Of Bullets and Angels: Why Mirror’s Edge is Modernist and Assassin’s Creed is Postmodernist

Old Post from 12/12/2008

High noon across the cityscape. The sounds of the city below echo among the rooftops. The wind blows and birds rest on a building’s ledge. Suddenly footsteps are heard, swift and quick. A blurred figure runs past and birds take flight. Jumping from building to building the figure blazes forward as shouts can be heard in the distance. Finding safety is the only objective at this point but getting there will not be easy.

Now is that a description of Assassin’s Creed or Mirror’s Edge?

Many have already compared these two games in their Mirror’s Edge Reviews. Both are parkour games, where movement and obstacle maneuvering are key. Both have characters that are heavenly angels, gliding over rooftops, going about important missions. Both have similar futuristic/orwellian undertones and make use of the same “white infinity” style for various gameplay moments.

But Mirror’s Edge has been compared to other games too. Portal is often brought up in reviews; similar main character, art style and the utter loneliness of the levels are just a few things that link the two games. Prince of Persia is another, again for the parkour style of gameplay, and I would add Crackdown to this comparison list as well, where that game’s character has super-human parkour abilities. Finally, Mirror’s Edge also reminds me of Ghost in the Shell. There are similarities between the GitS’s character ‘The Major’ and Faith, the artistic style and the soundtrack/loftiness feeling both game and show can have at times.

Yet the difference between Mirror’s Edge (ME) and Ghost in the Shell, and for that matter Assassin’s Creed (AC), is that Mirror’s Edge is incredibly modernist, while the others are postmodernist. As I was reading the reviews for Mirror’s Edge I kept running into this argument, though none of the reviewers actually used the word modernism or postmodernism (Mondrian’s painting style was thrown out in a few). Reviewers and forum posters would chalk up the differences between ME and AC as finite examples, AC is combat while ME is puzzle solving or AC is a sandbox while ME is a linear story. When really these differences can be summed up by reviewing what it means to be modern or postmodern and how these two game fit into those categories. (Granted this is a modernist way of thinking about things but bare with me here)

Also this post doesn’t go into great detail describing each game, so game character names and concepts are thrown around liberally.


Mirror’s Edge Assassin’s Creed
Modernist style and color: Mondrian, Malevich, Syd Mead Realistic looking surroundings, yet it is all fake, a dream always made known by the genetic fog.
Clean, straight lined, bright environment Grimy, off center, patch-work environments.
Cities look like one big piece of art, looks to be skillfully crafted by a single individual, seamless Cities look more cut and paste, piecemeal, each city has own style.
Bright, blurred vision, no HUD Constant mediated experience with HUD and alternate camera angles.

Everyone mentions the artistic style of Mondrian when they first see a screenshot of ME. The comparisons are obvious and seeing as Mondrian is a modernist abstract painter, that’s one mark for ME as a modernist game. I would also relate the style to Kazimir Malevich and Syd Mead, as Johannes Soderqvist (ME’s art director) mentions in an interview. Now AC’s art director Raphael Lacoste, on the other hand, was concerned with how real AC’s cities looked. They are gritty and adhoc in appearance but when one plays the actual game the city itself is not real, it’s all artificially produced by the Animus machine. Postmodernism deals with the similar idea, the lack of absolute truths, everything is relative. The clean, straight, uniform cities of ME are in stark contrast with the fake, gritty and piecemeal style of AC’s cities.

Even how the player experiences the city in each game is different. In ME the brightness of the sunlight on colors over white is mixed with a blurry graphic filter and the lack of any HUD. In AC the HUD plays a major role, where it acts as a guide and reference for the player, producing a very mediate experience (using Bolter and Grusin’s use of the word from their book Remediation). This difference also includes how each game character’s special knowledge is presented to the player. ME colors objects red that are highly significant to the player, following the modernist notion of depth in objects. AC allows players to have fun with camera angles, especially in cut-scenes, and are not restricted to the standard over the shoulder viewpoint. Postmodernism is concerned with appearance and the individual meanings that each of us place on those appearances. No camera angle or viewpoint in AC is necessarily better than another, it’s for the player to decide.


