This is a personal gaming story from a long time ago, back in simpler times when Electronic Arts was slightly less deplorable than it is now. It was from the late 2000s to the early 2010s when EA actually started putting out original IPs and made gamers believe again, and one of those titles was Mirror’s Edge.
I quite liked the parkour simulator for what it tried to do, as well as the clean and minimalistic visuals that almost became the basis for this blog’s web design. While that later was superseded by Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I still quite liked the look of this now decade-old game.
A big part of Mirror’s Edge is the kinesthetics of the movement designed to simulate traversing obstacles and jumping over gaps as seamlessly as possible. While there were problems with how the linearity of the singleplayer campaign narrowed possibilities and how counterintuitive the combat system was, it still fulfilled the aim of making human movement a focal point of gameplay.
I recall an instance of cynicism directed towards that gameplay I remember to this day. I’d like to tell that story here as it made me think about what I’ve learned about video game kinesthetics, muscle memory, and personal achievement over the years.
“What a waste of time…”
This was around a decade ago. I was doing the first time trial map in Mirror’s Edge with my friend in the neighborhood Internet cafe, racing for the faster time. Like with any sort of racing in video games, I found myself immediately restarting whenever I made a mistake.
An acquaintance then passed by quipped about how the whole exercise was a complete waste of time. It wasn’t really anything bad at all, and no one was offended by the statement.
His reasoning was that since the mechanics were so specific for that game, it doesn’t really carry over to other games. Also, the way we were restarting our games repeatedly seemed futile to him.
That stuck with me to this day, almost a decade later. Let me talk about this now-distant memory and the various conclusions I’ve come up with over the years.
Specificity in Games Like Mirror’s Edge
The muscle memory you gain from such repetition results in short-term muscle memory that helps you get generally better in that game, and especially that level you’re trying to master.
I say it’s short-term as the specificity of the kinesthetics means the resulting muscle memory tends to diminish after not playing for even a short period of time. The physical movements employed in playing video games involve only the fingers and arms, and the precision required is very exacting.
With the incredibly small margin of error that comes with beating a time or a score in a game, it’s not enough to just do enough—you have to get it perfect.
This is the norm in the world of speedrunning, a well-documented gaming subculture. Just watch a Games Done Quick stream and you’ll see just how many people take it seriously. It goes as far as doing specific actions to deliberately glitch the game to skip ahead.
I’m not entirely sure if this really is the case, but not playing after even just a few days can diminish a good bit of that muscle memory acquired through playing that game and level over and over again, trying to get it right.
The next time you play it, you have to spend time reacquiring that muscle memory all over again. You may still know the exact things you need to do, but
What Made Me Write About This Mirror’s Edge Moment
I’ve had the draft for this post in my Google Docs for months, but what got me to finish and publish it is this Errant Signal video by Campster.
His brief review of Driftforce, a twin-stick racer inspired by the film Hackers and the game Wipeout, also had a pretty good rundown of what a leaderboard game is. It’s best played with friends who are willing to compete for the best times.
Achievement, No Matter How Small, Is Worth It
Doing the same thing over and over does seem like a waste of time to cynical outsiders. But what is daily life for most people? Also the same thing, and it’s called routine.
What does staying in good physical shape involve? Exercising regularly, which is also doing the same thing over and over. I say this out in a feeble attempt to prove a point.
Lately, I’ve been watching strongman and powerlifting related content on YouTube. While I myself am not that big into those fields myself, it’s interesting to watch people who dedicate themselves to it engage in that lifestyle, battle through injuries, compete in tests of strength, and set records.
That last bit calls for tremendous self-investment, pushing their physical capabilities to the absolute limit, even with potential for long-term damage to their health. Plenty like to deride such pursuits as either pointless or even detrimental, similar to bodybuilding.
Why spend most of your time lifting heavy things just to sustain injuries and suffer body pains later in life?
Because they found a calling where they can apply themselves and achieve incredible things with experience and hard work. Especially now, strongman is becoming more popular thanks to the power of the Internet and social media, so there’s now more money in it.
The online fitness world is fascinating as you have this mix of people who do it only for looks and those who do it for performance. That line does get blurry as both goals are valid in the long run, despite negative views on vanity and long-term self-mutilation.
Doing something is in itself not pointless. Whether it’s for achievement or amusement, it’s all good as long as it’s not to the detriment of others.
You may be aiming to grow your biceps or beating your friend in a Mirror’s Edge time trial. Either way, it’s an achievement.
Achievement is worth it.
Do what you want and play games the way you want, even if it involves doing the same thing over and over. I played StarCraft II semi-seriously for five years, and that also involves doing the same actions and build orders repeatedly to get good at it.
Being competent in a strategy game is mostly seen as a good thing, but it’s also just being good at a video game. Detractors just think of video games as pointless, but the same can be said of existence itself.
The farther I got in writing this post, the more pointless it got to make a point on this topic. Perhaps it’s just the urge to rectify what I briefly experience with that guy, who didn’t really offend but was still fairly condescending in giving his opinion that time.
Who just goes over to you while you’re having fun playing a game and says it’s a pointless exercise? That’s kind of a dick move, wouldn’t you say?
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below.