Past Future: A Halo: Combat Evolved Retrospective

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Halo: Combat Evolved. A special thanks to lunaramethyst, who helped me source information on its naming.

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In 1999, a group of game developers and branding agents gathered around a whiteboard in a Chicago office. On that board were potential names for Bungie Studios's sci-fi war game set to release on the Apple Mac.[1] Those names included some cosmically bizarre choices like Hostile Environment, K3, The Crystal Palace, and most perplexing, Santa Machine.[2] But against the noise, one name stood out: "Covenant". Bungie's creation would be defined by its primary antagonist: an alien religion waging genocide against humanity.[1] Or it would have been if Bungie had followed the advice of the branding firm.

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Artist Paul Russel had another name in mind, one that was not popular among the team: "Halo". Despite the lack of internal enthusiasm, "Halo" stuck. Microsoft, Bungie's eventual publisher for the game, bristled at the title. Shooters didn't have names as cryptic, religious, and god forbid, feminine, as "Halo"; they had violent, pithy monikers like Doom, Quake, and Counter-Strike. But in an act of independence and vision typical of the studio, Bungie refused to budge on the name. Eventually, Microsoft came up with a compromise: a subtitle. The game would be called "Halo: Combat Evolved", a nod to its ambitions of radically reshaping the action genre. Despite some consternation, Bungie agreed, and Halo: Combat Evolved released for the Xbox on November 15th, 2001.[1]

The battle for Halo's name reflects both the originality Bungie enshrined in the series and all the times that Halo's development almost took another path. Before Combat Evolved, Bungie was a team of roughly twelve to fifteen developers and was best known for delivering to the niche market of Mac gamers.[1] By the time they'd be done, they'd have expanded to a team of forty people plus testers and act as the flagship studio of Microsoft, Apple's sworn enemy.[3]

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To see where Halo got its start, we have to go all the way back to 1997. During this year, Bungie conceived of a proto-Halo after putting a bow on their fantasy RTS Myth: The Fallen Lords. The studio was looking to create something fresh in the real-time strategy space: an experience that would emphasise physics and terrain in a sci-fi package. Soon, they also became concerned about releasing a game that could refill their coffers.[1] In 1998, the company shipped Myth II: Soulblighter, only to learn of a bug in the game's uninstaller that removed every file on the user's PC. Recalling the product had cost this mid-tier developer at least a million dollars.[4]

However, Halo grew away from its strategy roots when engineer Charlie Gough strapped a camera and controls onto one of its tanks. The developers got direct agency over one of the game's jeeps not long after through the same means. They discovered that driving a vehicle in the engine was gratifying enough without the bells and whistles of strategy play. So, Halo settled into a new role as a hybrid shooter-strategy game in which players controlled a faceless cyborg protagonist.[1][4]. Unfortunately, this blend of tactics and action revealed itself to be untenable, leaving the studio to develop the game as a straight third-person shooter.[4]

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Halo was first unveiled to the public by Steve Jobs at Macworld 1999. But Microsoft representatives were standing in the metaphorical wings of the conference, watching. They poached Bungie out from under Apple, looking to build out the first-party lineup for their upcoming console: the Xbox.[4] I'd say that leap from the arms of one industry titan to another would be impossible today. Yet, Bungie also managed to wriggle out of their contract with Activision in 2019, still holding the Destiny IP, so maybe a wizard works there. Around this time in Halo's development, the creators started edging the camera closer and closer to its starring soldier. Under the insistence of director Jason Jones, Halo eventually went first-person, with Bungie believing it would let players better embody their one-man army of a main character.[1]

The title's arrival on the Xbox breathed life into Microsoft's console, not just as a singular machine but a lineage of platforms. The existence of the Xbox 360, One, and Series X was contingent on the success of the initial Xbox, and it's hard to imagine that console getting off the ground without Halo 1 and 2. There simply were no other exclusive titles for the machine that came anywhere close to being as popular as Halo, especially in the early days.[4] And Halo didn't just influence the console market. Even two decades later, the storytelling, structure, mechanics, and production quality of AAA games bare genetic markers that link them back to Bungie's brainchild. It is twenty years to the day since the release of Combat Evolved, and I want to do something I've been thinking about for a long time. I want to give a complete review of Halo 1's campaign from end to end, chronicling what worked, what didn't, and crucially, how Bungie's shooter forever changed the face of the medium. This is a Halo: Combat Evolved retrospective.

Pillar of Autumn

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There's an elegance to Halo's opening cutscene: it imparts a lot of information without overloading you. It starts by introducing the militaristic faction that humanity has banded around in the future: the UNSC. This cinematic is also where we first see The Covenant: the religious alliance at war with our people. We join Captain Keyes, the no-nonsense commander of the UNSC ship, Pillar of Autumn, and the Cruiser's cool and collected AI, Cortana, as the Covenant storm the vessel. Keyes orders the opening of the "hushed casket", a cryo pod containing our main character and cyborg supersoldier, the Master Chief. "Master Chief" is not a goofy fictional rank but is an abbreviation of the goofy real US Navy rank, Master Chief Petty Officer. Bungie chose that role for their protagonist as its the highest non-commissioned officer rank in the service.[1] They are the most senior person you could imagine in that institution who's still deployed on the battlefield and not sitting behind a desk somewhere.

Bungie is a software house with a rich internal mythos that their games habitually refer back to, and the Pillar of Autumn pays homage to Marathon: a trilogy of shooters Bungie developed for the Mac. We also explore Marathon from the perspective of a highly-armoured gunslinger, and like Halo, Marathon 2: Durandal opens with the protagonist waking from stasis. In Marathon, we work under the UESC, and In Halo, under the UNSC. In both Combat Evolved and the original Marathon, we begin by fending off aliens who've suddenly boarded our ship, with the games in their entireties tasking us with battling extraterrestrial collectives. Both games also have us carry out our tasks with plenty of help from intelligent AI and an on-screen motion tracker.

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Combat Evolved's opening, unfortunately, hitches a little as the Master Chief goes through a debug process. The game pauses the action to let us set look inversion and give us a quick tutorial on our recharging shield. Nonetheless, it's not long until you have an Assault Rifle in your hand, a Pistol on your hip, and a sinking ship to save. Traditionally, games going big on worldbuilding don't open without a lot of bootstrapping of their universe and plot. Even today, when a game does land running, it usually backtracks to some sort of explainer soon after. But Halo knows that you don't have to write out every tiny detail for your audience. There's no loquacious story setup performed in this level; the FPS trusts that its players are smart enough to infer all they need from their first-hand experiences. And it starts in media res. We're let loose in a maze of blaring sirens, scattered barricades, and dying marines, so it grabs our attention instantly.

To touch on a related issue, many critically acclaimed films and TV shows have characters stand around educating each other on facts that anyone living in their universe should already know. By refraining from tortured infodumping, Combat Evolved gives us a setting that feels organic and lived-in. Still, the best writing in the world wouldn't have saved Halo if its gameplay was subpar. Fortunately, as our muzzle flash lights the bulkheads of the Autumn, it becomes clear that we're not playing the shooters of old.

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Conventional wisdom was that a quality FPS couldn't work on a console, and Halo was busting that myth. There'd been confusion over how you'd allow someone to move their character and reticle in any direction at any time using a gamepad. Halo popularised using the left stick to walk and the right stick to aim. This control scheme was previously employed by Argonaut's Alien: Ressurection and EA Los Angeles' Medal of Honor: Underground, both put out on the PlayStation in 2000. But the scepticism over console shooters extended beyond disbelief that you could map inputs appropriately for them.

It was common opinion that they could only ever be pale imitations of their PC superiors because a control stick could not deliver the accuracy of a mouse, and accuracy was everything in gun-led combat. What's more, a keyboard supports more unique inputs than a controller, and so, it seemed to be the only peripheral that could accommodate the multitude of weapons and verbs found in most late 90s FPSs. Halo utilised a less sensitive control peripheral than the classic FPSs with fewer receptors to let players express their intent. Yet, the play felt as responsive and meaningful as it did in PC action games, if not more so.

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Bungie made the FPS fit a console container with a couple of creative affordances. Firstly, an almost imperceptible smoothing of player aim and movement. The code nudges a reticle that's just off of a headshot over a few pixels and makes subtle course corrections in player movement. This input-post processing can largely be credited to designer Jaime Griesemer.[1] These systems sit on the razor's edge between abandoning you to the slight imprecisions of gamepad manipulation and wresting control of the Chief from you. While the Xbox controller can never be as accurate as a mouse and keyboard, Halo demonstrated that that doesn't matter nearly as much as you'd think it would. While we often see entertainment software's job being to execute on the player's inputs directly, Halo shows the worth in intuiting the player's intention from their inputs and acting on that instead.

Bungie's second vital modification to the FPS was a streamlining of player abilities. There was no chance in hell of comfortably mapping every option in one of Valve's or id's shooters onto Microsoft's controller. So, Halo doesn't try to be a game with that many inputs available at once; it finds the right quantity for the input device it's using. A PC shooter might have controls to equip one of ten different weapons and to twist our protagonist's body in a multitude of patterns. In Halo, we can hold two types of grenade and two types of firearm at once, and the only powers we have outside their use is to melee, jump, turn our torch on and off, and that's it. The designers prevent this reduction in player verbs from killing variation in the gunplay partly by allowing us to swap the weapons we are holding for those we find in our environment.

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What we see in Halo is a decluttering of the FPS inventory. In other games of the genre, you could have eight weapons strapped to your back and rely on only three of them. With just two weapons to employ, you can't be so wasteful. You also don't have to fumble through a multitude of tools to select the one you're after. You have one off-weapon, and as soon as you hit Y, you're holding it. Changing weaponry is simple and immediate, keeping up with the rapid pace of combat. My only criticism would be that when you have to scavenge for new toys, it can be a little finicky to sort through the pile of them left at the end of a skirmish.

On higher difficulties, the game organically pushes us to conserve ammo and change weapons often, keeping the play from growing stale. Enemies have more health, so we must pump more rounds into them to kill them, potentially draining weapons much faster. The motivation to conserve ammunition is also a motivation to be more precise in our shooting. We need to make every shot count.

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The two-weapon system is more restrictive than letting the player amass a warehouse of guns over time. However, it's often restriction that challenges us and forces us to make strategic commitments. Interesting things happen when you're not working with your favourite firearm, just the gun you've got. A subtly brilliant wrinkle in the design is that it's always faster to switch weapons than to reload or let them "cool down". So, we frequently have to make the difficult decision of whether to try and stay out of harm's way while our boomstick catches its breath or whether to switch to a gun that might not be suited for our task.

Notice also that grenades do not fill a weapon slot, so players can always carry them. The availability of grenade attacks is relevant because we can use them to control space and flush aliens out of cover, regardless of whether we're carrying a weapon suited to those purposes. There are two grenades in Combat Evolved: a more traditional Frag that levies fairly severe damage over a wide area and the Plasma Grenade that trades a smaller range for a guaranteed kill if it lands on an enemy. When picking the proper grenade for the job, the player must think about whether they want to focus damage on one foe or many. They must also consider whether they want to risk a throw that would require deft precision or play it safe for less focused damage. There is more nuance to using the grenades than just deciding to deploy an area of effect attack.

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While we're analysing munitions, let's have a look at the Assault Rifle and the Magnum. They're the default weapons for this mission and many others. One is a spray-and-pray implement, while the other is made for pinpoint accuracy, offering something for both novice FPS players and those with some experience. The Rifle is a short-medium range weapon, while the Magnum is for medium-long range, so you have all bases covered. The Halo 1 Pistol is fondly remembered for its blunt force. When you fire it, you get this booming sound effect, and if you kill a smaller enemy with it, it will send them tumbling backwards.

There would appear, at first, to be a cookie-cutter strategy for the Pillar, only constrained by how much ammo you have: use the Magnum when an enemy is far away and the Rifle when they're relatively close. However, Halo complicates the decision of which firearm to use when by throwing enemy shields into the mix. You can kill Grunts or Elites, which are smaller and larger enemies, respectively, with a headshot from the Pistol. However, you can only take a headshot on an Elite once you've chewed through their thick energy field. At short to medium range, the Assault Rifle is more effective at dropping shields than the Pistol. You often have to face Grunts and Elites simultaneously, at the same range, and so, are torn between the use of the Rifle or the Magnum.

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As we fight only Grunts and Elites on The Pillar of Autumn, this level is a perfect training ground for matching weapons to enemies. However, even with just two guns and two enemy variants, there's a lot of factors pulling you in different directions when it comes to picking your weapon. And, of course, there are plenty of guns besides the Pistol and Assault Rifle to steal from Covenant corpses. The "correct" tool for the job changes a lot based on the details of the current battle. Your strategy is less cookie-cutter and more bespoke, keeping you paying attention to the action and letting Bungie vary encounters. The wealth of tactical agency in Halo's gameplay may be a vestige of its RTS origins.

The Covenants' behaviours also express the personalities of these zealots and establish refreshing combat dynamics we must adapt to. Grunts do not, generally speaking, dodge incoming fire, but if you kill their Elite masters, they'll scatter to the corners of the room. Elites show no such cowardice, ducking and diving out of the way of your shots, and even clobbering you with their rifles. Sometimes, the Elites respond to their shields dropping by screaming to the sky. This outburst suddenly relocates their weak spot but leaves them unable to attack for a split second. From their engagement styles, we can tell that the Elites are skilled and proud combatants, while the Grunts are weak-willed and dependent on their sergeants.

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The behaviour of the Grunts and Elites may affect the order in which we eliminate them. There's no perfect strategy here as the ideal player behaviour is subject to our proximity to enemies and the level geometry. Elites are more of a threat than the Grunts, but if there's lots of cover nearby, killing an Elite may motivate their minions to run into these more defensible positions. Engaging an Elite in melee combat might typically be risky, but sometimes our angle of approach makes it easier to get behind them. One punch to the back is also a one-hit kill.

YouTuber Noodle made the neat observation that if you attach a Plasma Grenade to a Grunt, it will run around terrified. So, you can often stick a Grunt with one of these explosives and watch it endanger its own squad. A stuck Elite, however, can charge you, trying to take you with it. There's a risk-reward relationship here, where the closer you get to an Elite, the easier they are to stick, but the more likely you'll get caught in the grenade blast. To add to Noodle's points, if you kill any enemy just before it throws a grenade, the explosive will fall to the floor, creating an immediate hazard for everyone in the vicinity. Useful if you're far away from the grenade but demanding some fancy footwork if you're breathing down that soldier's neck.

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The Plasma Grenade is a classic example of Halo's weapons in that it does not create a universal outcome when unleashed on an enemy. The result is affected by who you use it on and when and where you use it, meaning that your patterns of engagement must also change based on context. Again, level design can play a role as you probably don't want to stick an Elite or drop a grenade to the ground in tight quarters, but you might be able to use the same limited space to trap an enemy with an explosive. Because encounters vary wildly based on your weapon, opponents, and surroundings, the designers can change one thing about a combat scenario and get a totally different engagement for you.

I'm not going to let us leave the ship without discussing another core Halo mechanic: the shield. Not the Elites' shield, but the Chief's. This is the design component that launched a thousand recharging health systems. Halo was not close to the first game to include regenerating health; the mechanic originated in the RPGs of the 80s and later saw fame in titles from Ys to MIDI Maze. However, game design isn't just about inventing new things; it's about knowing what pieces fit where and implementing them correctly. It was through ticking those boxes that Halo was able to set the standard for video game vital essence.

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Strictly speaking, shields and health aren't the same mechanic. When you run out of health in a game, you fail or enter a downed state. If you run out of shield energy, enemies get a shot at your typically limited HP. These mechanics are also presented very differently: health is the physical fortitude of your character, while a shield is a space-age defensive skin. Some gamers are very particular, even smug, about making this distinction. However, it is important not to mistake the narrative wrapper for a mechanic for the mechanic itself. We also shouldn't get too hung up on technicalities.

Halo does not costume the shield as a form of health, yet the shield plays roles that health does in many other games. Enemy weapons deplete it, and we must preserve it to stay alive. As we frequently have to stay out of harm's way, waiting for our shield to recharge, Halo has slightly more downtime than some other shooters. However, the shield system does solve a problem from earlier FPSs. If the designer doesn't know a player's health value as they enter a room, it's almost impossible for them to set the correct difficulty for that zone. A chamber that is just right for a player on 50 health might be a cakewalk for a player on 100. The same area could be a nightmare for a player on 10. There's no way to adjust a level like that to not exclude someone somewhere on the spectrum of health, warping the difficulty curve and the stage's pacing.

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Because Combat Evolved has a max shield value that the player will always enter an area with, the designers have a much better handle on the challenge any one room will pose and can shape it accordingly. Plus, a player can't feel cheated one way or another because they showed up to a standoff with too much or too little health. Critic Doc Burford expounds on how the shield allows us to take risks like socking an enemy in the face: If we know that any damage incurred in combat is semi-permanent, we're likely to be highly cautious in our approach to it. If, however, we know that after a moderate failure, we have a good chance of falling back and recovering our lost stamina, we're more inclined to make bold, spectacular moves on the battlefield. That confident and daring attitude is part of what gives Halo its zest.[5]

With our arsenal of two and our inexhaustible energy shield, we tear a path through the Pillar of Autumn, but it's not enough to stop the Covenant from taking the ship down with them. This opening level establishes a simple truth: when the UNSC and Covenant battle, the Covenant usually come out on top. Us being on the back foot stops Halo from being a one-note power fantasy. The Master Chief is, fortunately, a tough cookie. With Cortana hitching a ride inside his head, he makes a swift exit from the craft and crash-lands on a ring-shaped world of unknown origin: Halo.

