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Building The Impossible

The Art Of Mirror’s Edge

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he best possible reason for a sequel isn’t to build upon success, but to build upon the right kind of failure. Mirror’s Edge is not a great game, but Mirror’s Edge 2 could be incredible. DICE’s ultra-desirable anti-FPS may have stumbled in the execution, but the need for such a game seems more urgent than ever. It was an embattled project faced with early Unreal Engine 3 code and changing expectations (at EA) of its role. But its bleached and blown-out vision of a future surveillance society is perhaps, still, the best implementation of Epic’s ubiquitous technology to date.

Much of the credit for that belongs to prodigal environment artist Robert Briscoe, who this year gave us a masterful remake of thechineseroom’s Dear Esther. Clearly a man who thrives upon games where scenery dictates action, he has now delivered three of the most memorable venues ever: the quietening Hebrides of Esther; The Shard, the sky-piercing mirage at the heart of Mirror’s Edge; and the world’s only gorgeous storm drain (Mirror’s Edge again). It’s not the most obvious path for a military hardware specialist to take – but then again…

“I literally didn’t want to see another bloody tank, plane or warship again in my life,” he begins, recalling his previous job as a modeler for military recognition systems. “One of my friends who worked on a mod with me was working on Battlefield: Bad Company, and got me the interview at DICE. I was pretty sure I was going to go and work on that but, towards the end of the interview, they mentioned this new IP coming up. I was sceptical but they were looking for environment artists, so I thought it could be all right.”

Details were not forthcoming until after Briscoe signed on; Mirror’s Edge was a secretive and risky venture from the outset, something the old demoscene DICE might have dreamt up before Battlefield, EA, and the withering global recession.


A relief map used for the game’s main menu, captured in its entirely here by breaking the Kismet script and taking over the camera. One of the few Unreal games to unwittingly leave its editor available for public use.

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irror’s Edge was “basically just an art test at this point, set in Shanghai or somewhere very much like it,” recalls Briscoe. “It looked cool, but generic.” There were rooftops, but not until two months after Briscoe joined did art director Johannes Soderqvist, returning from holiday in Spain, think to plaster them all in, well, “this brilliant white plaster you get over there. He took all these pictures of it; he was fascinated by the light and the colours bouncing around. The clean, fresh look of it.

“Another part of it was that some of the 3D artists we had on the team tended to just block stuff out really quickly, not put any textures on things. And they did these really cool renders of the city, just detail models. He loved that as well. So those two things came together and that really turned the art direction around.”

Briscoe wasn’t quite sold on it, though. “I was sceptical. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, do we need to go completely white, though? That white? Because all I’d seen was just a couple of very small art tests.”

What’s more, the game was being built using a painfully early incarnation of Unreal Engine 3. Epic’s own Gears Of War was still in production; and it was around this time, you’ll remember, that hasty adopters like Fatal Inertia (Koei), Frame City Killer (Namco) and Too Human (Silicon Knights) stumbled.

“We needed to get a better lighting engine because the one we had with Unreal was bad,” recalls Briscoe, “Really bad. They hadn’t changed it since Unreal 1. We were looking at some of the Gears Of War levels at the time – we got hold of some of their source artwork and stuff – and they had thousands and thousands of lights in there just to simulate bounced light. They were manually placing all of them. And we just took one look and everyone was like, ‘There’s no bloody way in hell we’re spending two months doing that.’”

Help came in the form of rendering company Illuminate Labs, which at the time specialised in a Maya renderer – a global illumination lighting engine – called Turtle. After lengthy discussions, DICE convinced it to port the tech to Unreal as an external renderer called Beast (which would later appear in BioShock Infinite and the Starbreeze reboot of Syndicate).


Essentially a series of time trials set against a cityscape façade, Mirror’s Edge denies itself the urban infiltration and conquest components of free running, nowadays less a genre than an ingredient of open world action games.

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riscoe had no advance knowledge of what he’d be working on. Artists were assigned to level designers already at work on the maps, few of which had much identity. What had stemmed from the game’s concept, though – ruthless cops and renegade traceurs in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse – was a projection of today’s most hubristic urban landscapes. “It’s almost over-developed,” says Briscoe. “It’s like Dubai and stuff, where you’ve got these amazing buildings that are built and then no one occupies them.”

