Deus Ex: Human Revolution design analysis

The recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution defied a lot of expectations by being, at the end of the day, a worthy successor to the original Deus Ex from over a decade ago, although it deviated significantly from the ideals held in the original Deus Ex in some fairly remarkable respects.  I initially reviewed the game following its release, and at the time, gave what I still feel are some solid thoughts on the game's strengths and weaknesses.

Since then, however, I've spent more time with the game, am finishing up my third play-through, and my opinions on the game have shifted towards the more analytic.  Of course, a game review is also perhaps not the best place for a critical deconstruction and breakdown of the game in meticulous detail.  In light of this, I've decided to collect some more well-considered thoughts in the article below, as well as suggestions for how Eidos Montreal can more effectively capitalize on the ideals of Deus Ex in the future, without giving up their core vision for the new franchise.

Advance warning: I have not left anything unsaid, or design aspect un-critiqued.  In short, this article is long.  Also: minor spoilers within.

Player choice & recognition

One of the ideas most crucial to the original Deus Ex was that it allowed players to approach a wide variety of scenarios and complete them using the toolset given to them by their skills, augmentations and abilities - sometimes in ways that the game's developers never anticipated (including occasional exploits of the game's scripting and AI).  While part of this game out of the fact that the game was, understandably, less technically sound and open to certain forms of abuse by dedicated players, in almost every situation, Ion Storm went to great lengths in order to ensure players always had reasonable, logical options available regardless of gameplay style.

For the most part, this philosophy has been retained in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  Objectives during missions often feature multiple stages and allow for many options and outcomes.  The fortitude of the game in this respect is extremely impressive.  Early in the game, for example, the player must negotiate with a terrorist leader who has taken a hostage.  While the game's options explicitly present the options of negotiating the release of the hostage, allowing the terrorist leader to leave with the hostage, and simply entering into combat for a lethal or non-lethal takedown (which normally results in the hostage's death), there is some additional nuance in the decision that the game actively recognizes.  During my third play-through, rather than negotiate or allow the terrorist to escape, I tried something else: I fired a tranquilizer dart at him immediately upon drawing my weapon.  Rather than watch the hostage die as the temporarily-invulnerable terrorist executed her, as I'd expect in so many other games, instead he simply fell over unconscious.  Not only did the hostage live, but so did the terrorist; later, I encountered him held in prison, and even later in the game, he ambushed me after escaping the prison.

This sort of detail is a subtle one, but it adds an incredible amount of meaning to the player's experience.  The outcome I received was not one that the game telegraphed, and it was not one I expected to be possible - and yet it was, due to my quick reflexes.  In a sense, I felt as if I "broke" that scene, and Human Revolution simply shrugged and said "yeah, you can do that".  In many ways, this situation parallels the famous moment in the original Deus Ex, where the third unstated option of killing an ally in what is presented as a binary choice leads not only to the player's surprise at the success of the act, but the characters in the game itself seem to be equally surprised, even as they desperately come up with ways to cover up the player's actions.

It's a powerful sort of choice and consequence, the type that isn't explicitly exposed to the player, but can be inferred with some simple reasoning.  In every other game, these choices would have been presented as a binary A or B, locked into a dialogue sequence or forced combat encounter, with a single button press in a menu screen determining the outcome.  In Deus Ex, the nature of the gameplay itself allows for the player to make a choice, and the game is equally cognizant of that potential outcome.  To be fair, in both games, there are plenty of situations where this outcome isn't possible, mostly because it'd simply break the plot progression in severe ways; it's hard to come up with a solution for this save for building dozens of different consequences for actions, but even so, a handful of situations like this, especially early in the game, are more than enough to reinforce the game's reactivity to player decisions.  This is something that no other game I've seen has done before, and it's fantastic to see the trend continue in Human Revolution.

However, there are many points in Human Revolution where this illusion breaks down far more than it should.  While the early game is very good about rewarding the player's decisions, and commenting on actions (as much as an homage to the original game as for any other reason), the middle and late game leave a lot more to be desired in this respect.  At one point in the game, it's possible to outright slaughter the entire present police force of Detroit - and nobody, save for the officers in the building, blinks an eyelash.  Not even your boss comments on your lack of subtlety in breaking in and leaving a trail of corpses behind.  Two other times in the game, Jensen comes face to face with plot-critical characters, ones who he may very well have fought his way to... and those plot-critical characters are utterly invincible - you can shoot them as many times as you like, they won't even flinch.  Heck, I butchered one of these NPC's nightclubs, complete with staff, patrons, security forces, and trusted business associates, and a minute later, speaking to him, I entered into a nice, friendly conversation with him, even as a corpse was draped over his bar counter.

These kinds of situations are sometimes hard to design around, but they are avoidable with a variety of techniques, even if it's just to make that plot NPC so powerful that the player will never win in a fight against him or her.  There are many more smaller issues like this throughout the game, little decisions that one can make but aren't recognized, or "fixed" with the brute force of an invisible wall, and it's not fun when that happens in what is otherwise such an open game.

Level design: freedom vs. funneling

Another place where Human Revolution takes after the original game is in its level design philosophy of providing multiple routes to facilitate different styles of play.  However, Human Revolution's design approach differs significantly from the original Deus Ex's in a number of ways... and I'm not convinced it was the right choice.

In Deus Ex, levels weren't so much corridors to crawl through as they were large open hubs or spaces to navigate, featuring multiple zones, levels of elevation, indoor and outdoor areas, multiple floors within buildings, alternate routes from all angles, etc.  To visualize a Deus Ex level, one has to think of it more as a maze with a central objective point in the middle and dozens of potential routes in reaching it, open-ended rather than predetermined and fixed.  Consider one example from early in the game, the NSF warehouse break-in:

1) Arrive on a rooftop elevator and hop along rooftops and fire escapes to reach the warehouse, then infiltrate from the top-down.

1b) Same as above, but climb down the fire escapes and ladders near the warehouse to find an alternate point of entry via a window on the side of the building, leading straight to one of the objectives.

1c) Same as above, but instead sneak through the apartment buildings along the way, which themselves provide ways to both the roofs and city streets.

2) Climb over alley fences on the city streets, bypass explosive charges set and guard dogs, and eventually make it to the front door for a first-floor infiltration.

2b) Same as above, but sneak around to the back door and go in that way.

2c) Same as above, but get through a hatch to the basement and navigate through a complex maze of tripwires and sentry turrets to reach the main warehouse floor.

2d) Same as above, but find a sewer entrance and swim to the warehouse (dependent on Aqualung augment or a rebreather item).

Of course, there are probably far more options that I've missed out on, and exponentially more depending on how the player might combine these approaches and explore further.  While all of these options include two basic points of entry, they can deviate in radical ways very quickly.  I still find new things when playing this part of the game ten years after I originally did, and that's true for just about every other environment in the game.

One might say "well, Human Revolution also offers lots of opportunities in a similar vein", but I find myself strongly disagreeing.  If you examine the options above, you'll likely notice that few of the choices provide clear advantages or disadvantages for certain characters - while you might choose to take the rooftops or the streets, there's nothing about these routes that favors a stealthy character over an action-oriented character, or a hacker over a bruiser.  While some might suit your specific play-style, there's nothing about them that says "this is the route you want to take if you are sneaking" or "this is where snipers want to go".  The level design provides choices, but they aren't choices between absolutes - only degrees of freedom in what is effectively a sandbox for the player to operate inside.

Contrast this with the level design in Human Revolution.  In most cases, the player is given two or three obvious paths, which ultimately all converge at checkpoints - there might be a ladder on one side, a vent on the other side, and a front door.  All of these present choices, but given the way they're arranged, they almost always appeal to a very specific type of Jensen - the vent is for the stealthy Jensen, the upper level is for the sniper Jensen, and the front door is for the bruiser Jensen.  When combined with the generally linear design of most levels, with the player moving directly from point A to B, this means that the game takes on a very constructed feel, and rarely provides the space for improvisation or freeform play that Deus Ex did.  Rather than large game spaces with multiple dimensions to them, instead Human Revolution offers straightforward game environments which let you take the right door or the left door.  The closest analogue to this I've seen is Splinter Cell: Conviction, and while there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the design, it lacks a lot of the replayability and sense of discovery that Deus Ex had... if all paths go the same place and converge with one another after ten seconds, there's little exploration or creativity to be had in going through the game.  At its worst, it completely undermines the decisions the player makes, because no matter how one plays, the destination is very often the same... and if it's not, it can usually be reached with a five-second walk down the hall.  Consequence indeed.

Another major downside of this more structured, more pre-designed approach, is that it takes away from the specialness and uniqueness of discovery and different play-styles.  In Human Revolution, it is exceedingly rare to come across a situation where your version of Jensen can't reach an object, or can't break down a wall to swipe a hidden cache, or can't get through a locked door.  While some designers might say that it's a good thing to allow all characters to reach all parts of the game, just in different ways, I have to strongly disagree with that proposition.  Part of what makes playing an open-ended game like Deus Ex so much fun is the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from knowing that your skill set, augmentation choices and play style were what enabled you to find something... if you're instantly able to look at the same scenario and realize "oh, I could have just thrown a grenade and the outcome would have been the same", it diminishes the accomplishment - it makes it feel a lot less special.

The tyranny of XP

One of the most controversial design choices in Human Revolution was to change the way character upgrades were handed out: rather than found in canisters within the game world, all augmentations are built into Adam Jensen, and instead you merely switch them on when his body has become strong and fit enough to handle them (expressed as XP).  To understand the true impact of the impact of XP, though, I first have to go into a discussion about augmentations.

Augmentations in the original Deus Ex were special.  Found in containers within the game world, they would need to be held onto and installed at any convenient (or inconvenient) medical bot.  While I don't really care much as to whether augmentations are physical items or magical points that unlock new abilities, it's that sense of exploration that really made finding augmentations fun and rewarding.  Exploring in Deus Ex was a risk, especially on harder difficulties - enemies were deadly, and while late in the game the player was more or less a walking tank, clearing out a level entirely to search every nook and cranny was no small task.

The risk-reward dichotomy was very obvious, and made all the more so compelling by the fact that those rewards were, for a change, actually very significant, resulting in potentially game-changing abilities.  Get the Silent Running augmentation, and all of a sudden your stealthy character can get to and from cover at speeds previously impossible.  Aggressive Defense Drone allowed for a completely reckless style of play against strong enemies.  Aqualung enabled even more exploration, often opening up brand new sections of levels that would be completely impossible for other players to find.  When you found a new augmentation in Deus Ex, it was a big thing, and it was made all the more enjoyable because as a player, you made a conscious choice to take a risk - and when it paid off, it paid off big, and in appreciable ways.

Another advantage of this exploration-driven model is that augmentations could be placed by hand by designers rather than selected by the player on a whim.  While this might sound like limiting player freedom, in reality it just meant that designers could have an understanding of what abilities the player might have at a given point in the game, and design levels around that - while at the same time being able to anticipate precisely the kinds of augmentations players would feel compelled to look for.  Additionally, by including augmentations as items within the game world, they could easily be given to the player during story moments, without being forced upgrades - put it on the table in clear view if you want, but the player can still choose to pick it up or not.

Human Revolution completely lacks much of the subtlety of the original Deus Ex, and it's entirely due to tying things to the XP system.  For one, the risk/reward of exploration has been completely stripped away.  While exploration in Human Revolution is still fun, it's rare to come away from a hidden cache of items with anything special - maybe a weapon mod or an early rocket launcher, but considering how easy it is to acquire many types of weapons throughout the game, and that upgrades can be purchased from merchants early on, it's questionable whether or not these feel like significant rewards in the first place.  The fact that so often your reward for your persistence is more XP and more money, suggests that the designers simply decided to give up - "why should we bother to create compelling, hand-crafted exploration for players when we can just stuff them full of generic rewards and call it a day?"  It feels like the kind of one-size-fits-all reward you'd get in an MMO, not an intently-designed, tailor-built single-player experience.

Another problem stemming from its design choices comes in the fact that the XP system encourages certain types of play over others.  While everyone likes to see the numbers go up when they're playing an RPG, I think that Eidos Montreal may have took that a little bit too much to heart, as XP bonuses are gained for doing just about anything, no matter how trivial - poked your head in someone's closest?  XP bonus!  Climbed into a vent?  XP bonus!  Furthermore, they made the decision to equate certain play-styles with certain levels of challenge, and thus made the call to reward them differently.  What this ultimately means is that certain types of players in Human Revolution end up with a massive amount of XP over others - often as much as five times more, simply because they wanted to play as one type of character.

In reality, this assumption about challenge and reward isn't true - different players will play the game in different ways, yes, absolutely, but because different players have different skill sets, there is no real reason to reward one style of play much more than another.  I fancy myself a stealthy, sneaky sort most of the time, the kind that tries to get through the game without a single casualty, and avoiding direct confrontations where I can - and I realize I'm better at it than others, and that my skills as a player might be more suited to it.  Why should I be earning more XP than another player who decides to play the game as a straight shooter, even though her level of challenge might be identical to mine?  Eidos Montreal presumed a great deal about the difficulty of their game and various play-styles, and then made some decisions in response to that presumption, without realizing the impact it would have on the game.

Moreover, the XP system leads to an unhappy snowball effect for certain types of players.  While it's a good idea to reward those who explore, Human Revolution does so so often, and so disproportionately, that those who invest in certain skills early on will find themselves literally drowning in upgrade points by the game's end.  I do not exaggerate when I say that my stealthy character was missing all of about 6 potential upgrades by game's end, whereas my action-hero lunkhead version of Jensen was missing much closer to 30.  Even though action-hero Jensen could complete the game just fine owing to his huge arsenal, there were some very real limitations left over in his character build, gaps in his play-style that couldn't be filled and had to be worked around.  Stealthy Jensen had no such problem - not only could he sneak, but he was actually just as versatile and powerful as action-hero Jensen because his incredible excess of XP had allowed him to purchase just about every upgrade.  In the end, there was really no distinction between the two characters, save for the way I decided to envision their personalities - LARPing, as I tend to call it.  The simple fact is that this is a massive imbalance in the game's augmentation and XP system, and it is almost the direct result of trying to reward players who played the game "the hard way".  Instead, it created a strong divide: players who played the game "the right way" and those who played "the wrong way".

