[Originally published June 10, 2016]
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the problems of capitalism are at the heart of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst’s world. The game opens with the following quote, for godsakes:
“In the City of Glass the conglomerate rules supreme. All regular citizens have been made willing slaves. Lured into an endless race for status and wealth” (Opening Crawl, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst).
Ohhhhhh how scathing, Mirror’s Edge. Like a brand on flesh. Except your brand is cool, and fails to leave a mark. But why? It’s not because the visual world-building is bad. Different sections of the City of Glass sport unique living spaces and atmospheres, communicating the disparity that separates even the upper class. It’s also not that there aren’t interesting ideas in Catalyst. Unemployment – beyond a fortnight – is illegal. Woah. Now there’s a cool concept. What are the implications of a capitalist society in which work is mandated? Socialism sort of does a similar thing – everyone’s given some form of income – but there’s a difference here. In the capitalist City of Glass, the jobs contribute to the upper class – to the acquisition of surplus capital. The motivation fed to the populace differs wildly from that of a socialist system, as does the distribution of capital. So what happens to those people? According to Catalyst, it’s as simple as people becoming either ‘willing slaves’ or rebels. There’s so much more to it than that. Too bad we don’t get to see this in any capacity. Catalyst messed up. I want to talk about why.
1. The Critical Path
Hey. Do you know what’s important to your A-story? Pieces and events that deal with the themes of your world – especially if this is a series reboot, and especially if they’re explicitly referenced in the opening crawl. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Instead, what we’re given is a narrative in which almost nothing happens, and what little action there is has very little to do with the ideas of capitalism. I’ll boil it down for those of you who haven’t played the game – there is mind control juice that ‘The Conglomerate’ plans on giving to the public, Faith discovers this, and stops it. Sort of. That’s it. The biggest problem with mind control injections – outside of the fact that they are, most certainly, a dumb, high-concept sci-fi plot device – is that they fly in the face of the opening crawl. Remember ‘Willing Slaves?’ Because the writers sure didn’t. That’s part of what makes capitalism so interesting – those who partake in the problematic aspects of capitalist systems do so willingly, often without realizing what they’re doing or why. Take that away, and capitalism just becomes another ‘big bad,’ instead of a legitimate economic experiment with issues to examine and justify/critique. Sure, there’s some light dialogue addressing the ‘evils’ of capitalism, but – as I noted in my review – it merely provides basic insights into surface-level structural components of capitalism. ‘Profit is bad, community is pure.’ Okay, sure, but why? If you’re going to invoke a deeply complex topic like economic theory, your analysis has to match the subject’s depth. You don’t have to focus on the totality of capitalism – a Sisyphean task for any writer, to be sure – but at least pick apart one piece of the picture. What about the runners’ place in the system? How about the wealth disparity that they often invoke, but never expand upon? How about anything. Nope. It’s all surveillance states and mind control juice for you, Mirror’s Edge fans. A true shame.
2. Side Missions
The side missions offer marginal improvement when it comes to the overall economic narrative. One in particular comes to mind, wherein Faith comes to the assistance of a female friend. She’s been trapped in an emotionally and physically abusive arranged marriage. The interesting part? It was arranged by a board of directors. Alright. Now we’ve got something to sink our teeth into. The economic and social spheres come together, just as they do in real life. Capitalism is a product of history, and has certainly created its own gender disparities within said history, so there’s a chronicled precedent that this idea’s working with here. We see how a woman of status is still oppressed and pushed down by the systems in place. What a fantastic premise to work with – one that calls upon very real capitalist implications – but this sidequest isn’t without its problems.
One issue is that we don’t ever know why this NPC was married to some rich-boy fungus-pit grosso. We’re told ‘for status,’ but that’s not enough. This is a somewhat feudal element, and we deserve to know how an accentuated capitalist society might incorporate these feudal traditions. It’s an unfortunate missed opportunity for world building. Additionally, we never know what happens after Faith gets involved. She plants bugs to catch this man cheating on his wife, but… would that really solve anything? In a world as obsessed with power and wealth as that of Mirror’s Edge, it seems unlikely – yet we’re left with the assurance that we made a difference. The main narrative ends without real change, why should this side quest? It doesn’t make any sense, especially in the exaggerated world of Mirror’s Edge. Hell, even in our modern day world, crime footage isn’t enough to grab a conviction. Once again, we’re left with a missed opportunity for legitimate examination of the failings of a caricatured capitalist society. These are certainly social observations, but – if you’ve read economic theory – you know that the economy and the socialization of the human race are intrinsically tied to one another.
In a lot of ways, Catalyst’s setting is a lot like capitalism. It’s sexy – bad, but beautiful. Unfortunately, we only get to see the beautiful. I understand the problems of trying to incorporate economic critiques within a game narrative. It’s a dangerous move to make if you’re a developer that gets published by EA. It’s also a little hypocritical. That being said, Catalyst shied away from its most interesting element – its overtly capitalist setting – and its narrative suffered as a result.
 Also, side note: pretty sure that the people who would identify as ‘slaves’ in the modern world would take umbrage with this fairly liberal usage of the concept of slavery. Just saying.