Alternate Soundtrack

Running Scared: Mirror’s Edge & M83’s Before The Dawn Heals Us

A frantic rush forward to forget the past.

By Derrick Sanskrit • September 13, 2012

Video game music can be great, but sometimes it’s fun to pair your wine with some different cheese. In Alternate Soundtrack, Derrick Sanskrit matches a video game with an album that enhances the experience.

French electronic duo M83 made a few very risky decisions when they split ways in 2003. After marginal success in Europe from their first two albums, Nicolas Fromageau left to form Team Ghost—a shoegaze outfit heavily influenced by My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division— while Anthony Gonzalez kept the M83 name, wanting to make sweeping cinematic scores instead of the humanistic electronic garage rock they’d become known for.

The shift was immediate. As Anthony’s first solo effort, Before The Dawn Heals Us is a tremendously dense package of emotional concepts. From the foreboding crescendos of “In The Cold I’m Standing” and “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun” to the frantic adrenaline rushes of “Teen Angst” and “Fields, Shorelines and Hunters,” the glacial tranquility of “I Guess I’m Floating” and “Safe” to the carefree jubilation of “Moonchild” and “Can’t Stop.” Most powerful, perhaps, is the heart-pounding intensity of “*” and “Car Chase Terror!,” the latter acting as a sort of radio play that still causes many fans’ hair to stand on end seven years after its release.

EA’s DICE studio took similar risks with 2008’s Mirror’s Edge. Having some success with war shooters in their Battlefield series, the team reached outside their comfort zone to create the first-person free-running adventure. Its squeaky-clean neo-future metropolis was a distant cry from the muddy trenches of combat, and its hero—a realistically-proportioned woman of Asian descent—was as far from the increasingly faceless soldiers of war as one could get while still being human.

More than anything else, Mirror’s Edge is a game about running for your life. Unlike Halo, God of War, and so many other games that make the player feel powerful, Mirror’s Edge cast gamers in a role of vulnerability, where the only way to win was to run away from enemies rather than toward them. It wasn’t much of a commercial success, but it was a welcome content departure from DICE’s other, decidedly more masochistic titles.

The synth-operatics of Before The Dawn Heals Us mesh wonderfully with the glistening histrionics of Mirror’s Edge. Both have their quiet moments of reflection and doubt, but more often than not, both are thrilling chase sequences, the Italian Jobs of electronica and gaming, respectively. Both were extremely risky gambits from their respective creators when they first came along, but they both made all the sense in the world once they found an audience. A change of pace was exactly what M83 needed to go from niche hit to international smash. Changing things up might not have proven quite as successful for DICE, but every good idea deserves a decent chase.

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  • caspiancomic

    These two definitely work very beautifully together, and it was cool having Derrick’s new soundtrack choice playing with the game’s original sound effect still audible. Mirror’s Edge seems to be one of those really fascinating near-misses that gives you hope for the future of gaming. It seems like the kind of interesting failure that a lot of future designers are going to reference as an inspiration for their own work. I really love games and films that are a disaster except for one perfect thing that went magically, probably accidentally right. The ability to extract good ideas from otherwise imperfect works and try it again under different circumstances is a useful ability to have for a designer or director willing to take risks and figure things out.

    That said, I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to playing it myself. This is a game that’s crying out for a good Let’s Play.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Play Mirror’s Edge if you can. You owe it to yourself. It won’t be the best game you’ve ever played, but it will be one of the most unique. The visual style doesn’t really hit you until you see a vast cityscape of bright white buildings gleaming in the sunlight; screenshots don’t do it justice.

      If nothing else, the game serves as an object lesson that first-person platforming can work. After a frustrating first ten minutes or so, you’ll be surprised at fluidly you can move and use the player character’s various abilities in concert with each other.