Mirror’s Edge Assassin’s Creed
Clear distinction, good versus evil. Good and evil are continually unclear. Honor and faith are held in higher esteem.
One “evil” government rules everything and one “good” group resists them. Two main groups fight each other, one no more good or evil than the other. Amorality. Other neutral or side factions exist.
Linearly laid out, push forward. Open format, do as you wish, an interpretation/improvisation of past events.
Runners are seen as the avant-garde. Assassin’s are for the benefit of humanity, maintaining order between those with power and the powerless.

Modernism bleeds hierarchy and order. Good and evil are distinct. In ME you are given a clear distinction, the government is bad and you are good. The government oppresses and you resist. You must push forward for you are the harbinger of the revolution. ME’s story is linearly laid out for the player as they resist the government oppressors. Postmodernism, again believing in non-absolute truths, does not believe in this black and white attitude. AC is all about amorality. Altair is expected to do his job not because he wants to but because it is ordained that he must. Each group in AC is led by their faith, wishing to maintain order within their world by following their interpretations of God’s will. AC story itself is even an interpretation. As the player, playing as Desmond in the Animus, reenacts past events they go about those events in an improvised fashion.


Mirror’s Edge Assassin’s Creed
Faith is always the angel, always good Altaïr is the indiscriminate weapon, killing for a higher power, an amoral act with moral intentions and yet can kill innocent people if necessary.
Faiths ideals never waver. Altair objectives and ideals are always questioned and even considered lies in the end. Plus everything about the world is not real but a projection made by the Animus.
Faith has a unified identity. Split personality between Desmond and Altair.
Faith is a physical person, interacting with the world in a physical way, everything she needs is in front of her. Altair uses the physical world in a way to achieve purposes for a higher order, and Desmond makes use of mediated experience provided by the Animus.
The differences found in the story can also be found in the game’s characters. Faith, in ME, has a coherent, unified identity that never wavers from the side of good. Everything Faith needs is in front of her; she can complete her objectives in a minimalist fashion. Efficiency and clarity, very modernist. Altair, in AC, is completely amoral at the player's discretion. The player decides whether Altair will kill one or ten people. Yet it does not matter in the end, it’s not real anyways. Missions are littered with the realization of the ambiguousness of the situation. Furthermore, the player (playing as Desmond) is operating Altair using the assistance of the Animus system, which makes it easier to operate within the world and causes a further disjoint between the identities of Desmond and his ancestor, Altair (and the player).


Mirror’s Edge Assassin’s Creed
Linear. Sandbox.
Red means important. Openness is important and genetic fog allows for other viewpoints.
Goals are always fixed, often one best way to do things. Goals are hidden and must be figured out. Can be achieved in more than one way.
Press B to orient yourself towards your objective, though it only points in the direction, not the means to achieve it. Use the map to find which targets you want to do, don’t have to do most of them if you don’t want to.
Precise jumping, timing and distance gauging. Movement automatically handled, get close and the game does the rest, the adventure is the purpose not the meaning of the surroundings.
Levels are puzzles but there is always the quickest most efficient, safest route to take. With random guard patterns and open areas, even the most efficient methods for completing a mission may be met with a random occurrences.
Faith is a human angel devoid of man-made machines, weapons. She is disgusted by them, dropping them as soon as she can. Weapons are part of Altair’s body, especially his hidden blade.
Fighting is an obstacle to overcome. You either pass by or quickly subdue your attacker with limited moves. Fighting is a puzzle that can be dealt with in many ways and can be dealt with even when outnumbered.
Death is technically absolute and are place far back from where it occurred. Death is seen as a dislodging of the player from the system, you are placed back into the world afresh
First-person view immerses the player, the player is playing the game not Faith, even if the story tries to identify Faith to the player. Third-person view allows for easier game control, the game itself is about playing someone else. The story and the voyeuristic notions of third-person view allows the player to identify with the character of Altair.
No people, orderly. Mobs: some innocent, some want to kill you, others only want to kill you some of the time.