And it just so happened that the biggest, proudest and coldest of these monuments fell into Briscoe’s lap. The Shard, a dominating skyscraper wired into every CCTV camera and affair in the city, was actually invented prior to the identically named, visually similar project currently underway in London’s Bridge Quarter.

“To be fair, it’s an amalgamation of architectural designs and stuff that were studied at the time, so there might have been an influence in there,” says Briscoe. “But we had this idea of what we wanted to do, which was this triangular, almost impossible-looking building just to dominate the skyline.” It was a paradox that DICE’s level designers, artists and concept artists had to tackle together. “Just a case of building the impossible, which is this kind of theme throughout it all.”

Much the same could be said for the London Shard, designed by architect Renzo Piano, which early on promised a glazed facade much like its virtual predecessor. This has yet to appear, however, leaving just a gradually rising spike of exposed cubicles and strip lights. The Mirror’s Edge Shard still stands alone.

“It was supposed to look like a complete mirror,” notes Briscoe.”There’s no real light visible throughout. It would just blend into the background – not completely, but like an aberration effect, this weird optical illusion of a mirror in the sky.”

Thanks to Half-Life 2’s Citadel, The Shard serves a familiar purpose. As an orienteering device, it allows Mirror’s Edge to explore a broad range of times and locations without losing its sense of geography. You can see it from just about anywhere in the game – and it, you feel, sees all.

“It’s just one of the things that Half-Life 2 did great, giving you this goal from the get-go,” says Briscoe. “You get out onto the square and straight away you’ve this huge, ominous, looming thing in the background that you know… that’s where shit’s going down later on. It’s gives you a goal right away, and that’s what we wanted to with Mirror’s Edge. You had this hub where all of the tech was being monitored, where everything was being controlled. I don’t know if [DICE] would appreciate me saying it was a direct influence, Half-Life 2, but it’s not really deniable.”

Transitioning between skybox object and local map feature where necessary, The Shard is never closer than in Briscoe’s own ‘The Shard’, a closing level that finally lets you inside – to see what it sees. Serried rows of servers beneath gleaming, vaulted ceilings track the movements and histories of an entire population. And then, with nowhere left to run to but an abysmal anticlimax of an endgame, the rooftop gives you the full, unbroken view of the city at nightfall.

“One of the things I really wanted to establish at the beginning of that level was to just see this thing before you actually went up to it,” explains Briscoe. “It was really important for us to show the massive scale of it – in the same way that when you come out on the last level of Dear Esther, you see you’re finally at this huge mount with the aerial on top. It builds the tension up to a crescendo; you know you’re at the final stages.”

“The Shard would just blend into the background – not completely, but like an aberration effect, this weird optical illusion of a mirror in the sky.”

The rooftop panorama, such a complete 360 that it allows a Bon Jovi-worthy helicopter shot to close out the game, would be an extraordinary feat of skybox engineering in any game, Unreal-powered or not. “The guy who actually made it spent the majority of his life on it, I think,” says Briscoe. “It was literally the last year of the project. So that’s one of the reasons it looks fantastic.”

Another is because it’s not, like most videogame skyboxes, a muddy lo-res curtain wrapped sloppily around the map. It looks like a horizon, not a stage. Between Valve’s City 17 and the hypnotic coasts of Dear Esther, it might very well be the bridge between Briscoe’s inspiration and his later work.

“There was a lot of modelling in there,” he points out. “The thing about that rooftop was that it was fairly simple, just this small area that didn’t really have the environmental detail of the other rooftop levels. It was literally a single rooftop, which meant Chris could just go nuts. Most of the budget just went into that skybox alone. You can’t do that for every game, but it’s about getting this balance. It’s about putting the same amount of effort into the foreground as the background.”

That the events on that rooftop are a split-second flurry of unmitigated tosh is hard to deny. It’s Briscoe’s “biggest regret,” in fact, “that there was so much effort put into it by me, the level designer and the backdrop artist. We built up this huge gameplay scenario that was going to happen where you’d be chased around by all these guys and have to chase this helicopter around, then kick this guy out at the right time. But it got cut at the last minute.”


A world defined by colour, geometry and relief rather than big (but never big enough) diffuse textures, Mirror’s Edge has stood the test of time better than almost any other game of its generation.