      While I wouldn’t call it a failure by any stretch of the imagination, the game does have its faults. For starters, the story is just awful and is full of wasted potential. Secondly, many, if not most, players took issue with the gunplay, finding it out of place and unsatisfying. (I don’t think the gunplay was the problem, per se, and I’d point to the transition between free-running and gunplay as the actual issue. But I won’t elaborate any further because I don’t want to turn this into a debate about whether or not firearms are in line with game’s philosophy.)

      So yeah. Mirror’s Edge. Play it. It often goes on sale on Steam and other digital distribution platforms. If you keep an eye out for it, you might be able to pick it up for as little as five bucks.

      • Staggering Stew Bum

        First-person platforming may work for some but I personally need third-person view for proper spatial awareness — the likes of Uncharted would be impossible without it. Or maybe I just prefer Uncharted because I like my platforming to have a generous dollop of corny one-liners and lashings of genocide.

        • GaryX

          It must be tough to go through day to day life then.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          I agree, for the most part. The first-person platforming in Quantum Conundrum, for example, was immensely frustrating, and the platforming sections of Half-Life were a gigantic pain in the butt. However, Mirror’s Edge manages to get around that problem by showing you exactly where your limbs are. It gives you a better sense of spatial awareness. Gordon Freeman is a floating gun. Faith Connors is a human being.

        • Effigy_Power

          I do wonder how well Mirror’s Edge would work with proper 3D support. After all, spatial awareness and dizzying heights should be what 3D does best, right?

        • AmaltheaElanor

          I would second the recommendation to try Mirror’s Edge.  Though it isn’t a perfect game by any means, once you get a good handle on the game mechanics, when it is fun, it is *fun*.

          In comparison to Uncharted (and don’t get me wrong, I love me some Uncharted) I prefer the platforming elements because of the variety.  I grew frustrated with how many times I died jumping off a ledge in the Uncharted series because that rock on the wall *looked* like it should be the correct path, but it really wasn’t.  I thought the visual cues in that series oftentimes left much to be desired.  Whereas the appeal in Mirror’s Edge is that frequently there are multiple paths through a level, so you’re much less restricted than you are in linear platforming.  (Also, I played Uncharted for the first time right after ME, and found its plaforming elements considerably more generic by comparison.)

      • PaganPoet

        Beautifully said.

        I always tell people that while Mirror’s Edge isn’t necessarily one of my favorite games of this generation, it’s definitely one of the most striking, daring, and memorable games of this generation.

        And not that it’s BAD, either. It’s a great game that just has big flaws. I’m really looking forward to its (potential) sequel.

      • Enkidum

        I have it sitting on my shelf, should try it.

        This might be a disaster, but what about a 3rd person platformer with a kinect interface? That’s basically what Kinect Adventures is, but if you attached it to a slightly more interesting story with more meaningful goals, you might actually have a really playable game. Of course that would depend on people actually being willing to play a Kinect game, but in principle it would be kinda fun.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

        I think Mirror’s Edge got really misaligned as “ambitious but a failure” when it really is “amazing but flawed”. There are some minor issues – grabbing pipes seemed kinda hit or miss, and as Merve implied, the gunplay wasn’t the issue, it was the lack of ways to avoid it (the various methods they gave you to disarm badguys were, let’s face it, terrible).

        (There’s one area in the mall I believe where you’re assaulted on both sides by badguys, but you can actually rush through it and swing on these overhead pipes to hustle by them all. It needed more moments like THAT.)

        Also people were put off by dying a lot. Have no one played NES games before? I assumed that was part of the gameplay.

        If I had to list some ways for the (maybe?) sequel to work, I would suggest:

        - more ambitious and variable level design
        - better disarming techniques
        - a stealth mechanic
        - tighter “grabbing” detection

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Video game critics far more astute that me having said that Mirror’s Edge is all about “flow,” and as you’ve pointed out, the disarms and mêlée combat were a huge issue, more so than the gunplay itself. The fact that you activate slow motion to make disarms less than nearly impossible really killed the flow of the game. It served to divide the game into “running sections” and “shooting sections” when it really should have felt seamless.

        • http://twitter.com/knarfblack Knarf Black

          An open world Mirror’s Edge with *slightly* more forgiving gameplay would be amazing.

