I hesitate – now at the edge of uncertainty and self-preservation. For a second I'm confident that there is no way in heaven or hell that I will clear the gulf between the two ledges. I panic, break out in a leap before the runway at my feet expires. No going back now.
I sail silently between the two structures, deaf to the rushing wind that whistles around me. I could go on about the beauty of the view, the unbearable brightness of it all, the overwhelming sense of speed. I could let flow an unending gush of cliches about the lightness of the flight or pontificate about the perceived lack of gravity, but none of that applies at the moment. My blood freezes at the peak of my jump. My muscles tense, tightening themselves for the oncoming impact. The bottom drops out of my stomach as my heart pauses.
My arc winds down and, where there should be ground and gravel and halting, there is instead empty space and a sickening downward pull. I look up and I see that traitorous ledge move further and further away from me, mocking me with its stoic facade.
If only I hadn't panicked. If only I had taken that extra step. If only I could go back and change it all.
I'm no stranger to the agony of failure; the terrible knowledge that I have driven my player to ruin time and time again can be stifling, in fact. A miscalculation here, a failed jump there and I'm back to square one. The labor of progress is but a series of iterations - Pavlovian conditioning meant only to rid one of human weaknesses. This was a time when games were more than just entertainment, they were endurance challenges.
But as games grew up, their inner workings underwent the joys of puberty. Where once my choices were cemented into the ley lines of fate, I now could pick my mistakes up right before the point of error. I could revisit the fulcrum of disaster, even rewind time to ensure that an outcome favored my intentions.
At the heart of this radical change was the quicksave, a vehicle through which the alternate realities of consequence could be explored – the gamer's Cosmic Treadmill, if you will, powered not by kinetic force but by a Quantum Leapian will to set right what once went wrong. In many ways, the quicksave improved gaming for me, dulling the frustration that was previously endemic to the experience. The ability to create a pocket universe as a backup plan is an empowering option for any gamer, especially those with memories of the instant-death era. But there's a certain something lost with the ability to frazzle Clotho's linens. Forward progress.
There's an unavoidable herky-jerkyness to the stuff of time, a transitional space of awkwardness as you move from Now-Was to Then-Is that muddles the feel of it all. As fantastic it is to know the number of steps that Sentry 347 will take, or that my grenade won't clear the windowsill without a hop to give it some extra height, it's even more amazing to chance upon the wonderful combination of half-luck and weary skill that allows such miracles to happen on the first go.
Which is why I'm impressed by the ambiance of Mirror's Edge. There's hardly ever a moment when I feel a compelling reason to go back and try something again, just to make sure I get it right. Assuming I don't become a bullet sponge or street pizza, there's always a certain something pushing me to move ahead. The resultant sense of advancement is intoxicating, motivating me to continue the momentum I've built up, to vault, slide, and leap my way through the shimmering rooftops. The obstacles that exist are mere impediments to my motion, puzzles placed only to slow me down or stop my free-flow kinetic improvisation. No time to think or overanylize, only time enough to move. This is what the essence of gaming should feel like: a sincere, wholehearted attachment to the action (or actions) that one sets into play. It is a moment where the motivation at hand is intention only, whose aim is exploration and discovery, refined. It is the escape, distilled and realized.
Given the choice, I wouldn't hit the omniscient do-over button. I wouldn't try to get that perfect jump. Instead, I'd bear the consequences of my action because the failure leads to an eventual success. I don't need to be perfect. I need to let go and trust that there will be something there to land on.
It's the letting go part that's the hardest to deal with.
I run towards the edge, unaware of the landscape beyond its looming horizon. I almost stop. At the last moment my better sense fails me. An overwhelming thanatosian drive forces me to go on. This is it, I'm committed. No stopping now.
I clear the ledge by a hair. As the shock reverberates through my thighs, the world growing slightly darker around the corners, I realize that my moment of hesitation gave me the extra fraction of an inch I needed. At the edge, now, of certitude, I look back and consider what could have been. No need to linger. I turn and see a sprawling topology of vast possibilities, an infinity of failure and achievement.
I wonder which the next jump will bring.