Halo

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Halo will be our home for the remaining nine levels of the game, and the version of it we see in its eponymous stage is rocky and verdant. This Xbox shooter was not the first piece of fiction to include a ring-shaped organic habitat. Famously, sci-fi author Larry Niven published a book about a habitable circular world back in 1970: Ringworld. However, the concept of a ring-shaped space station can be found in literature as early as 1929, in Austrian engineer Hermann Noordung's Das Problem Der Befahrung Des Weltraums.[6] Bungie frequently keeps us conscious of its ringworld as a physical entity by having its geography conspicuously transform the play. The Pillar of Autumn's level design exists as a complex of corridors punctuated by moderately spacious atria. Such was the design template for the 90s FPS. This second mission marks the series' introduction of expansive landscapes on which to duke it out.

Some shooters before Halo had large outdoor spaces, but they were often relatively featureless, sometimes flat areas with myopic draw distances. Halo has undulating hills and valleys pockmarked with natural setpieces, and they all seem to stretch on for miles. We can majestically scale ridges and experience a 3D relationship with the terrain and combat that wasn't present in many earlier darlings of the genre. The need to think about movement along the Y-axis is why Halo has a jump that catapults you into the air.

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The abundant trees and rocks in these outdoor environments mean more places for the Covenant and us to hide, while vantage points allow us to scope out enemy squads and literally take the high ground. Of course, they can do the same. As Combat Evolved's designers lay down surfaces at multiple heights, they're often able to fit more level into a smaller footprint. The fluctuating topography of these maps is a remnant of Halo's gestation as an RTS, one in which terrain was meant to assume a prominent role in the gameplay.[1] It's also a faint throwback to Bungie's Myth, in which units could take advantage of elevated ground.

Modern games often use scale to wow audiences, depict impossible spaces, and even showcase the power of computer hardware. All of which, Halo did; you can see how Combat Evolved acted as a tech demo for Microsoft's first console. However, through upsizing environments, Halo also created new gameplay possibilities. The conflict is not limited to close quarters; battles can take place across a variety of ranges, with weapons to suit each distance. Large plateaus and valleys can also provide enough surface on which to drive a vehicle. For modern shooter developers, there are no changes left to make to environments that open up as much possibility space as Bungie did.

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It's unlikely to be a coincidence that the spacious Halo is the mission where the series first introduces its iconic LRV: the Warthog. With a lightweight chassis and two-wheel drive, the Warthog emphasises the shape of the land under it. That terrain reciprocates, spotlighting the handling of the Warthog. The car's back end whips around when turning corners, it exhibits drag as it trundles uphill, and a small ramp is enough to make it take flight. The Warthog achieves such a vivid physicality partly because it is slightly out of our control, at the mercy of its own weight and horsepower. The impression of vehicles with palpable physics was also a core concept in that pre-Halo RTS, and you can see how a whole game could have emerged from this military jeep.[1]

During the level, we can get in and out of the Warthog at any time. The environmental design often prompts us to do so, with huge expanses that the Warthog can motor through in no time and some tight spaces it has no hope of entering. The idea of seamlessly transitioning between vehicle and soldier play was novel in 2001. Just don't let the AI drive. It's not that your fellow marines are any dumber than the average video game NPC of their time; the problem is our reliance on those computer-controlled characters. It's no skin off the player's nose if the enemies are less than geniuses; that works in our favour. It's also acceptable if our brothers in arms make a blunder when fighting alongside us. After all, we're the ones meant to be saving the day. But when we have to place our life in the hands of a soldier that can't drive straight, it gets frustrating. This issue will persist through Halo 2 and 3.

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To test our newfound driving and gunning skills, this mission introduces an enemy not present on the Autumn: the Jackal. Short and raptor-like, Jackals typically attack with small arms and hold a shield in their off-hand. You can direct so much raw firepower at their shield that it breaks, but that's an expensive tactic. In a few cases, we can position ourselves to the side of or behind this enemy and get a clear shot at them. Else, a dexterous player can shoot the hand with which they hold their shield, forcing them to stumble, and then go for a headshot or otherwise damage them. Notice that the Jackal doesn't just change up what a headshot means with a uniquely positioned weak spot but also by frequently requiring a two-stage approach in which the target moves. Again, dynamics and unique behaviour come into play as Jackals are the one infantry unit that can block a grenade with their shield and will raise their guard over their head in an emergency.

What's most surprising about this mission, however, is just how much quiet there is. It's not all plasma fire and running down Covenant. Sometimes there are moments where we just get to breathe in our natural surroundings unaccompanied by music. They feel almost like they belong in more recent minimalist exploration games. Think Firewatch or Proteus.

The Truth and Reconciliation

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After recovering the first band of survivors from The Pillar of Autumn, we must infiltrate the Covenant Cruiser, Truth and Reconciliation. The aliens have taken Captain Keyes prisoner on this ship. After a level of claustrophobic corridors and one of open spaces, you might think you've seen every configuration that Halo's environments can exist in. However, The Truth and Reconciliation shows a third face to the game. It begins with us exploiting the cover of night to make a raid on the extraterrestrial craft. Direct confrontation is risky, especially on higher difficulties. So, our allies prescribe keeping to the shadows, using a Sniper Rifle to pick targets off from a distance. In the case of Grunts, we can sometimes sneak up behind them and melee them in the back.

Note that if we're hit while aiming the Sniper Rifle, the scope zooms out. This means we can't use it to dig in and one-shot enemies while under fire; we must embody the spirit of the level by finding adequate cover or remaining unseen. Otherwise, the scope will keep retracting, and we won't be able to train the Rifle on distant targets. As we cut deeper into the canyon, "Active Camo" pickups make us all but invisible, increasing the number of positions we can take without drawing fire. This section is also a stellar example of how Halo challenges us to divide our attention when facing enemies. While the Elites always pack a punch, we must also remain wary of Grunts occupying Plasma Turrets and Jackals perching on cliff tops. It's easy to get tunnel vision when staring through the scope of a sniper, but neglect one group of sharpshooters for too long, and they will punish you.

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As we approach the Cruiser, the game plays with our expectations, making us believe we have a clear path to its loading elevator before deploying squad after squad of enemies from it. The energy of the level changes as we go from sneaking our way towards the ship to fighting in a wave-based format. When we have dispatched all other Covenant, we face a fierce new opponent: The Hunter. With their Plasma Cannons and skull-cracking melee charges, these warriors can do devastating damage both at a distance and in close quarters. Worst of all, almost their entire front is encased in armour that blocks incoming fire.

Your best chance at felling a Hunter is usually to get behind it, but the further you are from it, the wider the turning circle when you're trying to shimmy around to its rear. At anything more than a moderate distance, the Hunter will turn faster than you can strafe, so you want to get in close. Plus, if you can force the Hunter to take a swing at you, you can one-eighty and shoot the supple meat on its back. The combat now moves from long-range to right in the enemy's face. Again, grenades work differently with a different species: your Frags aren't just there to clear many foes in one blast. Instead, a viable strategy to damage a Hunter's reverse is to throw a grenade behind them.

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And, of course, inter-enemy synergy still plays a role. Hunters come in twos, with one covering the other's back to mean there are no easy shots. Tussling with these juggernauts feels like nothing else in an FPS; there is a tense dance that we must commit to to sidle around the Hunter while dodging bolts of fire and aggressive lunges. Unfortunately, you can execute a Hunter with a single Pistol round to the back: a quirk of how Combat Evolved processes headshots.

The existence of the Magnum exploit is unfortunate in that it takes a game that's usually about there being no perfect gun and changing weapons often, and gives you a clear and ideal strategy that encourages you to haul a Handgun all the way through levels. Still, if you want to keep that sidearm loaded, you're going to have to exhaust your primary weapon often, pushing you into collecting new weapons more frequently. A wonderful detail here: you'll notice that the Hunters' orange blood makes it obvious when we're damaging them, even in the dark. Combat Evolved goes heavy on painting the environments with colourful alien viscera during fights, giving us a Splatoon-like agency over our surroundings.

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Once we ascend into the Truth and Reconciliation, the tables turn. Now, we're on the Covenant's home turf, and they're the ones using stealth to their advantage. Transparent Elites rush at us with Energy Swords drawn. On Normal and higher difficulties, they can kill the Chief in a single blow, and unless you're lightning fast on the defence, you'll start seeing your marines drop like flies. With cramped corridors and cluttered cargo bays, the ship ups the difficulty by taking enemies we must inch around like Jackals and Hunters, and giving us less wiggle room with which to do that. This area also possesses a lot of verticality. It's not that it has as many ramps and dips as Halo, but we often need to move between floors to get ahead or will take fire from enemies on more than one story at the same time.

In the belly of the Truth and Reconciliation, we get a taste for how alien the Covenant is. Concept artist Shi Kai Wang turned to the strangest creatures of our world: the subaquatic, to find an aesthetic for this army from beyond the stars.[1] Halo has a potently assertive visual identity; you can look at a vehicle or building and immediately know the faction it belongs to. While the UNSC's creations favour straight lines, blocky architecture, and military greys and greens, Wang lent the Covenant a curved, iridescent style, soaked in purple. You can almost imagine the Cruiser swimming out of some deep ocean trench.

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Ideally, media uses all its means of expression to represent its characters. If Halo is a shooter, it makes sense to project its themes and aesthetics through its guns. So, not only does the appearance, sound, and behaviour of the Covenant communicate who they are, but so do their weapons. Where UNSC firearms are comparable to our modern-day armaments, the technologies and operation of the Covenant tools are foreign to our species.

Most of our adversaries' guns don't use rounds, and so, don't need to reload. However, they can overheat if their operator fires them too frequently in too small a window. UNSC weapons can generally be used continuously with a guaranteed period of dormancy when the clip runs out. When firing Covenant guns, you can avoid a long period of inactivity, but only if you use them with restraint. Therefore, you don't just know when you're using a human or alien weapon; you can feel it.

Often the firing modes of the Covenant weapons are also eccentric. Halo's Plasma Pistol is comparable to Marathon's Fusion Pistol. While it has a standard fire that can plink away at enemy minions, we can also charge it to release a high-powered blast that drops their shields instantly. This EMP also causes the gun to overheat. Notice that the Plasma Pistol's design encourages switching weapons. We can use it to disable an enemy's shield and then switch to a firearm that can deliver damaging fire to finish them off. The exact dynamic of the Plasma Pistol combo depends on what that other weapon is, increasing variation of experiences. Then there's a firearm like the Covenant Needler, which launches pink spikes at a target that explode after a brief delay. The more needles you can burst on a foe at once, the more damage you can do. Again, we must change our strategy to use this gun, not peeking in and out of cover taking potshots, but getting one extended blast at our opposition.

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Having a religious union as the antagonistic force is somewhat unusual for a sci-fi game. It's common for a homogeneous alien faction to have a religion, but not for the enemy to be a diverse group of aliens united by their spiritual beliefs. Halo story lead, Joe Staten, saw how large-scale alliances over human history were often the product of religious ties and speculated that a conglomeration of alien races might also coalesce around doctrine.[1] When we free Keyes, he has news for us, gained by eavesdropping on his captors: The Covenant holds Halo to be sacred and believes it is a destructive implement that could determine the fate of the universe. It feels only too appropriate for an FPS that the object we're ultimately seeking to control, and even the world itself, is a weapon. As the writers will later put it, Halo is "The gun pointed at the head of the universe". There is a refreshingly surreal concept at the core of the games: a WMD with a beautiful and vibrant ecosystem covering its surface.

The Silent Cartographer

In many action games, it's around this fourth mission mark that the urgency evaporates from the plot, but Halo keeps us invested with a time-sensitive, high-stakes problem for the UNSC. The organisation is now in a race against the Covenant to gain command of Halo, and the aliens have better intel on it than we do. Before either party can breach the array's control room, they need to know where that room is, and so, they battle to lay hands on Halo's high-tech map: The Silent Cartographer. Bungie has a knack for poetic names.

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The Silent Cartographer is easily the most open of Combat Evolved's levels, yet it's satisfyingly self-contained. The mission is set entirely on an island, with a zippy Warthog to get us from A to B. We can even drive the full circumference of the landmass if we want. After opening on a sci-fi interpretation of the classic "storming the beach" scene, we make our way around the sands. We then weave a route into the temperate heart of the island and venture into metal-lined bunkers nestled in the rocky cliff faces. Notice that we generally move downhill as we spelunk through these bases, making us feel that we are journeying somewhere deep and mysterious to unlock Halo's secrets.

This mission is representative of Halo's level design: scattering objectives around an open environment rather than establishing a linear stage with goals to clear every quarter mile. We fight through hub areas and backtrack where we've already been, and combat feels like something happening in the space rather than the space being contrived for combat. However good your worldbuilding is, the player will not be convinced of your setting if it appears as a collection of levels rather than a universe, and The Silent Cartographer is most assuredly part of a universe. The developers recall that once they got this mission up and running, a vision for the game's design began to take shape. It served as a proof of concept that motivated them in development.[3][4]

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One pioneering concept this stage shows off is load-free transitions from interior to exterior. This was rare in games back in 2001, and as we see in The Silent Cartographer, the silky move from inside to outside creates unfettered pacing and a sense of a contiguous environment. What's more, there's a certain subtext to us finding a lot more of Halo underground than we can see on the surface. The Silent Cartographer also stands out as the one mission in which the Halo theme plays.

The music of other levels cribs melodies, instruments, and drum parts from the theme, but during play, The Silent Cartographer is the only level to get the full theme treatment. While Martin O'Donnell is recognised as the Halo composer, Michael Salvatori also aided in fashioning this piece and the soundtrack as a whole. Halo's theme was not composed for the game itself; instead, it came about when Bungie was preparing to debut Halo at Macworld 1999. As the game then had no working sound engine, Joe Staten asked O'Donnell to come up with music to back the demo. Marty and Michael did it with a deadline of just three days, with the former composing the main melody during a single car ride.[7][8]

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Just as Halo's title is unusually religious for a first-person shooter, so is its music. Before Halo, major FPSs mostly used intense and contemporary sounds to match their bone-snapping violence. Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem had all garbed themselves in some genre of metal, and Half-Life was playing off of 90s club sounds. Combat Evolved's theme, and the songs spun off from it, use rousing orchestral sweeps overlaid with singing styles that stretch back to humanity's distant past. Before every adventure film used rogueish, driving strings, they were here in O'Donnell and Salvatori's composition. And vocal forms like pseudo-Gregorian chanting and Qawwali, which were almost unheard of in video game music, headline Halo.

Games as Literature observed that Halo's score sets itself apart from even that of many films of its time by not including horns in its heroic main theme. Listen to the music in movies like Lord of the Rings, Independence Day, or anything scored by John Williams, and you'll hear them use brass instruments for their traditional purpose: to announce something important and celebrate somewhere grandiose. Halo's theme feels stripped back, raw, and historical through its exclusion of horns. Adding to that effect are the tribal drums, which, along with the strings, are often able to force us forward through levels, providing dramatic clashes of instruments as a backdrop for our victories.

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Halo's anthem further uses quasi-Gregorian and Qawwali singing to emphasise scale. These are vocal styles designed to echo off the walls of churches and mosques, referencing somewhere and something greater than the listener. In Halo, they can highlight both the visionary volume of the environments and the setting of space. The soundtrack sounds like it's bouncing around these enormous areas. As O'Donnell has said, this music is ancient and mysterious.[8] It is reminiscent of an epoch when instruments were less available, and religion was an inescapable organiser of human culture. It is expressive of the primaeval nature of Combat Evolved's setting, the religious zeal of the Covenant, and the intrigue of its story. It's all part of this series pushing narrative and worldbuilding to the forefront.

It's not every day you hear a catchy monk chant, and no doubt Salvatori and O'Donnell's time in the marketing industry helped them create something that would get stuck in peoples' heads. Prior to this, the duo's most famous composition was for a Flintstone's Chewable Vitamins advert.[8] Marty has said that when writing the theme, he was creating Halo's "jingle".[1] He has mentioned The Beatles' Yesterday as an influence on Halo's opening bars, but a more obscure inspiration O'Donnell has nodded to is 20th-century composer Samuel Barber.[7][8] Listen to the mournful choral vocals at the start of Barber's Agnes Dei, and you'll hear something of Halo in it.

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Essential to the soundtrack's push on us is Bungie's sparing use of it. Some parts of the game can actually feel a little sparse in terms of scoring. However, O'Donnell rightly recognised that in most games that have continually looping music, the soundtrack becomes background noise.[9] In Halo, the deployment of the score only at the most emotional moments of the game ensures you're fully conscious of it. It was likely Marty working close to the level designers that created a consummate relationship between the music and level sequences.[7] In fact, the way the senior members of Bungie talk about the game, the same people often wore many different hats during its development, which might be why it's so cohesive.[1][3]

Before Halo, video game soundtracks didn't typically get released independently from the game. However, the demand for a CD of Halo's music was so great that Microsoft complied. Now, every beloved title, and even a few hated ones, are expected to see soundtrack releases. In part through Halo's influence, it's also become normalised for shooters to use orchestral scores. See Call of Duty and Battlefield, among others.

