the whole thing looked a bit like the letter E. Electronic!
Inside it was pure Bond lair, of course, this being the era which also gave us the doomy concrete spinal excavation of Westminster Tube Station, my favourite building in London because I am a massive child, loose in the world with nothing in my skull but feathers. (Westminster Tube is definitely Bond, but definitely also Brosnan Bond.) Anyway, EA’s place: with oddly angled windows ensuring you never knew which direction the automatic blinds were going to descend from, skeletal staircases and lots of dark surfaces. You can see it for yourself in films like Inception and TV shows like Jekyll. Anything with a touch of horror or unease. The Bond people never actually used it, I gather. The heights were not quite right for it to be truly deathly, but it did a good job of being Deathly Junior. A mausoleum built to the specs of a condominium. EA doesn’t live there any more.
I’ve spent the last few days in another collision of EA and architecture, though. And again, although Foster and Partners were not involved, it’s also disquieting and abstractly villainous and filled with odd features. A lot of people might argue that it leaks, too, or at least that it is not quite fit for purpose. No matter. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is finally on Steam and I have been running and jumping, diving and swooping across its squeaky world. I’m in love.
Emad has already made the case that this game is politically and socially a lot more interesting and progressive than most video game sequels. If you only read one piece on Mirror’s Edge today, re-read his! Meanwhile, I’m going to look purely at the game’s landscape – how it affects the game’s atmosphere and how it shapes the feeling of play.
Remember when they announced a sequel to Mirror’s Edge, the pristine parkour-heavy action game from Dice, all shot through with wiry energy and surprising heft, and they said it was going to be open-world this time? I remember thinking: that’s going to have to be a very different kind of open world. The first game was emphatically not open-world, and it’s hard to see how it would have worked in that way. Instead, each level was a sort of white-box Rubik’s Snake of urban design, gloriously sunny and bleached outside, the surfaces somehow chalky, and chalk is just the remains of the dead isn’t it? And then, muddly and fussy and a bit of a migraine indoors.
These places were great, if you ask me. I even liked getting lost in office buildings with the hint button pointing me mindlessly at my own feet when I really needed an exit. But it wasn’t for everyone, which is a phrase that must not delight an outfit like EA. And the idea of exploding these spaces outwards, retaining their intricacy while allowing them to become open-world areas fit for exploration and repeated journeys and multiple purposes – I can imagine the kind of headaches this design would cause. The first Mirror’s Edge bristled with places that gave the careful impression that they connected to other places. But that’s very different to places that actually do connect.
Anyway, the genius of Catalyst – and it is genius; despite the understandably chilly reception the game got, I find it intermittently more than thrilling – is that its open spaces do connect, but also still give the impression that there are yet deeper connections that cannot be accessed. Rooftops, alleyways and ladders! Ducts and open-air business suites, that indoor-outdoor lifestyle everyone’s after in the Valley. All of this. Drainpipes, server boxes, cooling fans that you learn to pause so you can move through them. This is the City of Glass, all but devoid of life and with a skyline that looks like it’ s made from guesswork renders of next-gen consoles. This is a city of paths and routes, but as the name suggests, it’s also a city of surfaces.
What I mean is that I’m dazzled by the sheer number of times I find myself looking through a surface that’s in front of me. There are windows, obviously, giving me views of sterile workspaces or endless iterations of corporate artwork. But then there are vents with slatted surfaces giving a glimmer of what’s beyond. And the floors! You never saw such floors. There are times when you look down and see through the floor, through grills or thin metal rattle-punched with holes, through squeaky clear stuff that is neither glass nor plastic but seems to have been imported from J.J. Abram’s Enterprise. Look down into rooms you maybe can or cannot access. Additional crawlspaces that may or may not be meant for your use.
Then look up. Again, oppressively bleached surfaces and clear light rule in this city. The city is the story here – so cold and unkind and heavy-handed. But the further you go, the more you find missions in which you leave the city itself behind and below with little warning and find yourself climbing through the innards of giant computers. Perhaps the point is that the city itself is a computer, with electrons moving about with more agency than the humans. Certainly more at home with these straight lines and sharp turns than the rare people you sometimes glimpse, looking down through a glass ceiling somewhere, all of them trapped in rooms that don’t seem to have any obvious entrances or exits.
What does this place allow for? It’s surprisingly entertaining really. It looks like an afternoon at the dentist but it encourages zip and flow. The best mission has you going up a skyscraper to remove something rather crucial to its design at the top. It’s the point in the game where you learn the fast-turn move that you may have neglected to buy up until now because it looked like a faff. Suddenly all the things you can do with your move-set link together because of that fast-turn. It reminds me in full pelt of Burnout Paradise, actually, that sense of carving a perfect channel through a world that rushes around you but magically never connects when you most fear it’s going to. Pipes, used for climbing, are suddenly there to allow you to do quick quarter circle moves. The red items of runner vision line up so beautifully that you can forget that this is another game about rebellion delivered by means of following a line from the start to the finish. A rush.
And when you do hit the ground, it’s worth something. I love the moment of impact when you’re left jarred and shaking and looking at your hands on the beautifully rendered floor, and glimpsing all those possible places beneath it. They’re necessary, these heavy stops. They are the weighted price you pay that makes all that gliding and dashing feel fair, feel real. They’re the bill being settled. And they too are built into the city.
Meanwhile, when the flow breaks, this game is the closest thing I have ever encountered to those dreams where you have to do something simple but can’t. For me it’s always dialling a phone number, prodding in the wrong buttons, deleting, starting over, unable to stumble through the area code. It seems like a cold place, even an annoying place. But in between missions I’m finding the City of Glass is surprisingly fun to sweep around and collect doodads in and do the side-stuff. It’s fun to get lost, to get stuck in those nightmare loops. It’s fun just to race about this jumble, always moving up and down, a city defined by a control scheme which really only wants you to think about whether to move up or down in the first place.
And weirdly it keeps reminding me of real locations, much more than a lot of other video game cities ever do. Maybe it’s a narrowing of specifics, but a scattering of specifics. San Andreas is Los Angeles and only Los Angeles. Crackdown 3 is pure cold-filtered Croydon with no added sugar. The emptiness of the City of Glass makes me remember ancient weekends exploring the deserted City in London, or one night, long ago, when a girlfriend and I followed a single dancing trail of white house paint that had been dribbled along miles of the South Bank. But it doesn’t stay in London. It’s fun to wander through the City of Glass and ponder the possible influences, in fact. I wonder about the things that the invisible designers (who seem to lurk, as open-world designers always do, high overhead, peering down, not entirely benevolent) have read that I may have read too, like an old Lloyd Wright Jr plan to turn Bunker Hill in Los Angeles into a kind of book-end necropolis, a giant walled space where different modes of transport were separated out on tracks of different heights and different widths. To be surrounded by traffic menageries that you sensed but would never fully see. That’s very Mirror’s Edge.
What this city has that is all its own, though, and I think that this will be my lingering memory of this game, is those layers upon layers: not-glass, not-grill, not-plastic, all of them slides giving glimpses of the worlds trapped beneath them. And over it all this singular texture that I now realise unites everything while leaving everything subtly unreadable. This gloss. Slick and squeaky – visual and aural noise.
Everything in the city has been coated in this stuff, this gloss, so you will never really know what it is. Plastic, concrete, foam? The rudiments of materials are always beautifully done. But then there is always a sense of a micro-layer on top, a kandy-ing. And like so much else here, I kind of love it.