        • The_Misanthrope

           Is there even talk of a sequel?  I figured that DICE (or EA, for that matter) had far more lucrative properties to milk.   I wouldn’t mind if they did, not because I’m particularly attached to this property, but rather because I hate to see game devs punished (with poor sales anyway) for taking a risk.  Is that the way of most mass media, though?  Many of the bland rehashes/clones do exceeding well while the risk-takers only occasionally  succeed (and when they do, it’s usually modest numbers compared to the safer work).

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

          @Merve2:disqus
           So true. Although ruining the “flow” of ME wasn’t such a big deal – I tend to like it when you’re forced to change tactics – it’s just the changed tactics were in no way feasible or intuititve.
           
          @twitter-20596347:disqus Oh, my, YES.

          @The_Misanthrope:disqus From what I’ve read, there is talk of a sequel, but much fear they’ll turn it into a generic shooter (like what they did with Fuse/Overstrike). That’s one of my other issues with everyone calling it an ambitious failure – it implies more disappointment and lack of interest in a sequel. We need more people praising it’s positive aspects then bitching about the negatives.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @The_Misanthrope:disqus: For a new IP that essentially introduced a whole new game genre, Mirror’s Edge sold quite well. It was most likely a modest financial success. The only problem is that DICE has a much more lucrative property in Battlefield.

          Last I heard, EA maintained that Mirror’s Edge 2 was still in development and that it would be running on the latest version of the Frostbite engine. There hasn’t been any word on a release schedule, though, nor have there been any official promos.

      • boardgameguy

        being terrible at FPS, this is the game that got me playing anything but side-scrolling puzzle platformers because i didn’t have to shoot anyone.  i love it for that alone.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           Yeah, one of the major criticisms seems to be the gunplay/transitions into gunplay, but I just never shot a gun throughout the game. Maybe that option becomes more difficult near the end (I got it from the library, so I could only have it for a week and didn’t quite finish the game) but for me it wasn’t much of a problem to just always toss guns away.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          The thing about shooting in Mirror’s Edge is that it’s very quick: get gun, fire, drop gun, RUN FOR YOUR FUCKING LIFE. There are no cover-based wars of attrition, thankfully.*

          (*I’m not against cover-based shooting, but I don’t think it would have worked in Mirror’s Edge.)

  • James Bolivar

    I love both of these things, but never considered the combo because the music in Mirror’s Edge isn’t bad on it’s own. Also never finished Mirror’s Edge, and I’ve been looking for a reason to revisit and complete it.

    So this? It’s like you just told me that peanut butter and chocolate go well together. Thank you. Thank you so much.

    • blue vodka lemonade

      I love both of these things but knew immediately I wouldn’t love them together. Something about the combined aesthetic feels off to me, and it’s at least in part due to the reasons I like each work in the first place.

      Mirror’s Edge is, to me, one of the most “physical” games there is. You are aware of Faith’s body and movements and position in space, and the first-person perspective reinforces that awareness. There is great urgency. The world is bright and antiseptic, but finely-textured in a way that fascinated me as I played. Silver metal pipes looked damps with condensation, white walls had the slight imperfections of roller-applied paint.

      Before The Dawn Heals Us, though, that’s a glittering science fiction romance dream cloudthing, a thousand translucent layers of chewy synthy fantasy. It sounds like floating.

      To tell the truth, I don’t particularly remember the original soundtrack to the game. I’m not sure whether that is a good or a bad sign. But listening to a dream and watching a runner doesn’t come together for me, and I think I’ll sit out this round.

      • GaryX

        I think in theory these two could go really well together, but they have to be dynamically interacting rather than just, I dunno, one placed on top of the other.

      • boardgameguy

        i like the fit because both the game and the music make me think of the sensation of feeling breathless and exhilarated

  • Staggering Stew Bum

    Those guys with the shotguns at 0:45 onwards were having a really bad day. And what are the odds of identical quadruplets all working for the same security company?