Assault on the Control Room

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Now knowing the location of Halo's trigger, we make to wrap our finger around it. Meanwhile, Keyes is off sniffing out a hidden weapons cache. As if to match the increasing adversity of the war, the closer we get to Halo's helm, the more forbidding the weather becomes. The whiplash journey from a tropical island to a frozen wasteland is also a reminder that the ring's nature is engineered rather than organic. Assault on the Control Room pulls its design cues from throughout the previous four levels with tight interiors and gaping canyons. Weaponry includes the short and long-range, the conventional and esoteric, with all of the game's firearms, bar the Shotgun, making a cameo.

This mission does, however, include a new architectural feature: bridges. Slightly wider than a corridor and with metal emplacements across their length, these courseways challenge us to move up steadily, using the cover to buffer ourselves against enemy shots. There is also a Sword Elite who suddenly appears at the end of one of these passes, causing the enclosed space to become a liability. Later, enemies on walkways alongside ours mean that cover in front of us is no guarantee we won't get shot at. We must balance our fire between the road ahead and pests off to one side.

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In the chasms below those bridges, we wage epic vehicular battles. Assault on the Control Room is the only level to include the Scorpion, the Halo tank with a devastating and thunderous cannon. After struggling against the ground troops on foot, it's devilishly satisfying to destroy whole squads of them in one shot. But we need all the firepower we can get when the Covenant pull out their best and most bizarre craft to face us. Banshees swoop in low and sting us in the back with plasma pulses, while the Wraith hover-tank shoots explosive munitions in an arcing pattern.

I want to take another moment to borrow from Burford's analysis of Halo: Combat Evolved. A lot of shooters have enemy weapons that effectively hit the player the second that they fire. When that happens, designers punish us for not dodging a hazard without telegraphing that hazard beforehand, which can feel unfair. But the Covenant use munitions that fly through the air slow enough for us to react to them, from the soft homing of the Needler spikes to the bolts from a Plasma Rifle. These perceptible projectiles make the environment feel alive with glowing, flying shots, and allow the player to display finesse in their movement as they dart and flank their way out from Covenant blasts.[5] It's also worth noting that the Elites' and Jackals' classic "dodge" move is built to play with such rounds.

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When we don't have all hell raining down on us, Assault on the Control Room plays some of the soundtrack's more chilled pieces. Perilous Journey uses staccato strings and high-tempo drums to create a laidback and playful tension. While, a Walk in the Woods is Halo's music at its smoothest, using ambient synth and a funky bassline to create a sense of effortless and exact operation.

As we finally have Cortana interface with Halo's helm, she tells us that the construct was created by an ancient alien civilisation called the Forerunner. The question to ask now is "how does the game not run out of steam when we've already secured our prize halfway through?". The answer lies in a threat to humanity direr than even the Covenant. A panicked Cortana tells us that Keyes isn't headed for a weapons cache at all and that we must stop him before he releases something much more sinister.

343 Guilty Spark

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The murky swamps at the outset of 343 Guilty Spark set the mood for the mission to come. Scattered Covenant ground troops hiding in the fog establish a theme of hidden danger on the horizon. We head into a Forerunner facility which, like Truth and Reconciliation, uses narrow corridors and many two-floor areas, but with the difference that it's now often possible to move directly between the floors. Soon enough, the supply of Covenant dries up, and we're walking eerily empty and quiet territory.

We stumble across a marine undergoing a psychotic break, and not long after, find Keyes' party dead, the floors stained red with their blood. The Master Chief plays back their helmet recordings to learn that they were killed by lifeforms the likes of which we've never seen before. Their murderers were tiny featureless sacks with writhing tentacles that threw themselves at their prey. We'll later learn their name: the Flood.

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Fans who played Halo at the time frequently speak of this scene as terrifying. Twenty years on, the reactions of the marines come across as too hammy to produce any authentic scares. The section after also somewhat undersells the Flood by having our first encounter with them go unscored. Still, this mission does convey the sublime threat of this species. Remember that in 2001, memory limitations meant that most games didn't have many living enemies on the board at once. That makes it uncanny when the same aliens you saw besieging the soldiers, the Flood Infection Forms, just keep coming in greater and greater numbers. They are a flood; a sea of them fills the floor in front of us. Halo keeps us engaged in its second act by throwing this new antagonist into the mix and making their AI behaviour less than typical.

Individually, Infection Forms do such paltry damage that it often doesn't matter whether or not you dodge one. In fact, sometimes acting as a punching bag for an Infection Form is the easiest means to get rid of it: a unique strategic choice. But the sheer numbers they arrive in mean they can deliver death by a thousand cuts. And remember, taking any damage while our shield is down causes its recharge timer to start over. So getting hit by an Infection Form creates a longer window of vulnerability that burlier enemies could exploit. Notice that the game could not achieve this effect without a recharging shield system.

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After meeting the Infection Forms, we get the pleasure of greeting their big brother: the Combat Form. The Combat Forms are poor shots, but with a mean right hook. All Flood use proximity attacks and always rush towards us. Their single-minded advance means we must constantly put distance between ourselves and them, and backing away from these necrotic abominations can lead us into other enemies. We are forced to rethink our tactics, remain spacially aware, and never get too comfortable in one position.

Narratively, the Combat Forms are the reanimated corpses of other species and why the Flood poses such a menace. They take over living beings and use those possessed bodies to kill more animals, giving them more bodies. One Flood can become two, can become four, can become eight, and so on. Unfortunately, this zombification isn't represented in the game mechanics. It's not like letting our marines die or killing Covenant makes more biomass for the Infection Forms to take over. It's a shame because the game otherwise uses its play to realise its characters memorably.

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The nature of the Flood is, however, alive and well in their use of weaponry. While the Covenant have firearms that we can understand them through, the Flood have no weapons of their own; they just steal everyone else's. That creative choice paints them as a parasite and a race even more alien than anything in the Covenant. The species further conveys a horror aesthetic by coming and finding us when we're trying to crouch behind cover, recouping our shield.

On the plus side, their frequent proximity to us makes the Shotgun the perfect weapon for dispatching them. This firearm probably wasn't present in Assault on the Control Room because we will get more than enough use out of it from this level onward. However, using it against the Flood creates tense standoffs where we can't knock down the enemies making a beeline for us until the last second. Perfect for horror villains. As the tone of the combat takes a turn, so does the music. Our encounters with the Flood are coloured by an unsettling audio backdrop. Familiar elements of the soundtrack, like the strings and choirs, become dissonant and tortured. New off-key synths join them to make a shambling, contorted electro-classical symphony.

The Library

Between the Flood and the Covenant, the UNSC is so outclassed that the only relief has to come from outside. 343 Guilty Spark is an AI built by the Forerunner, the same extinct aliens that architected Halo, and he finds us in the thick of danger. He explains that the Forerunner held the Flood on the ring for research purposes; that's why they were imprisoned here. However, Halo is also the sword with which the Forerunner slew the zombie parasites. All we need to do to start Halo is find its key: the Index.

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Guilty Spark cryptically refers to us as "Reclaimer", and despite having never met us, views it as our job to activate the ring. While Halo's interiors are mostly cold mineral, you can see something human in them. They use large blocky shapes and a lot of straight lines, just like the UNSC's design. But there's also plenty of ecclesiastical architecture and glowing panels, suggesting a civilisation we have something in common with but that is more advanced than ours.

Halo's subject matter of galactic destruction and armies of the undead could make the story pitch-black in tone. However, it keeps its proceedings light enough for an empowerment fantasy game through playful dialogue and lively characters. It's a Grunt seeing a dropship appear in front of it, and running, squealing, in the opposite direction. It's Cortana watching Master Chief crash a Banshee and then saying, "You did that on purpose". 343 is the most comedic character yet.

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Intelligences from advanced alien societies usually have an air of being above it all. They often have a peace and focus that mean they don't worry about the affairs of us lesser mortals. Combat Evolved finds the comedy in that idea, making Guilty Spark farcically immune to panic. He guides us in our war against a genocidal army of the living dead, all the while pleasantly humming and monologuing about protocol on the ring. It's the only respite we get from what is otherwise a high-pressure level.

The Library is notorious, even among gamers who aren't diehard Halo aficionados. Part of its dark reputation is down to it combining with the mission 343 Guilty Spark to form one of those midpoint horror intervals you'll find in so many action games. The unsealing of the Flood is Halo's equivalent of Half-Life 2's We Don't Go to Ravenholm or Uncharted's The Bunker. But The Library has also become a go-to example for directionless, confusing level design.

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Much of this archive consists of wide, identical thoroughfares with an exit somewhere before their back wall. Sometimes that exit is a door far off to one side, and sometimes it's a ramp in the floor. However, no two corridors place the exit in the same location, and many paths in the stage are red herrings. Where Halo so often rewards smart tactics, here, there is no method to navigate intelligently. Advancement is a guessing game, and if you guess wrong, the Flood can trap you and flay you to death. When you die, you may find your last save point is further back than you'd anticipated.

See, the code only checkpoints us when we've gotten rid of all nearby enemies, and the premise of this level is there's more Flood than we could manageably eliminate. They appear to spawn endlessly, and then they get in uncomfortably close, so you're often prohibited from checkpointing. It's remarkable how the "Anniversary" version of Halo: Combat Evolved completely eliminates navigation issues in The Library with a simple texture fix. It just draws arrows on the floor, showing you where to go. There's not a lot of subtlety in it, but it's light years better than leaving the player frustrated and aimlessly wandering.

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Truth be told, getting hopelessly lost is not an experience unique to The Library. Across the board, Combat Evolved has very open levels and objectives that often spin you around and set you back the way you came. You pursue those goals without explicit and sustained instructions on how to orient yourself. There are no breadcrumb trails, no maps, and despite Halo's reputation, not that many waypoints. It doesn't help that Bungie often replicate the same rooms and even sometimes outdoor landscapes throughout levels. So, yes, The Library can feel like a contrived maze. Still, it's also not unusual to chase your tail in the service tunnels of the Pillar of Autumn, try to work out whether you've gotten turned around in Assault on the Control Room, or find yourself lost on any number of other missions.

Fortunately, when we have a sense of direction, the intense and engaging personality of a level like The Library can shine through. This mission takes that principle of the Flood acting as an organic tidal wave, ups the scale, and dedicates a whole stage to it. These scenes are a slow-motion chase sequence in which our enemies pour perpetually from the walls, forming a moving barrier that is only ever a few steps behind us. Resistance ahead can spell death as there's the risk we will get sandwiched between the two hordes. As mentioned, it's unlikely we'll be able to kill them all; there's too many Flood and too little ammo on the ground. So, we must use a combination of sharp spatial awareness and target prioritisation to make a safe retreat. The designers periodically raise the temperature by making us stand our ground against a wave of Flood while Guilty Spark fiddles with a door.

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To make matters more harrowing, The Library introduces the third and final Flood variant: The Carrier Form. Carriers are waddling bags of Infection Forms that explode and release their cargo if they get close to the Chief or sustain injury. These enemies present a few interesting tactical options. Do we fire away at them to clear the level of one more obstacle? Do we dodge around them, tricking them into exploding without expending ammo? Do we use them as red barrels with which to attack other foes in close proximity? All become viable options at some point.

Two Betrayals

As grateful as we might be for Guilty Spark's help, the writers can't very well have an oracle descend from on high and do all the work. Our heroes have to earn their victory. Halo uses a time-tested technique for building an atmosphere of peril. It vends a fake "bottom of the second act", making it look much more pessimistic when you get to the real nadir of the story. If you thought that the prognosis was grim when we unlocked the Flood's prison, you haven't seen anything yet.

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When the Master Chief returns to the control room with the Index, Cortana tells him she's discovered that Halo doesn't directly kill the Flood. This galactic pesticide works by killing the Flood's food source: all life, to starve them out. Our priorities and alliances immediately change. To prevent humanity's extinction, we must destroy Halo. When we resolve to do that, Guilty Spark turns against us, his prime directive being to protect the ring and eradicate the Flood.

Even by the standards of Halo 2, released three years after Combat Evolved, this game's plot and characters are primitive. Their wobbly definition is exaggerated by a lack of articulation on the models, which means that when they try to express themselves, they move stiffly and overact. Just watch Cortana try to emphasise the urgent need to obliterate Halo by waving her arms around without moving her fingers. Having said that, the developers shrewdly avoid any grievous animation blunders involving the Chief and Guilty Spark by making them faceless. They can never fail to arch an eyebrow or sync their mouths with the dialogue because they don't have eyebrows or mouths.

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And whatever narrative flaws Combat Evolved might harbour, Bungie delivers the cutscenes with attention to cinematography and thoughtfulness about hitting the right beats at the right time. Halo's script and camerawork feel closer to a Hollywood film than that of most earlier computer games. It's also noteworthy that the story gives us more concrete and varied objectives than just "kill the bad guy", imbuing the play with a sense of purpose. That was also one of Marathon's strengths. A supporting pillar in this narrative design is that the storytelling doesn't stop when the cutscenes end; characters continue to converse and interact during levels. The game isn't trying to cram all its exposition and development into three-minute interactions in between each mission. It can make full use of its runtime and retains a sense of character throughout. More commonplace now, a lot less so when Combat Evolved released.

If there's another action game published in 2001 that gives Halo a run for its money, it's Grand Theft Auto III. With GTA III, Rockstar North was able to more successfully execute on many of the goals Bungie had set for Halo. The Scottish-based developer painted a 3D open-world with seamless transitions between on-foot firefights and vehicular thrill rides. In comparison to Halo, GTA III's story is more complex, and its character portraits more humanising. Of course, Halo has GTA III beat on enemy design, weapon design, and visual design, but they are both landmark strides in the staging of video game conflicts.

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Despite the skinny profile of Combat Evolved's story, a couple of thought-provoking ideas shine through. Firstly, it matters that it's a mystery tale. We land on Halo with no knowledge of the construct, allowing the game to continually reveal new information about the world, which informs the Master Chief's goals on the ring. It is able to establish a pattern of setting us an objective, letting us achieve it, or at least get within a hair's breadth of doing so, and then presenting some piece of data that causes the Master Chief to change direction. We continually discover that vital nugget of truth that shifts our terminus.

Secondly, in Combat Evolved, and the series as a whole, Halo embodies the theme of events coming full circle. The humans of its universe have apparently left religion behind for a soft secularism, only to find theists and biblical concepts like "the flood" in their spacefaring future. The Flood overran sapient life in the past and threaten to do the same in the present. The Forerunner activated Halo in ancient times, and it may be fired once more. Even the ringworld itself is cyclical, and the play full of elements from Bungie's former projects. This theme of recursion also makes its way into the game's structure.

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Development of Combat Evolved was far from smooth sailing, and to make up a full magazine of levels, Bungie had to recycle some maps.[1] To get to this checkpoint in the campaign, we fought through the Pillar of Autumn and then infiltrated Truth and Reconciliation to find Keyes. We then stormed the control room, accessed the Library, and teleported back to Cortana. Now, in Two Betrayals, we will return through the area from Assault on the Control Room. In the next mission: Keyes, we will once more set foot on Truth and Reconciliation to find the Captain. In the final stage: The Maw, we will blast our way, grenades flying, weapons spraying, back through The Pillar of Autumn. This reverse run gives the game a pleasing symmetry and means its ending ties the events up in a neat bow. While there would also be advantages to making every environment unique, a campaign presenting "new content" at every opportunity could not appear as the rounded whole that Combat Evolved does.

It's just, retreading familiar territory gives Two Betrayals a tedious character. Don't get me wrong; it doesn't hurt the believability of the game. You're going to expect any facilities designed by people to repeat the same templates even if those people are ancient alien gods. And when we see recurring patterns in the environment, it helps to project this uncanny characteristic of the Forerunner's creations in which the line between the natural and synthetic blurs. And in the same way that multiplayer maps can provide hours of fun because players make different choices every time, you find Bungie can recycle these campaign levels, mixing up enemy types and placements, and the combat on them will play in a wildly different way. A lot of that is down to the varied enemy design and attention to game dynamics.

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However, there are only two levels in between Assault on the Control Room and Two Betrayals. Compare that to the other intervals between encountering the same environments. There are five missions separating The Truth and Reconciliation and Keyes, and eight stages dividing The Pillar of Autumn from The Maw. As synthetic environments tend to, the Forerunner missions reuse a lot of their structures, and we just spent two levels inside the chambers the Forerunner built to enter a stage that has plenty more. Two Betrayals, specifically, is about flying to three identical facilities and disabling a generator at each using the same method. So, during this mission, it feels like a game that has been so inventive and diverse is starting to run out of novel settings and level design.

With such rote tasks, the mission begins to drag. That's especially true when you're encountering constant setbacks. Its icy tundra and cramped refuges are replete with Combat Forms holding Shotguns and Rocket Launchers. Lightning is often dim, screens are busy, and both the Flood and the aforementioned weapons use muted colours. So, Rocket Launchers and Shotguns can blend into the scene right up until the second that their wielders are unloading their salvo at you. You can be speeding along, kicking ass and taking names when one of the Flood runs out of nowhere and takes down half your shield and all your health in one blow. Shotguns are hitscan weapons, so there's no dodging, while Rockets are scary-fast projectiles that can kill you in one hit, which is not much better. Such unforeseeable deaths make Two Betrayals feel unfair on Normal and an exercise in masochism on Heroic or Legendary difficulty.

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However, it's not all misery. After being cooped up inside Halo with only the Flood for company, the Covenant are almost a welcome face. You're plunged into the midst of this absolute chaos as UNSC, Covenant, and the Spark's Sentinels all fight it out against each other. Halo gets a lot of mileage out of letting you stumble on the armies fighting amongst themselves. That they have their own military concerns and don't just spend all day standing in a room waiting for you to show up makes them feel more real. Again, see Marathon for where Bungie previously developed this idea.

