In my longer review of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst I talked about how it was an ultimately anemic attempt at an activist piece of science-fiction; it failed to consider its liberal message on a level beyond what seemed to me to be the superficial. This was primarily a result of its creation of a bland dichotomy between terrorists on one end (who believed and exposited at great length that tacit acceptance of inequality made people a fair target for being killed in the name of the cause) and a peaceful progressive movement that seemed mostly to exist to make the protagonist appear to have agency. There was never a proper sense of struggle; the status quo seemed to be set up purely to hinge on the protagonist – and thus the player’s – actions.
Note: This article discusses in close detail the story of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
In many ways this cheapened any point the story was trying to make about the effectiveness of violent protest. A pair of high-profile bombings which are shown to be counterproductive to the progression of the cause, a planned execution of a hostage on camera and an act of property destruction carried out by the protagonist as effectively an act of mafia intimidation are negatively-coded depictions of violent protest; the whole visual language of the extremists, in a game that extensively uses colour theory and visual cues to communicate concepts, is painting them as bad but failing to provide a credible or interesting counterargument. Thus the player plays a story positing that state and corporate overreach are bad, and that terrorism is bad, but that – until the end credits – there is no good alternative. The focus of almost all the activism done in the name of the story is property sabotage to prevent further expansion of – not reduction of – the state’s control or personally motivated downplays any underlying liberal message. The idea of resistance is good, but there is very little useful or productive resistance on display and thus no sense that the supposedly established and notorious counterculture actually does anything.
If anything this is a very routine unwillingness to commit in mass-consumed media focusing on resistance to oppressive states. Exploring the effectiveness in real life of different types of protest and the media coverage of those protests is well beyond the scope of this article and very much a topic that I do not feel adequately qualified to discuss. But discussing the way fiction reflects the world – and especially speculative fiction trying very clearly and vocally to pass comment on the state of the mass media – is something I do feel more qualified to do. A computer game with a hero and a villain and a linear story has to simplify its conflict. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst cannot, without extensive uninteractive cutscenes, explore in depth the morality of armed resistance to oppression. But it is a game that, as I mentioned above, uses a strong command of visual language in all aspects of its design. And thus when it combines negative visual language with a very simplistic attitude to violent protest (it is bombings and public executions and loud statements that disinterest or distance is no excuse or guarantee of safety) it is not unreasonable to expect a credibly-depicted alternative. The story wants to tell us resistance is good, and empower the protagonist as someone resisting.
But the confused depictions of resistance – killing arbitrarily or doing various minor things for largely personal reasons – make the whole message weak. This is doubled down upon by the language used by the violent extremists being extremely typical of the frequently aggressively bad straw-man terrorists of modern thrillers. Arguing that not actively resisting is tantamount to complicity and thus there are no innocents in society is the rhetoric usually reserved in such fiction to megalomaniacs, supervillains and so on. It is, I would argue, demonising activism by suggesting its purpose is to kill until orthodoxy is reached and that anyone who does not neatly write to their MP is only ownership of a bomb away from trying to kill children for the sins of their fathers. If one reduces violent and sustained protest down to mad bombers and televised executions, things with very clear social resonances in modern current affairs will be evoked and those associations will be suggested.
I think it is important to stress here that exploring divisions within resistance movements should not be outside the purview of genre fiction. I did not feel Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was lessened by its light touching on this idea. To remain within the sphere of computer games The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel plays with the idea in a fashion that I feel is ambitious but politically muddled in part owing to its period and social setting. My complaint, to be precise, is that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst falls back on very lazy characterisation and (maybe unintentionally) reductive rhetoric and visual coding in order to do this, and puts it front and centre in the story with the things done by these various caricatures shaping the plot.
Yet from this muddled and I would say clumsily scripted story, the game manages to make an interesting ending. I do not feel it is necessarily a good ending, because it hinges on the protagonist’s not particularly interesting backstory, but it is an much more interesting cyberpunk ending than one would expect. Throughout the game the heroes are trying to stop a plan by the mega-corporation that owns the city to distribute mind-controlling nanomachines among the population. It is a fairly nebulously defined McGuffin device, of course, but the way in which it reaches its denouement is a very nihilistic cyberpunk twist. The protagonist, Faith, climbs a collapsing tower to the villainous CEO’s rooftop lair, sabotages his mind control machine, and is simply told she has lost anyway. The whole final confrontation, with a pathetic fight against two security guards for a final boss, can be summed up as “I won, because I am still rich, and you should get a job.” The bums and hippies lost.
The end sequence goes on to say that the master plan was stopped but the corporation bounced back, there was no mass uprising or regime change. The rich stayed rich, the villain carried on being a villain and all that changed was the counterculture movements became a little more determined. This if anything is the status quo that should have been communicated throughout the game; the idea of a constant and visible conflict, where efforts were being made to discredit and resist and oppose the oppression from all sides by the co-ordinated movement that your protagonist slots into. The CEO of the cyberpunk mega-corporation is of course untouchable. This is the genre standard. Indeed, the fact the game’s ending reminds you of this is a far more cyberpunk resolution than the expected Hollywood ending. The fact the family drama ends with the estranged sister choosing to remain estranged and privileged and contemptuous of activists is similarly genre-savvy.
I would much rather have had a story which started with the sense of not exactly hope but at least continued conflict the game ends with and used that as a framework for the story presented. It would have made the schisms within the rebellion feel better contextualised, it would have provided a much stronger sense of the need for something beyond passive protest and it would have at least made the introduction of the extremists not feel so arbitrary. Trying to write a story encompassing both the wider questions of what is “appropriate” or effective protest (which is a hugely emotive and loaded question that does not easily or usefully reduce down to “blowing up buildings is bad” or indeed to coding of non-passive protest as people wearing black living in damp holes and secret bunkers as they plot uprisings and bombings) but also telling a personal story, in a game that is open-world and thus has its own innate mechanical issues with pacing is a significant challenge.
Yet overall the ending – which is not so much a sequel hook as your actions caused people to become a bit more political even if they did not significantly challenge the established hierachy – works in its perverse, anticlimactic way. Cyberpunk should, I feel, avoid traditional happy endings. I was reminded, in fact, of the significantly better “mass control of something important to society via a massive collapsing building” cyberpunk story – the first Patlabor film, which ends with the heroes having done their jobs and after a whole soundtrack of moody, synthy music the strident, cop-show-opening tones of Kawai Kenji’s In the Morning Sunlight kick in to show that the world has not greatly changed, it has just been saved.