The open world format is a contentious topic. On one hand, open worlds can provide freedom and exploration for the player, but on the other they can all too easily become bloated with meaningless filler, such as poorly implemented collectables and side quests, that serve only to distract and cause choice paralysis.
This juxtaposition is especially clear in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. The core mechanic of the Mirror’s Edge series is often referred to as “first person parkour”–the central facet of the game is traversing its world. This gives key importance to the environment which the player, as protagonist Faith, will be running through, bringing to the fore both the joy of free exploration and the frustration of distraction. Catalyst can therefore serve as a wonderful case study for open world design more broadly.
Generally speaking, I’m a fan of the open world structure. I also love discreet, narrative driven games like the original Mirror’s Edge. Both can, of course, have their flaws, but it’s nice to be able to switch between the two styles depending on my mood and how much time I have to sink into gaming (and whether Dragon Age: Inquisition has recently burned me out on fetch quests, as happened last summer).
But it’s rare for a franchise to move from one to the other, and whilst an open world is a perfect fit for the tone and gameplay inherent to Mirror’s Edge, these also compound the issues inherent to open world design.
The first Mirror’s Edge opens with Faith explaining her job as a runner thusly: “Runners see this city in a different way. We see the flow. Rooftops become pathways and conduits, possibilities and escape routes. The flow is what keeps us running.” And this flow is truly key to Mirror’s Edge.
In the original game a combination of difficult controls and poorly telegraphed routes meant that I could rarely establish any flow and eventually caused me enough frustration that I couldn’t finish the game. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst solves both of those issues, and being able to cross the city as you please, guided by but not confined to a suggested path, is truly fantastic.
Yet Catalyst’s open world also serves to disrupt this flow. In particular, running is brought to a grinding halt by pausing for collectables such as two different sorts of electronic parts, which cannot be picked up mid-run. Instead, you must stop moving entirely, something not encouraged by any other mechanic in the game as it runs contrary to both tone and gameplay. “Not moving…destroys focus,” warns a loading screen message, referring to a game mechanic known as a focus shield that builds protection for Faith while she runs, but equally demonstrating the issues with these static collectables.
Worse, selecting these electronic parts begins a repetitive and slow animation in which Faith tears open a console, removes a chip, and examines it for a moment before you can move on. They are completely optional, but passing them by as you run also breaks flow in its own way as you consider whether you ought to have stopped. Narratively, collecting the chips is supposed to help people, and mechanically they were put there for you to find, so passing them in a blur feels wrong.
This pitfall seems strange when compared to another kind of collectable in Catalyst: the “gridleaks” (or, as I prefer to call them, “orange peels,” since they look similar, and, ultimately, have the same narrative value). Not only do they appeal to a base desire to go after the bright and shiny, unlike the bland white boxes that hold electronic parts, they hover enticingly in hard-to-reach places, encouraging exploration. Most importantly, collecting them requires only passing through them, so they don’t break into the flow of running.
The inclusion of these gridleaks demonstrates that there are ways that collectables can be integrated into an open world without being disruptive in the same way that the electronic parts became.
Gridleaks encourage the player to run, and the open world picks up this encouragement in other ways, too.
The dystopic blandness of the architecture conveniently lends itself to traversing it, but is also the reason to run in both large and small ways. The city of Cascadia may be under threat from unchecked capitalism and a highly stratified society in both Mirror’s Edge games, but in Catalyst the map is also full of smaller, personal struggles in the form of side quests–another staple of open world design.
Side quests, when done well, help to integrate the personal into large stories, and are one of the best things about open worlds.
Series like Fallout and Mass Effect allow players to earn the loyalty of their teammates by investing in their stories, and even Dragon Age: Inquisition hits the mark here; hidden beneath all the fetch quests is a particularly poignant and memorable example–could the player please venture to the dangerous cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a mourning widower’s wife? It’s these small moments that bring these kinds of stories to life and allow the player to become invested in the world itself.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst has its own versions of these small and personal quests. For example, in one, an upper class acquaintance of Faith’s (who appears in the Exordium comic that is set before Catalyst) enlists Faith’s help in divorcing her abusive husband. The quest is straight-forward and meaningful, and gives players a stake in the world whilst humanising the upper class members who are usually faceless and blankly evil.
However other side quests are more frustrating. “Fragile deliveries” are much like the aforementioned Dragon Age: Inquisition fetch quests that once turned me off open worlds entirely, except put on a time limit that was often physically impossible for me to attain without endless repetition or upgrades I hadn’t unlocked yet, and always stressful. Whilst, as with collectables, Fragile Deliveries are all totally optional, they clutter the map and distract from the free running between other objectives as minor characters call out for your attention as you pass them by.
Moreover, one subset of side quest in Catalyst unlocked fast travel, meaning the game is more cumbersome for those who could not, or did not want to, complete them; and in one instance the dialogue trigger for this side quest played every time I passed the area, breaking the flow and urgency of the main quest I was supposed to be focusing on.
Side quests often lean into the idea that the player character is invested in their world, and this is a theme that appears in Faith’s narrative explicitly. The player is told that Faith cares about the people of Cascadia even as she pretends to run for the pure and selfish enjoyment of running, but it feels false if the side quests offered to the player fail to create personal investment and world building.
This creates a disconnect between theme and feeling, and between player character and player.
Open worlds and their associated gameplay tropes can bring freedom, life, and personalisation to games, but they have to be implemented thoughtfully to prevent the opposite effects. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst serves to demonstrate this: it’s wonderful where it works, but less engaging side quests and collectables break the flow of the game. And as Faith says, it’s the flow that keeps us running.