Later, Two Betrayals will pull its opening trick in reverse, as it surprises us with the Flood after a clean run of Covenant. And look at how the design forces us to adjust our aim with all these different enemy types in play. Not only have you got those weak spots on the Covenant to seek out, you have to aim up to hit Sentinels, at about shoulder height to headshot Elites, roughly knee-height to nail Jackals and Grunts, and below that when Infection Forms crawl in. Halo is challenging you fully in each of its three dimensions. This is also the mission with the most verticality, this time bringing it to the vehicles. Flying our way to our objective is a refreshing means of self-transport, and having to drop our shield to disable the generators leaves us on the pulse-pounding edge of safety.

Keyes

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By throwing a wrench into Halo's power grid, we temporarily prevented Guilty Spark from firing it. Still, the only way to guarantee humanity's continued existence remains to destroy Halo. Cortana has a plan to do just that: detonate the fusion reactors on the crashed Pillar of Autumn, and break the ring. However, the Autumn's computers won't authorise that without Captain Keyes' security codes. Cortana tracks his ID tags back to Truth and Reconciliation.

In one of Keyes' most memorable scenes, we snake through a Covenant ship to encounter a gaping hole where the hull should be and a pit of coolant far below. A wave of Flood charges us from behind, forcing us to make the jump into the liquid. Much of the early level consists of pools of glowing green, which we can hide in if threats on the surface are getting too overwhelming. Beyond that, the mission has us take many of the same narrow, curving paths leading to the Cruiser again, but with less illumination. The lack of a Sniper Rifle and the ceaseless proximity to the Flood refocus the area around close to mid-range fighting. Inside Truth and Reconciliation, we find a testament to the ruinous influence of the parasite: They have infested and destroyed the Covenant's former flagship, leaving the troops running scared.

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Truth and Reconciliation is, once again, a lot of tight corridors, but that's a greater liability on this return visit. Not only are Flood spilling in from all angles, but we must also contend with one of Combat Evolved's favourite toys: explosives. If a Carrier Form bursts in one of those corridors, or a grenade goes off, or a Grunt's methane tank ignites, it can start a chain reaction of detonations that does spectacular damage. Dying to one of these fireworks shows feels a little unforeseeable, but you can also strategically trigger them against the enemies. These chain reactions are one of the most invigorating sights in the game.

When we find Keyes, the Flood have taken him. We pull a chip from his brain, retrieving the codes and mercy killing him one fell swoop. The void where the inside of Keyes' head used to be is actually pretty disturbing in the Anniversary version.

The Maw

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At long last, we are on the home stretch. Without many Rocket enemies or walls of Flood to get trapped between, The Maw is manageable to a degree that the last three missions weren't. But it's not exactly a day at the beach either. The Pillar of Autumn has been overrun by the reanimated marines who perished in the battle with the Covenant. These resurrected servicemen are a macabre reminder of who has been lost in the war over the array. After Keyes, they're also an indicator of how the UNSC and the Covenant are equally susceptible to the Flood. They'll take over a human or alien ship all the same. The title of this level calls to mind the insatiable consumption of the species.

By the time we make it to the bridge, 343 Guilty Spark, the Covenant, and the Flood have pulled out all the stops to halt us in our tracks. Sometimes you can hide in a maintenance tunnel while two of these factions butcher each other, but most of the time, you're surrounded by every enemy in the game's bestiary. Yet, there comes an exciting anticipatory point where it looks like we can turn the tide. We take a trip to the Pillar's armoury, where we load up on Grenades and Rocket Launchers. These explosives are powder in the kegs we're going to blow in the engine room.

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Breaking the Autumn's reactors could feel like nothing more than shooting enemies near a new objective. Instead, the developers make it come across as the process of sabotaging a mechanism. For each engine, we must extend a metal strut, stand on it, and fire rockets or throw grenades into a vent. The means by which we destroy the engines entwines with their engineering. All the while, both the Flood and Sentinels try to execute us. Oddly, this section also pushes us to learn the crouch jump. It's a lot easier to get around the engine room if you know how to do it.

With the Pillar about to go up in flames, we reach perhaps the most famous scene of the game: the Warthog run. Halo would later become known for its linear vehicle action sequences, and this moment, more than any other, presses them into the clay of the series. The undulating waves of the ship's tunnels make for the most stupendous jumps we can achieve in the Warthog but also the maximum chance of tipping over. That's a panic-inducing situation to be in because we're racing against a timer. The dynamic between our avatar and the enemies changes entirely during this sequence as they move from being a source of incoming fire to being obstacles to dodge. The explosive Carrier Forms, in particular, shine in their dual purpose of flipping our vehicle.

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Many games choose to end with the greatest challenge they can muster, and relief comes with conquering that challenge. But Combat Evolved doesn't want us to spend our final moments throwing ourselves endlessly against a brick wall; it wants to go out on a sequence of tension but one that has forward motion. Something not stuttering and inscrutible, but daring and heroic. Two final times, Halo pulls the trick of yanking our objective that bit further from our grasp, prolonging the tension.

Our destination is a bridge from which the pilot Foehammer can pick us up, and a UI marker tells us exactly how far we are from our goal. There's enough time on the clock for us to reach the extraction point with plenty of breathing room, but when Foehammer arrives, a Banshee pursues her craft and shoots her down. Thinking quick, Cortana locates a jet we can flee on, but it's more than a kilometre out from our position. The ratio of distance to time is now considerably less generous. At the very end of the track, we reach a wall of barrels that forces us to abandon the Warthog and run for our escape plane. We have little time left on the clock, and we're going slower, maximising the stress. The designers are playing with us a little; the trigger to exit the level is closer than it looks. If we can reach it, the Master Chief and Cortana break free of the ring's gravity as the Pillar of Autumn goes critical.

___

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In 1999, a group of game developers and branding agents gathered around a whiteboard in a Chicago office. On that board were potential names for Bungie Studios' sci-fi war game set to release on the Apple Mac. When they picked the name "Halo", they were forced to modify it by a publisher that believed the public would not associate it with gripping and forward-thinking shooter design. When its sequel released three years later, it did so without a subtitle because, by that point, there was no confusion in the gaming community about what "Halo" meant. The title had become synonymous with diverse, thoughtful play, rich worldbuilding, and ambitious action sequences. This is all without talking about it having the best multiplayer you could find on the Xbox.

Even today, Halo's play and visual design leaves many new AAA shooters in the dust. We see the same gun archetypes recycled between all the experiences, we go up against enemies who all have the same weak points, or at least, don't have complex combat dynamics. Strategy is reduced to using the right gun at the right range and hiding behind cover at predictable intervals. Too often, action campaigns are about just getting to the next area or picking up the next McGuffin without any meaningful shift in our perspective. Halo: Combat Evolved is something different, something greater, with its reactive enemies that challenge us to play intelligently, its truly alien weapons, its beautiful dance of combat, and its purposeful narrative.

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It's therefore surprising that after the original Halo, the development of a Halo 2 was not assured. While designer Jaime Griesemer talked about his fellow employees' hunger for a sequel, director Jason Jones didn't like follow-ups. Composer Martin O'Donnell didn't see another Halo in the cards, designer Paul Bertone went off to work on another project, and art lead Marcus Lehto doubted that Halo would become a series.[1]

At the end of Halo 1, the ring shatters in response to the nuclear blast from The Pillar of Autumn. The destruction of this circular installation is symbolic of the UNSC preventing history from repeating. They stop Halo firing and life in the universe meeting its end as it had before. With the annihilation of their titular setting, Bungie, too, looked to be cutting ties with Halo. But like the Forerunner, the studio had built something bigger than itself, something that would guide its destiny.

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In the final seconds of Halo: Combat Evolved, the Master Chief looks out across the stars, surveying the wreckage of the once-mighty ringworld. Soulful orchestra fills the background. Cortana whispers in his ear, "Halo, its finished", but in his characteristically gruff voice, the Master Chief responds, "No. I think we're just getting started". Thanks for reading.

Sources

  1. The Complete, Untold History of Halo by Steve Haske (May 30, 2017), Vice.
  2. Seven Steps to World Domination by Bungie Studios (September 25, 2007), Halo 3 Legendary Edition.
  3. Halo: Combat Evolved Developer Commentary by Bungie Studios (September 25, 2007), Halo 3 Legendary Edition.
  4. O Brave New World by Bungie Studios (August 4, 2011), YouTube.
  5. The Unusual Excellence Of Halo's Most Iconic Level by GB Burford (September 5, 2014), Kotaku.
  6. Noordung, H. (1929). Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums: der Raketen-Motor. Richard Carl Schmidt & Co. (p. 137).
  7. Just the Right Sense of "Ancient" by Carlson (2007), Xbox.com.
  8. IGN Unfiltered Interview: Halo and Destiny Composer Marty O'Donnell by Ryan McCaffrey (March 24, 2016), IGN.
  9. Donnelly, K.J., Gibbons, W., Lerner, N. (2014). Music in Video Games: Studying Play. Taylor & Francis (p. 125).

All other sources are linked at relevant points in the article.

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The Maw: Systemic Horror in Little Nightmares

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Little Nightmares, Little Inferno, and the films The Platform (2019) and Snowpiercer. It also makes multiple references to child abuse and suicide. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact a suicide prevention organisation near you. For those in the US, you can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find them online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you are in the UK, you can call The Samaritans on 116123 or visit their website at www.samaritans.org.

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"I am a stomach, hunger incarnate.

When I'm hungry, I forget my lunch used to be a person.

When the hunger's bad, I forget I used to be one too".

-Olivia Moore, iZOMBIE (S01, E03).

In horror, there is always a threat, and in the vast majority of horrors, that threat is an antagonist, a group of antagonists, or a space. Think Michael Myers in Halloween, the Gremlins in Gremlins, or the house in The Haunting of Hill House. By pinning the horror down to individuals or localised areas, stories can introduce a personal element and exploit our fears of the people and places that could harm us. However, the entities that could damage our wellbeing aren't limited to people or places. So, why should our horror be?

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Increasingly, we are disturbed, not because of any anthropomorphic danger, but because we are caught in powerful and incomprehensible systems much larger than us. Those systems can be social, institutional, technological, or of some other type. The law, patriarchy, the military, and educational institutions are just some forces that can work to objectify and disempower us. Classic works of the 20th-century such as Franz Kafka's The Trial, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or Pink Floyd's The Wall play on that powerlessness.

Tarsier Studios' 2017 game, Little Nightmares, is also about the overlap of systemic influence and personal endangerment. However, it is quite coy about that being its central theme. Take a Writing 101 course, and you will learn that the first couple of chapters of your story are where you nail down the basics of your world and your characters' goals. Such exposition set up stakes, gives a context for plot events, and actualises the setting and characters. Sewing these seeds is crucial to get plot-driven and character-driven narratives rolling. However, it is not vital for more aesthetically-driven experiences.

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Little Nightmares' subject matter, setting, and structure are comparable to that of Bong Joon-Ho's 2013 film Snowpiercer, in which a community endlessly travels a frozen Earth via a train. The train's carriages are arranged hierarchically, with the rich nearer the engine and the poor further from it. Our perspective follows the rebellious underclass of the society as they surge towards the locomotive. Each carriage reveals a new societal stratum, so we start with a bare understanding of the politics and dynamics of the world and fill in that picture as the characters progress.

Like Snowpiercer, Little Nightmares takes place in an artificial, modular structure and chugs along with a focused, forward momentum. The game is a puzzle-platformer, and in classic form, we move from left to right through its environment. As we push through that space, the game travels this gradient from the abstract and aesthetically-driven to the concrete and detailed. Like the carriages in Joon-Ho's film, every zone in Little Nightmares has something new to say about the purpose of the place the characters inhabit and their role in it. However, where Snowpiercer gives us the basic premise of its world at the ticket desk, Little Nightmares is more enigmatic than that.

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In Chapter One of the game, we can see some wisps of accommodation: there are sinks and doors and cribs. However, much of the world is a patchwork quilt of grey cubes, cages are discarded haphazardly throughout the environment, and disembodied eyes can petrify us with one withering glance. In this and all subsequent chapters, a swaying motion rocks the camera. If we die, we jolt awake at the last checkpoint. This design and the game's title suggest that Little Nightmares maroons us in a dreamscape rather than having us inhabit any physical place. That turns out to be untrue.

That Little Nightmares' world is material is a fundamental detail, and yet, the game plays something even that foundational as a twist. And even once we learn that we're occupying a solid reality, we don't know if there's anything outside the level's neutral backdrop. This setting's systemic nature will not reveal itself to us until much later. The game is a narrow spotlight that slowly broadens. With every new inch illuminated, it brings a creeping understanding of the scale and cruelty of the operation ensnaring us. As it teaches us about that system, it also teaches us how cycles of violence perpetuate.

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As the player, we control "Six", a child who wears a yellow raincoat, obscuring their face, and the construct they find themselves trapped in is called "The Maw". Little Nightmares' camera sits far back from the protagonist, making them a spec of dust on the floor. This framing could work against it because a distant camera downplays the scale of objects. Think about how two skyscrapers on the horizon are never as imposing as two skyscrapers in front of you. However, the setting's adults are about five protagonists high, and they built everything from chairs to bookcases with themselves in mind. At each turn, The Maw's design signals that it is not made for Six, giving it a casual hostility.

By oversizing the environment, Little Nightmares keeps its setting intimidating and us feeling like children within it, even with a vast void of space between the camera and character. While its contemporaries in the genre might spook you with the monsters hiding under your metaphorical bed, this is a game that frightens you by having you hide under the monster's bed. Its challenge largely derives from overcoming that inaccessibility of scale: Working out how to open a door when you can't reach the knob or climb onto a table when you're the size of a mouse.

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Six's stature is symbolic of their insignificance within The Maw. As we'll later see, its system considers them just more grist for the mill. But Six's height does come with some advantages. It allows them to squeeze into places impossible for the giants to fit into, and the game establishes that they're tenacious enough to leverage that advantage where other characters can't. Down in the dirt, you can find "Nomes", skittish and helpless creatures who run and hide at the first sign of movement. Six is in the same position but works out how to overcome and escape rather than flee and hunker down. The first moveable object we encounter is a chair that someone has climbed onto and used to hang themselves. Where that character saw the seat as a tool to commit suicide, Six uses it to free themselves, treating it as a makeshift step.

In this opening chapter, the living are few and far between, and enemies include those eyes that turn Six to stone. The scenes remind me of a naughty kid trying to sneak out of their room at night, avoiding their parents' gaze. Upon completing the first level, an achievement informs us it was called "The Prison" before a creature traps us in a cage and drags us off. The second chapter is "The Lair", and with it arrives a villain: a grey-skinned humanoid with old, ill-fitting clothes, and a blindfold. The Lair's guardian snatches us up whenever we are within reach, and that's a wide radius as his arms are more than twice the length of his torso. The most memorable encounter with the monster comes at the end of the stage. We clamber around a room adjacent to him, and his arms snake across the surfaces, trying to grab us.

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The Lair's decor is that of a cluttered early to mid-20th-century western home. Cages like the one that held us litter the area, and we find a few toys underfoot. The environment also hosts a warehouse-sized pit of shoes, and when we turn on the warden's TV, it's set to a channel playing a nursery rhyme. The environment caries with it the eerie insinuation that the creature's job is to catch and imprison children, but that, for whatever reason, many of those children have gone missing or maybe even died. This could be why the monster has so many loose possessions like the shoes. Remember the micro-story about a child's death:

"For sale: Baby shoes, never worn".

The Level Two antagonist bears the markers of an elderly man who aims to keep children locked in his house and mistreat them; his invasive hands suggest sexual abuse. Six fits the profile of a neglected child: We never see an adult help Six with anything, and that includes staying fed. Once in each chapter, the protagonist suffers painful hunger pangs and has to scavenge for morsels of food.

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There is another consistent theme here. The boss wants to own this child, their design emphasises their hands, and they spend much of their time rifling through an excess of belongings. And look at what happens if they catch us. In most stealth horror games, if we lose a chase with the enemy, we're remorselessly eviscerated, and the camera is showered in gore. Yet, if The Lair's patrolman catches us, the camera simply fades out on them holding us. The stage considers being possessed a fail state in itself. And this is the consistent fixation of the antagonist: they are all about owning things, holding them; possession. We beat The Lair when we crush the gatekeeper's head under a metal door. We lure him into that trap by exploiting his desperation to manhandle Six.

In the first two chapters, we see body bags and corpses swinging from the rafters. In the third chapter, The Kitchen, there are hunks of meat hanging in the same position, hinting these are all the same objects. The police of this galley are portly chefs wearing grotesque masks and working primarily with meat. If they get their grubby mitts on us anywhere near an oven, then they will carry us in the direction of it. The 72 pt. subtext is that the cooks in The Kitchen prepare human as a delicacy. One particularly sharp example of frame composition in this chapter comes in a room near the end in which we must sneak under some tables. In the foreground, a chef cleaves meat with one almighty fist. It begs us to imagine that if we mess up our stealth play, we'll be the ones feeling the force of the chef's blade.

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A key dynamic of Little Nightmares narrative is that each new chapter recontextualises the previous. Once we saw The Lair, it became evident that the entrance area was a prison and is maintained by an individual. Now that we have seen The Kitchen, we can contextualise both The Prison and The Lair as part of a more extensive system. The pens from the first two settings hold murder victims, including or exclusively children. Somewhere along the line, those people are killed, and cooks in The Kitchen prepare their meat. However, in solving one mystery about the purpose of The Maw, the game pulls another from its sleeve, retaining our interest.