Skills and augmentations

This point gets into slightly more esoteric maters, but I think they're still very important to the design side of the game.  In Deus Ex, there was a very defined line between skills and augmentations - while augs were additions to JC's physical body that would provide him with super-human abilities, skills were simply JC's ability to perform certain tasks based on his own mental and physical aptitude.  JC might be able to use his augmentations to modify the molecular make-up of his feet and walk silently, but if he has no idea how to use a stun prod, then he's going to have a heck of a time trying to knock someone out with one.  Skills, especially with regards to weapons, were a little bit crude in the original game as far as implementation went, but the division between the two was there, and it made perfect sense within the game world.

This verisimilitude aspect of augmentations versus skills is extremely important to Deus Ex.  The entire threat that augmentations pose to the world isn't that people can be better than they are on a broad, general level - it's that it literally creates a type of person who has abilities that others do not, and can never have.  "Being able to fire a gun really well" isn't an augmentation - it's a skill that takes years and years of study and practice to hone, and not everyone can do it well.  Although humans, theoretically, might be able to become masters of all activities they might attempt, effectively "maxing out their skills", the threat augmentations pose is that, no matter how good you get at doing something, someone with augmentations will always be able to do better, or even make what you're skilled at irrelevant.

The gameplay justification for skills versus augmentations is equally interesting.  Augmentations in Deus Ex are designed in such a way that they're actually not geared towards particular preset play-styles - sure, you can pick up Run Silent and Spy Drone, and those might augment a stealthy player's play-style well, but they were just as viable for action-oriented players who simply wanted a tactical edge.  Because of this, skills were presented as a way to really define and bring out the nuance in your version of JC Denton - by making a master hacker rather than a master sharpshooter, that version of JC had a clear difference in ability that could not be made up for by augmentation, and it more firmly cemented the player's potential within the game world, as opposed to relying on imagined barriers (see LARPing above).

In other words, not only does Deus Ex feature a strong divide between what skills and augmentations are, it's skills which, in a sense, give meaning to the player's journey through the game and what enable augmentations to be used in certain capacities.  Think of it a bit like the more traditional skills versus equipment difference that other RPGs have - you might have some great armor, a health potion, and a Storm Scepter of the Heavens +16, but if you don't know how to use the scepter's magic powers owing to your low intelligence, you're going to have to settle for using it as a club instead.  It's those skills that inform and structure our understanding of the game world.

Human Revolution steps away from this model and envisions augmentations and skills as the same thing.  Eidos Montreal have attempted to compromise on the matter by effectively turning certain skills into augmentations - now, augmentations have taken on the ability to steady the player's aim, or hack into computers, or sprint for longer periods of time.  The clear division between those super-human abilities and the ability to use distinctly human skills is no longer present - and I feel that the impact of those augmentations has been undermined.  Augmentation and the incredible advantages it gives to people is a strong theme throughout Human Revolution, yet it's rare for Adam Jensen to ever really exhibit that ability - sure, he can cloak, and fall from great heights, but very few augmentations feel like they truly expand the fundamental capabilities of him as an individual.  For all the discussion of posthumanism, there's very little post- to be found in Adam Jensen.

What this means for gameplay is that, in order to reconcile certain design choices with regards to combat, hacking, stealth and so on, the number of actual augmentations available to Jensen is severely limited in comparison.  There are really only four, five or six if you count a couple of the passive ones, many of which are completely mandatory right from the beginning of the game, such as health regeneration.  One, the Typhoon, is a single-use weapon that could have been reconceptualized as a grenade type or handheld device.  Another, Smart Vision, is really just an extension of the player's radar, which comes by default.  And yet in the meantime, hacking has been given a full two-dozen or so levels, weapon handling skills have been reduced to a measly two upgrades, lung capacity/sprinting has about six, and so on.  There is a severe imbalance between different augmentations, their usefulness in the game, and their costs, especially when compared to the genuine augmentations, which all generally fit into one or two upgrades.  It's poorly considered and balanced even when discounting the matter of skills, but when you think back to how skills influenced Deus Ex, it's very clear that in Human Revolution, many of the problems stem from rolling those skills and augmentations together.  That it also comes at a cost to the verisimilitude of the game world, and that it strips away certain narrative implications is perhaps of secondary concern, but considering all the problems, this is a case where a stronger sense of the role and capability of augmentations in the game would have avoided a lot of issues that have really just been patched over.

The sad death of melee

Melee combat tends to be treated one of two ways by designers.  For some, it's merely backup, an "oh shit" button for the player to hammer on when things go sour and there isn't enough time to fire off a bullet effectively; in other games, like Left 4 Dead, it forms the basis of crowd control and gives the player breathing room, but ultimately it's still a backup mechanism.  The second way to approach melee combat is to have an entire mini-game system built around it, with combos, and timing, and different types of attacks and moves, dodges and blocks, etc., though of course, this shooter/brawler approach is quite rare owing to its complexity.

Where designers seem to have formed more consensus is on the value of melee as a utility option.  In games where environmental interactivity is a big part of the experience, the addition of a crowbar to whack crates open, or a wrench to smash through windows, melee is pretty important to have, and many games are designed around the fact that the player is going to have some sort of reliable melee weapon on hand for the sake of puzzle-solving and general utility, as well as when dealing with the inevitable "you've been captured and sent to prison, but the guards forgot to take your chainsaw" level.  Simply put, melee provides options and function, even if ultimately the divide is more aesthetic - sure, there's no reason to hide items in crates except to make the player smash those crates open, but there's something satisfying about it, and a certain "piñata effect" to it that adds a sense of expectation and anticipation.

Deus Ex took the utility value of melee to a new level.  In addition to a level of environmental interactivity that was far greater than most other games of its time (or our time), it hid most of its items in storage lockers, supply crates, and other generally logical locations - plus, crates are cheap to render and provide a sense of scale, depth and detail to the world, so giving them an added use only helps to make your game world feel more compelling than BoxWorld.

On top of being able to smash things, melee served a huge secondary function as an alternate to a lockpick or LAM.  Got a door you need to get through?  Turn on your super strength, and smash it down with a crowbar, or better yet, a sword!  It seems like a simple addition, but the ability to literally avoid an entire aspect of the game (lockpicking and/or explosives) by providing an alternative with its own trade-offs (reliance on bio-energy for super strength, inventory space, lack of lockpick resource management) adds an entire new dimension to play and gives players a completely different way to get through the game and prioritize their skills and augmentations.  This is a good thing, not just because it's choice for the sake of it, but because that choice is meaningful and relevant within the context of the game, where lockpicking and explosives are a finite resource with their own associated skills.

Of course, melee was also effective in combat - while it required a degree of prioritization and put the player in harm's way, especially when enemies began to self-destruct and use other high-powered close-range attacks, the weapons were no slouches, and it was definitely not a backup tactic.  Moreover, it provided a range of non-lethal and lethal capabilities, just like most other weapons, creating an even more granular choice in play-style, where the most powerful weapons were also lethal, and players would have to decide if they were morally comfortable with, say, killing innocent and well-meaning people even if it provided a tactical advantage to kill rather than knock out.  You can play through Deus Ex entirely in melee, and while it's hardly the best melee combat ever, the fact that it is surrounded with so many other methods of playing the game, it gains a level of meaning through the context it's placed in.

There is no melee in Human Revolution - or that is to say, melee has been replaced with one-button, cinematic takedowns which freeze time and grant the player temporary invincibility while the animation plays out.  An augmentation exists to allow for the option to take down two enemies at once.  Beyond this, the game has a distinction between non-lethal and lethal takedowns, which mostly just amount to different animations and different achievements.  While takedowns reward more XP, they aren't necessarily more efficient or effective, because the stun gun and tranquilizer rifle allow for near-instant non-lethal takedowns from a greater distance, and still reward a sizeable XP bonus over just killing.  The takedowns are flashy, but lack skill to perform, and don't fit in well with the augmentation system - considering they can become the player's entire arsenal throughout the entire game, the lack of upgrades for them is extremely concerning, as is the fact that they are equally effective against all weapons save for robots (for that you have another 100% effective weapon, the EMP Grenade, though at least it's more limited in use).

What's more, because there is no melee combat or melee weapons, there is no utility value to be found in it.  While it's still possible to break through windows and doors, this must be done with explosives or firearms, even if it is colossally impractical and implausible to shatter a wooden door by firing twenty pistol rounds into it.  All weapons and equipment are left lying in plain sight to find, which makes one wonder just why there are so many crates all over the place if there's apparently nothing in them.   The loss of melee isn't in itself game-breaking, but it is a disappointment considering the additional dimension to character-building melee adds, as is the generally unsatisfying quality of takedowns, which are guaranteed to work in every single instance.  The focus on takedowns as the most rewarding way of dealing with enemies, coupled with their gratuitous and easy nature to perform, tells of a developer so in love with one game mechanic or idea that it didn't stop to consider the effects of the change would be on the rest of the game.


And now we come to it, the hacking discussion.  There's no getting around this: in Human Revolution, hacking is the skill that players must get to fully enjoy the game.  Hacking is absolutely everything, and it provides a benefit far in excess of every other skill in the entire game.  While accompanied by a generally well- but over-designed mini-game, it also quickly grows repetitive, to the point where it's easy to feel like half your time in Human Revolution is spent on hacking.  Unfortunately, there is a very good reason you'll be doing so much of it: because it's so completely integral to fully enjoying the game, in the worst way possible.

In Human Revolution, hacking has many uses:

1) Opening doors.  While it's possible to bypass some doors by crawling through vents or smashing through walls, and others can be broken down with your (finite) resources, hacking represents a limitless resource (save for time), and it needs to be performed in many, many situations where there is no alternative.  While I haven't tried counting them, I'm certain there must be outright dozens of places and things you won't see, items you won't receive, and several upgrade points' worth of XP you won't get if you avoid hacking.

2) Reading computers.  A good deal of Human Revolution's well-developed backstory is stored in the personal e-mails of various computers in the game world - some might even say too much, as sometimes you'll feel you're spending 20 minutes during a mission just sifting through inboxes.  However, the information you find, as it relates to the plot and characters, as well as the game world, is invaluable.  Unless you're replaying the game, there is no way anyone would want to skip this stuff.

3) Unlocking safes and keypads  This is less common than the others, but even so, hacking frequently enables access to safes and other containers with useful goodies inside, usually money or some rare ammunition.  Players who are able to hack will get more free equipment, and that alone would make it worthwhile.

4) Disabling security systems.  Turrets, sentry bots and security cameras are some of the greatest threats in the game - which is why the easiest way to bypass them in many cases is to simply disable them, or better yet, turn them against enemies so that Jensen doesn't have to do an iota of work himself.  Many of the toughest fights can be trivialized by reprogramming security, or better yet, by carrying a turret around and watching it mow down enemies and even bosses.

5) Narrative consequence.  There are some quests which require hacking in order to finish.  These are all side-quests, but some of them are interesting and enjoyable... and hinge on what should be an optional skill, requiring the player to invest points into it even if he or she doesn't want to.  Often the best outcomes in quests can hinge on the player doing an extra hack to get more information or additional items, so if you're here for the story and want to see Jensen do the best of jobs, hacking is absolutely critical.

6) XP and monetary gain.  Hacking grants huge amounts of XP and money via "datastore" nodes and regular bonuses, equivalent to thousands upon thousands over the course of the entire game.  Hacking alone is enough to fund close to a dozen additional upgrades for the player, meaning that it actually more than pays for itself even a short ways into the game.

As we can see here, that's a pretty long list... far too long.  Compared to other augmentations, like the Rebreather, or the Jump Enhancement, hacking outshines them all by providing an extremely wide range of game functions - even with a proportionately higher cost (though in reality the player only really needs to spend 3-4 points), hacking gives far more benefit than any other skill in the entire game, and it is more cost effective than any other, not to mention that those benefits are of various natures that other skills have no way of covering.  Where's my quest that requires me to breathe in toxic gas to save the day?  What about the kitten stuck up a tree that only I can jump up and reach?  Hacking is forced upon the player, and then the player quickly learns it is the most important "augmentation" in the entire game.  How is this good game design in what is supposed to be a game that lets you play how you want it?

I initially spent a lot of time wondering why the augmentations in Human Revolution felt poorly balanced, why some were more useful than others even though logically you'd want to use them all the time.  After some more careful examination, I've decided the problem isn't that the rest of augmentations in the game are unbalanced - they're just fine, for the most part.  The problem is that hacking overshadows all of them so prominently, to the point where it is enough to fund several other augmentations over the course of the game.  It's a cost-free proposition, with the only downside playing that mini-game all the time... and "making the player do an annoying task again and again" is not a good way of balancing things out.

One thing that would have instantly improved the hacking situation is to break it up into two different augmentations or skills.  The divide between lockpicking, multitools and hacking in the original Deus Ex wasn't arbitrary - it existed to help better establish the two functions in the game world, it tapped into the lore by suggesting that not all old world ideas and technologies had gone down the drain, and it acted to make sure that one aspect of gameplay never became too powerful in relation to the others.  While there were still some very obvious benefits to hacking, they weren't overpowering to the point where it infringed on the other aspects of gameplay - you could get through the game and never hack a single computer if you wanted to.  What's more, tying the act of lockpicking and use of multitools to disposable devices added in a level of resource management and risk/reward that is completely lacking in the Human Revolution implementation of hacking.  I'm sure the design process is never so simple that a suggestion like "just put this back in!" works as smoothly as it sounds on paper, but the design ideas behind multitools, hacking and lockpicking in Deus Ex worked well, and they worked for a reason.

And yes, for what it's worth, the hacking mini-game is well designed.  It's by far too complex and repetitive for something that you'll be doing hundreds of times throughout the game.  While it doesn't reach BioShock 2's level of elegant simplicity, it's engaging enough on a regular basis that at least it doesn't become a complete and utter chore.  Moreover, I prefer it to the simple skill check and time limit of the original Deus Ex, if only because I don't have to shut down the computer and wait every two minutes when I'm reading something interesting.  I don't think this at all makes up for the problems above, however.

The good parts

I've been hard on Human Revolution, I know, but with good reason - it's a game that I enjoyed, one that took me back ten years and reminded me that developers were still capable of creating complex and interesting games even within the mainstream, and weren't afraid to shy away from challenging ideas and lengthy, replayable single-player titles.  However, the simple fact is that it's harder to talk about the good things than it is about the bad, simply because there's more nuance to critique than praise (or at least in my ability to think about things, there is).  So in order to help make up for the lengthy stream of bile above, here's a list of some of the things I thought Human Revolution did really well:

1) Characters.  Although the characters in Human Revolution are hardly the best and most memorable I've seen in a game, the social battles that one has with so many of them do an incredible job of fleshing out their personalities and adding subtle degrees of depth and, for lack of a better term, humanness to them.  Tong, Wayne Haas, Hugh Darrow, David Sarif, they're all brought to life with incredible effect owing to the social battles the player has with them.  I have never been able to look at a videogame character and mull over what he or she is thinking based on the subtle facial, body language and verbal cues, and actually try to respond to them as human beings rather than dialogue trees.  Phenomenal acting, writing, and animation work overall.  This is a major triumph even if it is a limited aspect of the game, and I'm surprised it hasn't got more attention than it has.