Modernism is about linearity while postmodernism is multi-dimensional. This distinction is apparent in how the two game worlds are presented. Players can only traverse levels in ME a few different ways. Players can press a button to orient them towards the end of each level and the game shades special objects red, tells the player how to get to the end of the level. In AC, players have the entire cityscape to work with. This allows for multiple entry and exit points from any area while pursuing any mission they wish. During each mission the player can make use of the map and is offered the chance to see other perspectives, denoted by flashes of genetic fog. Further noting that AC allows multiple paths and ME is linear.

Completing missions in ME means that the player must perform intricate moves focusing on timing and gauging distance. But there is always an efficient way to complete the mission. Altair’s movement in AC is automatically handled by the game, allowing for less precise gameplay in order to finish a mission. Efficiency in AC is not necessary or, at times, possible since guards walk randomly around the city and may engage you even after an efficient kill.

When a player actually gets into a fighting situation in ME it is an obstacle to overcome. They must run Faith past enemies or quickly disarm them with a melee attack. Running past a target is the best option seeing as Faith does not naturally have any weapons. Weapons are disgusting to Faith (another concept of modernism, the clear distinction between human and machine), which is the message given to the player when Faith finds the quickest excuse to drop a gun after obtaining one. If the player is unsuccessful in getting past enemies, or just falling, Faith’s death is technically supposed to represent an absolute death. The player is punished by being sent back to the last check point (which can be quite far).

Fighting in AC, in contrast, is a puzzle, with many ways of successfully overpowering an attacker(s). Altair is covered with weapons, any of which can be used at a moment’s notice, and Altair’s hidden blade is obviously representative of an extra limb Altair has at his disposal (very postmodernist, the mixing of human and machine). Altair also has a long or short sword for use in a battle, with various attack and defend moves, and can hit ranged targets with throwing knives. These abilities, combined with Altair’s potency in battle, make it easy to fight groups of 5 or more individuals if the need arises. If unsuccessful and Altair is killed the death is not treated as an actual death. Altair’s world is fake and a death is defined as Desmond (the player) losing sync with the system, so a death in AC is unimportant.

Finally, the viewpoints in each game show another modernist/postmodernist distinction. ME is an FPS, and is shown in the first person. The player can become very immersed in the game with this perspective, seeing themselves as the one who is zipping on wires connecting rooftops. Faith is only a distant thought under this circumstance. While her identity during the cut-scenes may be important, during the game it is the player who is jumping on buildings. This represents the modernist concept of unified identity, there is no distinction between the player and Faith. Plus the fact that ME contains no NPCs makes this singular identity even more concrete, it’s the player and the bad guys.

AC is very different. Third-person view allows the player to control Altair better, see more of of his surroundings, but Altair is always on the screen. The player is Desmond controlling Altair, Altair is another human life, a life where the player acts both as controller and voyeur. The player does not have a single identity and is always shifting from Altair to Desmond to the player. The mobs of people in the game also reinforce this concept; the player is but one person in the sea of the city. Each person in the mob has a purpose, one may be oblivious to Altair or one may involve him directly (usually to kill him). These are examples of postmodernist notions of having varying levels of engagement and conflicting identities.


So what does all this mean? Well nothing and everything, if I want to be postmodern about it. Really I see this as a way to talk about the differences between these two games that go further than comparing mechanics or storyline. Comparing the actual ideals that the games imply can be a rewarding process, offering different distinctions between the games rather than getting bogged down by smaller differences. But as this post has been very structured, ordered and modernist, you can make your own meaning out of it.

P.S. Just to recap key concepts I use to define the two movements. Modernism is about absolutes, clean contrasts, straight lines, and form over function. Postmodernism is about ambiguity, multiple paths, and relative meaning.

The Playful Side of Data Analysis