Like the home of Chapter Two, The Kitchen of Chapter Three, at first, appears to be an ordinary domestic environment. However, it takes on a surreal quality as we discover how much of it there is. The kitchens don't open onto a dining room or a back alley; they just neighbour more kitchens. If The Maw up to this point constitutes a production line for human meat, we must naturally pose the frightening question, "What could need that quantity of people to eat?". Chapter Four puts that mystery to rest with regretable vividness.

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After surviving The Kitchen by the skin of our teeth, we find an exit to the structure. Remember, first-time players won't be aware of the runtime of Little Nightmares and may believe this is the ending. Instead, when we climb through a hole in the wall, we're left danging from a ship's hull. The camera's rocking movement wasn't because we're dreaming or a cinematic eccentricity; it was The Maw bobbing about in the ocean. Surrounding us with the sea is an inventive way to rob us of our freedom at the last second. We now know we can potentially leave The Maw; it's not a literal purgatory. However, we can't do it by sneaking out the back door; the only way out will be through. Running that gauntlet will be easier said than done because, in the background, we can see a small army of adults boarding the ship. They're headed to the fourth setting: The Guest Area.

The guests are pudgy, gargoyle humanoids dressed in fineries. The fourth zone has a traditional Japanese style, and most of it is set aside for the patrons to gorge themselves on meat. Early in the level, we wind across their dining counters, and if we get too close, they'll gobble us up. Later in the stage, the visitors wear masks and form an orgiastic wave that rages through the Guest Area. That wave can crush us in its wake.

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The stealth and puzzle format of the first three levels matches the careful planning that goes into producing a commodity. It also fits with us steadily crawling towards an understanding of what The Maw is. Then, the game suddenly explodes into action play in the fourth stage, reflecting the shock of seeing The Maw's function confirmed and the gluttonous speed with which the guests satisfy their appetites.

To complete our lesson in what binds together a system of violence, we have to meet the woman who runs this operation; that's the item on the itinerary for Chapter Five: The Lady's Quarters. The Lady is a masked geisha-like figure who lives in a home more luxurious than The Lair, but with two peculiarities: all but one of her mirrors are shattered, and she owns about a hundred manikins. The play for this final level returns to a more traditional stealth horror style, but with the subversion that we can fight, and ultimately, overcome the monster. Unlike the broth-soaked workers and guests downstairs, The Lady is disconnected from the production and consumption that maintains her lifestyle.

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Her violence is indirect, and her attack embodies this: distinct from the other enemies, she doesn't get physical with Six. She tries to kill them by shining a light from under her mask. However, we can take that one unbroken mirror in her parlour and reflect the beam back at her to hurt her. The design of The Lady and her boss fight are bricks in a broader motif that runs through the game.

The Lady has set up her quarters to hide who she is from herself: she has broken the mirrors and shrouded her face. Covering the facial features is a convention in The Maw: The Lair's warden wears a cloth over his eyes, and both the chefs and patrons wear masks. The only exception to this rule is the bare-faced guests eating in the dining area. When the beneficiaries of The Maw cannibalise people, we see their "true faces". For both The Lady and us, seeing who she is is unbearable and blinding. It's enough to destroy her. After weakening The Lady, Six feasts on her body and walks back through the Guest Area swirling with power. They sap the energy from the diners, killing them, and climb a tall staircase towards a light, towering over The Maw that once left them in its shadow.

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While the direct fixation of Little Nightmares is the production of human meat, we can apply its broad themes of production, consumption, and violence to other dangerous supply chains. Many of the supply chains of the real world are destructive or abusive. If you see a coat hanging on a clothes rack in a first-world country, it may be that a third-world child sewed it together. A corporation may have cut down an acre of rainforest to produce the palm oil in your food product. The diamond in the ring your boss wears may be a conflict mineral, and companies drive down the manufacturing cost of all sorts of goods by forcing the workers who made them to subsist on a poverty wage.

If we buy and use such goods, we usually view them from a consumer perspective, not unlike the guests in Chapter Four who, from an uninformed viewpoint, are just wild about meat. However, in Little Nightmares, we explore the supply chain from the product's perspective (Six), and so, become aware of how the sausage is made, quite literally. The first four chapters of Little Nightmares break toxic supply chains down into four steps:

Observation

As depicted by the game, this step is largely abstract, and during it, the agents of the production line observe the raw material that will become the product. Remember the eyes from Chapter One. This stage is largely comparable to surveying land you might build on or searching out prospective sources of materials.

Possession

You can't process what you can't contain. You must cage your animals, mine your diamonds, whatever you need to do to acquire your materials and stop them from slipping away. Remember The Lair.

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Processing

This step would involve the conversion of animals into food, the cutting of diamonds, the stitching of clothes, etc. The Kitchen symbolises it.

Consumption

The step in which the recipient uses the product. The game depicts it in The Guest Area.

The Maw is a place that consumes people, which is foreshadowed by both its name and the pronounced mouths of all enemies apart from The Lady. At the end of systemic dramas like Little Nightmares, there's usually a demonstration of how to break from, or destroy, a violent system like this. At the close of Snowpiercer, the rebels derail the train; in the third act of The Platform, the prisoners send a message about human perseverance to their captors; as Little Inferno wraps up, we pull ourselves away from the fire. We could interpret Little Nightmares' ending as working on the same principle: Six eats their would-be killer and drains the life of the cannibals. In doing so, they exact revenge on the people who put them through their gruelling ordeal. But I find it difficult to see anything revolutionary in Six's victory lap.

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In The Lady's Quarters, the game suggests that The Maw works cyclically. Portraits of intrusive eyes like those in the first chapter adorn the walls. More curiously, one picture in the chambers appears to show a childhood Lady alongside four other children. The story doesn't overtly explain why Six is called what they are. But this picture could be the explanation. Maybe Six is called that because it's their destiny to become the sixth governor of The Maw. We do use numbering schemes to label monarchs (e.g. Henry VIII, Louis XIV). The unidentified children in the picture would be One to Four, The Lady is Five, and Six is Six. Violent usurpation may be how The Maw hands down the claim to the throne. Would it be so hard to believe that an institution violent in its production might be violent in its succession of leadership?

Six could disrupt that cycle, but their actions and the presentation of those actions suggest they don't. At the end of Chapter Four, hunger once again cuts through Six. A Nome offers them a sausage, but they pounce on the poor creature and chew out its innards. It is essential that we understand this is not Six killing to survive. Before this, they have bitten into dead rats to see another hour alive, but here they have an alternative food source and still choose to murder an innocent humanoid.

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In this moment, Six becomes as aggressive and cannibalistic as the visitors to The Maw. The edges of the screen darken, and we hear the pounding of a heart. That noise sounds again after Six kills The Lady, as they consume her body. In audiovisual language, these events exist on the same emotional branch. It's not framing Six killing The Lady as a virtuous act; it says it comes from the same place in them that killing the Nome did.

The game's best puzzle foreshadows Six's turn to the dark side. In The Kitchen, there is a room with a sausage-making machine and an inaccessible exit halfway up the wall. To progress, we must access the floor above this space, shove some hunks of human meat into the grinder, then go back down and turn the crank. We squeeze a few links out of the mechanism that we can use as a rope to swing into the next room. It's far from unusual for a video game to assign us tasks that feel at odds with the setting's spirit, and Little Nightmares is no exception. However, for most of the game, that's not a weakness. Six is alienated from their environment and has nothing in common with the butchers of The Maw. The grinder room is where that changes, as for the first time, Six becomes the one crushing down other peoples' muscle and sinew for their own uses.

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When our protagonist finally exits The Maw, it's not to make a getaway. Instead, in the post-credits scene, they stand atop the structure. They position themselves at the head of the community as The Lady once did. The monarch is dead; long live the monarch. In the closing scene, Six also doesn't liberate the Nomes. As they ascend a staircase into a gold light, suggestive of a passage to elitehood, the lowly Nomes can only watch from the cold concrete below. Little Nightmares doesn't tell us why Six turns against the Nomes and mimics the actions of their predecessors. However, this change in their nature happens after their exposure to The Maw, so I think it's fair to say that it's something that the protagonist adopts from their environment.

Six's corruption is representative of how violence is often cyclical: violence begets violence. People brought up in violent backgrounds are more likely to go on to be violent, and any robust system has a means of sustaining itself. Human meat is not the only product of The Maw; its other product is a leader to maintain it. In this way, the supply chain itself is more in charge than any one figurehead.

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When the antagonist of a horror is a single person or monster or even a place, it's more personal. However, violent systems tend to be more pervasive and encompassing in their threat than one person can be. They affect whole communities, even whole civilisations, and can outlive generations. You can lock up a serial killer, you can escape the haunted house, but how do you destroy a whole industry or a whole legacy of societal exploitation? The most enduring systems of oppression don't just negate attempts to change them but turn their enemies into allies. Thanks for reading.

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Mythical: Video Games on the Blockchain

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Blankos Block Party is a F2P action-adventure in which you can acquire, trade, and play as off-brand Funko Pop NFTs. If you didn't understand any of the words I typed, I am so sorry for what you're about to learn. I first discovered Blankos Block Party when a twenty-minute segment on the game aired on the official E3 Twitch channel. The thing that really stuck in my head from the preview was its opening question. Mythical Games, the studio behind Blankos, asked, "Do you really own your items in games?". My initial reaction was, "No, but so what? Inland Revenue isn't coming to tax my Medal of Honor arsenal and baliffs aren't going to repossess my Roblox mansion". But the more I thought about this question, the more substance there was in it.

In the physical world, we'd generally say that ownership of an item constitutes the right to do what we want with it. I am free to use my possessions however I like, as long as it's not for something illegal or otherwise unacceptably transgressive. We have the right to modify, sell, gift, or trade what we own. In video games, we can freely exchange some goods with other players, but other items, we can't. Designers can also modify or rescind our items at their discretion, and almost never are we allowed to trade our in-game possessions for real-world money or to reprogram them.

Video games are not free markets, but I also don't see any inherent problem with that. Real-world markets and regulations are not optimised to bring us the fairest and most gratifying experiences, but video games can be. With some deleterious exceptions, like micro-transaction-driven games, the restrictions on the items we own in games reinforce the aesthetics of those titles. I can't buy as many water filters as I want in Subnautica, but if I could, it would ruin the urgent survivalism that is its bread and butter. Blizzard removed some of the older currency items from World of Warcraft, but in doing that, ushered in a less grind-based economy. Restriction, after all, is the essence of structure and challenge, which are both core concepts in many compelling games.

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However, we must remember that not only do we own goods within the fiction of games but that games and their modular components are real-world goods that we own. The realities of our economy often undermines both forms of ownership. Think about MMO shutdowns. In massively multiplayer experiences, you appear to own all your items, but every one of them can be taken from you with no compensation if the servers go offline. Or you may have bought games a while back that use the SecuROM or SafeDisc DRMs that you can no longer play. Their anti-piracy software prevents them from running on many modern PCs. Some players have bought games complete with a soundtrack only to have that music expire years into the future. That's what happened with Grand Theft Auto IV and 92% of Guitar Hero LIVE's music library.

And what about intellectual property? There's an ocean of entertainment software that includes creative tools to make our own art, from custom characters to car decals. But it's unheard of that we walk away with the rights to that art. We can't sell it or license it or give it away. In many cases, our creations enhance the value of the games we create them in. This profits the companies behind the games, but we don't see a cent for it. You can see an argument that if we're performing labour that benefits a company, we deserve pay for that work.

As it stands, publishers and developers hold a vice-like grip over many of our games and their contents because, effectively, we're borrowing those items rather than truly owning them. Even if these companies wanted to give us the rights to our assets, it's not immediately obvious how they'd allow the exchange and transfer of them external to the game. Players would need universally accessible and absolute confirmation of who owns what without a patent office and outside the purview of any one company.

Thirteen years ago, some very bright engineers were grappling with a similar question. They wanted to know how people could trade over the internet without some central authority processing all the transactions. See, libertarians believe that the centralisation of economic authority in our society prevents power from being distributed among the people. After all, who controls the money, has the power. Central banks, in particular, earned the ire of right-wing libertarians as they saw a conflict between a society in which absolute authorities mint and regulate the money and the citizens achieving freedom within their own economics. The question naturally formed, "What if the people could develop their own money and their own network of trade outside of the state-controlled markets?".

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The internet stood out as the most efficient medium through which people could manage and trade currency, but the outlying problem remained verifying transactions. Without a bank or payment processor to confirm users' real account balances, what was to stop anyone claiming they owned any amount of money? One answer is that we can track individual balances by keeping a list of every trade made on a network. For example, if I start from 50 credits, then I spend 20 credits, then I'm paid 10 credits, I have 40 credits.

In a computer network, everyone can be aware that I made those transactions and know how much money I have because the system can broadcast every transaction to every user. If each trader keeps a ledger of all transactions, they implicitly retain a log of every user's account balance. Of course, now the crafty businessperson would move to spoof transactions. For example, by lying and saying someone else emptied their whole wallet into the malicious actor's account. So, how do you stop people from doing that? "Digital signatures" have long existed to verify that data really came from the person whose name was stamped on it.

Digital signatures employ a type of mathematical operation called a "cryptographic hash function". Cryptographic hash functions take any kind of data input, be it text, numbers, images, or something else, and output what looks like a string of random characters. "Looks like" is the operative phrase here because anyone can put the same data through the same hash function and get the same result. That result is called a "hash" or "digest". If you've ever wondered why there are almost no news stories of people at tech companies breaching the password database and stealing peoples' accounts, it's because websites don't save your password; they keep a hash of it. They only know the password you tried to log in with is correct or incorrect because they compare a hash of it to the hash of the password you entered when you first signed up. If the hashes match, the password is correct; if they don't, then it's wrong.

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It is also possible to stitch together chunks of data and then hash them. Let's say I had a bank safe that I wanted my employees to only be able to open at exactly 9:00 a.m. with the password "golden". When the user inputs their password, the system could then add the time to the end of that password and run the whole thing through a hash function. If you hash "golden0900" using the ubiquitous SHA-256 algorithm, you get:

a69c8fc79a79aa7abbcf35664cb484777c10355bcbd33ac60ba74eb26bb7b03a

So, the system could only unlock the safe if it sees this particular hash. Crucially, there's no method to reverse reliable hash functions. A computer cannot look at a well-generated digest and get anything more than the vaguest clue about the original input. We also have communication forms that use jumbled characters to provide secure verification over networks. In asymmetric cryptography, everyone gets two randomised strings of characters, inextricably interlinked. One is their public key, and one is their private key. One they distribute for everyone to see, the other they keep for their eyes only.

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When they want to send data to someone else, they hash that data and then encrypt it with their private key. Encryption algorithms are comparable to hash algorithms: When encryption is properly implemented, the output is always the same for each pair of inputs. However, encryption algorithms use data and a specific encryption key to produce an alphanumeric output, whereas hashes only take a data input. Unlike with a hash, you can revert encrypted data to its original state, but only if you have the corresponding encryption key.

The sender's encrypted hash is their "signature". They send their unencrypted data and their digital signature to another party. The receiver can then decrypt the signature with the sender's public key to get the hash out. They can also hash the unencrypted data themselves. If both the hash of the data and the decrypted hash match, you can be sure that the data came from who it says it came from and is personally endorsed by them.

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I know that's difficult to get your head around. The key idea to take away is that digital signatures can mathematically guarantee a specific set of data was approved by a specific person. In a digital currency system, users can and do use encryption keys to confirm that their address sent a certain quantity of money and the time at which they sent it. But again, a malicious actor can find a workaround. They can copy and paste lines on the ledger. Say that you paid me 10 credits at 6:01:45 p.m. on Friday. If I copy that line, complete with your digital signature, and add it to the record again, then it looks like you sent me 20 credits at 6:01:45 p.m. on Friday and signed the transaction. This anomaly is called "double spending", and preventing it was the last barrier to an authorityless, verifiable currency exchange system. Up until October 2008, no one knew how to prohibit double spending.

That month, a person or persons using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper called "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System". In the document, Nakamoto showed that you could split the ledger into discrete "blocks", each containing a fixed number of transactions. Those blocks would include a number such that if you hashed the whole block, the result would start with a long string of zeros. Now, no one could tamper with the contents of a block because, if they did, the resulting hash of it wouldn't start with all those zeros. Remember, different input into a hash function, different output out. That number in the block that forces its hash to start with all those zeroes is called a "proof of work" or "nonce".

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But how does this protocol stop you from faking a block? What's to prevent you from making your own list of phoney transactions and then placing the appropriate proof of work at the end of it? Well, in Nakamoto's scheme, blocks do not exist in isolation. They are chained together, with each block starting with a hash of the previous block. With new transactions come new blocks. This ever-growing inter-dependent sequence of blocks is called a blockchain. Let's imagine that someone tries to edit or remove a block on the blockchain. If they do, then the hash at the start of the next block will not match the hash of the block that was edited or deleted. Users on the network will be able to tell that that version of the blockchain is fake.

There's one last piece of the puzzle before we can get a working blockchain. Remember the nonce? Well, we said earlier that you can't reverse engineer a hash. This means you can't look at a block of data and know what nonce you should add to it to get a hash that starts with a run of zeroes. All you can do is effectively guess proof of work numbers that might give you that figure when combined with the block data.