2) Weapons and shooting.  The original Deus Ex had a great selection of weapons, but it was let down by some tepid shooting mechanics that were more or less a result of its design limitations.  As much as I hate to see skills go, the combat in Human Revolution isn't just satisfying; it's some of the best first-person shooting short of an arcade shooter or military sim I've had in a while, at least within the action-RPG genre.  The weapons all have character and substance, they feel powerful, they fit the game's artistic and design sense, and they're all well balanced and effective.  There are no throwaways, and the weapon mods ensure that they continue to remain effective throughout the game.  Combat truly now comes down to personal preference and ability to use a certain type of weapon, rather than picking the best gun.

3) Art and sound design.  This goes without saying, but Human Revolution has a fantastic visual style and a strong, nostalgia-filled soundtrack to go with it that does an excellent job of keeping you immersed in its game world every single second.  It's rare to see a game with a strong, original, consistent visual identity within the mainstream, rather than just more shaders and normal maps, and I think Eidos Montreal deserve every bit of praise they get for Human Revolution's aesthetic.  We pay a lot of attention to graphics and sound in games, but rarely to what they mean, what they are evocative of, and the neo-Renaissance style in both visuals and music in Human Revolution is something that deserves serious consideration and study.

4) Quest design.  It's very common in games these days to be strung along on quests that feel like they're just filling up space and padding out the game time.  Even though Human Revolution rarely deviates too much from the standard "go somewhere, kill a guy, and take his stuff" formula, the number of optional components to these quests, genuinely inventive solutions the player can take, and overall relevance to the story and game world is very refreshing.  In Human Revolution, there are no quests that exist "just because"; while some are more relevant than others, they always help bring out a character, political situation, etc. in a new way.  Oh, and it's possible to fail these quests too, if you really mess them up.  About time a game let me do that again.

5) Stealth.  While Human Revolution isn't really Metal Gear Solid or Thief, as a stealth game it is surprisingly tense and effective.  I don't think it has the perfect depth or balance to number it among the greatest, but this is an action-RPG with stealth that is functional, challenging and fun, with reasonably good AI that responds well to the player, not to mention environments that are built with stealth in mind rather than just equipping the player with the "crouch button of invisibility" that is so common in games these days.


Deus Ex: Human Revolution is fantastic, but it suffers from a lot of perplexing and sometimes outright bad design choices that, in many cases, were done better in the original Deus Ex, and done better for a real reason.  I hope that this article hasn't come across as an appeal to nostalgia, a blind "Deus Ex is better because I like it" sort of rant, but rather, has served to illuminate a lot of the design choices in Eidos Montreal's game, and explained precisely why they do and don't work, not to mention how they can be improved.  If you've got this far, thanks for sitting through and reading to the end.  Deus Ex is a game close to my heart, and I enjoy both playing it and thinking about it from a design perspective; I'm thankful for the opportunity Eidos have provided me in completely refreshing the pool I'm able to draw from, and I hope that you've enjoyed reading this as much as I have writing it.  With any luck, they'll even take some of these ideas under consideration in the future.

Originally posted at Gamasutra


The self-made irrelevance of the RPG

In a recent interview with VG24/7, BioWare's Greg Zeschuk spoke about the direction the influential developer has been taking in recent years, and into the near future.  Most controversial about this interview were Greg's words on RPGs, and how he viewed them in today's industry:

"I think broader. I mean – it’s funny – RPGs are and always have been our bread and butter, our heart is there, but at the same time I think – well, we had the RPG panel breakfast at GDC yesterday – and what was interesting about that was that we had the conversation about ‘what is an RPG’ and it’s a blend. The genres are blending right now, you’re getting lots and lots of progression and RPG elements in shooters – online persistence and so on.

"It’s funny because the RPG in the context of the current world is – well, it’s not specifically irrelevant, but it’s becoming less relevant in and of itself. It’s more a function of ‘hey, this game has a great story’. For us having that emotion but also having other great features like combat and persistence of character progression and stuff."

In this short piece, I'd like to take some time to break down some of Greg's thoughts on the subject, because I think that they're not only divisive, but also indicative of an ongoing - and dangerous - trend in RPG development.

History lessons

Developers have been bandying about this question for a while now, and, more than ever, I've seen the answer "it's all about story, and characters, and the world" come up.  Furthermore, a few months ago, controversy was sparked when Matt Findley claimed that RPGs always really wanted to be action games at heart, and that the strong mechanics of past games was not a legitimate design choice, but a limitation of technology at the time.  While it's no secret that RPGs are known for narrative, and that many RPGs have tried to incorporate action elements (often with little success), I think that this sort of view, that rulesets are an outdated concept and that RPGs are all about storytelling, is an inaccurate, ill-informed and poisonous one.

RPGs began as an offshoot of wargames, tabletop games designed around complex interactions of rules, where two or more players would compete against one another for dominance over a battlefield... while wargames were firmly entrenched in delivering a strong strategic experience, the pen and paper RPGs of the 1960s and 70s, most prominently emerging with Dungeons & Dragons, added a crucial and now defining characteristic to wargames: cooperation.  In order to do this, most RPGs centred around, rather than global military operations, individual characters and parties of characters, cooperating and competing with each other in order to accomplish a goal.  The design change was in many ways a necessary one, but also a popular one, and RPGs soon far outnumbered wargames in terms of popularity and success.  As narrative elements began to creep into RPGs, as players began to get attached to the characters they played as and the universes they inhabited, RPGs began to become associated with storytelling in addition to those mechanics.  While the name, role-playing game, reflected the inclusion of narrative, it still originally, and in my opinion, more accurately, reflected the fact that players had to cooperate within a predefined ruleset to solve problems, effectively serving functional roles within a setting whose narrative concepts only existed as a vehicle to structure the experience.

What are rulesets?

Though we tend to talk a bit about rulesets when discussing traditional RPGs, a moment to clarify just what these are may be in order.  A ruleset is just that: a set of rules, existing primarily to not just govern, but facilitate the interaction between players and the game (or the dungeon master).  A ruleset's strength is that it is universal: while we tend to think about rulesets as being primarily a determinant of combat outcomes, a well-developed ruleset will articulate a general standard by which the entire world is defined by.  The reason for this, quite simply, is because rulesets aren't just about determining how much damage you did to an enemy with your Vorpal Axe of Slaying +3 - they're about determining the way in which you are able to express yourself within an alternate game world, just as much as the physical rules of interaction our reality follows determine our own capabilities.

When the advent of computer RPGs came about, it initially wasn't the strong narrative focus that was carried over, it was the established rule-set, adapted to fit a solo experience on a personal computer.  Early CRPGs, including the famous Gold Box titles, were, though narratively charged, really little more than frameworks for players to enjoy a ruleset within.  And some of the most successful CRPGs ever, such as Fallout, were successful as RPGs not because they had great stories and characters, but because they created a world whose terms of engagement were well established in the mechanics in addition to the narrative, and then allowed the vast majority of the storytelling to be taken over by the player, as he or she navigated the world in accordance with those rules.

The "Golden Age"

Modern videogames are, of course, a diverse medium, and most traditional videogames don't depend entirely on explicitly defined rules, at least as far as the player's understanding goes.  Typically, these games also have a lower barrier of entry and lend themselves to a different style of play, one that relies more on reflexes and coordination than an overt manipulation and consideration of those rules.  A trend, which began in the late 2000s, and largely fueled both by newer gamers getting into game development, and a desire to appeal to wider audiences, saw traditional RPG rulesets joined with more action-oriented game design... even as far back as BioWare's Baldur's Gate, the focus of the game was not limited solely to the rules of the game world, but on being able to take part in a grand adventure, and in immersing one's self in a large and well-realised universe.  With the rise of more and more graphically and narratively focused RPGs, such as Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex, not to mention the JRPGs that preceded them by several years, the focus of RPGs on the PC began to change from the rulesets and the player's interaction with the world on a mechanical level, to the player's interaction on a social and narrative level, fueled less by mechanics than the player's own desires and imagination.

Today, I feel as if the concept of RPG, especially in mainstream understandings, has become severely diluted - what remains of the core rule-driven experience of RPGs constantly finds itself under threat of disappearing altogether, as the demands of modern game production require greater and greater budgets, and thus, the market for any particular game, RPGs included, must be expanded.  All of this, of course, is fueled by a misguided notion that RPG fans are concerned less with strong gameplay mechanics than they are by storylines.  If the RPG has become redefined over the course of the last decade, it is only because the premier developers in the CRPG space have decided to abandon the core of the genre of itself, choosing not to make RPGs founded on consistent rulesets, but to create cinematic experiences that differ from most action games only in that they tend to feature a greater ratio of dialogue to action.

A question of relevance

And here we find ourselves today, with the RPG an "irrelevant" genre, as said by one of the apparent fathers of the modern CRPG.  In light of the history I've articulated (mind you, an incomplete and highly simplified one), I think it's safe to say that the question of relevance on Greg's mind comes either from a misunderstanding or change in perception of what an RPG actually is, or from a desire to no longer make RPGs.  BioWare have, for many years, been at the forefront of delivering cinematic and story-driven videogame experiences to players... considering the ease at which many of these games can be divorced from their mechanical underpinnings, and their narratives told in a way unhindered by statistics, it becomes questionable whether BioWare are, or even have been for the last eight or so years, in the practice of creating RPGs at all.  RPGs have traditionally been about universal rulesets, and even the best narratively-charged CRPGs have governed those narrative qualities via mechanics - Planescape: Torment, Fallout, and even more recently Alpha Protocol, have all built their stories around the fundamental notion that it is the player's choices in statistically developing a character or a party, rather than around the idea that the player's decision-making be conceptualised as a choose-your-own-adventure novel.  That Chris Avellone has been involved with many of these CRPGs may or may not be a coincidence.

Of course, I do not mean, in any way, to suggest that BioWare's games are bad, because, for what they are, they are categorically of a very high quality standard.  Yet close analysis demands that we consider very carefully the kinds of games that BioWare claim they've been making this last decade... under scrutiny, I don't think that they hold up particularly well as RPGs, at least when we think of RPGs in the more traditional sense I've defined above.  The conclusion that I'm forced to draw through all of this is, simply put, that if BioWare feel RPGs are no longer relevant, part of the answer is that they have made them irrelevant.  And those fans that made companies like BioWare successful in the early days, the ones that they keep claiming they're making their games for - they're still around.  They just don't care much for the fact that the innovations in the upcoming BioWare titles have less to do with crafting mechanically sound RPGs, and more to do with alien love triangles.


"That's not what happened": A discussion on unreliable narrators

"Wait, that's not what happened": A discussion on games and the unreliable narrator

In the wake of the release of BioWare’s latest opus, Dragon Age II, I’ve found myself thinking a little bit about narrative techniques and structures seen in games.   Whereas the majority of games stick to a relatively traditional format of providing the player with the story in a linear, first-person perspective format, BioWare have, for better or worse, seen to break free from that mould in Dragon Age II by offering up both a frame narrative and an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narrators aren’t anything too new to games, but their use has been fairly limited in the past, and tends to deviate from what we see in film and literature.   Most often, unreliable narrators in games take the form of a protagonist who can’t remember certain plot-critical details, such as in Fallout: New Vegas or Max Payne.   Second most common is a character that intentionally misleads the player in order to provide a “gotcha” moment later on.

It’s very rare to see a traditional unreliable narrator, one who serves as the main storyteller.   BioWare’s take on the unreliable narrator is rather unique in the world of gaming, and BioWare deserve a lot of credit for attempting to tread new ground in this fashion. 

The more I think about BioWare’s implementation, however, the more I see it as an unsuccessful experiment – though an experiment that was well worth trying.   In the following article, I’d like to outline why I think so many games have shied away from unreliable narrators in the past, but perhaps more importantly, why the unreliable narrator as a storytelling device is fundamentally in conflict with videogames as a medium.

Interactivity at odds with linearity

Videogames represent a form of storytelling wherein the player is able to, at least in relatively superficial fashion, dictate the course of the story: its pacing, and in some cases, order of events and ending, will change dramatically based on the decisions the player makes.   The best that game developers can do, given real-world development limitations, is try to anticipate what players will think and do, and build a game that responds to that.   Despite any limitations imposed by budget, however, one thing sets gaming apart from any other form of storytelling, and that is the ability to interact with the story in a game at the fundamental level of action (i.e. controller input steering an avatar in electronic space).   Other mediums, like hypertext, do interactivity well, but no other medium does it in a way that feels like the player is truly in control in the same way that gaming is able to.

The unreliable narrator, meanwhile, comes from an opposing world of narrative, one where the story is fixed, metred and well-paced for maximum impact.   The unreliable narrator is an attempt on the storyteller’s part to subvert the audience’s expectations, and provide different insights onto characters and the story.   This can be novel, and sometimes even genius, when employed properly.   Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a story built around multiple unreliable narrators, for instance, and only by reading the whole story and making some logical leaps is the reader able to gain a clear picture of just what is going on over the course of the story; furthermore, seeing characters from both the inside and out allows the reader to understand them based both on others’ perceptions, and on intention.

Although such forms of storytelling can work excellently in both literature and film, gaming doesn’t just represent a greater challenge, it presents, possibly, an insurmountable one due to the fundamental interactivity required by the medium.   In The Sound and the Fury, the audience is on the outside looking in: there is a distance between the reader and the characters which is enforced as much by their distinctly different personalities as it is by the medium itself.   We can become involved in a book, and we can feel tremendous emotions for the characters involved, but we are rarely “drawn in” by the story in the sense that we feel it is happening to us, that we have control over our destiny.

