It’s safe to say that for many, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was a tremendous disappointment. Despite not being truly “bad” per se (although I am admittedly guilty of unfairly labeling it with the humorous portmanteau: Mirror’s Edge Catastrophic in conversation surrounding the game) but was a product that so truly wallowed in complete general mediocrity it brutally and prematurely ended arguably the most original franchise ideas to ever emerge from the creative black hole that is studio DICE – and one that I personally would have loved to have seen continued for years to come.
In order to fully explore the tragedy that was the development of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst it is first vital to understand why the original Mirror’s Edge exists in the first place. It’s no secret that around the start of Mirror’s Edge‘s development DICE was struggling to establish independence from EA – after the recent acquisition DICE by EA – with then CEO of DICE Patrick Söderlund saying that “there was a push inside the studio to do something different” and that “we were still an independent company. We wanted to push for a new IP”1. For all intents and purposes, the original Mirror’s Edge was nothing more than a tech demo – a proof of concept that became such a striking example of unique game design not by choice, but by necessity.
Mirror’s Edge‘s hybrid FPS parkour gameplay wasn’t chosen because a particular developer really wanted to make a parkour game, or that there was even a strong market demand for one, but rather because such a feat had never been attempted before. The game’s iconic art-style too was chosen almost mathematically to make a game that stood out as much as possible from the crowd, with Senior producer Owen O’Brien saying that they deliberately “wanted a game where I could look at a screenshot and say, “Hey, that’s ‘Mirror’s Edge'”2. What better way to establish a clear division between your studio and its parent than by attempting something so risky and different – something that would never be attempted by the methodical EA – that it would surely receive a large amount of press coverage, helping to remind everyone that “yes indeed, DICE was still separate from EA”… kind of
In addition to that, the financial success of Mirror’s Edge was not ultimately necessary. DICE had the backing of EA in addition to the Battlefield franchise, which was (and still is) a reliable money maker. With the majority of the studio focused on the production of a new Battlefield game, Söderlund describes setting “several small groups of three to five developers beg[inning] workshopping pitches for something new”1. It was one of these small teams that created the concept that would soon become Mirror’s Edge.
After the 3-5 man team demo attracted a large amount of attention within the studio, wow-ing all that saw it Mirror’s Edge was greenlit and began production now with a far bigger, but still relatively small, team. The story was tasked to brilliant Writer’s Guild of America outstanding achievement in videogame writing award winning3 writer Rhianna Pratchett4 and whilst the story of Mirror’s Edge was by no means fantastic, it is veritable masterpiece when compared with what’s to come.
The musical artists selected for the game’s soundtrack were Swedish composers Solar Fields5 and Lisa Miskovsky6 and was their respective debuts into the gaming soundtrack scene. Miskovsky‘s creation, the game’s main theme Still Alive, being the stand-out track even becoming so popular as to spawn its own album of individual remixes7. Choosing composers that had done no prior work within the gaming industry was a particularly clever move considering that the unique nature of the most important aspects of Mirror’s Edge: gameplay, visual style, soundtrack was paramount to the developer’s criteria for the game’s “success”. Miskovsky and Solar Fields both did absolutely stellar jobs in the creation of a soundtrack but for DICE that was pleasant surprise. The overall quality of the tracks didn’t matter, only their ability to stand out from the creations of other EA studios and this was likely their top priority when selecting composers.
All these factors almost inadvertently contributed to the finished product – a superbly promising game that still delights today. It is important to differentiate between comments and observations of the circumstances surrounding the game’s development and critiques of the finished game itself. I personally absolutely adore Mirror’s Edge, as you can see here in my shamelessly plugged review, and as such can reconcile the idea that the game may have been created in circumstances some would consider cynical. The brilliant nature of the end product, I would in fact argue, was solely due to cold careful calculation and the splash of edge provided by a certain level of studio desperation that a bold idea was able, not just to be greenlit, but to come to fruition.
After discussing the circumstances that culminated in the success of the first Mirror’s Edge, it is now time to move on to the circumstances the culminated the failure of its successor Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
DICE by this time was under new management, with Söderlund vanishing into the upper echelons of EA’s management, now under the eyes of the then EA director Karl Magnus Troedsson – with roots very firmly in the Battlefield franchise. It was also announced via twitter the writer Rhianna Pratchett would not be returning8 and instead was replaced with Christofer Emgård in his return to the game writing scene after a hiatus of over nine years9. Much like the new director, the writer also had his roots firmly in the war genre, previously helming the World in Conflict franchise and going on to write the two most recent Battlefield games, the confusingly titled Battlefield 1 and Battlefield V.