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riscoe’s other level in Mirror’s Edge is arguably more powerful than even The Shard, staged around and throughout a quite awesome storm drain. Furthermore, unlike The Shard, this one is very much rooted in reality.

G-Cans – or, to give it a somehow less glamorous name, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel – is a distinctly Japanese vanity project designed to protect Tokyo from flooding during the monsoon season. Costing $2bn and home to over 100km of tunnels, it lures in urban adventurers from around the world to see its ‘Underground Temple’, a cavernous pillared storage tank literally dripping with atmosphere.

Most recently it appeared in the egregiously repetitive survival horror game Fragile, the saving grace of which was a funereal parade of such places linked by a story of post-apocalyptic companionship. Being a Wii game, though, Fragile can only imply what Briscoe’s version delights in: the unique behaviour of light in a place recently visited by water. Again, it’s not hard to draw parallels with Dear Esther’s refurbished Cave level.

“I was like, ‘What the fuck is it?’ And he said it was a sewer. And I said, ‘What the hell have they been eating over there? Is it that bad?’”

“Me and the level designer were just brainstorming ideas and were literally looking at stuff – architecture – from Tokyo, Korea, Shanghai…” says Briscoe. “And one of my mates just sent me one of these images of this huge… You know, the shot with the pillars.

“I was like, ‘What the fuck is it? What is it?’ And he said it was a sewer. And I said, ‘What the hell have they been eating over there? Is it that bad?’ It took us a while to find out what the name of the bloody thing was, but we found it and it was like, ‘That has got to go in.’ It really speaks to the kind of weird, semi-futuristic architecture that was in the game at the time. And the other opportunity it presented was really good vertical gameplay within an indoor environment. We could get a really good feeling of vertigo but not have it be an office building or something boring like that.

“And, as an artist, for me it was just brilliant. It was something I knew I’d just love to work on. So, we belted out some ideas. It took a long time to get some gameplay together for that, just because it’s such a big room. But it was a bit of creative twisting of reality in there, with all the scaffolding and stuff. That was one area of the game that I worked on that I was really pleased with in the end.”

These levels weren’t just blank canvases for the artists, either. Briscoe and his colleagues would join their allotted level designers to find a timeline of levels with broad mechanical, if not visual, themes. “I think level two started out as this big hole in the ground that you travelled down into, going through all these tunnels and stuff. But there wasn’t any real predefined thing before we started building.”

Something else that threatens to literally strike you in the storm drain are the walls and floor: they’re beautifully textured. Mirror’s Edge owes much of its endurance to the fact that it’s not another ‘consolitis’-afflicted charnel house of compressed and neglected surfaces. It’s immaculate, just like its city.

“The secret of that was that we had these basically monochrome textures. We could get away with a lot because it’s mostly just black and white,” says Briscoe. “And, in a similar way to Dear Esther, you’ve not necessarily got detailed textures but this perceived detail, this impression, which is what’s really important. We could do small tricks like having high-res normal maps but a low-res diffuse map which didn’t have much detail on, but you could get away with it because of the normal map. And of course a lot of areas were really bright, slightly blown out, so again you’re hiding it.

“A lot of textures were reused as well because they’re so basic. All the building textures, we just reused them all over the place because we didn’t have to worry about different material types. We didn’t have to worry about concrete not being the right colour for concrete, or enamel not being enamel. In a lot of places it was just plain white textures – there wasn’t even a diffuse used. And we used a lot of tricks in the textures, even going as far as to use one channel of the actual diffuse for the specular, another for the alpha.”


The claws of marketing, you assume, slipped a gun into the hand of a heroine who barely uses them. Intense scrutiny awaits the forthcoming Mirror’s Edge 2 in its bid to satisfy both fans and publisher shareholders.

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t’s these little tricks and shortcuts – knowing when to use new and expensive techniques versus old, cheap ones – that have separated the good and the ugly of the last ten years. Trapped within the same console hardware for approaching seven of them, games have progressed through reduction and economy. Mirror’s Edge, a game defined by almost hyper-realistic lighting, got it right first time, choosing baked static lighting throughout.