While the tension in a novel comes from the question “what happens next?”, in a videogame, it comes from the question “will I be able to succeed?”.   When the game suddenly wrests control away from us to tell us “sorry, what you just did didn’t happen”, the player feels alienated because the fantasy of being within the game world has been perforated.   There are many ways to make the player feel like he/she has no say in the course of the game, stemming from both game mechanics and narrative elements, and resorting to unreliable narration is perhaps one of the ultimate ways of denying the player authorship over his or her own fate.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me

The introduction of Dragon Age II is a prime example of this: the player starts out in control of a nigh-unstoppable character, able to kill dozens of foes with ease.   Halfway into this sequence, a character interrupts the gameplay and calls the version the player has just played “bullshit.”   Immediately after, the player is shunted into “the real thing”… and proceeds to witness the same events all over again, with minor variations.

Now, this sequence has some upsides.   It’s a great tutorial and abilitease, since it gives the player a hint at the sorts of powers they’ll be able to attain later in the game, it teaches the player the combat fundamentals in a completely non-threatening environment, and it immediately brings the player into the game by allowing them to do some serious damage to enemies right from the beginning.   Functionally, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what BioWare did here.   It’s both novel and effective.   To their credit, BioWare really do nail it, and don’t go overboard during the remainder of the game.

And yet despite the success here, it’s very easy to look at this with a cynical eye, thinking “how would this fare in the hands of a developer with less time or resources than BioWare?”   Maybe it’s just me being jaded, but I can easily see a game where an unreliable narrator is used not so much for narrative impact, but as an excuse to draw out the same small amount of content over and over.   We’ve all played games that feel like they’re a slog, have filler, etc., and resorting to the storytelling BioWare has attempted almost invites extensive “copy and paste” design.

A deeper problem also rears its head here, however.   BioWare seem to have a knack for these sorts of “fooled me once” devices, and in fact, many of the games which we tend to praise for their excellent stories rely on the same “trick plots”.  The problem with a trick plot, however, is that as soon as it’s been done, it can rarely be done again without coming off as derivative, or worse, predictable and lazy.   Knights of the Old Republic?   Jade Empire?   Mass Effect?   Braid?   BioShock?   Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time?   As good as they are to experience the first time, their narratives all rely on gimmicks, and in my mind, a story that relies on a gimmick in order to be compelling isn’t one that necessarily deserves praise.   How many times can we use before such narrative tricks become tiresome, predictable, and even annoying?   As entertaining and effective as these stories are in the short term, we can’t rely on those gimmicks as a justification for the integrity of gaming as storytelling forever.


The more I see games attempting to integrate unreliable narrators into their stories, the more I see games trying to be something they aren’t.   The Prince in The Sands of Time sums it up perfectly whenever he meets his untimely end: “no, that’s not right, let me tell it again.”   When you try to put together form of storytelling that depends upon linearity, with a medium whose defining trait is interactivity, you’re going to run into problems.   The fact that the role of Varrick in Dragon Age II is more or less resigned to providing vague comments on the story shortly into the game, suggests to me that BioWare ran into this problem themselves.   When the player is given choice, or at least the illusion of it, it’s very hard to have a narrator who is able to deceive the player: at best, you’re telling the player that those choices he or she made didn’t actually matter.
Originally posted at Critical Missive


Observations on RPG environment design

Observations on RPG environment design

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been extremely active working on a mod project for Dragon Age: Origins.   While I had a pretty solid underlying concept for how the mod was going to be structured, built, what sorts of environments it would feature, gameplay style, story progression, etc., actually sitting down to create the world that it will take place in has provided me some interesting insights that I’d like to share.

Create a world for the gameplay you want

This first point seems obvious, but I’d like to start out with it for that reason.   The majority of my level design experience in the past has been focused largely on first-person shooters.   First-person shooter level design, especially in a multiplayer context, is something you could already write a book on, but suffice is to say that it requires special attention to a few key features: 

  1. Flow – easy to say, not so easy to describe.   Generally refers to how the player moves through the environment and transitions between areas, and the movement options at any given juncture, i.e. can I go up or down?   Left or right?   Is there cover?
  2. Tactical opportunity – designing levels for a shooter is all about risk versus reward; every power-up has to put the player in some level of danger to acquire, requires some sort of skill to achieve, etc.
  3. Aesthetics – by aesthetics here, I don’t mean simply “is it pretty”, but how light, shadow, colour and so on interplay to provide the player with suggestions, i.e. a light in one location will cause players to move towards it, while a dark place will be more likely ignored.   Helps direct movement through spaces and make the level easier to read and memorise.

The big mistake I went into my level design in Dragon Age was to pretty much design like a first-person shooter, which is to say, I prioritized function over form in a gameplay style which is basic enough that function isn’t   really something one needs to design around.   Since the player’s movement options in Dragon Age are quite limited, i.e. simply running, without any jumping or leaving the ground, I initially created flat environments which were extremely open and good-looking, but also not necessarily useful for gameplay, navigation, and so on.   The end result, in the end, was visual monotony, confusion and a lack of variety in combat environments.

RPGs are different

When designing an environment for an RPG like Dragon Age, there are some similar design considerations to take into account as when designing levels for shooters, but with some very important deviations in the reasoning as far as the hows and whys go.  Most of these stem from either the differences in how the player moves through the environment, and the needs of the environment in conveying story and lore to the player.

  1. Accessibility – the player needs to navigate a large environment with many places and characters; these need to be easily visible and generally easy to find simply by following the natural suggestion of the level design, not hidden away or placed at random.  
  2. Tactical variation – while in a shooter, variation is something which occurs from the fast-paced nature of the gameplay and designing environments around flow, in an RPG, this extends to the level design itself.   The player can’t do many interesting things beyond run around, so the level design has to pick up the slack; you can’t get away with placing a few pillars or chest-high walls.
  3. A esthetics – while in a shooter, aesthetics serve the function of reading an environment, in a RPG, this has to be balanced with lore as well.   A very tricky proposition, but generally set-piece environments are memorable and also help flesh out a world, so use this to your advantage and build a world that is interesting to explore with many unique locations, buildings, etc.

To illustrate this, I’ll refer to a couple of screenshots.

In the first iteration of this environment, the fountain in the middle of town was situated on flat ground and didn’t serve as a very good focal point.   I found that in play-testing with a couple of friends, they ended up getting lost and confused in the world because they weren’t quite sure of their relative position in the world.

Putting the fountain up on a hill, putting an eye-catching statue on top, adding trees, plants, grass, and some subtle sunlight coming down gives the player a much greater sense of where they are in the environment, especially from an “on the ground” perspective.

Initially, the entrance to the Slums, which is the location where much of the combat takes place, was a simple hole in the wall which didn’t really lead anywhere.   Not only was it not obvious where it went, but it blended in so well to the rest of the environment that play-testers simply ran past it entirely.

To help change this, I did a number of things.   First, I added a large archway to symbolise its importance as a transition area.   Second, I made sure some of the sky was visible through the arch’s opening.   Third, I played with the lighting to give the entrance more shadows, and placed a lot of random clutter, including trash piles, overturned carts, rubble, and added a downhill slope to all help impress on the player that it was not just the lower-class district lore-wise, but that it was also a rough and dark place, unlike the open air of the Market District.   The Slums themselves, while not complete enough to demonstrate yet, are a much different environment, with smaller corridors punctuated by open spaces, with branching paths and choke points to help the player manage enemies.

Lastly, there was the problem of the Council Representative (effectively a town crier) in the middle of the Market District.   While he had a lot of things to say, including important plot information, I found that when play-testing, he was very easy to ignore, since he blended in so much with the random crowds standing around, and nobody spoke to him unless I suggested it.

To help make the Representative more visible, and in turn help better communicate the conditions of the story and world to the player, I decided to put him up on a podium and surround him with a large crowd complete with appropriate sound effects.   Not only that, but a trigger added to the area would cause the player to enter a dialogue sequence with him if the player moved close enough to the podium.   I found that with a little bit of tweaking, I could get it so that players would not just notice the podium, but run towards it almost instinctively due to its raised height, and be given the necessary information every time.


Designing an RPG, even the relatively short one that I intend my mod to be, has been a pretty informative experience right from the beginning.   Although I have approached level design on plenty of occasions before, creating a world that worked for the gameplay style, as well as for story, was something that I wasn’t wholly prepared for initially, but with a few tweaks I managed to vastly improve the gameplay experience as well as the player’s absorption of the story and lore.   I hope to use this knowledge in designing future environments in order to help build even more interesting and compelling locations for players to explore.
 Originally posted at Critical Missive

Save kitten/eat kitten: Collected thoughts on moral choices in ga

Save kitten/eat kitten: Collected thoughts on moral choices in games

There's been a good number of articles posted on Gamasutra lately dealing with moral choice in games. After writing a number of comments of my own in response, as well as some more discussion in other venues, and my own private consideration, I'd like to provide my thoughts on a number of dimensions in designing moral decisions. While what's written below isn't necessarily a framework for going about designing such decisions and systems, it can be seen as a checklist of things to do or not do when considering how to build moral decisions. I also apologise in advance for my critical attitude – I love many of the games I use as negative examples, and can only provide them because I myself have considered them and engaged with them at such lengths in the past.

“Why am I doing this?”

When designing a moral decision in a game, the first question that should always be asked is, “why?” More specifically, why should the player care about the decision they're making, and why should they be given a decision in the first place? At first glance, sounds like a pretty simple question to ask, with an equally simple answer of “because we want the player to feel like he or she is in control of his or her destiny”, or thereabouts. “Either a game has moral decisions, or it doesn't” seems to be the current mode of thinking of many designers.

However, asking the question “why” is integral to designing good moral decisions for the player, because it leads to deeper and deeper questions, which, when answered, can help strengthen a given scenario. Would giving the player a choice in a particular scenario make the game better? Would the possible decisions be equally compelling from both a gameplay and a narrative perspective? Is it possible to actually provide meaningful consequences for the player's decisions, or are they going to be largely cosmetic? Is the player going to feel affirmed and rewarded by the decision they make, or will the game scold them for making the “wrong” choice? Is a player going to feel genuinely conflicted about the decisions presented, or simply choose “good” or “evil” because he/she has already decided to play that role? Moral decision-making is hollow and useless if one choice is obviously better than another, and if the game is going to make sure that the player receives an ideal outcome no matter what decision is made, then why should the player choose anything other than the “good” option?

  Werewolves, huh?  Well, I selected "lawful good" so I guess today's your unlucky day...

To take an example, in Dragon Age: Origins , the player has the option of either liberating a pack of dangerous werewolves from their centuries-old curse and saving the nearby elven tribe, thus recruiting them to the player's cause, or the player may elect to side with the werewolves and slaughter the elves, gaining the favour of the werewolves in the process. While on the surface this seems compelling, the game gives very little reason for players to side with the werewolves, other than because it's an “evil” choice to kill the largely innocent elves. To solve the problem amicably requires no extra effort on the player's part, and the reward for siding with the werewolves is no better (and potentially even worse) than siding with the elves. The only reason a player would ever conceivably want to favour the werewolves over the elves is if the player has already decided to play an “evil” character. In other words, throughout the game, the player has only really made one choice. While there's something to be said for always having the option to change one's mind or deviate from one's path, if the player is never truly tested by any choice, is there a real reason to include that choice in the first place?

“ Do I want telekinesis or electro shock?”

One method many games have elected to take in order to make their moral decisions more difficult and meaningful to the player is by providing different rewards for different choices. While sometimes offering up a greater reward if the player chooses to be evil can serve as sufficient temptation, the player can usually rest assured, via meta-game knowledge and genre familiarity, that any negative repercussions of their actions can be mitigated easily, if they aren't simply forgotten as soon as the given scenario is over. It is a rare game which truly reserves its best techniques, items, weapons, etc. for those who choose to go the “evil” route, which means that often anything missed can be simply found through alternate means.

  Jack froze up when he realised that he could have afforded his ice plasmid without killing all those children.

One has to ask, why should the player care about giving up a reward if he or she chooses the moral high ground? Given that so many games equate being morally good with forgoing rewards and possessions, it seems odd that they are so eager to later reward the player for their efforts. At best, an “evil” player might end up with some extra money or a modestly useful item, but if it comes at the cost of an ideal outcome, no player would truly have to sit down and consider their actions. I can honestly say that there has only been one game which has ever managed to successfully tempt me to do something “evil” for the sake of the reward, and even then the decision was hardly irredeemable, only brutally pragmatic.

BioShock was one title which made a big deal of the player's ability to either rescue or “harvest” (kill) its sympathetic Little Sister characters, who were the key to providing the player with new powers and upgrades. The decision as envisioned by the developers at Irrational, I imagine, was that the player would have to rationalise killing a little girl if they wanted to have enough currency to purchase the game's best powers. In practice, however, the player ends up receiving additional rewards for taking the honourable route, including exclusive powers that an “evil” player could never receive. The difference by the end of the game is almost insignificant, considering by that point the player is practically rolling in money. Not only is the decision to do good morally superior, in the case of BioShock , it's also far more rewarding. Considering the player ends up with the “bad” ending after choosing the “evil” option only once or twice, there's very little reason to ever consider that road in the first place.

“ All good, all the time”

Another way that games attempt to make moral decisions more compelling is by providing increased rewards and abilities for staying consistent in their alignment. This sounds like a good idea on paper: the player who sticks by his or her ethics and morals throughout the course of the game will find him or herself in higher standing than the player who is “wishy washy” and changes his or her mind to suit the situation. Positive reinforcement, and all that.

But why is the ability to remain neutral and capitalise on a given scenario a bad quality? Why do games indirectly punish the player who decides that they want to take every situation as its own, and come up with the most advantageous options as they come? One would expect that, if anything, a game would choose to reward the player that's able to manipulate each and every situation for the best possible outcome. As a gamer, I tend to be highly driven by rewards and not by whether or not something is “good” or “evil” - I've never turned down a reward when it's offered because “the satisfaction of helping is enough”, and it takes a pretty negative outcome to make me consider giving up those valuable trinkets I worked hard to attain. I'll do good just as easily as I'll do wrong, so long as the decisions aren't reprehensible. Forcing myself to be strictly one alignment is limiting, feels artificial, and brings me out of the game because I know that I can't truly make decisions without losing out on better things.

 Do you really want this to be you?

Knights of the Old Republic , for instance, grants the player more and more powerful abilities for moving towards moral extremes, and the game goes so far as to grant stat bonuses based on alignment, meaning that there is very little incentive to play a morally neutral character. Worse still is that the story does not sufficiently adapt to anything but extreme alignments: the ending will either be “good” or “evil”, with nothing in between for the player who wants to conduct themselves in a more restrained, conservative or mediating fashion throughout the game. This is all in spite of the fact that in many, many situations, the player may elect to pick a morally neutral or less extreme side. Why bother if all the game pays attention to is extremes?

