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Mirror’s Edge and the bittersweet quest for perfection

Every so often, something in the gaming world can ambush you, stirring up those obsessive tendencies, fogging the rest of your life, and filching your time. With Mirror's Edge Catalyst finally in sight (albeit having slipped again), I am now considering the possibility that one of my greatest gaming obsessions is soon to rise from the ashes and consume me.

Mirror's Edge is an intriguing, dynamic, and aesthetically sharp game that garnered positive reviews but not astronomical sales. But then, given the competition that it was up against in the latter part of 2008, it’s hardly surprising. Fallout 3, the game that dominated more people's Christmases than Cliff Richard, was also the game that I unceremoniously abandoned a few days after opening, a mere half an hour or so with Mirror's Edge having been enough to turn my head.

Sick of getting slaughtered by fire ants and trying to click with a game that just wasn't doing it for me, I instead tried Mirror's Edge. It was the first jump that did it. Oh, I adored the concept, but that first big jump stole my breath, shot adrenaline through me, and actually, seriously made me laugh out loud with exhilaration and shock. I knew then I was falling for Mirror’s Edge (not literally – there would be plenty of that to come). Had I known just how punishing and draining the relationship would be I may have shut down the Xbox 360 and stepped away. Instead, I let it devour my life. For months.

Back then, I was enmeshed in the dark times. The time of Achievements. I never plumbed the depths of lemony hateful games for the sake of Achievements – I left that hell for others - but any game that I enjoyed had to be maxed. And Mirror's Edge is, if you'll excuse me, //a total dick// to max. Once the story is complete, a cursory glance at the Achievements is enough to inspire immediate gloom. I had wandered into the extras and tasted the Time Trials and Speedruns early on and quickly backed away. It was clearly hardcore stuff. But once I'd finished the game and taken stock of how I felt, there was no getting past it. I loved the game. I loved the look, the story, the character, the flow, the soundtrack, and the buzz it gave me. I had to max it. How hard can it be, I half laughed, half sobbed to myself. Forgive me while I take a moment to lay a comforting hand on the shoulder of past me. "Fly, you fool!"

Slowly, surely, the game took over my life. I'd finish dinner and retreat to the Xbox 360, every night, sitting cross-legged for hours, trying to remember to blink while I worked on the Time Trials and Speedruns. I'd eventually unfurl myself at some ungodly hour with a blinding headache, having achieved mixed success. Some nights I'd be on top of the world, perhaps having snatched a few measly stars in one trial and unlocked a new map. Other nights I may have made decent progress with a speedrun and slashed my time to within a ghost's glimmer of the time limit. Then there were those nights… the ones where I'd come away with nothing but a foul mood and a rage-dented controller.

My days began to fall, too, to the game. I'd scour YouTube, watching the (then) world number one breeze effortlessly through the levels like a tattooed Spring-Heeled Jack, while I tried to pick up tips, moves, and memorise shortcuts. If you've played Mirror's Edge you'll know that a shortcut is often something that can shave a second or two off the time – so no real biggie? If only that were true. If you've ploughed through a Time Trial or Speedrun, only to miss the time limit by a few milliseconds, you'll know how crucial every split second is and how gutting it is to miss by one.

I studied and persevered and practiced. It took so much of the one thing I've never really possessed, but which I had to conjure: patience. Screw up a Speedrun early on and it would mean a restart, because that failure would likely cost you the whole thing, so no point wasting time. The number of times I reloaded the Jacknife level was off the charts. I loathed the sight of that alleyway and that shortcut bucket/fence bit. Jacknife is the longest Speedrun at 11 minutes and it’s a nightmare of pipes, storm drains, gantries, gunfire, a chopper, a chase sequence, oh… and a glitched set of drainpipes seconds from the end that, more than once, sent me plunging to my death moments from victory.

I honed my skills, built my muscle memory and kept going. And going. Stars accumulated as I bunny-hopped, wall-ran, beam bounced, and shorted cuts – any tricks I could to shave split seconds. All the work on the Time Trials – which were just pieces of the levels themselves, helped enormously with the Speedruns, as it meant that I knew them and the quickest routes like the back of my hand. The surreal and oddly beautiful DLC levels meant that the grand star total for the game's hardest achievement was 90. There were only 96 stars available. That meant three starring a great many levels. But I kept at it.

This game was my life. I lived, breathed, and talked it. And then, suddenly, one night… I did it. I snatched the last star I needed and that Achievement popped. And so did the bubble the game had kept me in for so long. One moment of sheer elation, screaming, air punching, shouting, and then the realisation seeped in that I was finished. The game was well and truly complete and I had nothing left. It was like the tide had suddenly gone out and I was left stranded. The thing that had eaten my life had been vanquished. It was a complicated, twisted emotional knot to unravel. Sadness, irritation, loss, relief, happiness, triumph, pride. It lasted days, the tangle of feelings, but it was the evenings that felt emptier. I had the time back that I was resenting giving up to the game, and spent most of it mooching and moaning about how it was over, as much as I was on cloud nine at my biggest gaming achievement.

I gave up on Achievements a long time ago, and then, some years after, gave up on Microsoft too. Trophies hold no allure for me, so I'm safe. And then, after sitting on a gloriously enjoyable game for eight years, I realise EA is going to release Mirror's Edge Catalyst. Damn. I was asked whether or not I was going for a max. I laughed it off and said no, but inside my stomach gave that little lurch. I watched a gameplay trailer and my heart started beating. I could feel myself wanting to reconnect with the game. With the world and the risk of falling back into it all. “Of course I'll play it”, I told everyone, “I just won't be silly”. But old habits die hard and a game that was powerful enough to draw me in and capture me, body and soul, for so long, while I sought to gain the perfect completion, can easily do so again. “EA will screw it up anyway, they'll stick in multiplayer or something, so I don't need to worry”, I told a smirking friend. “I won't care”. But I have a nasty, nasty feeling that I bloody well WILL care. That dark, obsessive part of me that I left behind with Achievements can easily come back, and if there is one thing that could resurrect it, it's Mirror's Edge. I still don't give a toss about Trophies… but I give way more than a passing toss about Mirror's Edge. A beautiful, sleek, sharp-edged world of glossy perfection deserves no less than a perfect completion... but like that world, darkness lurks beneath, and mine is the well of obsession.