Guessing the correct nonces, every time, is not something that a single person could reasonably do. The volume of calculations, even for someone with a server farm, would be astronomical. You could, however, find proofs of work relatively quickly if you had a lot of computers making guesses at the same time. Their operators just need an incentive to set them on that track. So, in the Bitcoin system, users who find a valid proof of work for a block are allowed to add a transaction to that block meriting them some currency. It's like a slot machine where you put in computing power for the chance to win Bitcoin. This RNG to discover nonces is known "mining", and currencies backed by cryptography, like those traded through the blockchain, are known as "cryptocurrencies".

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In a nutshell, this is blockchain finance. Users make transactions in blocks and digitally sign their transactions to prove their authenticity. Miners then add the proof of work, a sort of super-signature, to the block to prove that the whole sequence of transactions is legitimate. Each block then contains a hash of the previous block to prove that the chain hasn't been tampered with. If anyone doubts the veracity of a transaction or a block, they can run the relevant hashes for themselves to check they match those on the blockchain.

In around 2010, Nakamoto vanished, never to be unmasked, but their creation had an earthshattering impact. At the time of writing, the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, owns $201 billion, but in July of this year, Ars Technica reported that the total value of all cryptocurrencies stands at $1 trillion. The strongest proponents of the blockchain laud it as a fast-track to wealth for anyone willing to invest. They also describe it as a revolutionary technology that could underly everything from marriage to voting to video games. It is our supposed liberation from the draconian authorities of our time.

No matter your opinion on the blockchain, it has shaped and been shaped by gaming. The most influential blockchain video game was undoubtedly Cryptokitties, launched in 2017 by Dapper Labs. While the blockchain had, up to then, mostly been used to exchange currency, there's no reason that you couldn't use it to trade goods. In Cryptokitties, players can buy, sell, and breed exotic cartoon cats on the blockchain, swapping them for a popular cryptocurrency called Ethereum.

Items like Bitcoin that represent some value are called tokens. Economists would say that units of cryptocurrency are "fungible", meaning that any one is the same as any other. This concept is true for all money. No 20 peso bill serves a different function from another 20 peso bill; they're all interchangeable. But many goods aren't fungible. Paintings, plants, shirts for dogs: they're all different. So, if you were to represent these items with digital tokens, those tokens would be Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs. This is how Cryptokitties are traded: each represented on the blockchain by a non-fungible token. That game popularised the concept of NFTs, which are now a booming market in their own right, with the most popular tokens selling for millions. Transferrence of NFTs is logged on the ledger in much the same way transference of cryptocurrency is.

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NFT optimists say these tokens solve an old problem in the art market: determining provenance. The provenance is the record of ownership for a single piece of art. Who the artist traded it to, who that person traded it to, who that person traded it to, and on down the line. If you can track a piece of art back to its creator, you know it's the real McCoy. If you can only track it as far back as one owner, maybe it's because it didn't come from the supposed creator and is a forgery. But verifying that the alleged trades of a work happened is a tough investigative endeavour.

NFTs potentially solve this problem by giving you a cryptographically assured list of trades that's trivial to access. Any artist can make a unique work, valuable because there's only one of it or a few of it, and any traders of it can prove a line of ownership that runs back to that artist. The system can further allow the originator of a work to earn royalties each time it is sold automatically. Purportedly, any digital artist could see an economic windfall through this system.

While I used Blankos as an entry point to talk about NFTs, plenty of other titles picked up and ran with Cryptokitties' concept. Lost Relics is a Diablo-style RPG where the loot is bound to NFTs. Axie Infinity is a cross between Cyptokitties and Pokémon, where the creatures have NFTs. Upland is a digital landlord simulator where you buy NFTs representing real-world properties. And The Sandbox is a creation game that allows players to build Lego-like models and buy and sell tokens mirroring them in an NFT marketplace. This is big business. The Sandbox has, for some reason, featured tie-in content for The Walking Dead, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Care Bears, Avenged Sevenfold, and even Hell's Kitchen. In all cases, the blockchain's affordance of verifiable exchange allows the players an unusually high degree of ownership over what they trade.

So, we can jailbreak content from video games, right? The blockchain will allow us to finally take back ownership of what's been kept from us for so long. Well, you might have noticed that despite the best hopes of the crypto crusaders, the world banking system has not collapsed. The large majority of people do not own cryptocurrency or NFTs, and only so many of those who do are experiencing a significant bump in material control. So, we should be highly sceptical that playing games based on the blockchain will give us ownership over our items, products, or intellectual property.

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Before I get to the inherent flaws of blockchain, I want to tackle a common criticism of it that only selectively applies. People say that NFT and cryptocurrency dealing are morally unacceptable because of their environmental costs. Bitcoin consumes more energy than The Netherlands one paper told us, headlines talk about it derailing the climate goals of the entire nation of China.

A lot of blockchains are power hogs because of all those machines guessing the proof of work number. Guesses require processing power, and processors require electrical power. Many of today's popular mining computers consume about 72 kilowatt-hours of electricity over the course of a day. The average American home only uses 30. And keep in mind, miners tend not just to use one of these machines but to cluster them together, pushing for the best chance they can get at extracting a coin.

However, it may be impossible to put a number on the carbon output of any one blockchain. You can find out how much work is being done on what blockchain, but different mining machines consume different amounts of power to do the same amount of work. In that list of popular Bitcoin rigs I linked, kilowatt-hour usage varies from 1.3 to 3.5, and you can't know what share of the mining operation is using what model. Simply looking at the power consumption of these units also doesn't tell us how much electricity their owners use for peripheral operations like cooling. What's more, the amount of power dedicated to crypto mining is likely to drift as electrical prices do.

Even if you can work out how much energy it takes to feed any one blockchain, that's not the same as determining their CO2 emissions. Different regions of the world use different mixes of renewable and non-renewable energy. So, depending on where you're mining or transacting, your carbon footprint is going to be pretty different from those in other locations. That's not a problem if you can tell exactly where the mining rigs are situated, but the users are under no obligation to fill you in. There's no global data for the location of miners. For the information that researchers can access, they can try to geolocate machines using IP addresses, but users can always connect through middlemen, obscuring their true IP. Therefore estimates of Bitcoin's carbon load are all over the place, and there are so many cryptocurrencies, most researchers aren't looking at the large majority of them.

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Estimates of power demand and carbon output are further complicated by many cryptocurrencies forgoing proof of work protocols. Cryptokitties pioneered a scheme called proof of authority. In proof of authority, transactions are verified not by finding a hashable number but by a trusted individual or individuals. In this scenario, the authorities' incentive not to commit fraud is that their reputation is on the line. In proof of stake systems, a wealthy individual from the user pool is chosen to verify transactions, with the penalty of losing their currency if they're found faking trades. Remember, you don't have to remove money from someone's account to confiscate their crypto; you just change the consensus about how much money they have. If the network believes they lost $50,000, then they lost $50,000.

The Ethereum Foundation, which manages the world's second-most popular cryptocurrency, estimate that even using proof of work, Ethereum is upwards of thirteen times more efficient than Bitcoin. They will soon be moving their product to a proof of stake scheme that they believe will further shrink its energy consumption by over 99.9%. Even assuming a very high margin of error in both cases, that's a far cry from the inherently apocalyptic impression we usually have of crypto's climate effects. The next four most valuable coins after Ethereum also use some alternative to proof of work.

I don't want to downplay the damage here. While these proof of work alternatives deescalate the climate threat posed by blockchain transactions, it's difficult to tell exactly how much better they are without a clearer picture of crypto's effect on the climate overall. They also introduce new problems. They constitute an elaborate way to centralise an economic system that was meant to be valuable because it was decentralised. And while putting money or reputation on the line could discourage the verifiers from malicious behaviour, there are plenty of traditional economic entities who've had a lot of money or goodwill at risk and still violated the rules.

You should also know that it took Ethereum six years to move to a proof of stake system when they expected it to take them one. However, you can see that a lack of data and operational differences between blockchain technologies mean that we can't blanket classify them as a danger to the planet, nor can we be too specific about any one blockchain's toxicity. Beyond this point about the climate, I could sit here all day and spout off reasons not to use the blockchain, or churn out explanations for a lack of mass adoption, but I'm just going to run down those that tie back into gaming.

1. Having your money in a cryptocurrency doesn't innately increase your ability to generate income.

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If I convert £1,000 into Bitcoin, I don't get a million pounds; I get £1,000 worth of Bitcoin. Probably less than that once you factor in transaction fees. As such, it's hard to make an argument that this currency heightens my financial freedom. You could profit through mining a proof of work currency. However, the mining market is already dominated by people who own tremendously powerful computers that can perform guesses on a godlike volume. Your little home PC will not keep up.

2. A related issue: The blockchain doesn't stop a large amount of currency from concentrating in a few hands.

Around 2% of all entities on the Bitcoin network control 72% of the currency. It sounds like the power is pretty centralised to me.

3. Another related problem: Crypto markets exist as a subset of the larger world economy rather than sitting in some closed system.

So, the most wealthy in traditional currencies have the most power to control cryptocurrencies. Those with the least wealth outside crypto are the least equipped to make money with it from the get-go.

4. There's a security issue.

If someone gets your private key, they get your account. This isn't like when a fraudster targets you, and your bank can intervene. The whole point here is that there's no central authority, and as it stands, there's almost no crypto regulation. In a world where even established tech companies have been the victims of a hacking epidemic, this poses a problem. If your account is compromised, you're never getting it back.

5. There's an anonymity issue.

If anyone can connect a person to a crypto wallet, then the world can see the entire transaction history of the wallet's owner and always will. You cannot erase data in the blocks, remember. The transaction history tied to your public key may even serve as a clue to anyone trying to unmask you.

6. Crypto has become closely connected to criminal activities.

As the value of these currencies rises, so does the value in the pockets of many criminals. I'm not talking about benign crimes like selling weed; we've all heard about the people who use crypto to anonymously ransom targets or scam the vulnerable.

7. The price of cryptocurrencies tends to fluctuate wildly.

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It's less than ideal if the cost of your groceries skyrockets overnight or if, over a week, the value of your labour halves. Every currency is worth what you can exchange it for, and very roughly speaking, it's supply and demand determining a commodity's worth. But people won't suddenly demand twice the food, and not every car mechanic in the world will supply half the labour overnight. So, the dollar, which you can exchange for commodities like food and cars, stays stable, at least relative to a cryptocurrency. The crypto, typically not backed by commodities with stable supply and demand, becomes unstable and doesn't have these moderating factors to batten down its worth.

Then there are a few criticisms that apply specifically to NFTs.

1. NFT art is, in most current implementations, easy to pirate.

While marketplaces sell NFTs on the understanding that they are verifiably unique, NFT art is far more easily copied than a physical painting or statue. Because art marketplaces have to show what you're purchasing, you can go to NFT stores and download the image or video they're selling without buying it. This also makes it simple to bind an existing popular work to a different NFT and sell it on. Any intervention to stop this happening would constitute the regulation that blockchain was invented to avert. It's probably for the best that the NFT art isn't unreplicable, however. If there were only one version of each of these files in the world, that would gate many people from access to the art.

2. Related: Because cryptocurrencies exist away from the watchful eye of authorities, there's not a lot of legal recognition of ownerships acquired through the blockchain.

This is an issue for NFTs; if the copyright system doesn't recognise your right to a product you bought on the blockchain, and you don't have a license to it, do you really own it? What are you going to do if someone steals it? As if to prove that point, an army of bots has been automatically minting other peoples' art into NFTs so that the bots' masters can turn a profit. This, again, disproves the whole idea that NFTs ensure that work sold is unique and legitimately owned by the seller. Remember, what's verifiably unique is not the artwork; it's the token that represents it.

3. In current implementations, buyers of NFT art risk losing access to it through no fault of their own.

If your access to your art is a link in a metadata file, what happens when the server hosting that file goes offline? NFT sellers aren't unaware of this issue and usually use a peer-to-peer file system to store art, allowing anyone to access the piece as long as it's saved somewhere on the network. However, not only is the existence of all these copies proof of the reality that NFTs do not grant exclusive ownership, what happens if there's no one left on the network hosting your file? Even today, gremlins in the wires are fraying the connections to blockchain art. Check My NFT found links to pieces from even major NFT artists like Grimes and Steve Aoki non-functional. You could argue that if you bought the Mona Lisa, you wouldn't get a backup version, but then the Mona Lisa can't be destroyed in a hard-drive crash.

4. NFTs may only serve the very top end of the art market.

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These commodities solve an authenticity problem, but these authenticity and provenance issues almost exclusively affect the most expensive artworks. Checking for forgery is something you do when you're procuring an original Gaugin or Vermeer, not your first step when you're purchasing from your favourite artists on Etsy or ArtStation. In fact, in the latter cases, you can usually buy directly from the artist anyway, so if you do care about authenticity, you're already covered. Of course, it's the former works that are the more expensive.

I don't see most digital artists complaining about an issue of provenance, and that's probably because it doesn't apply to their field. Most people buying art don't care about the uniqueness of the work. If I have an Aurahack piece, why do I care that someone else does too? It's only once we enter the world of the ultra-rich art traders that scarcity is sought after because scarcity drives prices.

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You might ask why there is an animated market for crypto and NFTs if they are such sorry substitutes for traditional currencies and digital goods. We must understand that, for profiteers, the above issues aren't really flaws. Sometimes, they're even desirable. Let's return to point number seven about crypto: its instability. If booms and busts in a currency market can occur in the space of weeks, then investors in that market can make small fortunes in a handful of days. The volatility of the currency isn't a bug; it's a feature. Buy when it's comparatively low, sell when it's comparatively high.

A commodity doesn't have to be useful to be valuable, it just has to be something people want; that's what valuable means. So, as more people buy up a coin, and it becomes clear it's in demand, sellers can jack up the price for it. As the commodity's worth increases, more people buy it up, which causes the value to increase further, and on the feedback loop goes. Most of the people buying up a currency like Bitcoin are doing it precisely because they expect they can trade it onto other people who will pay more for it: this is speculative investing.

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Of course, somewhere in this chain of high stakes pass the parcel, someone will be looking to sell their crypto at a higher rate and find there are no takers. Past a certain price, prospective buyers fear they won't be able to sell the currency on and so don't purchase any more of it. People who do own it can only sell at a loss, and when it becomes clear the value of the currency is falling, everybody tries to offload it at once, only causing the price to drop further. This is the speculative bubble popping. It's how people lose a lot of money investing in crypto; they end up selling on the wrong side of the crash. Again, an item is worth whatever you can exchange it for, so if it's these currencies that you directly exchange for NFTs, the value of the NFTs fluctuates with them.

The upshot of all this is that the NFT market isn't optimised for people who want to own and exchange practical or aesthetically appealing items; it's optimised for people who want to make a buttload of money off of it. There's little reason for anyone who cares about art for art's sake to invest in the blockchain because it does not secure art for art's sake. What it does is allow receipts for digital goods to be passed about by traders to the same ends that stocks and bonds once were. This isn't an art market mediated by cryptocurrency; this is a cryptocurrency market mediated by art. If cryptocurrency is the currency of decentralised digital trade, then NFTs are its securities.

We haven't talked about video games in a hot minute, but you can see how many of the observations here would answer our question from the start of this article. Any platform that does not grant us legal rights to our "posessions" is a compromised solution to ownership. In fact, most of these NFT game studios are forced to admit what you do and do not own through their terms of service, and it makes for disappointing reading.

The Cryptokitties ToS states that you really do own your assets from the game and can sell them to whoever you like. You can use them in a personal capacity or for your business, provided it's making less than $100,000 annually. You can't, however, license your kitty out to anyone else. In The Sandbox, you do own your assets, but the developers retain the right to use and modify your creations however they like, including employing trademarks you own in conjunction with them. Upland, that game about trading real-world properties, owns everything you submit to it.

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It's Blankos Block Party, however, that best shows how little control over your items a game can give you while still functioning on the blockchain. You do not have the right to use one of your bootleg Funko Pops outside the game in any way. You cannot modify their design, place them in any media, or acquire IP rights for them. The software uses a proprietary currency called Blankos Virtual Currency that can only be traded in the game and cannot be exchanged for any actual currency outside it. Mythical retain the right to confiscate all this currency whenever they want. You can sell your Blankos in online marketplaces outside the game, but the company effectively controls the entire secondary market and takes a fee from every trade. Mythical further lay claim to the right to reverse or cancel trades at their discretion and to terminate whoevers' Blankos account they want.

A recurring pattern in these terms of service is that by granting ownership of an item without extending rights to the intellectual property associated with it, these games don't let us "own" much at all. It makes me think that in the case of creative blockchain games like The Sandbox's, their purpose isn't so much to unshackle our creations from faceless tech firms, but to take spaces of free artistic collaboration and commercialise them. And that, in the case of other game markets, blockchain finance is taking recreational economies and rebuilding them in a manner that would earn developers real-world commission on them.

In addition to being shaky business propositions, blockchain games potentially embroil you in a whole new set of issues that traditional games don't. For example, the indestructible paper trail of your transactions or the potential environmental costs. Blankos may use a proof of authority system, but if an authority regulates our ownership and transaction, then this game doesn't allow us to squeeze our items out from under the thumb of huge organisations as it claims.

Tying items in a game to a volatile currency could also gate our access to them. Under such a system, the prices of goods wouldn't be set by designers looking at what's fair but by market forces that we have no control over. And if you can't control those markets, how can NFT-based games promise more control over your items? When we discuss ownership, we often spend more time talking about securing our existing possessions than gaining access to anything new. But a game does not enable ownership if the price of the goods leaves them well out of our reach, and whatever assets we own may disappear when the game goes down.