Save the world, or save that puppy?

It's quite common in moral decision-making to present the player with either tiny, largely irrelevant choices, or huge, world-shattering decisions – both usually strike me as not just uninteresting, but as a major cop-out in designing interesting scenarios. The best decisions are those that stem out of the player being emotionally involved with the world and the characters.

Crafting something the player cares about is hard work. It requires good writing, interesting characters, a world the player needs to feel involved in and personally attached to for some reason or other, etc. Calling on the player to make a choice isn't enough – that choice has to be genuinely meaningful in order to be difficult in any way. If the player doesn't care and the dilemma proposed is either too black and white, or too ambiguous, then the player is going to either pick the best or worst option with no reservations or consideration, or they'll consider themselves unqualified, confused, etc. and the decision to ask the player to decide the outcome will seem arbitrary.

  Never mind that you have amnesia and rolled a 2 on wisdom, we need you to decide for us right now!

This is why I so often cringe when I see a typical “save the world/doom the world” scenario presented: usually, the designers have neglected to emotionally involve me in the situation, and instead they have attempted to win me over on the sheer size of the decision alone. To me, offering the player a momentous decision smacks of laziness – it substitutes substance with size, or quantity with quality if you will. It's the same sort of lazy shorthand in writing one might see in expecting the player to care more if a character is referred to as “sister” or “cousin” before being killed off – the designer expects me to care not because he or she has provided a compelling scenario, but by making reference to vague ideals. It's almost as if I'm supposed to care by default.

It's no better when a small decision is offered as well, because often I can rest assured that my actions in that situation are totally disconnected from the game as a whole. When faced with your typical “save kitten/eat kitten” scenario, I don't feel as if I need to consider my actions beyond that scenario in the least, because I can almost tell, through my experience in games, that it's not going to matter one bit. In Dragon Age: Origins , I rarely paid more money to anyone than I had to, and most of my decisions weren't fuelled by their implications on the story, but my companions' approval rating. When a player spends more time thinking about how the small-scale decisions will affect a slider than they do thinking about what is right in that situation, and whether or not it will have consequences down the road, I think that's a pretty clear indication that the designer has failed.

“I didn't mean it that way!”

Far and away, the biggest problem I have with the construction of player decision-making in games is that games tend to focus on actions, rather than thinking of the player's motivations. While the choice of one action over another indicates a certain intent by the player, usually designers are overly presumptuous in assuming why players have made a decision, and put all the weight on the action rather than the intent. Too often, games treat decision-making as binary, but almost never give players an opportunity to justify themselves.

The best choices are those which have pros and cons the player has to weigh, and preferably, they won't be clear-cut in their benefits and downsides. Most of these take on the form of “the ends vs. means” or “the needs of many vs. a few”, and these are the decisions which are most interesting to us because there are no easy answers in them. Furthermore, these decisions are often complex enough that it's not easy to divine why the player made a decision simply on whether or not the decision was “good” or “evil”. Killing a kitten may be rather unquestionably bad outside a few very particular circumstances, but what about endorsing slavery (or child labour, etc.) because it will lead to more rapid economic development? What about animal testing in order to ensure proper medical treatment for humans? These are questions that we consider on a frequent basis, and they're ones which often don't have easy answers for us. We'd all like to say that animal testing is wrong, but most of us value our own lives over the lives of animals, and it's quite conceivable that child labour would be tolerable in a society different from our own.

The worst example of a moral choice is one where a game provides a morally ambiguous situation and then forces the designer's morality down the player's throat, or refuses to allow the player to justify him or herself, and assigns a default motivation to the player based on the designer's anticipation. This sort of practice isn't as commonplace as simply staying away from the hard decisions altogether, but when it happens, it can be jarring, and even unintentionally insulting and alienating to the player.

Games are an amazing venue for considering moral questions because they are able to make us consider them from different points of view than what we would normally have access to. They introduce the hypothetical, the “X factor” by modifying what we are familiar with. To avoid these sorts of questions in favour of binary good/evil decisions isn't just rote and lazy from a design perspective, it's also damaging to games as an art form, and denies their potential to be a medium where players can find meaning through intellectual development and philosophising.
Originally posted at Critical Missive

["save world" image credit]


Size isn't the only thing that matters: An analysis of open-world

Size isn't the only thing that matters: An analysis of open-world and sandbox games

Two major styles of game design which have begun to show up in increasing numbers over the last several years are open-world games, and sandbox games. There is still a good degree of confusion as to just what constitutes a sandbox game an what constitutes an open-world game, whether or not they may even be both the same thing, and exactly where the threshold between them lies. A large number of games, including big-budget titles, have experimented with sandbox and open-world design, but it's my opinion that few of them have actually leveraged the specific qualifies of those design approaches in truly effective and original ways. For me, the difference between the two doesn't lie in ambition, or narrative, or the size of the world, but rather, in the approach given to challenge and progression through the game. In this article, I'd like to take the time to deconstruct exactly what it is that defines an open-world game versus a sandbox game, using a number of examples, and the most important game design considerations for each of them, with respect to those aspects of challenge and progression.

Just semantics?

Traditionally, games focus on guiding the player either through a set path in a relatively closed or limited environment, mostly due to limitations of design, technology and narrative; it's just easier to create something and fine-tune it when you know precisely where the player is going to be coming from, going to, and what abilities they might have at that given point in the game. From a management perspective, it's also generally easier to coordinate development of limited but highly-detailed environments than it is to, say, construct a fully realised model of New York City, as seen in Grand Theft Auto IV . Open-world and sandbox games usually represent a much greater challenge simply due to their vast size, but I think coming to a clear idea of what separates open-world and sandbox games can help to determine the direction of a game's design, as well as focus on strengths while eliminating weaknesses.

On the surface, what makes these games might seem obvious: the sheer scale of the world and options available to the player. After all, most games of this nature in the past have featured immense scale when compared to more linear games. But looking a little deeper, that can't just be what it is. Although the size of the world is especially a consideration in an open-world game, to say that sheer size is what makes such a game is foolhardy. After all, FUEL had the largest 3D game world in history, yet its design utterly failed to capitalise on the scale the technology was able to provide, nor did it manage to motivate players to continue through the game after the initial “wow” factor. No, the differences between open-world games and sandbox games are much different, and are largely due to the fundamental differences in design approach.

  Zelda resembles modern open-world games arguably more than modern open-world games themselves.
The Legend of Zelda is one of the earliest open-world games, even though it's largely not thought of one by many gamers. In Zelda , the overworld map is divided into a series of fixed “screens”, with brief environmental puzzles, mazes, or enemies standing in the player's way. These challenges serve to both inhibit the player's progress, but also to provide practice for the game's more significant challenges. These challenges come in the form of dungeons. Dungeons themselves are arranged like the overworld map, with multiple interconnected screens, but feature more maze-like layouts, more difficult enemies, and so on. Furthermore, when the player enters one, he or she is “locked in” to that particular area, and the deeper he or she moves into the dungeon, the greater the risk is, because leaving becomes more and more difficult, and more progress will be lost. At the same time, the rewards in dungeons are much greater, and to ultimately make progress in the game, the player is going to have to explore them fully.

The key thing to note, however, is that the challenge in Zelda 's world is largely situated to specific instances, which the player does not have a significant amount of control over. While it is possible to gain new equipment, including more health, armour, and abilities that allow more damage, attacking at a distance, etc., these are all gained by plundering the depths of the dungeons. Sooner or later, the leisurely challenge of the overworld isn't going to be enough for the player, and the desire to explore distant and locked-off areas will continue to build. Thus, while the player has some control over how and when he or she experiences the challenges in Zelda , ultimately the player is still going to be experiencing them on the designer's terms, complete with all the challenge and risk that entails.

By contrast, sandbox games don't solely offer up this sort of localised, constructed challenge. In a game like Just Cause 2 , the majority of the challenge comes from the game reacting to the player's actions. There are no specific screens which limit where the player can and can't go, and there are no set encounters which are significantly more difficult than the rest of the game. The “Heat” meter in Just Cause 2 indicates how much challenge the player has, and to a degree, the player has control over it. Cause a small amount of destruction, and the army might send a few soldiers to try to take the player out. If the player can deal with them quickly and effectively, their Heat level will drop. However, if the player continues on a path of violence and isn't able to dispatch of initial opposition, more challenging enemies will be sent, including attack helicopters, jet fighters, soldiers with heavy weapons, etc. As the player continues, greater Heat levels are unlocked, resulting in even more challenge. Heat, and therefore challenge, can occur pretty much anywhere in the world, so long as there's an enemy to take notice of the player's actions.

  Got Chaos?  Just Cause 2 tracks player progress mostly per-explosion.

Progression in Just Cause 2 also takes perfect advantage of the sandbox format. Although there are missions in the game which are required to move the story forward, the bulk of play-time is actually dedicated to the random, wanton destruction that the player causes at his or her whim, managed by a “Chaos” ranking. The more Chaos the player causes, the more new weapons, missions, vehicles, and so on are unlocked. These, in turn, feed into yet more Chaos. Rather than tying the acquisition of new abilities and items to completion of set tasks, as in Zelda , Just Cause 2 rewards the player simply for exploring, experimenting, and causing as much destruction as possible. Since the game world is limited, the player is eventually going to run out of things to do, so in this case the size of the world exists not so much to give the player lots of options, as it would in an open-world game, but to effectively outlast the player's interest in the game. It's possible to “win” Just Cause 2 , but it would likely take most players hundreds, if not thousands of hours to exhaust all of its gameplay, well beyond what most would likely dedicate.

Ultimately, then, what determines a sandbox game isn't how large its world is, but the way in which the player navigates through it, is presented obstacles to overcome, and makes progress, in whatever way it is measured. In a mere open-world game, the player may be able to explore at his or her leisure, but progress will still largely be governed by playing through specific designer-made challenges, be they dungeons, missions, etc. Sandbox games are, and should be, about what the player brings to the table, and providing fun mechanics that can be experimented with in fresh and interesting ways. That's why the distinction between sandbox and open world is so very important: the approaches taken in order to ensure successful design are completely different from each other, and why games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Faction: Guerrilla find themselves in a strange medium between offering up player freedom, and restricting them to a set path.

Designing for the open world

Open world games, in order to be successful, need to adopt a lot more structure than what many existing ones do in order to achieve cohesive design. The open world's strength is just that: sheer size, and freedom to explore and progress without too much restraint. Giving the player the opportunity to complete objectives in the way he or she wants to is what open world games should be all about. In Fallout , the player is given free reign of the world, with success in the game tied to solving a number of objectives. While its mystery-style storyline does push the player in certain directions, there is no set path through the game, and the player can actually leave large parts of the world unexplored if he or she doesn't want to bother with them, or simply comes across the ending on his or her own. Depending on the order the player solves (or doesn't solve) certain challenges, the game will respond accordingly. To me, this is true open-world gaming: give the player a task and set them loose on accomplishing it. Any game which attempts this, only to funnel the player through the game in a wholly designed order, has failed as an open-world game. After all, what's the point in a big, open world to explore and lots of fun rules if you still put the player through veritable linear corridors to move forward?

Many open-world games, unfortunately, don't know what to do with the vast world they've provided to the player. Some of them settle for allowing the player to do minor side-quests on the way to the main objectives, and others fill it up with extra abilities and bonuses for taking the time to explore. While these provide meaningful rewards to the player, they are wholly optional and secondary to progressing through the game. Sure, I could go and shoot all the pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV for the modest rewards provided, but why bother other than for completion's sake? To provide a game with optional content is one thing, but to make the only motivation in completing that optional content an arbitrary percentage counter? That's just a crutch for lazy design.

Since open-world design is so tightly integrated with the way challenge and progress are presented, it's extremely important to provide the player with motivation for continuing in the game. At all times, the player must have an understanding of where he or she is in relation to the rest of the game, as far as objectives and story progress are concerned. Sub-goals are the easiest way to ensure this: the player has a final goal to work towards, but there are additional challenges along the way that must be completed in order to succeed. Furthermore, the player has to be given motivation, not just to complete that smaller goal, but that smaller goal must be related effectively to the progress in the rest of the game. Since different players are motivated by different things, this means the onus is on the designers to provide multiple types of motivations. Usually, this can be expressed in three ways: narrative, functional, and aspirational.

  GTA IV's cutscenes aren't just there for flavour: they give you smaller goals and stories that motivate you to continue.

Narrative motivation is simple: provide the player with a good story reason for doing what they're doing. Obviously, this is contingent on a lot of things: the player has to care about the characters, places, events, etc. going on; the player has to have an understanding of the game world as a whole; the player has to understand the implications of success (and failure); and the player has understand why success or failure are contingent upon his or her action (best if it's not just a simple Game Over screen). Most of this can be handled in the early stages of the game, where exposition is even more necessary, but throughout the game it's good to remind the player why they should care about what's going on. Maybe this means a love interest being put in danger, the player's own abilities and power being threatened, revenge for someone already injured or killed... without these smaller events punctuating the larger quest, the player is going to lose sight of what's going on in the big picture as well. In an open-world game, story often takes a backseat to the player's freedom, and so it's even more necessary to make sure that the events are tied together strongly. Grand Theft Auto has traditionally done an excellent job of involving players in the story, with lots of interesting characters, twists and turns, etc. Each character on the map represents a tiny story in and of themselves, but also presents a smaller narrative arc, which in turn ties into the rest of the story as well.

Functional motivation is effectively what sorts of material benefit the player can receive from continuing through the game. This usually takes the form of a tangible reward, like a new item, a new ability, money, a health boost, and so on. Rewards are always best when anticipated and worked for, not simply handed to the player on a silver platter or seemingly at random, which means that it's always best to tell the player exactly what cool new benefit they'll receive if they keep playing. The important part of a functional motivation is that the mechanical benefit of the item is what is important to the player, not necessarily the effect the acquisition might have on the story, or its aesthetic appeal. Why should I care about getting the rocket launcher? Because it'll let me blow up those enemies that cause so much trouble for me! Why do I want the hookshot? I can use it to grapple around the environment! Functional motivation is effectively material, and ties into the player's empowerment fantasy, but it's no less important in keeping them going through the game.

