A Rush: The Brilliance of First-Person Platformers

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Ever since Mario first jumped onto and off of a block, video games and the flow of movement has been incredibly intertwined (game historians, if I am wrong and if some game had lots of jumping or whatever before Mario, please don’t correct me. I don’t care). Platformers are now a genre of their own, and even then that genre has splintered off into various microgenres. None of them are as interesting as the first-person platformer microgenre. We often view these movements and jumps and runs in 2D or from a behind-the-back third-person perspective (i.e. parkour in the Assassin’s Creed series) and so we have some distance from what is actually going on. Ledges and walls and gaps between buildings have no real sense of place or scale or height. The camera might pull back to reveal a sweeping view of the world below, but our gaze is still more or less centered on the back of the in-game character we are controlling. Moving through the world, in that sense, becomes secondary. The world and movement themselves are not secondary, per se, as we press buttons to do the things that make the two interact with one another, and sometimes we fail. But the real relationship between the two is at a distance, hence it seeming secondary in nature. The first-person perspective fundamentally changes that.

Mirror’s Edge drops players into a techno future of utopian color design and urban sprawl that hides the truth of an authoritarian state. The player controls Faith Connors, a Runner who uses parkour to carry out messages and missions for a resistance group set against the authoritarian powers that be. Everything is seen and felt from a first-person perspective. Movement feels grounded, tangible even. It is not floaty, Faith’s parkour skills are varied and incredibly honed. She moves with such grace that it is always jarring to see her plummet to her death as the player makes an input error or misses a jump between two buildings by only a few inches. And the death animation gives players reason enough to never want to do that again—it is harrowing, to say the least. The sound of the wind drowns out everything else and Faith’s vision cones and blurs as she speeds ever faster to the concrete below, and then it hard cuts to black. Don’t fall, lesson learned. First-person platforming shows us the errors of a mistake in the harshest of way—we see what it might be like to plummet twenty stories into the street below us. Never again. Platforming errors become more glaring in first-person because we see what can happen with one slip-up, and Mirror’s Edge showcases this incredibly well. Mirror’s Edge also displays the near elegiac joy of falling into the flow of the game’s mode of first-person platforming. It becomes second-nature, reflexive. Faith jumps, shimmys, wall runs, slides, and rolls across rooftops and through buildings with ease. It is graceful—and it is incredibly corny to say this—but she moves like the wind. There is a deliberate flow to her movements that is grounded in the first-person and through semi-realistic gravity that gives the platforming a sense of tangibility that is still, to this day, unrivalled.

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First-person platforming is more than just “game feel”, though. Engaging with platforming challenges in the first-person allows players to develop a relationship with in-game environments that 2D platformers cannot (and that is not a fault of the genre, they are just two different genres doing relatively different things with the concept of platforming). We can simply see the affordances of the urban design that allows for platforming, and it is interesting to see how different first-person platformers signfiy what can and cannot be “platformed” on (it is usually some sort of color-based hint). And the first-person perspective gives the platforming an intimate sense of scale, and speed/fluidity for that matter. Buildings look and feel like buildings. Their size humbles us and make us think “are we really about to jump off of that?!” and the first-person perspective grounds the player in the fact that, while they are playing within the trappings of a platformer, there is a larger sense of scale and life to the areas they run and jump across. The city in Mirror’s Edge is a vast urban technosprawl of high-rise, glass buildings and endless sheen that evokes a sense of unease. Such cleanliness has something to hide. From running across rooftops to sprinting through underground tunnels, Mirror’s Edge lets player see and feel the difference between the bowels of the city and the skyscapes that the game’s giant corporate buildings hold sway over. And the most recent entry in the microgenre, Ghostrunner (which my playing of prompted my desire to write this essay), uses the sense of place to its advantage. What is on the surface a very rote cyberpunk skin peels away to reveal an interesting conceit—the entire game revolves around your cyber ninja scaling and platforming and katana-slicing their way up one giant superstructure. What the game does with that idea remains interesting all the way through, as each level of the building might as well be its own unique little city. And yes, superstructures are nothing new in the realm of cyberpunk, but a first-person platformer set on one structure is, in itself, quite interesting. The first-person perspective binds us to these environments in ways that let us understand the layouts of each area, how and where we can platform, and what exactly will happen if we make one small (and often fatal) error.

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First-person platformers excel best in the feel department. There is a sense of momentum in first-person platformers that us unlike anything else in gaming, and it elicits a genuine feeling of an adrenaline rush. We white knuckle our controllers as we do our best to move gracefully and swiftly through each first-person encounter with the in-game field-of-view blurring as our characters take on more speed in increasingly harrowing sections of puzzle platforming. Mirror’s Edge does this brilliantly and Ghostrunner just takes it to a whole new level. That is probably due to the fact that it leaves the sense of mild-realism of Mirror’s Edge in the rear view. In Ghostrunner you play as an augmented cyber ninja who moves at immense speeds, has a cyber-grapel, and can slow down time in mid-air to correct/change direction while platforming. It is an incredibly challenging game where almost every platforming/combat error ends in death, but when death is evaded a sense of blistering fluidity begins to set in. Everything happens in the blink of an eye and yet we can anticipate what is to come, and it is in that pocket where platformers (especially challenging ones) thrive, and Ghostrunner exists only in that pocket. Mirror’s Edge elicits that adrenaline rush-like feeling on occasion, but where the former games traffics in high speeds and quick deaths, Mirror’s Edge lets the platforming and parkour coalesce over time. Players are given space to hone their skills, and those skills always remain grounded in some fascimile of reality. Through that, the adrenaline rushes and challenges in that game become all the more harrowing because we feel like we are controlling a genuine human body, and it is easy for us to imagine what happens when a human body connects with the pavement twenty stories below due to one platforming error. And while I am on the topic of feel in regards to first-person platformers, it would be a mistake not to mention Titanfall 2—a game that connects first-person shooting with the movement toolkit and level-design affordances of a platformer. Near-perfection is found in the marriage between the two. Titanfall 2’s campaign is a lean, assured exercise in how combat and platforming can exist alongside one another in the first-person platforming genre that both Mirror’s Edge and Ghostrunner never really nail. Just play Titanfall 2, okay? Good, thank you.

The microgenre of first-person platformers will forever compel me becasue it closes the distance in platformers and makes the relationship between bodies, movement, and environments deeply tangible. Yet, they aren’t all perfect. First-person platforming can be frivolous, a means to pad out a game or level’s length. Yes, I am looking at you Doom: Eternal. But when the genre is done right and feels right, then there is a sense of rush that comes to bear and it is a rush that is unparreled in this medium. And I will always be chasing it, or maybe I will just play Mirror’s Edge again.

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Cole is an Atlanta-based writer concerned with games, cinema, and media literacy. Support the Cole Writes Words Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/colewriteswords

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