Tightrope Wasteland

A metaphor in the derelict setting of Mirror's Edge.

By: Zolani Stewart

Filed Under: Action Adventure Criticism Editor's Pick


At this point, the post-apocalypse narrative has been well explored by various media, so much so that it’s safe to say certain patterns or ‘tropes’ have been well established. One of these patterns is the aesthetic wasteland, a depiction of the mass removal of people, or representations of people, caused by a catastrophic event. Fallout 3 calls it the ‘Capital Wasteland.’ The Walking Dead imagines it as the empty city streets of Atlanta, and its vast neighboring rural areas.

Mirror’s Edge bears its own signs of the post-apocalypse. The game is mostly empty. Its building tops and streets are totally empty, and so are its office spaces and shopping malls and hallways, even though they bear the markings of occupation. In this way, the game also depicts a mass removal of people, from an event we can argue to be catastrophic: the riots, as described by Faith.

And if people are removed, then what emerges in their place? In many video games, the post-apocalypse tends to depict the removal of people, but also the return of nature. We see bright foliage permeating environments in Enslaved, and vegetation growing out of buildings and industrial spaces in The Last of Us and Portal 2. Here, our demise as a species is marked by the rise the natural environment. But in Mirror’s Edge, there is no natural environment. Nature doesn’t come back, per se. Instead, what’s left is the urban space, and only the urban space.

What’s nature, now? To a significant extent, it’s us. It’s our machines — the hybrids of flesh and technology that we have all become. [...] There is no “nature” left — only the portion of nature that we allow to live because we imagine it serves some purpose — as a thing to eat, a place to reprocess our waste, or an idea that fulfills our dwindling desire to maintain “the natural” for aesthetic or ideological reasons.”

Mirror’s Edge is a display of the post-natural: the extinction of the ‘traditional’ nature, which is replaced by the urban space, and the spaces of green that we find useful. There is no ‘nature,’ as we like to perceive it, in the game. Instead, the urban environment becomes our natural environment. It becomes our fields and rivers, our dense forests and feeding grounds. The central ideas that permeate popular conceptions about the natural environment also exist there. The bright, flamboyant hues, and the sense of colour that would imply diverse and compelling wildlife, and the harmony between the huge open building tops, and the jungles of underground vents and steampipes. Mirror’s Edge rarely gets credit for its sense of density.

But this isn’t just an aesthetic treatment; we also see this through Mirror’s Edge’s play, where it isn’t much about Faith’s impressive leaps and runs through the city though, so much as the overarching feeling of adaption. Through play, Faith is showing how one totally bends oneself, mentally and physically, to the city environment, to urbanity. A lot of what constitutes Faith’s identity is her relationship to the city. Timing jumps is difficult and often leads in tragic death. Platform placing is ambiguous and the difference between safety and risk is unclear, which also tends to lead to death. Mirror’s Edge is frustrating and sometimes plain unfair, yet this communicates nature of the urban space: meticulous and relentless, it demands flawless and perpetual execution from those within its systems. Playing the game ‘well’ implies executing every jump and landing every fall with proper timing, landing every zipline, reaching every pipe, walking every wire with proper balance. Playing ‘well,’ playing to prevent your death, playing to allow Faith to survive in her dangerous future, implies being totally synchronized with the city environment.

But what is the city environment? What constitutes it and what does it represent? Art, perhaps involuntarily, tends to move in accordance with the ideas of the time. Mirror’s Edge was released in 2009, during the most brutal moments of the western financial crisis. Mark Fisher, a teacher and theorist, discusses what kind of ideological shift the crisis represented in his reflection on Capitalist Realism:

“The various struggles that have blown up since the financial crisis show a growing discontent with the panic neoliberalism that has been put in place since 2008, but they have yet to propose any concrete alternative to the dominant economic model. Capitalist realism is about what Franco Berardi has called a corrosion of social imagination, and in some ways, that remains the problem:  after thirty years of neoliberal domination, we are only just beginning to be able to imagine alternatives to capitalism.”

What the financial crisis signaled, according to Fisher, was neoliberal capitalist thinking as merely a political thought used by major political powers, burying itself into realism, and   consequently becoming invisible. Berardi’s mention of the “corrosion of the social imagination,” can be linked to this. The point where the mindset of capital reaches its highest form, where it “presents itself as empirical fact,” is the point where it becomes incredibly difficult, more difficult than usual, for those living within this system to think and act outside of it.

Mirror’s Edge is a presentation of a system whose rigorous logic becomes totalizing, deeply embedded, and overtime, necessary to properly function within that system. Just as there is nothing outside logic of Capital within Capitalist Realism, there is nothing outside the logic of the city in Mirror’s Edge.

When looked at this way, the game can be seen as a sort of warning. Yet whereas many science-fiction works like to place themselves decades or even centuries in the future, Mirror’s Edge attempts to move itself a mere few years ahead. In that way, the game is the best kind of warning. It’s tangible and almost traceable.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Action Adventure Criticism Editor's Pick

About the Author:
Zolani Stewart is video game critic and game designer. He's written at Nightmare Mode, Paste Magazine, SquareGO, and writes a column on typography at Designmodo.

One Response to “Tightrope Wasteland”

  1. Dan Cox

    It’s probably even worse than you wrote. If we accept that different colors and combinations are a sign of diversity within the urban space, then the fading of the “Runner Vision” — something that marks Faith and her group as unique — might represent her finally being inculcated into the capital system. Throughout the course of the game, she steadily loses this sight as synchronization with the environment increases. As the player becomes better at conforming to the seeming endless maze of urbanity, Faith might be losing her individuality in the face of the monolithic system she’s trying to overcome.

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