Today marks the full North American release of Edge of Tomorrow, a film directed by Doug Liman. The film stars Tom Cruise as Major William Cage: An officer and public relations persona for the UDF, a fighting force trapped in a pitched battle with an alien race known as the Mimics. The Mimics themselves are relentless and cannot be negotiated with; all they do is kill humans and terraform the land they take as spoils.
Cage is forced to join the war's front line in Normandy, France, where he straps on a Jacket, a powered exoskeleton. With their Jackets on, Cage and his fellow soldiers recall Halo's Spartans without the elite status: Every soldier needs a Jacket because fighting a Mimic without one is certain death. It's on the front line that Cage dies for the first time.
Yes, the first time. Upon his death, Cage gets reset back to the beginning of the day, forced to relive that failed invasion again. His only real connection in each loop is military marvel Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt. Vrataski, known within the military as the "Full Metal Bitch," is the soldier with the highest number of confirmed Mimic kills. Unlike her fellow power-suited soldiers, she wields a large sword instead of firearms. Vrataski knows something about Cage's time loops, and together the pair have to escape the loop and survive the invasion.
The entire film is based on a Japanese light novel, All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Normally, that would be a stumbling block for English-speakers, but the novel itself has a domestic release, translated by the impeccable Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder. You may have heard of those names before, as both gentlemen have been involved with the localization of Tactics Ogre: Lets Us Cling Together, Final Fantasy Tactics A2, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, Final Fantasy XII, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The eBook and paperback, with covers by artist Yoshitoshi Abe, are available on Amazon right now. (You can also check out the first chapters of the manga over at Viz.)
In the novel, Cruise's William Cage instead is Keiji Kiriya, a soldier fresh out of boot camp in Japan's front line in the conflict against the Mimics. As in the film, he dies in his first sortie and wakes up again at the beginning of the day. Then he dies again. And again. Early on, Keiji attempts to run from the conflict, but the Mimics find and kill him. He attempts suicide, but he simply resets again afterwards. Resigned to his fate, Keiji decides to get better. Starting with loop five, he begins keeping track of how many loops he's been through, using the morning prior to the invasion to train himself. On his 158th loop, US Special Forces soldier Rita Vrataski takes an interest in Keiji and hints to him that she's been through the same thing.
The structure of Keiji's earlier loops mirrors the experience many players have with gaming's more punishing titles. Games like Dark Souls and Hotline Miami trade repeated deaths for a greater understanding of the game's rules and how to surpass or exploit them. They are games that reward perseverance; there's a certain euphoria in finally figuring out an encounter and progressing to the next section or level. Keiji's early deaths are exactly like Hotline Miami levels, quick and unforgiving. He eventually progresses to competence, learning to use his Jacket better and surviving each loop.
The next step is proficiency. Keiji begins to wonder how he can kill Mimics better and starts to alter his weaponry, taking up a Battle Axe like Vrataski. He tries to maximize the number of soldiers he can save. He starts to prioritize efficiency in each loop. To others on the battlefield, it begins to look like he's psychic.
In essence, he becomes a speedrunner.
Speedrunners are a special breed of gamer. They play certain titles over and over again until they can complete them even blindfolded. They learn the tricks and idiosyncrasies of each title: Which enemies to avoid, how to move just a second faster, how to maximize the score. Even within the speedrun community, there's those who decide to take the challenge to the next level. It's not just about finishing in the shortest amount of time, it's about doing so without using healing items or while doing a 100 percent complete run. Harder, faster, better.
There's excitement there, but there's also something coldly analytical about it: Running through a game so often that you're looking for what can be cut out of the experience to get you to the finish line faster. It's hard work to repeatedly play a game just to shave seconds off the current world record. Repetition breeds proficiency, which leads to success. For Keiji and the author of All You Need is Kill, that repetition is merely a fact of life.
"I like video games," Sakurazaka says in the novel's afterword. "I've watched them grow up along with me. But even after beating dozens of games on the hardest difficulty mode, I've never been moved to cheer until the walls shake. I've never laughed, cried, or jumped up to strike a victory pose. My excitement drifts like ice on a quiet pond, whirling around somewhere deep inside me. Maybe that's just the reaction I have watching myself from the outside. I look down from above and say 'After all the time I put into the game, of course I was going to beat it.' I see myself with a shit-eating grin plastered on my face—a veteran smile only someone who'd been there themselves could appreciate."
"The ending never changes," he continues. "The village elder can't come up with anything better than the same worn-out line he always uses. Well, the joke is on you, gramps. There's not a drop of hero's blood in my whole body, so spare me the praise. I'm here because I put in the time. I have blisters on my fingers to prove it. It had nothing to do with coincidence, luck, or the activation of my Wonder Twin powers. I reset the game hundreds of times until my special attack finally went off perfectly. Victory was inevitable. This is the sort of thing that went through my head while I was writing."
Keiji mirrors the same relentless drive and when he finally succeeds, the ending is bittersweet. He wins only one battle in an entire war. Like the gamers that gravitate towards difficult titles like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, Volgarr the Viking, or Risk of Rain, the war is never really over. Eventually, you move on to the next game. In contrast, Cage's ending in the film is a bit more joyous, in the Hollywood style. I don't fault them for not repeating the novel's ending; an adaptation can be compared to its source material, but there's room for it to stand on its own.
All You Need is Kill and Edge of Tomorrow bring video game rules to the concept of war, a place where failure can equal death. They represent the idea that death can be overcome with hard work. In real life, failures can't be redone. They happened; we need get over them and move on. That can be hard due to the nature of the failure or simple loss aversion. With games, we have chances to do it over again. We have a chance to improve with each play-through and each death if we just stick with it. And eventually, if we do presist, victory is our reward.
That’s a pretty good message overall. Who says video games can’t teach you anything?