Art in Motion: Mirror’s Edge, Parkour, and the Subversive Potential of Speedrunning

I made this piece into a video essay that you can watch above. Just trying something new, and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. But if you prefer to read things, I have the transcript here below.

Mirror’s Edge opens with a pitch: “Runners see this city in a different way. We see the flow. Rooftops become pathways and conduits, possibilities and routes of escape. The flow is what keeps us running, keeps us alive.” Those are the words of protagonist Faith Connors, but the idea being described is one that the game wants its players to inhabit. The game is appealing to our desire to turn a city into our personal playground, something that exists for the express purpose of having its gaps exploited, an arbitrary obstacle for us to overcome in a way that subverts its intended design. This also happens to be the pitch of parkour, a real-life activity and sporting movement that Mirror’s Edge bases its mechanics around. Parkour is the act of traversing urban landscapes as quickly as possible, with no regard for the sidewalks or any other traditional demarcators of movement. Mirror’s Edge was released in 2008, right around the time parkour had reached its cultural peak and companies were starting to capitalize on the movement (see Jaclyn Law “PK and fly” for more on the commercialization of parkour). EA was just another one of these companies, and Mirror’s Edge was a game trying to sell the parkour fantasy. But what is often lost in this commercialization is that parkour is more than just the act of jumping off things. There’s a philosophy behind the actions. Writing about traceurs, as parkour practitioners often call themselves, Michael Atkinson describes the movement as “a physical cultural practice that engages a critique of late modern capitalist urban life and its (ideological, social, and physical) architecture through a unique form of collective athletic passive resistance”. Mirror’s Edge, as designed, resembles very little of this philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that it is inaccessible to those playing the game.

The key part of that pitch is that “Runners see this city in a different way.” The game attempts to literally mechanize this idea. Objects in the world that you can vault off of, climb on, run alongside, or just generally interact with are highlighted in red, with what is called “runner’s vision”. As a practical matter this guides the player through the level, but it also demonstrates how Faith is seeing the city: a pile of boxes becomes a springboard, a pipe becomes a balance beam, “Rooftops become pathways and conduits, possibilities and routes of escape”. The core idea of the game is that runners see the world in a way that other people don’t, and “runner’s vision” is the game indulging players in that fantasy, giving them a glimpse into what it’s like to see the world differently.

But the way this fantasy is handed to the player makes it fall flat. I’m not saying the mechanic shouldn’t be there. It’s super useful for people playing the game for their first time. But it’s also outside the spirit of parkour. This idea of seeing the world differently is something traceurs often talk about, but they take a different approach to it. “In parkour we have this thing called parkour vision. Before I started doing parkour, I saw this wall as telling me ‘I can go straight, I can turn left there.’ But, once I started, the amount of paths I can take becomes infinite. There is no limit. I can go wherever I want to. That is freedom because you know you are not enclosed anymore” (Loo and Bunnell). Those are the words of Singaporean traceur named Ash, and while the idea of “parkour vision” should track nicely onto “runner’s vision,” it really doesn’t. Runner’s vision doesn’t give you infinite paths. It gives you one. The limits are explicit. When you see a wall with a red highlight, it’s telling you “You can do a wallrun.” It’s exactly like Ash says, “I can go straight, I can turn left there.” Runner’s vision simulates parkour without any of the freeing effects. It’s a funnel.

But those infinite possibilities do exist in Mirror’s Edge. You just have to look away from the red path in order to find them. And this is where Mirror’s Edge not only becomes a game that still matter ten years after its release, but also a game that start to resemble the parkour movement it’s capitalizing on. To better explain just what this is, I’ll give an example.

Early in the game, there’s a moment where Faith falls out of a vent and is met by a group of cops waiting for her at the end of a hallway. Players will turn to the right and be met with a red staircase. Running up these stairs like a normal person is perfectly fine and will get you where you need to go and away from the cops safely. But more attentive players or players running through the game for a second time might realize that they can run up and propel themselves off the last wall instead of climbing the final story of stairs, shaving maybe a second of time off. Then you realize that there’s a small box at the bottom of the steps that you can climb first to avoid climbing the first two stories of steps as well, and then you realize that there’s a wall across from that box that you can run along and propel yourself off of in order to avoid the more time consuming act of climbing the crate. And now all of a sudden you aren’t just taking the fantasy that the game handed you, but you are in fact seeing the game in a different way. The hidden pathways within the game are becoming visible to you, and you start to truly embody the character of Faith, seeing infinite possibilities and always looking for a shorter way through space. Now, when you look at those stairs, you can ‘go wherever you want to’. And those just a few changes that I made going through that section a few times. I’ve played Mirror’s Edge a bunch, but I’m not a speedrunner who’s poured hundreds or thousands of hours into mastering the intricacies of the mechanics and tearing every inch of every level apart. If you are, that section looks more like this.