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Further, those who promote NFTs often do it on the grounds that they abstract all goods into a single, standardised, and thus, easily exchanged form. So, that makes it sound like that technology would enable us to extract items or art from a video game, and thus, retain a hold on them. But as a NFT is a token representing a good and not the good itself, it can't force items or art to transcend any existing rules that govern them.

Almost all digital media needs some software interface to make it dance. For example, image files need picture viewers, and video files need video players. Fortunately, both are easy to come by, and almost any viewer or player will do. However, video game items and art are not so software agnostic; they only run in conjunction with the specific games for which they were developed. As such, it's hard to imagine legally breaking the content out of any non-open source game. Even in a title like Cryptokitties, which is about as generous as NFT games get, you can't breed a Cryptokitty, an essential feature of the kitties as an asset, without the developer's patented algorithm. No Cryptokitties, no Cryptokitties.

I've spent a lot of time talking here about the technological and economic realities of the blockchain. I could have written this essay without doing that, and it would have been more approachable and to the point. But if blockchain is going to be a force on the economy we live in, and especially if we're going to consider interacting with media based on the blockchain, it's worth ripping the tech open and taking a gander at its innards. You shouldn't sign a contract without reading the small print. You shouldn't take out a loan without knowing what APR is. Mythical Games emphasise that you don't need to understand the underlying algorithms to play Blankos, but if you're interacting with the blockchain, you should be conscious of how the blockchain operates.

I think this demystification is particularly important because the proponents of crypto are so loud they're deafening, and what they say often implies there's some "get rich quick spell" contained in the blockchain's logic. A discourse has grown around this technology and its assets: half religious proselytising and half pyramid scheme pitch. This discussion is now encroaching on the games industry. In the mind of the most pious traders, we must invest obsessively and uncritically in the idea that the blockchain, like a benevolent deity, will deliver us wealth and freedom. Anyone who says otherwise lacks sufficient faith in the system. But when we unpack the blockchain, we see that it's not magic and it's not a god. The system is elegant, and it's ingenious, but it contains no golden bullet for exerting economic control. For now, your virtual items won't be ascending from their respective video games. Thanks for reading.

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Black Pearl: The Surprising Complexity of Hexic HD

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Hexic HD is one of the hardest puzzle games I've ever played, at least, when I'm playing to win. I realise that sounds silly because match three games are known for handling their players with the softest of grips. Their rules are so simple that even a child can learn them in seconds, and most of these games don't have a lose condition. You play against a clock or until you've filled up the screen space, and at the end, you haven't won or lost; you just have to decide whether you're happy with your score or not. But this idea that match three games must all be breezy and relaxing doesn't pass the sniff test. In every other game genre, the difficulty ranges between the serene and the merciless. So, why wouldn't it in block-swapping puzzle challenges? It's just difficult to imagine what a harder match three puzzler would look like until you play Hexic HD.

Exactly what "harder" means is always game-specific. However, it's universally true that games get more challenging when the number of advantageous or acceptable moves the player can make reduces relative to the overall set of moves available. A move could be changing the location of a piece on a board, playing a card, or basically anything that requires controller input. Designers reduce that desirable set of moves by introducing penalties, or at least, diminished rewards, for actions they do not want the player to take. Here are a couple of examples:

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In a multiplayer shooter, it might be safe to stand anywhere on the map, except directly in front of an opponent. But if a player on the opposite team picked up a sniper rifle and got up to a decent vantage point, any move which leaves you standing in the open would become disadvantageous. Now, you have to be more precise in your movement; you stick to the cover.

In an RPG, you might have a variety of status effects you can unleash on enemies to damage them over time, including "burning". Then, you come across a fire elemental, and your "burning" spells only heal it. Now, you have to be more precise in your attacks to prevent your enemy's status effects giving them the metaphorical high ground.

In a match three title, moves usually involve swapping pieces. It follows that if a designer wants their match three game to demand more of the player, they could make it so that the player can't just line up any three pieces to progress. The creator could increase the difficulty by shrinking the set of desirable matches in the grid at any one time.

The most obvious direction would be to have the player match lines of more than three. However, this wouldn't change much about the audience's strategy or how they're likely to view the game. It's also not a practical modification. All match three games in which you can swap pieces handle swapping in one of two ways. In some of them, if a swap doesn't lead to a match, they reverse the switch immediately. See: Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga. In others, player moves are persistent whether or not they clear pieces. E.g. Panel de Pon and Puzzle Pirates' Bilging puzzle.

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The thing is, in match three games, the board often doesn't fall into a pattern where there are four identical pieces ready to be cleared in one move. So, if you demanded that the player matched more than three pieces in a game where only clearing moves are honoured, then it would frequently be impossible to play. If you did the same for a game where you can shift pieces even without matching any, you're going to create a puzzle where there's less of that delight of seeing pieces on the cusp of being whisked out of existence and more rotely ferrying tiles across the board. You could compensate by reducing the number of tile types in play, but this is an elaborate way to get the game back to the same ratio of valid moves to possible moves you had when you started. You're not increasing intentionality in the player's behaviour.

If we want a more transformative slant on the match three game, rather than just designing a match four game, we could try:

  • Making the board out of shapes other than squares.
  • Having the player compose more complex patterns than lines.
  • Encouraging the player not just to match certain pieces but also avoid matching others.
  • Getting the player to pay attention to all the shapes involved in a single move, not just those they're matching.
  • Pushing the player to not just match any pieces but particular pieces on the screen.

Hexic is not just another block puzzler; in its Marathon Mode, it's a block puzzler that innovates and engenders intentionality in the player's actions. It commands such focus through implementing all the above ideas. It's the leaderboard for Marathon that lists the most player scores. This game type is also presented at the top of the game's main menu, effectively positioning it as the primary or default mode. From hereon, when I talk about Hexic, I'm talking about Hexic HD in Marathon Mode.

How the player can move pieces.
How the player can move pieces.

Hexic is a match three game in which the board is made up of hexagons of various colours. The player can select any three adjacent hexagons at a time, causing an axis to appear in between them. They can then rotate the selected pieces clockwise or anti-clockwise around that axis. If three hexagons of the same colour become adjacent at any point during a rotation, the rotation stops, the matching pieces disappear from the board, and the player scores some points. When blocks are erased from the grid, the hexagons above fall into the blank space they occupied. Any empty gaps at the top of the board fill with new pieces of random colours. As the player accrues points, they level up, and over the levels, the game introduces more colours to the board.

That the designers picked hexagons with a flat top and bottom is not a coincidence. The shapes the developers use for the grid can't have a pointed peak or base because other pieces on the board have to fall onto them and be supported by them. Without flat tops and bottoms to the shapes, you won't get your blocks to sit in perfect columns. The hexagonal shape also means that two other tiles can be placed alongside each piece. You couldn't do the same with, say, pentagons, heptagons, or octagons. At least, not in a grid that all uses one shape, with the polygons tiling perfectly, and the pieces filling the negative space left by clearing other pieces. We'll cover further implications of a hexagonal grid later.

The starflower's area of influence.
The starflower's area of influence.

To understand how Hexic motivates players to create more elaborate patterns with those polygons, we need to talk about starflowers. If the player surrounds a piece with six other identically coloured pieces, those six blocks disappear, and the tile in the centre of that pattern blooms into a "starflower". When you select a starflower, rather than being able to rotate it and two adjoining pieces, instead, you're invited to turn all six hexagons bordering it in one motion.

When rotating pieces via a starflower, you don't need to match them for the rotation to stop; they all cease moving after being turned one place. The player can also match three or more starflowers together for a windfall of points. If the user surrounds a single piece with six starflowers, they can create a black pearl. A black pearl can rotate only the hex above it, to the bottom left of it, and to the bottom right of it. The player can match three black pearls to end the game and add a fortune to their score. Alternatively, they can surround a piece with black pearls to complete the session with an even higher score bonus.

The black pearl's area of influence.
The black pearl's area of influence.

If you're playing the game optimally, your goal is to make and match black pearls for two reasons. Firstly, it's many times more lucrative than matching coloured pieces. Hexic has no combo system and does not place a high value on matching many pieces at once. The game decides how many points to award for a clear by taking a base value assigned to the move you've performed and multiplying it by the current level. The base pay for clearing three hexagons is 5 points, while for 4, it's 10 points. Making a starflower, however, is worth, at base, 1,000. If you can put together those starflowers to make a black pearl, that's 10,000. Matching six black pearls pays out an eye-watering 250,000 points before factoring in the level number.

In other match three games, the emphasis on combos and large clears means that the challenge of the play, and the rewards you get for overcoming that challenge, increase on a gradual curve. Players slowly learn how to match more pieces at a time and steadily get more points for doing so. By contrast, Hexic has a sizeable gap in difficulty and reward between clearing basic pieces, clearing starflowers, clearing black pearls, and so on. Remember, you don't win points for getting halfway to a special piece or matching two of them. You only get your pay packet once you've completed the whole job. It's all or nothing.

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So, instead of this gentle ramp up in challenge and prizes, you get these sudden jumps. We could see that as a failure of Hexic's design; a player may feel the journey up the ladder of difficulty and reward is jerky and that their improvements in skill are not acknowledged until they hit the next tier. On the other hand, it's these stepped plateaus of hardness and score that push you to up your game. If you develop the skill to place five adjacent starflowers on the board, you're unlikely to stop there. You're going to go for the whole pearl.

The second reason to chase black pearls is that, and this is very weird for a match three game, matching black pearls is the explicit win condition. By incorporating both a hard win state and the opportunity to accrue points endlessly, the game can cater to more than one breed of player. If you don't want the pressure of worrying about whether you'll win and just want to rack up a monumental score, then Hexic has you covered. If you need the assurance and motivation of an overt goal, Hexic has that too. However, achieving that explicit goal is easier said than done. From Xbox's achievement stats, we can tell that only 0.75% of players have ever beaten the game.

Completing a starflower.
Completing a starflower.

Now, that difficulty comes in part because, to make these complex patterns of hexagons, we also have to respect a couple of those other earlier bullet points. We often have to care about all the pieces involved in a swap, not just the ones we're clearing. We also have to match specific sets of three rather than just any set on the board. We usually build towards a starflower by looking for areas on the grid where three or more pieces already make up part of a hexagon, and then we fill the rest of it in by shipping other pieces of the right colour across the board to it. We have to transport those pieces by looking at moves that could match three or more pieces while moving a third piece involved in the swap closer to the would-be starflower. That's much tricker than looking for any match you can make.

And there are all sorts of matches you shouldn't make if you want to complete your starflower. You can't match against the pieces you want to form the hexagon; you can't match underneath the hexagon, or the tiles will fall and misalign or match with each other; you can't clear pieces you might want to slot into that hexagon. As you build a starflower, you actually lock up a lot of the board, excluding it from use. There's an elegant quirk of the design where the ruleset that makes matching pieces so desirable as a casual player also makes many of those clears something you want to avoid as a higher-level competitor. Can you see how the design is restricting the set of valid moves and asking for more specific inputs on the part of the player?

Regular rotation checks vs. starflower checks.
Regular rotation checks vs. starflower checks.

Once you have a few starflowers on the board, you gain more agency over your domain. Ideally, you build a starflower transport network where you can relocate a hexagon from one side of the board to the other by passing it from starflower to starflower. However, in our galaxy of starflowers, new challenges arise. You don't want the stars to drop into the bottommost slots on the board, or they lose their powers and get very finicky to pick back out. Additionally, because starflowers allow you to rotate more pieces than you could in a standard turn, you have to think more carefully about the moves you make with them. A regular swap rotates three tiles, and the hexagons it controls are checked against a total of nine surrounding hexagons per move. A starflower rotates six pieces, and the hexagons it controls are checked against a total of twelve pieces. All of those extra checks could lead to one of those undesirable matches we talked about earlier.

Losing the pieces that could be about to make up a starflower is a blow, but once you have three starflowers on the board, you risk a real kick in the pants: accidentally matching all of them and obliterating them in one move. When you see your work go up in flames like that, it becomes obvious that Hexic is no longer a friendly entertainer and has become a punishing drill sergeant. Again, we can see a fascinating self-regulating quality to the rules here: the more starflowers you introduce to the board, the easier it is to accidentally engineer a collision between them.

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You can reduce the prevalence of starflowers by vitrifying them into black pearls. Unfortunately, if you get into the late game where there are many different colours on screen, and you don't have starflowers to micromanage it, you will end up with a cluttered, frozen board in which constructive matches are few and far between. Starflowers are also beyond useful for moving other starflowers, and so, are must-haves for when it's time to form a black pearl. If you have two starflowers in the orbit of each other, you can "walk" them across the board by alternately rotating each of them.

Playing Hexic is like playing any game with some depth, in that you start scrawling a mental notepad of the dynamics that form between pieces and a shortlist of good practices that take those dynamics into account. For example, sometimes, you have to erase a set of tiles that almost make a starflower to free up other pieces blocked from doing the same job. You also can't really fill in a hexagon from below because, to move pieces, you need to match pieces, and if you start matching underneath a hexagon, it'll fall apart. Attempting to build a hexagon too near the top of the board often results in an awkward situation where you have little space to work with above them, and so, unless starflowers permit, you want to build them in the middle or bottom of the board.

While we've talked about ruts you dig yourself into, we've yet to talk about explicit fail states: the element of the game that would mean users can't just play a session endlessly, trying to correct mistakes. In Marathon Mode, it's bombs that the player must watch out for. These are coloured pieces that drop into the board and will "explode" in a certain number of moves if you do not match them against at least two pieces of the same colour. A detonation means game over.

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Bombs are another way that the game pushes players to focus on matching specific sets of three and refrain from breaking certain patterns. If the player wants to survive, they must match against the bomb, refrain from any moves that might jostle the bomb into an inopportune position, and mustn't delete blocks they might match this powder keg against. Again, starflowers help immensely with connecting bombs to pieces of the same colour. As different bombs and near-hexagons appear and disappear from the board, the player's focus is pulled towards and away from specific spots in the play area.

The problem for the Hexic HD player is not just that the individual acts of making a starflower, making a black pearl, or matching black pearls are strenuous, but also that they must climb through each of these tasks, in succession, to win. And if they stumble at one of the steps, they must start again from the bottom of the mountain. When you get a special piece in most match three games, you burn that power-up, and that's the end of the story. In Hexic HD, you must make a specific pattern out of six coloured pieces, and do that five more times, and then make all of the power-ups you get from those processes into a new hexagon, and repeat that process twice, and then match the power-ups from that last series of alignments, if you want to win. Completing all those steps without a bomb going off is next-level demanding. And not all that fair either.

Once you get skilled enough, it often feels like you lose sessions of Hexic not because you made dumb choices but because the board fell in the wrong pattern. I know in games with a dash of randomness, it's easy to blame the RNG when you fail, but it is a demonstrable burden in Hexic's case. In a match three game with a square-based board, each piece is checked against up to four adjacent tiles to see if it matches. In Hexic's hexagonal board, the engine compares each piece against up to six surrounding pieces.

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On lower levels, there are only five different colours on the board, so one match will often set off a long combos of clears. That's great if you're playing casually. However, if you're being more strategic about your play, and trying to put together starflowers, sometimes the pieces you're using to compose them can be wiped off the board because the wrong tiles randomly fell onto them. Still, the early game is considerably more forgiving than the late game, where you'll encounter the opposite problem. After level 5, Hexic uses seven different colours, and as covered, much of the board also gets locked up by special pieces. That means fewer opportunities to match pieces per screen than you get in other match three games, a huge issue when you need to defuse bombs quickly. And the higher the level, the shorter the bomb timer.

Let's compare Hexic to some other titles representative of the genre. Panel de Pon only uses four colours, while Candy Crush Saga uses four to five, although Candy Crush often blocks parts of the board with barrier tiles you must break. Bejeweled uses seven piece types but doesn't have blocking pieces, and all three games liberally introduce power-ups or bonuses to make clearing pieces easier. Hexic doesn't introduce many bonus pieces, and when it does, you often don't want to use them. Reckless actions like banishing a colour from the board can ruin your intricately organised patterns.

Square grid checks vs. hexagonal grid checks.
Square grid checks vs. hexagonal grid checks.

You might think that the hexagonal grid gets you out of that jam, but for any one hexagon on the board, your rotation will only check it against up to nine other pieces. For comparison, you can test squares in other match threes against up to eight. So, 50% more sides for the tiles doesn't mean 50% more opportunities to clear. And at the same time that Hexic makes the board less cooperative, it's demanding greater matching skills by pushing you to create more elaborate patterns than you have to in another game of its class. That might not be worthy criticism if making the wrong matches didn't come with weighty consequences or if we could tell what pieces will get dropped onto the screen, but it does, and we can't. The end result is that you can always make clears on the grid, but they're not necessarily the clears you need.

It would be easy to analyse Hexic's problem as a contradiction between its themes of control and chance. To say that the game is doomed to fail because, on the one hand, it's randomly generating pieces, yet, on the other, it's trying to have you operate with precision and specificity. Still, there are plenty of other games which capably incorporate both of those ideas. Sometimes you get a bad board in Bejeweled Blitz, but Blitz matches only last two minutes, and no consequences from one session carry over into another, so it's not like there's much at stake if the RNG dunks on you.