“A lot of people don’t realise that if you ever use dynamic shadows or lighting, that’s a massive, massive chunk of memory gone straight away. Because you have to render the whole scene to an uncompressed, huge texture. So we had that extra memory there,” explains Briscoe. “We also did a lot more work on putting detail into the actual polygons, rather than the textures themselves, which is a philosophy I’ve taken away with me. Vertices on a model cost nothing; mesh memory is nothing compared to texture memory. And you see in a lot of games they have these flat walls with air ducts and things, and they’re just normal maps. I just think, why not just model it? It’s a hell of a lot cheaper and it’ll look a hell of a lot better up close.

“And you see these other games that have normal maps on every single surface, so you’ve got a grass texture which looks like porridge because you don’t need a normal map on grass. You can’t do it, it doesn’t work. So we used normal maps and specularity quite sparingly where we could, and that’s something I took over to Dear Esther. The only level I really extensively used normal maps in was the Cave level.”

Briscoe is “really irked” by this stuff, and it’s not hard to see why. Games with beautifully high-res diffuse textures and tiny normal maps are just one example of such crass optimisation, others simply misspending their budgets and basically vomiting the results in your face. Briscoe suggests we call it “the Skyrim effect,” though surely there’s a better ring to simply ‘the Mass Effect’.

“I hate to use the word but it tends to be what I’d call ‘consolitis’. It’s a bit of a swearword, but it’s people not putting enough effort into the console version. They’ve just lowered their texture resolution to fit it in memory. Or you find a paint bucket that has a really high-resolution normal and specular map, and you think: why? It’s a bucket. It’s about consistency, giving priority to what needs decent textures and what doesn’t.”


The wholesale painting of shapes and surfaces, physically correct global illumination, and uncommon purity of colour has proved a deceptively tricky recipe for the few who’ve tried to clone the look.

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he worst you can say about Mirror’s Edge is that it’s simply not very good, or that it’s simply brilliant or awful. It’s too complex a scenario for any of that, its flaws residing in the molecular chemistry of its pacing, signposting, innovative POV and accompanying control scheme. Well, most of its flaws are that subtle. Then there are the cutscenes.

Briscoe howls, “Oh, don’t tell me about those. Honestly. We couldn’t really believe it when we got those back. I was opposed to the whole idea of these e-surance style animations in the first place. I think they just thought to outsource the animation because it could be a really cool thing. It could look really different. But it just turned out to be, ‘What the fuck?’ I don’t think there’s a single person on that team who’ll say those are cool.

“Mirror’s Edge wasn’t really my cup of tea when it came out. I sat down and played it on PS3 for about an hour and that was it, I gave up. Didn’t like it.”

“It’s a total contrast to the actual game, and not in a good way. It’s like you’re watching Game Of Thrones and a commercial for Kellogg’s Frosties comes on. ‘That’s it, I’m getting a cup of tea.’

“Early on in the game we had these prototype cutscenes which were all firstperson. Completely firstperson: a little bit like the ending cutscene but a lot more choreographed, a lot more polished. It was really amazing. But I think it was just a case of time. We had to get out and compete, for some reason, with Gears Of War 2, Uncharted, and all these other titles that were coming out. All these sequels. We were pushed and pushed and pushed, and more and more stuff had to be cut.”

This is Mirror’s Edge in a nutshell, really. Green-lit as part of a bold new IP drive by EA chairman John Riccitiello – “they used to call him ‘JR’” – it was suddenly a bit too bold for the company’s bean counters. That nasty habit of maximising sales rather than concept, to which we owe Dead Space 2’s incongruous multiplayer mode, became something of a personality disorder for DICE’s ultra-niche platformer – and it was contagious.

“There was this pressure to deliver within a short amount of time because it was costing a lot of money,” reveals Briscoe, “and again it was a huge risk. And I think it was a case of nobody being really sure what they were capable of in the time that they had. There were decisions made that were just questionable. Me and the level designer would sit there and get a level looking really good, and the next day you’d come in and there’d be snipers everywhere. People wanted it more intense, not really seeing the bigger picture of pacing and stuff like that.

“So, it wasn’t really my cup of tea when it came out. I sat down and played it on PS3 for about an hour and that was it, I gave up. Didn’t like it. There were all these gameplay decisions going on that I wasn’t happy with, but as an artist it was like, ‘Well, I’ve got no control over that so I’m just going to make it as good looking a game as I can.’ And, luckily, the art designers and level designers were some of the best I’ve worked with.”