Aspirational motivation is the most esoteric of these, as it deals with why the players are playing the game on a “higher level”. The aspirational motivation appeals to the sense of discovery, the player's vanity and aesthetic sensibilities, the desire to get all there is out of the game. Yeah, the hookshot might let me grapple to the dungeon's boss, but I'm really more concerned with how it will let me visit that cave I spotted off on the other side of that cliff! That new armour all well and good, but it's not important to me if I look silly in it – I want my character to be a badass! Aspirational motivations assume that players aren't just interested in one specific element of the game, i.e. the story or the mechanics, but are interested and fully invested in the experience of playing. The more such sensibilities can be played to, the better, and recognising how they interact with the narrative and functional elements of the game is also integral.

Moving through an open-world game should be an experience dictated by the player, but still controlled by the designer. The goal of an open-world game is to give the player a sense of freedom and control, but not to surrender it completely. An open-world game recognises that the player's interaction with the game is important, but that there still needs to be a strong supporting framework and specifically engineered challenges to test the player. Titles like Zelda , Grand Theft Auto IV , and Fallout all acknowledge this to varying degrees, and they are all equally successful.

Designing for the sandbox

If the strength of open-world games is in crafting a specific experience that the player is able to guide and manipulate on his or her own terms, then the strength of sandbox games is to provide the player with a set of tools to experiment with. In a sandbox game, objectives, progress, etc. aren't static things created by designers to be overcome by the player. As a result, sandbox games face quite a few more challenges than open-world games, since they can't rely on ushering the player forward with carrots in the same way more traditional games do. Sandbox games have to be fun, wholly and completely, on a base mechanical level in order to be successful.  Additionally, much of the challenge of the game has to come from the base mechanics and the way they interact, as well as the plyer, who in turn is also in control of game progress.  A number of design considerations have to be made in light of this. 

Consider Roller Coaster Tycoon : while there are a number of specific rules the player has to follow, and a good deal of scenarios to play through, the game is effectively a toybox for the player to have fun with. Certain rides, including the eponymous roller coasters, can be hand-crafted by players to allow for a wide variety of outcomes, anywhere from gut-wrenching, to mildly entertaining, to fiery and horrific. The flow of attendees throughout the theme park is governed by simple AI, as well as their wants and needs at an individual level; this is all open to manipulation by the player, who is able to build gift shops, toll booths, walkways, food vendors, and much more. The game is much less driven by any actual objective than it is by the player simply fulfilling his or her own set goals, whether that's to build the prettiest amusement park, the most profitable, the most dangerous, the largest, etc. The way the attendees behave is directly tied into the different ways players choose to enjoy the game, meaning that they receive a challenge no matter what they try to do. Coupled with an easy-to-use interface, Roller Coaster Tycoon offers up a game whose mechanics carry it forward; the player does everything to make the experience meaningful.

  Roller Coaster Tycoon is, despite its age, more a sandbox than most current titles.

In sandbox games, there are a number of ways to ensure that the player has a fun and challenging experience regardless of how he or she chooses to play. Tropico 3's “sandbox mode”, effectively an endless, objective-free play through the game, might offer one style of play, but within that, additional objectives can help provide flavour while still effectively maintaining a sandbox feel. Since the player's enjoyment of a game is contingent upon the success of those basic mechanics, it is of the utmost importance that those mechanics operate successfully and aren't prone to exploitation, bugs, and anything that would otherwise cripple the delicate balanced. Pared down to a few basic concepts, there are three governing factors which are most imperative in a sandbox game's design: action & reaction, constraints, and interdependence.

Action & reaction is the most fundamental, and while heavily important to all games, it's central to the success of a sandbox game. Put concisely, the player has to be able to exert some influence over the world, whether that is as a “god”, as a “commander” or as an individual character; then, the player must also be provided with accurate, easy-to-understand and clear feedback as to the effects of their actions on the game world. This applies to both simple and complex elements. In Just Cause 2 , the player is informed instantly if his or her Heat level goes up, both by interface indicators and by a change in the pace, tempo and intensity of the in-game music, which begins to swell with dramatic strings and thumping bass. In Roller Coaster Tycoon , when the player increases prices for entry, he or she may see visitors leave or turn away from the amusement park gate.

In sandbox games, “doing things” is where most of the fun comes from; it's the joy gained from the mechanics themselves that motivates the player to keep going. However, if the player were capable of doing anything at any given time, not only might the game be over very quickly, but the player would have no reason to explore the game's systems fully. Constraints are necessary in order to focus the player in a direction of his or her choosing, while offering incentive to explore other aspects of the game that may normally go untouched. Roller Coaster Tycoon features money as its primary global constraint, but there are others, including the individual properties of rides and the sensibilities of the visitors at the amusement park. Note that a constraint is not the same as a goal: it provides motivation for continuing through the game and exploring new aspects of it, but it in itself is only a means towards another end, while actually dealing with a goal is usually what's fun in more traditional games.

Interdependence, is why a sandbox is any fun in the first place. A bunch of mechanics which are wholly independent from each other and have no influence might be fun to toy around with a little bit in isolation, but don't provide any meaningful decisions for the player to make and would quickly grow boring. Money in Roller Coaster Tycoon is a constraint, but it also allows for complex interaction between all of the different amusements and infrastructure the player can build: what happens if I spend all my money on drink stands, but don't make any bathrooms? How does that affect my park's visitors? Is it more worthwhile to charge lots of money at the door and less in the park, or vice-versa? In Just Cause 2 , at the low level, the player has a grappling hook and parachute which may be used to scale the environment in extremely creative ways, but the ability to fight back at enemies is sacrificed for mobility, and poor navigation can lead to the player becoming an easy target for enemies. At a higher level, the player's successes in causing Chaos throughout the world open up new story missions, as well as new weapons and vehicles, which in turn can be used to cause even more Chaos – but the higher Heat level attained also means the player will be more vulnerable when using those new, destructive toys.

The key here is that while sandbox games can be big and open when it comes to geography and world size, they really don't have to be. “Sandbox” first and foremost refers to the ability to toy with the game mechanics in order to set new goals to overcome, and achieve creative and interesting effects. In the case of Just Cause 2 , the huge map exists less more to exhaust the player than it does to provide a fully-furnished, extensive game experience as it would in an open-world game. A sandbox game can elect to have a story, and characters, and certain scenarios where the player may or may not be limited or driven by specific goals and constraints, but at a base level it has to be able to stand on its own as fun even when wholly divorced from the motivations that more traditional and open-world games require.

The hybrid?

Of course, games being what they are, there are many different titles which fall into a nebulous territory between sandbox and open-world. I've already mentioned Grand Theft Auto as an open-world game, which I stand by, but it also incorporates sandbox elements, namely, in the form of police officers and the Wanted level. Similar to Just Cause 2's Heat meter, if the player performs any illegal (usually violent) acts, the police will come after the player, first in limited numbers. These are fairly easy to escape from, but if the player chooses to fight back against the police, he or she will be beset by increasingly difficult SWAT officers, and even the military in some of the titles. While Grand Theft Auto isn't quite a sandbox game, it does have a level of challenge which the player is able to manipulate and isn't limited by scenarios the designers have created. The Civilization series could also be seen as a bit of a hybrid, with its potentially endless empire-building gameplay, but the strong competition and definite victory conditions means that it too doesn't quite qualify for the sandbox label.

Whether or not games should actively seek out sandbox-style gameplay when they have not necessarily been constructed as “pure sandbox” experiences in the first place is a difficult question to answer. I'm sure many gamers would appreciate a linear or open-world experience that has been very tightly refined, while others are more concerned with fun and don't mind if their games are unfocused, so long as they're enjoyable. For better or for worse, I don't think that this is a question that enters too much into the design of games: given how iterative development is for many, the “throw it against the wall and keep what sticks” approach can be beneficial, even if it results in something which doesn't quite have the unity and consistency of vision or elegance of something more precisely tailored.
Originally posted at Critical Missive.


Yet more Dragon Age II impressions

The following are some collected impressions from some forum posts I made.  I figured I should post them on Giant Bomb as well, to help counteract some of the overwhelming positivity the game has seen in certain circles.
Suffice is to say that most of my fears about the game have come to pass: it's effectively Mass Effect with swords. I found the voice acting to be super-stilted, the writing to be awkward and amateurish, dialogue choices are both generic in tone and extremely limited, there's a real lack of proper choice and consequence (hard to illustrate in a demo, but no real hints at it at all), combat isn't as terrible as I thought it would be but still very hack-n-slash (fast and flashy without much depth, just manage cooldowns), interface is pretty poor (hard to access certain information, everything is a "wheel" designed for analogue sticks), visuals are, at least in the opening area, bland and unappealing, the art style is pretty mixed in its success (some stuff looks great, other stuff not so much), the retcons to character designs are a bit weird to say the least, both versions of Hawke come across as flippant jerks more than anything... overall, it simply feels like a simpler, more action-oriented, linear game, and I get the sense that this was fully intended on EA/BioWare's part after the success of Mass Effect 2.

A bit more on combat: it's basically like Dragon Age's, but much, much faster, almost to the point where keeping track of what's going on is hard without constant pausing. In Origins I could keep track of things by zooming the camera out and pausing from time to time, but in Dragon Age II it seems I have to pause every few seconds, and keeping track of everyone on the battlefield is much more trouble than it should be. Not being able to press Tab to see all characters' health bars means I have to waste time mousing over every single enemy just to see if they're worth prioritising. It's a good thing the combat AI has been massively improved (probably just better default tactics scripts), but the downside of that means that you really don't have to do much to win other than spam your biggest attacks whenever they're ready.

Origins had all these problems with combat, especially in its spamming of abilities, but they're all exacerbated in Dragon Age II because everything moves so much faster. But even faster combat doesn't make plinking away at huge health bars for minutes on end fun. Playing mage was by far the most interesting class, just because there were more varied abilities to manage, and rogue was entertaining due to being able to run around like a maniac and teleport behind enemies, but it didn't make the game any tactically deeper, just more superficially involving in the sense that I was pressing more buttons. Warrior, though, was just so amazingly dull that I actually Alt+F4'd out of the demo midway; the cool-looking animations lost their lustre after about ten seconds and after that there was literally nothing for me to do but wait for the battle to eventually end.
On dialogue, well, let's just say that it's not too good either.  While the writing itself is passable, there's way too many cheesy one-liners, it's dripping with laughably overwrought melodrama, and the dialogue system itself has taken a major turn for the worse.  Whereas the first Dragon Age had some pretty open-ended dialogue trees with a good variety of options that could steer conversations in different directions, Dragon Age II seems to railroad you constantly, just like Mass Effect.  The paraphrased options in the dialogue wheel are pretty misleading: an option that suggests you're going to be angry actually leads to compassion, while something that looks practical results in your character acting like a snarky asshole.  Even worse, though, it seems like the dialogue wheel disguises the lack of player choice... don't like those Templars who want to slay your apostate ass?  Too bad, they're tagging along with you anyway because "stay the hell away" apparently means "lead on, friend!"  And of course, if the developer has planned a boss fight, you're damn well going to have it, because even if you choose the diplomatic option, another character starts the fight for you and you're forced to defend her.  Brilliant!  The voice acting doesn't cope well with the poor writing either... aside from Flemeth, who is suitably mysterious, everyone else has a cheesy-as-hell put-on accent or just sounds bored, like they're waiting for their paycheques to arrive in the mail.  Even Hawke doesn't get a decent voice actor... male Hawke sounds dire and stern as hell no matter what dialogue options you choose, and female Hawke is annoyingly smug and smarmy.

Oh, and some of the female character designs are just outright laughable. Seriously, this gratuitous T'n'A in fantasy games is getting annoying, and now apparently we can't give the characters new clothes/armour because it's no longer possible to change their inventory items (I guess that's too confusing for the action crowd or something?). Even Flemeth has cleavage now. Seriously, guys? Seriously? Isabella also makes a reference to giving the player some "company", which seems a delightfully specific thing to include in said demo, as does Booby McBoobs for that matter (I guess EA figure sex sells). I'm not opposed to sex in games, but you need some balance and contrast... why does every female party member need to be a supermodel with D-cups, and why do we need to have the sex front and center? A fade to black is better than any graphic sequence, bad innuendos or cleavage if I can be persuaded to care about the characters. This is just cheap and exploitative.

It's hard for me to say that Dragon Age II is a poorly made game, and demos are never a good judge of the finished product, especially in the case of an RPG, but then, I'm also having a very hard time calling it an RPG at all at this point. Yes, it's got stats and attributes and skill trees, but if you cut that out there's nothing about it that even remotely references pen and paper or wargame roots. I don't need every game to be tactical and difficult, or be masterfully written, but Dragon Age II feels inferior in almost every way to its predecessor, unless you're looking for a console action game with RPG trappings, in which case... I'd say go play God of War, seriously, it's way better. BioWare sure seem intent on pleasing just about every demographic these days... that old "Jack of all trades is a master of none" adage seems pretty relevant here, since Dragon Age II seems to fail both as an RPG and as an action game.


Close, but no 1-Up: A critique of the Smithsonian's "Art of Video

Close, but no 1-Up: A critique of the Smithsonian's "Art of Video Games" exhibit

Last week, it was announced that the Smithsonian Institution, a museum and research institute funded and maintained by the United States government, would be opening up a new videogame-centric exhibit entitled “The Art of Video Games”.  Seemingly every gamer in touch with industry news rejoiced at this: finally, gaming was getting the respect it deserved, and from a highly official institution no less!  The implications of such a decision are actually pretty magnificent for the games industry.  While the Smithsonian is by no means the ultimate judge of a medium’s credibility, it does show an increased mainstream acceptance of videogames and a greater appreciation for the endless dedication and talent that go into their production.  Perhaps most importantly, it gives some genuine validation to the notion of games as an art form; while designers and thinkers have argued this for decades, to see a body acting in the interests of the general populace make such a claim is heart-warming for nearly every gamer and developer out there.

While the efforts of the Smithsonian are undoubtedly appreciated by gamers worldwide (and I am certainly one such gamer), after a closer look at the arrangement of the exhibit and the selection process for inaugurating new games, I found myself increasingly sceptical as to the validity of the exhibit.  Collected below are the core problem areas that I’ve identified for how this exhibit is being arranged, at least with the information that is publicly available.  I’d like to make it quite clear that the goal of this article isn’t to attack the individuals who are behind the Art of Video Games exhibit or the Smithsonian as a whole – I’m sure they’re all wonderfully smart, talented people, but I get the distinct sense that very few of them are gamers, and even if they are, they haven’t thought out the exhibit nearly enough.

Popularity = historical importance?