In addition to confirming her departure from the franchise, Pratchett also revealed that almost the entirety of the original team behind Mirror’s Edge was now gone. It was likely that the new team was far bigger and composed of yet more veterans of the Battlefield franchise – likely resulting in the change in game engine from the original’s Unreal Engine to the in house Frostbite 3 Engine 10– with which the Battlefield devs had the most experience and resources.
The aim of the original Mirror’s Edge was never to create an engaging plot, and it at most needed to be serviceable and facilitate the gameplay. Despite floundering under one of the greatest writers in the gaming industry DICE announced that Catalyst would be far more story focused – a recipe for disaster particularly in hands of a much less capable writer.
The reason for developing Catalyst in the first place was also unclear. This coupled by the strange details surrounding the true nature of the game at launch; with many unsure if the game was a prequel, sequel or a reboot – a confusion not helped by the developer’s insistence that it was none of those11. To this day the Wikipedia page for the game erroneously states that “the game is a prequel to Mirror’s Edge, showcasing the origins of Faith”12.
This confusion of direction reflected a developmental confusion surrounding the game’s purpose. DICE no longer had anything to prove for it was firmly within EA’s grasp and anyone who did have something to prove had been taken away from the project. The new team had no experience with the IP and the change in director lead to the vast majority of the central visions from Mirror’s Edge being compromised. The most glaring example of which can be seen in the very setting of Catalyst. Söderlund stated that in Mirror’s Edge he was very careful to not name the city in which the game takes place. It was intended to be an amalgamation of already existing modern cities, one that would be relatable and could serve as a warning of the increased prevalence of surveillance and corruption throughout the world. Catalyst throws all of this subtlety and clever design away with the laughably named extremely futuristic “City of Glass”.
There are many other examples too, just read some original interviews with Söderlund and compare his vision to Catalyst but for the sake of time, I’ll just leave the direct comparisons there.
Without a clear vision, Catalyst became a strange mess of unfinished mechanics; the meaningless skill trees, the unbalanced combat, the boring collectibles, the redundant trial modes. Catalyst reeks of a game that didn’t want to be made which eventually just became a conduit to test developer’s ideas at the expense of the end product. It is no secret the Mirror’s Edge sold well above expectations and the whisking away of the property from a side team to one of the EA DICE titans of development was likely entirely financially motivated.
Under the full control of EA, such a promising franchise couldn’t be allowed to remain in the hands of what they likely viewed as an unreliable team. All the data shows that under the main Battlefield team, Catalyst would surely sell well, everything that team produced would have certainly seemed to sell well. The open-world design of Catalyst, the skill trees, the new focus on combat all of it was carefully chosen not to defy convention but to follow it.
Unfortunately Mirror’s Edge was never about convention. It was about creating an experience that was truly unique. In trying to water down the original ideas in order to create something more “consumer friendly” and more heavily focused on market demands EA created something truly awful. A product that did nothing different. A new game that would be lost in the seas of time and one without any notable legacy.
The more cynical side of me would want to argue that this was a deliberate choice – an act of sabotaging the product if you will. For EA, the Mirror’s Edge franchise was a liability. The first game had sold just well enough to warrant a sequel, but was nowhere near the level of Battlefield or Fifa, and we know from recent news surrounding EA’s latest slice of mediocrity, Anthem13, that EA values that importance of a franchise solely on how much money it can reliably make. For EA, deliberately killing Mirror’s Edge with a very poor follow up would quell demand and shift focus towards the major EA franchises. Although there is no evidence for this, it is quite a compelling theory and one that many gamers would have no trouble accepting considering EA’s reputation for anti-consumer business decisions.
Overall, even if Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was not designed to fail, it was definitely doomed to. The lack of creative vision demonstrable from even the earliest stages of the game’s development and the lesser amount of talent that was allocated to the game meant that it’s a miracle the game was even mediocre in the first place. Catalyst is most valuable as a prime example of how utilising purely motivated financial decisions can destroy the games we love.