(go to around 1:10 in the above video. I can’t get it to embed at that time. Sorry.)

Writing about parkour, Jaclyn Law says that it’s “about curiosity and seeing possibilities—looking at a lamppost or bus shelter as an extension of the sidewalk”. It’s easy to make the connection between that and Faith saying that “rooftops become pathways and conduits”. After all, that is the connection that Mirror’s Edge is trying to make as a game about parkour. Yet, it only really does so when people begin to speedrun it, or at least look for shorter paths with a speedrunning mindset. Writing about speedrunning, Kat Brewster says something very similar to what Law says about parkour: “To a speedrunner, it’s all map textures, skips, glitches, cyan doors and turkey dinners”. In the cases of both speedrunners and traceurs, we have attempts to remove objects from the context in which they were built, to reappropriate in order to create something new.

Both cities and videogames are built to facilitate very specific types of experiences. Cities are built to facilitate commerce. Videogames are…also built to facilitate commerce. But they’re also designed to allow for some idealized version of play. I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds questioning what that version of play is, especially for a game made by a studio full of people, but I feel pretty safe in assuming it wasn’t this.

(and go to 31:40 in this one.)

I think we can safely define this as ‘subverting intended design’. What we’re seeing here is the result of thousands of hours of work by dozens of people who have attempted to tear Mirror’s Edge apart and find out what it is that makes the game work and then exploit those things to break the game wide open. And they have. They have “become nonexistent to [the] code” that governs the game’s usual functions (Franklin).

What we’re watching here is barely Mirror’s Edge. It’s performance art that uses Mirror’s Edge as its stage. And it’s beautiful. The constant movement is mesmerizing. The level of expertise and dedication necessary to perfect something like this is extraordinary. And there’s something freeing about watching somebody tear apart something that was specifically built to confine you. When a group of Ocarina of Time speedrunners found a glitch in 2011 that completely changed their perception of what was possible in the game, Brewster describes their experience as follows: “the game fell apart in front of them, and they were desperately trying to put the most efficient pieces end to end.” In a speedrun, something new is created using the disparate parts of something that already exists.

This is very similar to how traceurs use the city. Just like games are not built for speedrunning, the city is not built for parkour. Like speedrunning, it may be permitted or perhaps even encouraged in some cases, but it is not the expected norm. Parkour creates new spaces in a city that didn’t exist before and that are removed from the streets and sidewalks designed to lead people in ways beneficial to those who designed them. “A city from their experiential reality is constructed for efficiency, commercial interest, public control, and social surveillance” (Atkinson). But by refusing to abide by these existing forms of movement, they are creating a city that is more playful, personal, and experimental. They experience the city in a way that is in line with their personal desires, not in the way that is prescribed to them. For traceurs, “the materialities of the urban landscape not only add up to form a functional space but also create spaces where we can be more playful” (Loo and Bunnell). Much like with speedrunning, we have a new form created from the part of an existing one.

But because the city is not built for parkour, there is always the risk of the city pushing back. Atkinson quotes a Montreal traceur named Darren who says, “This is a place designed for lawyers and bankers, not us. I know that for sure when the cops show up, and tell us, despite the fact that we are doing nothing illegal, to get lost or we’ll be fined for [being a] public nuisance.” As Oli Mould details, spaces used for parkour often become “contested space.” Neighborhoods and parks put up signs that say “No Free-Running.” Parkour facilities have been established that allow for the activity to exist but also contain it. Police interference is threatened, even if there is no grounds for it to actually be carried out. Not only is the city not built for parkour in the first place, but it has also actively pushed back against the sport’s emergence. And the traceurs often respond by holding their ground. In fact, the pushback they receive only furthers the notion that “they are finding a new function for this place that has not been designated by the official urban narrative” (Mould).

We don’t see this pushback happen as much with speedrunning, and most of what we do see seems at most incidental. This is presumably because while traceurs exist among the public, speedrunners play in their own instances of these worlds. Yet, I think there is an extent to which speedrunning is at odds with the interests of the modern videogame publisher. To use an example of what it is that publisher’s want, let’s take a look at Ubisoft, who in a lot of ways exemplifies the modern videogame publisher. In their financial earnings for the past fiscal year, Ubisoft reported that 57 percent of their total revenue came from back-catalog games, or games released before Fiscal Year 2019, and 32% of their revenue came from what they call Player Recurring Investment (or PRI). PRI “includes ingame items, DLCs/season pass, subscription & advertising.” Ubisoft is not simply making money by selling new games. They are making money by selling new content inside games from the past handful of years. And it’s easy to see why they’d adopt a strategy like this. As a slide from their Q3 Fiscal Year 2018 earnings report states, “Digital extra content requires much lower levels of R&D and marketing.” This 15 euro horse in Assassin’s Creed Origins is 1/4 the launch price of the game, but it definitely wasn’t 1/4 the development cost for Ubisoft. Stuff like this has a higher return on investment, and that’s why companies rely on it. And it’s not just Ubisoft doing this. EA, Activision, Take-Two, Square Enix, Capcom, Bethesda, Bandai Namco, Warner Bros., Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo: Take your pick. They all do it. Some are less blatant about it than others, but this is the modus operandi for all videogame publishers in 2019.