This is probably the most plainly visible problem with the way that the exhibit is arranged.  Rather than rely on a panel of experts, theorists, game critics, or their own intuition and research to select the games put on display in the Art of Video Games exhibit, instead, the Smithsonian has elected to put the decision on the shoulders of gamers, by fielding a vote on which games should be included.  To claim that popularity, even among gamers, is a good metric for determining the historical relevance and art value of a videogame, is simply short-sighted and naive.  While I’m not here to indict the personal tastes of mainstream audiences or any other group of gamers, the simple fact is that sales simply aren’t the only thing games can be or should be rated on.  Looking to votes as a guide for how to arrange the exhibit isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but to frame the process as effectively a popularity contest in the eyes of most gamers, and to use that as the defining metric for inclusion in the exhibit, is colossally insensitive to the individual games on display.

Adding to this problem is the fact that many games are placed in direct opposition with each other, despite them being both hugely influential and exceedingly important to gaming.  Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Fallout are both considered, rightly so, to be some of the best CRPGs ever developed, and set the standards for Western RPG gameplay and storytelling even decades after their release.  And yet, as a voter, I am supposed to put my vote into one or the other?  Both games are phenomenal, for different reasons; chances are the victor in such a vote won’t come down to which game truly deserves to win out (they both do), but simply which one has more fans.  It doesn’t help at all that they’re from the same, genre, of course, which brings me to...

Genre matters

While the Smithsonian have done a fairly admirable job of trying to categorise games based on platform and on genre, the actual categories provided are both far too broad and feature far too few games to make truly adequate selections.  One of the most nebulous of all of these categories is the “target genre”, which I take it the Smithsonian means is a combination of first-person shooter, flight simulator and generally any game which involves aiming, but then, based on their own inconsistency in including shooters in the category, I’m not sure the Smithsonian knows what it means either.  For instance, on the DOS/Windows platform, Doom II, Deus Ex and Unreal are all lumped together under the “action genre” category, yet on the Nintendo 64, Goldeneye 007 is listed as a “target genre”.  Why the inconsistency?

 One of these is not like the other.  
It doesn’t end there, either.  One of the most ridiculous examples of the shortcomings of the categories provided can be seen in the Smithsonian including Diablo II, a point-and-click action RPG, along with Star Wars: TIE Fighter, a science-fiction space combat simulation, together in that “target genre”.  Not only were these games released a full six years apart (a massive amount of time in videogame industry terms), but they come from two completely different genres with completely different gameplay standards.  Even the primary mode of interaction with the game is different, in a category which is supposed to be defined by that mode of interaction!  To say that this is a bit of a mess would be an understatement.

What era are you from?

No doubt for ease of understanding and to simplify the voting process, the Smithsonian have effectively categorised the history of videogames into five major eras.  While categorising games this way is in itself a bit haphazard, I do understand the intention.  However, once again the implementation is rather poor.  Put simply, games can’t be broken up into such discrete eras, especially in such a fast-moving industry.  There have been by most counts about seven major console generations so far, not counting some of the earliest gaming systems, and yet the Smithsonian have seen fit to break them down into just five.

Pause for a moment and consider: are games from 1993 really comparable to games from 2000, not just in terms of technology, but in sophistication of design, in game mechanics, or in narrative pacing and convention?  I think the only reasonable answer to that question is no, and yet the original PlayStation finds itself right next to the Dreamcast in the Smithsonian’s voting ladder.  Furthermore, why is there so much overlap between Era 3 and Era 4?  What is the major difference between an Era 3 game from 1994 and an Era 4 game from 1994, and why was this deemed a great enough reason to separate the two by something as drastic as an era?  Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it.

Arcade, arcade, where art thou?

Even though many gamers today are too young to so fondly remember arcades (in fact, I’m one of them), to underestimate the importance that arcades had on gaming’s development as an artistic medium and even as a language would be near-criminal.  Not only did arcade gaming by and large precede home gaming consoles, but it is responsible for forming some of our most fundamental notions of what videogames encompass, the basic building blocks that just about every game is made up of today.  Even if those conventions aren’t referred to in name, oftentimes mechanics can be traced back to their arcade roots.  Of course, I’m talking about things as important as extra lives, game over screens, power-ups, continues, bosses, side-scrolling, and too many other things to count.  The unique market conditions that determined arcade game development were responsible for these innovations, along with the technology that only arcade machines could provide.

The Atari version of Pac-man is not exactly the iconic version gamers know and love.

One of the most stunning examples of this can be seen in the Smithsonian’s casting of the Atari VCS version of Pac-man, considered not only to be largely inferior to the arcade classic in both visuals and audio, but also one of the worst adaptations of Pac-man ever.  Most gamers are intimately familiar with the original arcade version of the game, and to see it go inexplicably unmentioned in the Smithsonian’s voting process is, frankly, rather painful and even borderline offensive.  It displays an ignorance to gaming’s history that just shouldn’t be present what is an attempt at a definitive historical exhibit.

Bigger isn’t always better

This point is a little bit more esoteric and perhaps something that the Smithsonian isn’t directly accountable for, but I think it’s one of the most damaging flaws in the way that the Art of Video Games exhibit is arranged.  Marketing professionals have known for years that an easy way to sell a product is to attach a bigger number to it than its predecessor or competition.  The megahertz war in computer systems, the wattage war in speaker systems, the ever-increasing number of blades on shaving razors, the constant strain announcing that every sequel provides “more of what you love”... all of these examples are not the result of any truly inherent improvements in bigger numbers, but rather are an exploitation of a property that, for all intents and purposes, is inherent to humans.

Put simply, we always want more.  People are rarely satisfied, and when we are, often it’s only for a fleeting moment and we move on to other tasks centred around increasing our wealth, influence, happiness, etc.  Because of this, we’re also very easily duped by bigger numbers.  The implication of a larger number is always more, and that more is always better.  Gillette’s octo-bladed razors don’t sell because they provide a legitimately better shave than their cheaper two- or three-bladed razors, they sell because many people perceive the quality of the product to be better.  While many arguments can be made regarding the emotional benefits of the “feeling” these sorts of products provide, the simple fact is that in actuality, higher numbers don’t always mean that something is an improvement.

 The divisions between these eras may be arbitrary, but the banner makes it appear otherwise. 
I mention all of this because the Smithsonian’s exhibit seems to be entirely centred around this arrangement.  The linear ordering of eras from 1 to 5, for example, suggests not only a very clear, predictable progression, but also that games from later eras are better than games from earlier eras.  Additionally, the numerical and progressive ordering of eras also suggests a clean, causal relationship which reads something like “and then this game led to this game, and this game led to...”, which, even in a highly iterative and even derivative field like videogames, simply isn’t the case.

Also concerning is that the same logic spills over to sequels.  Including both Fallout and Fallout 3 on this list, replete with screenshots which reveal little but visual improvements, suggests not only that Fallout 3 is a superior game to Fallout, but that Fallout 3 is a forward, linear improvement of Fallout... which, given the incredible differences in developers, game mechanics, camera perspectives, pacing, world design, narrative, problem-solving, quest design, and more, is obviously not really the case.  I don’t mean to suggest that my complaint here lies in that I think Fallout 3 is an inferior game to the original (although I do), but rather it’s all about what someone viewing the exhibit is going to take away from it.  Unless someone has had direct exposure to both games, or the Smithsonian provides very detailed write-ups and explanations of the differences between certain games, and ensures that these comprehensible by those attending the exhibit, chances are all but the most experienced gamers are going to walk away with a good degree of misinformation... and for an exhibit on a contemporary form of media where these problems can be much more ably remedied, there’s just no excuse.

What is this exhibit even for?

Once again, I want to stress my respect and appreciation for the work that the people at the Smithsonian are doing.  Considering that they are likely a fairly small team of people working to meet the needs of an entire industry, while at the same time perhaps not even possessing much background in videogames (I can’t say for sure), I think they’ve done a pretty good job so far.  But one major issue remains that I haven’t touched on directly yet, and that is, what is the purpose of this Art of Video Games exhibit? 
Let me break things down a little bit more, here.  The Smithsonian website states that the Art of Video Games is to “explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers”.  Sounds good on paper, but what does it mean?

First off, there’s a very strong emphasis on visuals above all else.  While aesthetics in gaming are an extremely important thing, and no doubt the exhibit should stress in particular the technological constrains on art direction and design, at the same time this isn’t really fair to games as an artistic medium.  As a government-sanctioned institution, the Smithsonian should work to be open to all interpretations of art and media, and I have no doubt that they work hard to do this for other forms of expression such as film and sculpture.  Any reasonable art historian will argue that aesthetics are only a single component in understanding the importance of art, and the same credibility should be given to videogames.

The Smithsonian do seem to try to compensate for this by adding on the bit about “designers”, but who are they talking about here?  Art designers and design?  Game designers?  Project directors?  Sound engineers?  Foley artists?  Programmers?  Game development is such a multi-disciplinary field, and includes so many distinct talents and individuals, that it’s simply unacceptable to try to encompass all of these things by using an ambiguous word like “designers”.  “Design” itself is also mentioned, along with “innovation”, but similar problems arise: are we talking about visual design, sound design, original game mechanics, well-made game mechanics, novelty, or storytelling?  The juxtaposition of the word with a stress on aesthetics also suggests that they are even using the word as a synonym for artist, which again shows a lack of appreciation for the specifics of the videogame world.

Judging by the sorts of games that the Smithsonian includes on their list, they seem to be remarkably inconsistent... on the one hand, their official statement stresses visual splendour, with only a passing mention of design, and yet on the other hand most of the games on their voting list seem to be there for their excellence in design, storytelling and game mechanics more than anything else.  If I was going to focus on games with phenomenal art direction, I sure wouldn’t include Deus Ex or The Typing of the Dead on that list.  This lack of consistency really suggests to me that the Smithsonian just aren’t sure precisely what the purpose of their own exhibit is, and that is a real shame considering the symbolic, cultural and academic importance of the institution.

Room for improvement

In light of all these somewhat scathing complaints, I do want to mention that there is plenty of time left for the Smithsonian to amend their arrangement of the Art of Video Games exhibit.  Hiring on more consultants for the historical and factual validity of their exhibit would be a great start, as would ensuring that the votes of mass audiences are a less central component to the selection process.  Many of the additional problems could also be solved by getting rid of some of the more nebulous and ill-defined genre and era categories, and replacing them with in-depth write-ups detailing how certain games are artistically important, and for what reasons they have been honoured by their inclusion in the exhibit.  As it stands now, though, the Art of Video Games is a nice gesture with poor execution backing it up; as someone who loves videogames, I’d too love to see them acknowledged in a manner that truly befits them.
Originally posted at Critical Miss


The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists

The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists

One of the most remarkable and interesting things about the just-released Dead Space 2, a game which has received accolades both for its storytelling and artistry in horror and tension, isn’t the fact that the game has received a visual facelift, or that the monsters are more terrifying than ever, or that the play is better balanced.   What struck me, rather, in examining some of the pre-release information on the game, but especially after coming into contact with the game itself, is just how different Dead Space has become now that its protagonist is fully-voiced.   The world of gaming has a fairly long-standing tradition of silent protagonists, including veritable lineages of heroes who speak with their actions, not words, and rather than continue in that direction, Dead Space has left those ranks, presumably in the interest of moving its narrative forward.

Isaac Clarke’s decision to open his mouth isn’t one that has implications for fans’ conceptions of the character, however.   Rather, the decision to move away from a silent protagonist has greater, farther-reaching consequences than that.  Dead Space draws heavy inspiration from two games in particular, Half-Life and System Shock 2, which are also well-known for having voiceless heroes.   In this article, I will examine those two games in order to understand the effect a silent protagonist has on a game’s design and narrative, and ultimately, how Dead Space, and games in general, are changed much more significantly by the decision.


The original Half-Life is one of the most influential games of the last twenty years, notable for being among the first shooters to set its gameplay not within nondescript castles and spaceships, but to create a believable, lived-in world that was itself used as a way to further the game’s story. In Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at the top-secret Black Mesa Research Facility; disaster strikes when a teleportation experiment results in the facility being overrun with hostile aliens.   As Gordon, players have one real goal: to escape the facility using both firepower and brain power to overcome the aliens, the facility’s increasing stages of degradation, as well as the government troops which are called in to “erase” the mistakes made by the science team.

Throughout, Gordon never says a word, and yet Freeman is one of the most fondly-remembered characters in all of gaming, a curious phenomenon considering that Gordon himself only really appears on the game’s box artwork and in the main menu screen – the game never breaks its first-person perspective, right from the beginning.   How can a character who effectively has no personality and nothing to say to others even be considered a character at all?   And how can players’ relationships towards him be so deep and affecting?

Players likely absorb more of Gordon's personality from promotional
artwork such as this, than actual in-game events.

The reason, it occurs to me, is that players aren’t fond of Gordon Freeman himself; rather, they are fond of the experiences they had while in his HEV suit.   Gordon is not a military man, or (at least on-screen) a genius, or a romantic, or even much of a male to begin with.   Almost any and all traits about Gordon can be inferred not from the things Gordon does, but from the way players interpret the game world and the comments of other characters.   “Catch me later, I’ll buy you a beer”, a security officer tells the player.   Gordon’s locker features a number of unimportant items, yet appropriate for a scientist.   A colleague mentions “delays in the project again”.   The world, the characters and the dialogue are at once specific, but also open and abstract enough to allow for nearly anyone to put themselves in Gordon’s shoes.   Thus, it’s misleading for players to say they like Gordon.   What they really mean is that they like how Gordon facilitated their journey through Half-Life.

Yet despite Gordon’s lack of speech, the game and level design in Half-Life is so phenomenal not simply because it creates good gameplay out of convincingly real environments, but because it always provides a plausible reason for why he never opens his mouth.  The vast majority of Half-Life’s character interaction occurs early in the game, and during this time the player is ushered on as quickly as he or she arrives, on account of Gordon’s tardiness.   The subsequent dialogues in the game come mostly from characters who the player has no direct access to: scientists behind closed doors, a voice over a radio, soldiers who chat amongst themselves but open fire as soon as they detect the player, and so on.   Those that the player talks to more directly often have no reason to linger, as they themselves are also in the process of hiding, running, and, of course, meeting grisly ends.   The various characters that populate Black Mesa serve both a way to visually communicate danger and story to the player (scientists lined up and shot by soldiers, security personnel wounded by a new alien foe, etc.) and to inform the player of game mechanics or provide hints on how to proceed.   They are functional in terms of guiding the player along, but their purpose is served as soon as their lines are spoken.   Few would benefit much from any additional dialogue.

Funny, I can think of another protagonist whose whole shtick
was his self-awareness and in-game commentary...