  • http://twitter.com/bogansauce drew

    I flipping love this album. Heard tepid things about Mirror’s Edge but this looks like a fun experiment.

    • Asinus

      I think that what makes Mirror’s Edge not work are the moments that it works SO well. You get into a flow (in the Csikszentmihalyi sense) and then something or other breaks it. It’s almost like the highs make the frustrations that much more frustrating. It really is totally different from any other FPS I’ve ever played. When you get going, see a path, slide, jump, and swing– there’s not really anything else like it. 

  • dmikester

    Yeah, cool pairing here.  Mirror’s Edge is one of those games that somehow got away from me even though the idea of first-person platforming is very appealing.  I actually did play a version of Mirror’s Edge that came out for the iPhone, but weirdly it was just a traditional side-scroller (I guess the first-person part got lost in translation), and even though the art style was nice, there was nothing exciting or original about it.  I’ll give it a try one of these days.

    • blue vodka lemonade

       The iPhone/iPad Mirror’s Edge is basically a slightly more-involved Canabalt. It’s fun, but really has little to do with the game proper.

      It does have a nice art style, I think.

  • The_Misanthrope

    Pink Floyd’s Animals plays really well with Dark Souls.   

    • http://twitter.com/knarfblack Knarf Black

      I accidentally discovered that sections of Demon’s Souls work really well with Scott Walker’s portion of Nite Flights.

    • Staggering Stew Bum

      Dark Souls is much more engaging with Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves played on repeat.

  • Grimbus

    Masochistic?

    Do you mean Macho?

    I’m intrigued but what you might be suggesting, if you meant masochistic. But in the context you used it, it would seem you meant macho.

    #corrections

    (i realize this isn’t gizmodo)

  • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

    It’s also worth noting that the music video for the M83 single from this album, “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” would make an *excellent* video game.

    Bicycles and ghosts man.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aJypxFrVkU 

  • wassha123
  • osirus824

    Portions of Mirror’s Edge feature some of the most infuriatingly poor game design I’ve ever encountered. Yet it is seared in my gamer consciousness; it’s one of those games I carry through every other game I play. It is unabashedly unique – from its art design, to its protagonist, to its core mechanics – and it packs an incredible visceral thrill that I have yet to see replicated.

  • Asinus

    What makes me sad about this, besides how hard it is to get that album, is that I’ve been almost wholly unable to appreciate Mirror’s Edge. I agree that it’s frustrating, but (according to steam) I racked up 30 minutes of “play” just trying to get the keybinds to work. This doesn’t even count the time spent editing the .cfg files. It’s really dumb, but I use . and , to strafe and all the symbol keys like that are unbindable in the PC version of the game. I CANNOT play FPS games on a console for shit, so I was pretty jazzed when saw this on sale on steam. I’ve set it up to work with my N52, but that just isn’t right. I was able to use the D-pad on my n52 for strafing, but it just doesn’t feel right. 

    It seems great and this music is perfect for what I’ve seen of it. 

    I need to find a place to buy this damn album for under fifty bucks.

    • http://twitter.com/djbeema Reuben

      I feel your pain. I can’t remember, but I think I may have just caved in and used an Xbox controller on the PC version. Ports that don’t do a proper job coming up with a good KBM keymap are one of my biggest gripes.

  • obiwanchernobi

    Seriously, someone else needs to play Fallout 3 along with The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World.

    The wasteland has never been so heart breakingly beautiful.

    • stryker1121

      Wow, thanks for the heads up on that one. I’m listening to the entire album on YouTube right now. Were any of the tracks used in BioShock? So eerie, I can imagine scuttling thru the emptiness of Rapture to this music. 

  • http://twitter.com/djbeema Reuben

    I’m not sure if it’s ironic or just terrible that before watching this there was a loud Borderlands 2 commercial shoving hoovers in my ears. (music that doesn’t go with anything ever)

  • coramo92

    I want “Still Alive” by Lisa Miskovsky to be played at my funeral.