There was, furthermore, a tension right at the heart of what Mirror’s Edge involves: free-running… or should that be parkour? Was this a game about pondering the environment (arguably the former) or beating it (arguably the latter)? Was it open world or linear time trial? Was it, ultimately, the game DICE imagined from the start?

“The open world thing was something we really wanted to do, one of the early things we kind of dreamed about doing,” says Briscoe. “But it became obvious early on that it just – as far as getting it on the consoles was concerned – wasn’t going to be possible. One of the first things we had to do was just tackle the Unreal Engine, because no one in the company had really worked with it before. But towards the end we really got this solid engine together. If it had kept going and if they’d kept working on Mirror’s Edge, it could have easily gone in [an open world] direction. It’s just a case of what our original goals were and what we could actually achieve. They were separated towards the end.”


A bit of configuration file trickery is needed to unlock Faith Connors’ thirdperson model, the skeletal inaccuracy of which is vital for firstperson play.

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rop-kicking the villainous Jackknife out of a helicopter and into gaming’s hall of eternal shame – right next door to the last half-hour of BioShock – wasn’t the last of Mirror’s Edge, sequel or no sequel. A series of unlockable Time Trial levels sought to purify the game somewhat, turning it into a more appetising sport. It was a half-measure, though, as much an attempt to recover abandoned level designs, recycle existing ones, and add something – anything – to the meagre few hours of singleplayer story. Then this happened…

“At the end the project, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was entering crunch time and the whole team went to either that or Battlefield 3,” recalls Briscoe. “So most of the team went off and was dissolved between those two. But EA wanted DLC from the get-go, because it was really kicking off and making loads of money. That was where a lot of the revenue could come in.

“We had two or three level designers, if that, and one artist: me. At least at first. And I was like, ‘Okay. So, you want me to make seven time trial maps on a similar scale to some of the other levels which took one artist two years to make, and you want me to do it in three months?’ I think it was even less. I just said to Johannes, “Look, it’s not going to happen, it’s just impossible. We need to go back to the drawing board a bit here and just think about doing something in the spirit of Mirror’s Edge, but a lot simpler.”

The result, Pure, is extraordinary. It’s just Mirror’s Edge heroine Faith, essentially, dropped into the centrifuge of Briscoe’s imagination. Story and reality are separated and removed, leaving textures, geometry and light. It is the unlikeliest of art games, made in guerilla fashion by one of the biggest studios in the world. Demoscene stuff, you might say. Classic DICE.

“We had the training level in the game already, this huge room with just blocks and stuff. So we talked about doing this whole thing of maybe having arenas like that. But again it had to be cut down because there just weren’t the resources to design and build these rooms. So Johannes went away for a while and thought about it, and we talked it over with [the Mirror’s Edge] concept artist, Pierre Hannah. And he came up with a few sketches of this weird, abstract landscape. I loved it. It was perfect.

“We had this idea of just themes for each level. One was pure cubes, another was obtuse angles and conflicting geometry, and another was just streamline geometry – curves and things like that. We basically invented this material that could just be used on brushwork in the game, to apply textures without worrying about alignment or anything; it would just fit. I think it was probably one of the coolest things I’ve worked on.”

Briscoe’s memories of Mirror’s Edge remind us, like the game itself, that game appreciation is not an exact science. There are no metrics for the people who buy games like Rage (Briscoe: “Don’t even get me started on that”), Mass Effect and even ArmA for something other than the critical path. To a great many, DICE’s game is a work of art. To Rob Briscoe, the time he spent on it made him what he is today.

“So, you want me to make seven time trial maps on a similar scale to some of the other levels which took one artist two years to make, and you want me to do it in three months?”

“DICE has a massive bar that they like to stick to,” he says. “The quality consistency is a very important thing over there. They just won’t release something unless they’re… I think Battlefield 3 was in its third iteration of Frostbite 2 when I was there, and there were two other iterations by the time I’d left. The art directors there are, without a doubt, some of the most talented I’ve seen, and the artists are also amazing. I was absolutely out of my depth when I went there.

“‘What the hell am I doing?’ I thought. ‘I’ve got all these amazing people around me.’ But being around that quality and talent really drives you to do better and improve yourself. One of the things I’ve learned is that is you slack out on one element – if you can’t be bothered with the skybox; if you just want to make everything look great from a distance… I’d have trouble going back to a company that has different philosophies on those things.”

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