So, how does this relate to speedrunning? Well, all of these “games as a service” type models are working off of a pretty simple assumption. In his recent book Speedrun Science, speedrunner Eric Koziel (aka Omnigamer) says that “If a game is enjoyable, people will try to find ways to extend that enjoyment beyond the core experience”. This is what publishers are counting on when they continue to sell new content inside of a years’ old game: that people will buy it with the hopes of extending their enjoyment of a game they already like. What speedrunning does is it shows us a different way to extend the lifespan of a game, and one that doesn’t require any additional payment.  Mirror’s Edge had a single DLC pack in 2009, and that was it. Speedrunners have played the game long after it was considered “dead” by EA. Speedrunning is a form of play completely removed from the controlled marketing narratives and content rollouts of a publisher. To echo Faith: It’s a different way of seeing games. And at a time when games are turning into marketplaces that are designed to make us see nothing other than that cool new skin that’s on sale (see Folding Ideas, “Fortnite and Manufactured Discontent” for more on games as marketplaces), I think it’s important to see games differently. Much like parkour, speedruns openly question the dominant narrative of how a space is supposed to be used.

Wen Bin Loo and Tim Bunnell quote a Singaporean traceur named Chi , who described parkour to them as “art in motion”. I really like this description and think it applies equally to speedrunning. (And that’s not just because Mirror’s Edge any% runs look like cool glitch art either). Earlier I compared speedrunning to performance art. Koziel talks about it as a medium. Whatever metaphor you want to use, these are creative acts. They are creating new forms of interaction with the world. As Chi says, “The environment becomes a canvas and you are the paintbrush”. Running of both types gives people creative power over a world that was created to have power over them. And that is truly revolutionary. Through the subversion of traditional game design and the creation of new modes of play, the Mirror’s Edge speedrunning community has delivered on the game’s parkour promise in a way that the game by itself not only didn’t, but due to the subversive nature of parkour, never could have in the first place.

Sources:

Alexandra, Heather. “As Mario Odyssey Patches Change The Game, Speedrunners Scramble To Keep Up.” Kotaku, 27 February, 2018, https://kotaku.com/as-mario-odyssey-patches-change-the-game-speedrunners-1823367011.

Atkinson, Michael. “Parkour, Anarcho-Environmentalism, and Poiesis.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues, vol. 33, iss. 2, 2009, pp. 169-194.

Brewster, Kat. “A Brief History of Speedrunning: How Doom and Zelda became stages for an exhilarating internet subculture.” Read-Only Memory, https://readonlymemory.vg/a-brief-history-of-speedrunning.

DICE. Mirror’s Edge. Electronic Arts, 2008.

Franklin, Seb. “We Need Radical Gameplay, Not Just Radical Graphics: Towards a Contemporary Minor Practice in Computer Gaming.” symploke, vol. 17, iss. 1-2, 2009, pp. 163-180.

Koziel, Eric. Speedrun Science: A Long Guide to Short Playthroughs. Fangamer, 2019.

Law, Jaclyn. “PK and fly: Parkour is one serious sport. Mixing urban athleticism with an appreciation of architecture, it’s about connecting with the concrete and, with any luck, landing on your feet. Now, as corporations come calling, traceurs, as they’re called, must decide which way to run.” This Magazine, May-June 2005, pp. 28+.

Loo, Wen Bin and Tim Bunnell. “Landscaping Selves Through Parkour: Reinterpreting the Urban Environment of Singapore.” Space and Culture, vol. 21, iss. 2, p. 145-158.

Mould, Oli. “Parkour, Activism, and Young People.” Geographies of Children and Young People Volume 3: Space Place and Environment, edited by Tracey Skelton, Karen Nairn, and Peter Kraftl, Springer, 2015, pp. 1-19.

Olson, Dan. “Manufacture Discontent and Fortnite.” Youtube, uploaded by Folding Ideas, 1 April 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPHPNgIihR0.

Ubisoft. “Ubisoft FY19 Earnings.” 15 May, 2019, https://ubistatic19-a.akamaihd.net/comsite_common/en-US/images/57ubisoft%20fy19%20slideshow%20confcall%20_tcm99-349885_tcm99-196733-32.pdf.

Ubisoft. “Ubisoft Q3 FY18.” February 2018, https://ubistatic19-a.akamaihd.net/comsite_common/en-US/images/41ubisoft%20q3fy18%201202_tcm99-318995_tcm99-196733-32.pdf.

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