What’s more, the dialogue in Half-Life is constructed in such a way that the potential responses Gordon would make are so inconsequential as to be easily abstracted out – other than an “okay” or “thanks”, the player is never left with the feeling that Gordon is “too quiet” because there’s never a compelling enough reason for him to talk in the first place.   Even if he were to have a voice, what would he say?   “Wow, that was a big explosion”?   “Ouch, that looks like it hurt”?   “Holy [expletive], this is messed up!”?   Such lines would totally weaken the game, and risk turning it into a parody, especially considering it’s a mostly solitary journey.   Even in situations where a voice might be useful, such as in the event of the player’s injury, Gordon’s voice is instead substituted by that of his HEV suit, which informs the player of potential hazards and communicates in-universe when ammunition and health are low.

Half-Life is a game whose story and narrative progression come not from gross amounts of exposition, but as a natural product of the player’s exploration and goal of survival in a hostile environment; Gordon says little because the environment already says all it needs to, and because were he to speak, he’d simply be mirroring exactly what the player is already thinking.   Valve were extremely wise to make Gordon a mute; the decision plays to the strengths of Half-Life as a visceral, personal experience, rather than an interactive film, as many games today aspire to become.

System Shock 2

Many of System Shock 2’s strengths mirror those of the original Half-Life.   Taking place aboard the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light spaceship, the player character is an unnamed soldier who has modest field experience in the military, which the player is able to tailor in order to influence his or her various starting skills and abilities.   In System Shock 2, the player is even more of a literal blank slate than in Half-Life  – all the more appropriate for the RPG-style upgrade system that offers up the ability to upgrade the player’s “cybernetic rig”.   After a disaster of unknown origin damages much of the ship and either kills or transforms the crew into monsters called “The Many”, the player must follow the commands of a Dr. Janice Polito, who sends orders via radio; the player has little choice but to obey.

System Shock 2 is, of course, most famous for its major plot twist during the second act (which I intend to spoil, so fair warning!).   The gravity of seeing Polito revealed as SHODAN, the quasi-dominatrix bitch-AI villain of the first game, and of the player coming to the realisation that he or she has been working for the enemy all along, can’t be understated.  Betrayal is, of course, a universal language, and so that alone should be enough to make players’ blood boil, but I’d like to take things a step beyond such rote storytelling tropes, and posit that the reason why this moment is so important and effective is actually precisely because of the silence enforced upon the player.

Peeping in on the spirit world is pretty much the closest 
thing to "character interaction" the player does in System Shock 2.

System Shock 2 resembles Half-Life in that the player must explore a lived-in world that has been hit by disaster and decay, but the mute protagonists in both games serve very different roles.   In Half-Life, a number of contrivances were required to ensure Gordon’s silence, as his dialogue would be redundant or ultimately useless to advancing the story, and potentially even damaging to the experience.  System Shock 2, meanwhile, places the player in a world where he or she is totally isolated.   There are absolutely no characters the player can actually interact with in any non-violent manner.   Rather, the player is occupied by ghosts of the events leading up to the disaster, audio recordings left behind by the former crew, and the radio instructions of Dr. Polito/SHODAN, as well as others later in the game.

In System Shock 2, as a result, the player is never author of his or her own experience with respect to the story, and never feels that way – it is only action that the player has control over.   Although the game gives a lot of freedom in how the player solves problems and deals with the challenges presented, the objectives are wholly forced upon the player.   When told to reroute the power at a particular terminal, or to turn on the ship’s engines, the player doesn’t have a particular understanding of why the request is made, and no real explanation is given – nor can the player request one, either.   The persona of Dr. Janice Polito, and later SHODAN, is that of an insistent, almost childish woman who cannot be placated; no matter what the player seems to do, it’s never enough to satisfy her, and despite successes, she grows increasingly frustrated, antagonistic and demanding as the game wears on and the player is made to perform more and more dangerous tasks.   When the player finally reaches Polito, only to find her dead body and the enormous, self-indulgent image of SHODAN floating above, the realisation strikes home so soundly not because the player has been betrayed, but because he or she is reduced to nothing before a god.   The player, a “mere insect”, cannot even speak; the privilege has been forcibly denied by the game’s design, as well as the narrative.

SHODAN: villain, murderer, god-queen, cyber-dominatrix, and... weakling?

SHODAN’s insistence upon making the player do everything for her, however, ultimately ends up being her downfall.   SHODAN is a powerful, malevolent and wholly imposing villain, but she is also a wordy, self-obsessed, implacable one.   Her goal, the destruction of The Many, the bio-engineered life form responsible for the disaster on the Von Braun, and her own former “children”, is something that she cannot accomplish due to lacking a physical form.   The player, who goes on to defeat The Many and, later, SHODAN, is able to succeed not through the power of insults, or demands, or any words at all, but rather, through action, the one thing that SHODAN is incapable of performing herself.   The player’s resistance to SHODAN is not something of finesse, or logic and reasoning, but brute force.

Thus, System Shock 2 doesn’t use the imposed silence of its protagonist in order to render the player as a blank slate for the purpose of building a customised avatar, or for railroading the player down a particular story path without needing to provide an excuse for doing so.   System Shock 2’s use of a silent protagonist, instead, is utterly fundamental to the impact of the game’s central plot twist, and, ultimately to what the ending symbolises: the victory of deeds over words.   Of course, the suggestion that raw, “masculine” firepower is the solution to “feminine” talk and idleness has problems of its own, but that’s a topic for another day.

“I shouldn’t have said anything...”

The first Dead Space was a success largely because of the way it was able to blend a horror atmosphere and sense of isolation with action-oriented gameplay.   Effectively a continuation of Resident Evil 4’s game mechanics, but set to System Shock 2’s futuristic aesthetic, it leveraged its silent protagonist by once again leaving him as a blank slate – beyond being male in a rote industrial job, players had very little sense of Isaac as a character.   Even when he was made more human by the suggestion of his past relationships, these were typically abstract enough that most players could identify with him, without being pulled out of the experience or suddenly made aware that it was “Isaac’s story” and not “my story”; the fundamental line between self and other was not crossed.

For Dead Space 2, however, Isaac has become a fully realised character.   His past is now far more fleshed out, his role in the story is less of an outside observer and more of a fundamental player, and he is wholly identifiable as white, male and American.  Of most consequence, though, is that the division between the self and other has been breached.   Whereas Dead Space was focused around the player and his or her exploration of a terrifying, hostile environment, Dead Space 2 is focused around Isaac’s own endeavours; the player is largely just along for the ride.

Isaac's girlfriend Nicole was probably the closest 
thing he had to a character prior to Dead Space 2

I want to stress that this doesn’t necessarily make Dead Space 2 a worse game, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative is weaker, or that players can’t connect to Isaac as a character.   However, the relationship between the player and the game has been shifted radically, and has dire implications for the future of the franchise.   Dead Space is no longer about the player and the science fiction universe, it’s about just another white male American with a history of personal anguish.   The language players use to describe their interaction with Dead Space as a franchise has been irreversibly changed.

In any case, I hope this article has served its purpose as a thorough analysis and has highlighted some of the important ways in which the protagonist of a game can vitally change the direction of that game, from its narrative, to its level design, to its mechanics, and to its central meaning and message.   What matters to me isn’t that games have silent protagonists or not, but rather, it’s that developers, as well as fans and critics, are sensitive to the impact such decisions have on the experiences they have.

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Originally posted on Critical Miss


Leveraging social networking for new game experiences

The rise of social networks has largely coincided with the current console generation.   Online networks like LiveJournal and MySpace always had a certain cult following, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the current decade that things really began to take off, especially with the introduction of Facebook and Twitter into the realm of social networking.   The inclusion of development tools for Facebook in particular has led to the emergence to runaway successes of Facebook games, most notably Zynga’s products Mafia Wars and Farmville.
However, while this market has proven itself to be at least successful in the short term for quick, easy to pick up and play games that leverage Facebook’s community features, they have largely been met with critique and scorn by traditional gamers, ostensibly for their lack of depth, as well as their inclusion of extensive advertising and freemium models of play.   While more traditional games, both those distributed digitally by smaller developers and big-budget retail titles, have attempted to integrate social features, these have been pretty mixed in their implementations – everything from posting multiplayer scores to Facebook leaderboards, to sending tweets about achievement progress, to wholly dedicated networks created by publishers, such as EA’s BioWare Social Network, and Ubisoft’s UPlay.

In the following few paragraphs I’d like to propose what could be possible in the future for social network gaming from a design perspective, how existing games can be improved by the inclusion of social networking features, and discuss what I feel will be the ultimate result of this phenomenon, consolidation between retail and web gaming.   This is less a formal article and more a smattering of my own collected thoughts, but comments are appreciated nonetheless.

Facebook doesn’t just have to be about farming

So far, current social games have been pretty limited as far as their gameplay goes.   Farmville, for instance, is effectively a “lite” management-type game which requires frequent but relatively undemanding investment into the care of one’s farm – players are rewarded for both helping grow their own enterprise, but also by cooperating and getting their friends to join the game (one of its most criticized elements).   Some of the other most popular games available are clones of traditional board games such as Scrabble, classic arcade games like Snake, and branded tie-ins for television shows and other big-budget retail games.   There is nothing wrong with these sorts of games, of course, but they are undeniably experiences that fall within the realm of what was possible on the web before the advent of social networking

Titles like Scrabulous do not need to be the extent of social network gaming.

While the types of games available on Facebook are effectively limited by Flash and Facebook’s own API, there is a lot of untapped potential for much more complex and full-featured games.   Existing titles have largely taken the route that smartphone games have, by providing play experiences that can be completed within the span of only a few minutes.   Given the ubiquity of web-enabled devices, however, it seems a little silly that the best of Facebook be essentially the most barebones of what web game developers have to offer.   While balancing quick play sessions with lengthy, retail-style storylines and quests could be a difficult proposition, it’s certainly not a challenge developers are incapable of meeting, given how many similar games are available on the likes of Xbox Live Arcade and Steam.

The technical limitations of the web platform mean that the best games to translate over are those which don’t rely so much on fast action, and instead focus on puzzle and turn-based play.   As any Civilization player can attest, the removal of fast reflexes from the equation of a game does not at all mean that the game has to be stripped of depth.   In fact, Facebook is wholly ripe for strategy, role-playing, adventure and puzzle games well on the level which populate handheld gaming systems like the Nintendo DS.   Visuals aside, there is no real downside to developing these sorts of games for web platforms, and providing deep, compelling game experiences to more traditional players could reveal new demographics, or reach gamers who may not have the money to afford game consoles or expensive computer systems.

I just conquered my friends list!

In addition to this, however, the design of traditional games could be altered radically in the wake of social network features.   Online leaderboards are certainly a way of providing integration, but this only scratches the surface of what is possible.   When design becomes informed by what’s possible in the domain of social networking, previously untapped potential is revealed that I think could totally revitalize the way traditional gamers play, especially in the multiplayer realm.   Down the road, the question may not be so much “how can we incorporate social networking into our game?”, and much more along the lines of “in what new and different ways will this game let players interact within their existing social networks?”

Civ World presents one of the first in a wave of new "harcore"
games that are truly built around social networking.

Civilization World is one of the first games that I’ve seen to attempt to bring a truly deep game experience to the realm of social networking.   In addition to providing a similar game experience to what players can get from the full retail titles, Civilization World also leverages the multiplayer potential of social networking by allowing players to form empires and battle against those on their friends list.   Effectively a multiplayer version of Civ that allows players to coordinate beyond the scope of a traditional game, via the inclusion of long-term goals in addition to short-term ones, it also introduces people who just don’t have the ability or will to get too involved in as complex a game as Civ by providing a gateway through friends and family members.   While the game is still in development, features such as custom leaders and civilizations informed by players’ own Facebook profiles could expand the feature-set of the Civilization series in a way that the most recent PC title, Civilization V, could not.

Another game design idea I’ve been batting around lately has been effectively a co-op Facebook role-playing game, one which features party-based, turn-based combat that requires players to coordinate with each other against both AI and human players to progress through the story.   Players will not only be able to create their own characters, but will also be able to effectively play as themselves by importing their profile information into the game (only should they wish it, of course).   Competitive play, as well as additional, serial-style episodes could also keep the game and story going into the future.   Not really an MMO, this sort of game design would hearken back to the CRPG games of the late 90s by BioWare and Black Isle Studios, a genre that has more or less died out today, but still has a sizeable fanbase and community surrounding it.   Technically advanced visuals, for this community, are far less a concern than game mechanics and story are, and thus I find web gaming makes an ideal fit.

Of course, there is nothing preventing traditional retail titles from integrating these sorts of features as well.   However, being able to frag your friends list is only one very limited part of the equation, which leads to...

The consolidation of retail and web gaming

In the near future, I can see social networking games going a couple of different ways.   The first of these is to have more extensive integration of the browser and retail games, with events and accomplishments in one influencing progress in another.   EA have already begun to experiment with their promotional games – the short Dragon Age Journeys web game unlocked some bonus items in the retail version of Dragon Age: Origins.   While Journeys featured a much different combat system inspired by Heroes of Might and Magic, the core Dragon Age experience was left surprisingly intact despite the technical differences between modern gaming PCs/consoles and Flash.   Journeys was never significantly expanded upon after the release of Origins, but the potential is certainly there for greater integration and experimentation… alternate quest outcomes or story events for those who have played or are playing the web version of the game, for instance, with the social networking features effectively being the true platform the game runs on, the glue that holds the experience together.

The second way I see games going, is that existing games will become available on multiple platforms, effectively feature-identical, and progress will be carried between both , for instance, the console version and the online version.   Already titles like Bejeweled are available over Facebook, but once again, this only really scratches the surface of what ‘s possible, especially as web technologies continue to develop.   Once again, it will be the social features that begin to define where a game “lives”, not what console it’s played on or whether it runs on the Unreal Engine or Java.

The pitfall to all of this, of course, is that that social networks are not unified; they are as discrete and separate as the existing gaming platforms are now.   While most individuals are more open to joining multiple social networks than they are to owning multiple gaming platforms, putting the effective ownership, or even meaning, of one’s game data in the hands of a social network, is not something that certain players will want to do.   Combined with the ambitions of publishers themselves to build their own internal communities around games, like the aforementioned UPlay and BioWare Social Network, this results in users needing multiple accounts just to get the full gaming experience.   Figuring out how to bring games into the realm of social networking without placing the functionality of a game in the hands entirely in one or more social networks will be a major challenge in the future.