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There are plenty of card games where the shuffled deck means that our power level at any one time is mostly random, where stakes can be high, and where losses are persistent. For example, in Texas Hold 'em, we have no control over, or foreknowledge of, the hand we'll get, and losing one hand affects our resources moving ahead. But then, the trick with a game like Texas Hold 'em is that while all hands are random, it's the player who has the final decision about how or if to play a hand. They don't have to stake anything on it if they don't want to, and the cards in play are reset every turn. In a board game like Ticket to Ride, the cards you get are random, your hand is not reset, consequences do carry between turns, and there is something at stake in every turn. Still, you are not stuck with the hand you draw; you add to it throughout the game with no maximum limit, and personal consequences that carry between turns are mostly positive. You can't draw a card that will disadvantage you.

In Hexic, there is often a lot at stake. If you're trying to match three black pearls, a game can realistically last you forty minutes, and a fractional slip up can be the difference between success and failure. So, there is a lot of investment from minute to minute. There are almost no ways to refresh your largely random board, the consequences of bad RNG are relatively long-term, and it's not like you can add to that board endlessly like you can with your hand in Ticket to Ride. If you've got the wrong pieces in the wrong places, your options to unjam them are limited. You can't bet low if things aren't going your way, and sometimes the game makes decisions for you, like just clearing out your pieces in the early levels. So, you end up with this trifecta of characteristics that often appear in games that feel unfair:

  • Unavoidably high stakes.
  • A lofty bar for success.
  • Limited control over that success.

That inevitably creates situations that put the player on a losing course, with a sizeable cost for that loss, and no ability to divert.

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Let's conclude. For our purposes, Hexic HD serves as a guide on making a game harder by containing a smaller set of ideal moves relative to other match three games. Through that change-up, it encourages more specific action on the player's part. However, modifying only some game elements while trying to achieve a difficulty bump can be dangerous. Designers will have probably created the whole game format with implicit ideas about how each mechanic functions that may not suit the concepts you're introducing.

While Hexic HD implements a limited collection of desirable moves, it retains an aspect of other match three games in which the pieces introduced to the player are random. The contradictions between these old and new design elements spark a conflict between what the game demands of players and what it allows them to do. Hexic asks its audience to maintain tight control over the current game state, even while changing that state outside of the player's control. Thanks for reading.

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Beasts of Steel: Horizon: Zero Dawn and Environmentalism

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Horizon: Zero Dawn.

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In 2015, representatives from every country on Earth gathered in Paris to agree on a strategy to prevent the planet's destruction. Following the advice of leading climate scientists, the nations pledged to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with a further aim to keep it from exceeding 1.5°C. They did this on the understanding that failure would risk catastrophic ecological collapse. Five years later, three of the institutions tracking that progress came together to produce the State of Climate Action Report.

Published at the end of 2020, the document concludes that, in the majority of areas, the world is failing to hit the targets issued by the Paris Agreement. Even more worrying, when it comes to agricultural emissions and deforestation, the problems are getting worse, not better. Meanwhile, ocean pollution threatens a key link in the chain of life, with plastic waste in the ocean increasing rapidly. And as we speak, more than a quarter of life on Earth is directly threatened with extinction.

The message is clear: the current political strategies for preserving the Earth aren't working. Unless we better scrutinise states' and powerful organisations' environmental approaches, we will pay an unthinkable price. However, mainstream media and popular discussions on climate don't do much to error-check the prevailing thinking on this topic. Companies, reporters, and politicians often tell us that there are two positions on environmentalism: you're for it or against it. You either have a sense of moral duty towards our home, or you don't. This unsophisticated view of climate action doesn't equip us for a reality in which a lot of people claim to care about the environment but aren't pulling it out of this destructive slump. We need to know the nature of nature and what actions we should take regarding it.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a 2017 sci-fi action-adventure from Guerilla Games. It takes place in a beautiful natural landscape where primitive human tribes live alongside animalistic machines. Robots appear in the form of deer, raptors, horses, and other creatures, all of which feed off of the land. Tribes hunt these automata and recycle the scrap from their bodies to fashion clothing, weapons, and other practical items. The machines originate from subterranean factories without any operators, and the communities don't believe these metal beasts are human creations. As they see it, the synthetic animals, like everything else, were created by a goddess their ancestors betrayed. For the first few hours of Horizon, it is unclear if or how this universe relates to our own.

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We explore these lands as Aloy, the surrogate daughter of Rost. Rost is an exile of the Nora, an isolationist mountain tribe. One day in her childhood, Aloy falls into a long-abandoned bunker where she finds a "Focus". A Focus is a device that projects a heads-up display onto the world, identifying lifeforms, marking tracks, and more. Aloy eventually earns entry to the Nora by competing in the coming-of-age trial they call The Proving. Tragically, during the ceremony, the Nora home of Mother's Heart comes under attack by outsiders. The Carja, a rival tribe to the Nora, had long ravaged their territory. However, a mysterious sect known as The Eclipse perpetrates this exceptionally bloody raid.

Rost dies in the attack, and Aloy is knocked unconscious. She wakes inside the mountain under the watchful eye of a tribe matriarch: Teersa. Teersa tells Aloy the story of her origin, explaining that no human birthed her. The matriarchs, instead, found her in front of a locked metal door in the mountain. When Aloy approaches the door again, a scanner recognises her as "Dr. Sobeck" but reports that it cannot open as data in its computer is corrupt. Teersa takes the scanner's recognition of Aloy as a sign. Against the protest of her fellow councilwomen, she appoints Aloy to the position of "Seeker". A Seeker is a Nora chosen one who, unlike other tribespeople, is allowed to venture beyond the borders of Mother's Heart. With no reference frame for data corruption, Teersa interprets the "corruption" in the mountain as something spiritual and hopes that Aloy will find and destroy its source.

Our protagonist journies to the Carja capital of Meridian where the culture is shifting. The city represents the most advanced technological achievements in Horizon's world. The Carja there have autonomous elevators, towering fortresses, and organised farming. In the past, the Carja waged bloody, imperialistic invasions on other societies, but they have since crowned a new king: Avad, who has a more merciful modus operandi. Slowly, peace between the tribes is returning, even if many of the old prejudices linger.

In the wilds, Aloy encounters both pure and "corrupted" machines. The corrupted corrode the land and attack anything living. With the help of a recluse called Sylens and the records left in ancient ruins, our protagonist discovers the history beneath the ground she stands on. In the 2040s, an up and coming tech entrepreneur, Ted Faro, hired a genius roboticist, Elisabet Sobeck. At Faro Automated Systems, Sobeck designed machines to repair an Earth braving climate collapse. She succeeded, and Faro became the richest man in existence. The CEO then pivoted his corporation from the environmental sector to the military-industrial, selling his robotic arsenal to anyone who would buy. Disgusted, Sobeck left to continue her work at her own firm: Miriam Technologies. While Miriam was also regarded as successful in the ecological cleanup, Faro buried the company in lawsuits to retain his monopoly.

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In 2064, Ted's luck finally ran out. His war machines were capable of powering themselves by feeding off of biomass. However, his people lost control over them, and they became free agents, bent on consuming all life on Earth to fuel themselves. In desperation, Faro contacted Sobeck, who confirmed that there was no way of stopping the living weapons' wave of destruction. In a last-ditch effort to preserve the Earth, Faro funded what he called Project Zero Dawn.

While organic life could not survive the consumption, AI could. So, Zero Dawn recruited top academics from around the world and had them develop an organising, electronic intelligence capable of rejuvenating the planet. This computerised mind would kick into gear long after the machines starved off from lack of power. To save the world, they had to birth God. The AI they built to manage Zero Dawn was GAIA, a consciousness that would reboot our ecosystem, using, among other solutions, robots that could take the place of animals. GAIA would also be responsible for a battery of human clones that could repopulate the Earth. Those clones would learn from a database left behind by Zero Dawn's experts. Lastly, a sub-mind of GAIA, HADES, would be capable of stripping all land bare once again, should the initial rewilding attempt fail and have to be repeated. HADES was to remain offline unless such an incident occurred.

The experts at Zero Dawn constructed GAIA and the database without a hitch. Yet, the project ran awry when Faro concluded that replicating humanity's knowledge into the future would only cause the next generation to make the same mistakes. He, therefore, purged the memory banks and murdered Zero Dawn's architects. While human clones did re-enter a thriving natural world, without a knowledge base to carry into it, our species had to restart its technological and intellectual development from scratch. Humanity's past became its future.

There was no further existential threat to the planet until 3020, when someone or something was able to wrench GAIA's various sub-minds away from each other, making them independent intelligences in their own right. One of those intelligences was HADES, who got to its job of wiping the Earth of everything living. It understood that to achieve this goal, it had to destroy Earth's protector, GAIA, and it succeeded at that task. GAIA used her dying breath to generate a copy of Dr. Sobeck at a Zero Dawn cloning facility. That clone was Aloy. GAIA knew that, sharing Sobeck's DNA, Aloy would be able to bypass HADES' genetically-based security and issue a shutdown command.

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Around the time Aloy was growing up, the hermit, Sylens, found and repaired a Focus which led him on a quest of discovery. He encountered HADES, who, now a wreck, needed humans to do its heavy lifting. When Avad became king of the Carja, some tribe members defected, alienated by his vision of a peaceful future. Sylens tricked a band of the separatist Carja into believing that HADES was the "metal devil" of their religion who they could serve for great reward. In reality, Sylens had signed a deal with the same devil, believing he could weaponise the AI and use it to conquer the surrounding lands. Sylens' cult was The Eclipse. It's The Eclipse who have been "corrupting" the machines, bringing them under HADES' control.

After fully accepting the threat that HADES posed, Sylens went back on his plan. He contacted and recruited Aloy because he understood that, as the descendent of Sobeck, only she could slay the monster he'd resurrected. HADES too understood that Aloy was Sobeck's copy and instructed The Eclipse to kill her at The Proving, hoping to prevent its deactivation. Long story short, Aloy leads an army against The Eclipse and shuts HADES down.

One of the popular schools of thought that Horizon: Zero Dawn critiques is the idea that environmentalism is a matter of getting closer to what we've traditionally perceived as nature. The crux of this ideology is that we live in a modern and highly synthetic world in which we've become alienated from the organic environment that sustains us. That synthetic world may include anything from buildings to pharmaceuticals to computers. The idea is that by encroaching on the natural with our unnatural, contemporary creations, and absorbing those creations into ourselves, we're causing untold damage to the environment and our bodies.

Different people have different ideas on how exactly to fix this glitch, but uncontroversial solutions include buying green products, eating organically, and spending more time in the natural world. There's a general feeling that the right thing to do is ensure less of our planet is made of the products of factories and laboratories and that more of it is verdant fields and babbling brooks. It's an idealisation of the romantic view of nature.

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There's even a somewhat popular belief that hunter-gatherers and tribal humans had a more enlightened and pure connection to nature and that we should follow in their footsteps. It's a suspicion that we don't need to know anything scientifically about climate or biology to live in harmony with the planet. We simply need to "reconnect". Under this thinking, nature has a spiritual richness which we can't find in the humanmade. We should therefore treat the natural world with a near or literally religious reverence and outlook. At the most extreme end, the aversion to modern society and its products results in positions like anti-vax or anarcho-primitivism: the belief that we should dismantle civilisation and revert to primal living.

Being a little simplistic about it, we can say that Horizon: Zero Dawn rejects the notion that a healthy planet would not be abundant with machinery or deeply incorporate human intervention. In fact, in this universe, there is no sustaining life on Earth without scientific and mechanistic programmes so penetrating that they touch every corner of the ecosystem. In Project Zero Dawn, we see computing as essential for managing data and communications on the climate crisis and preserving knowledge for the future. We see cloning and cryogenics as tools to propagate and save our species. We see robotics used to fill in gaps in the tree of life. Imagine if the humans in Zero Dawn hadn't used these methods; Earth would be in tatters. Now imagine what will happen if we don't use them.

Our immediate artificial solutions to climate change don't look like stasis pods or autonomous plant harvesters. Still, in the realm of climate science, it's helped to think as far into the future as possible. A key concept in Horizon is that we can't necessarily know which tech or techniques will be the most useful in the future. However, we can empower coming thinkers to find the right solutions to the environmental challenges of their day. This is why the Zero Dawn engineers give GAIA the power to choose the heading of the planet instead of commanding it which robots to build and what decisions to make. And even if we won't be growing our clones in tubes any time soon, we have our own green machinery: Wind turbines, electric cars, nuclear plants, and so on. Zero Dawn takes that image of the Elysian fields that so many nature essentialists believe we should strive for and draws a few robot crocodiles on them. Maybe we'd draw a carbon capture plant or some GMO crops.

And on the flip side, Zero Dawn also doesn't see primitive living through a rose-coloured lens. The game actually has a lot of time for the idea that if we were to revert to the living conditions of our ancestors, there would be a lot of happiness to be found. We find solidarity within the societies of Zero Dawn that is uncommon in our time, and we see humans who feel tranquil and awestruck by resting in the bosom of nature. However, it takes a critical gaze towards fetishism of early human living in how difficult Rost and Aloy's life together is and in the Carja's Red Raids. The game notes that tribal living can lead to tribalism; a blessing if you're in a thriving society, not so much if you're on the outside.

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Neither I, nor Zero Dawn, are trying to argue that all human tribes are savage and bloodthirsty in a way that non-tribal humans aren't. Both the real historical record and the societies we see in this game include communities that never attacked outsiders. And the widest-scale violence in history has been perpetrated by the people who call themselves the most civilised. In Zero Dawn, that means Faro arming soldiers the world over and eventually causing a mass extinction event. Polluters, empires, and private military companies are guilty of something not all that different in the real world.

But Horizon also refuses a patronising, one-dimensional view of tribal and early humans that says that none of them could hurt a fly. It feels appropriate for our own history in which Native American tribes did war with each other but were also the victims of a colonialist genocide which far surpassed that violence. The game could go further with this. For example, asking what a person who needs life-saving medication does in a world bereft of pharmaceuticals or what child mortality rates might look like in a hunter-gatherer society. Still, it has no delusion that humans without modern conveniences don't endure a lot of hardships.

As a person with not much more than a bow and a spear to survive by, we also experience the peril inherent in natural living. To respectfully co-exist with nature does not always mean cooperating with it peacefully. Hunting animals is something these tribes need to do to live. As Aloy, we can't sustain ourselves if we don't slaughter creatures and make them into armour, tinctures, and other helpful items. Similarly, hunting them is dangerous work, and through the combat system, Horizon emphasises that grappling with them can be terrifying and dangerous. In comparison to other action-adventures, Zero Dawn gives us a short health bar, meaning we often encounter situations in which the machines risk killing Aloy. The game also highlights the hazard posed by larger robots by having them knock our protagonist off her feet.

However, to say that Horizon believes we desperately need to incorporate machines into our environmentalism or that living close to the Earth can come with terrible costs is still not fully grasping the point. Because this idea that we need to depart from the synthetic to embrace the living implies that these are two distinct categories, and Zero Dawn does everything it can to show how those classes can be confused. If you believe that machines and life are distinct, then how do you fit the animal robots of Zero Dawn into your head? You can't. Dr. Sobeck makes this point to Ted Faro. When he says that it's going too far to refer to his newly autonomous products as "living", Sobeck observes that they're self-replicating and consume biomass, meeting a definition of life.

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There are other definitions of life, including the entity in question being able to evolve, respond to their environment, or have self-sustaining internal processes, but GAIA's machines would meet all those criteria. By some definitions, these robots would not qualify as living; they are not, for example, composed of discrete cells and do not seem to grow. However, GAIA's handiwork at least begins to blur the line between machine and animal, and at most is not a barrier to us calling them organic.

The tribes of Horizon do not place a line between the robots and other animals: Rost describes "Beasts of air, water, earth, and steel". This line emphasises that, yes, we can note that the Watcher or Crawler robots exist in a different category of entities than, say, a badger or a giraffe, but then look at the gulf between a bird and a fish. We still label both as animals. The humans of Zero Dawn also destabilise this dichotomy. The Nora, Carja, and every other group on Earth descended from clones, and we even see those clones in some holograms. They are synthetic organics. And this is why Horizon: Zero Dawn discards the idea that we must reject the synthetic and embrace the natural. Because of a lack of a meaningful gap between the organic and synthetic, you can find all the positive traits traditionally associated with the natural and all the negative traits traditionally associated with the synthetic washing between both categories.

As we cannot entirely embrace the natural or reject the artificial in our mission to preserve the planet, and may struggle to separate these groups, it does not make sense to support only the organic while turning our nose up at the created. We've talked about how this idea manifests through the outlook and genetics of Horizon's tribespeople, but it's also there in the game's mechanics and the characters' fashions.

As Aloy, we're capable of killing both traditional animals and robots through the same combat system, looting and storing their products through the same inventory system, and combining them into similar items through the same crafting systems. There is no functional difference between taking a rabbit's meat and chopping it into a Health Potion, and extracting some accelerant from a stormbird and fashioning it into a Blast Trap. And they're both constructive means to work towards our ultimate goal in the game, which is saving the world. There are even valuable items that we must meld from mechanical and traditional organic parts. For example, the initial upgrades to all our satchels require combining metal shards and ridge-wood. So, the rules and interface suggest symmetry between rabbits and stormbirds, meat and accelerants, steel and wood.

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In our time, there is no AI-driven poultry to harvest. Still, we can apply Horizon's principle in our world. We can say that collecting and implementing synthetic products can be part of a healthy relationship with the environment. In this game, processed metal, circuits, manufactured chemicals, and plastic polymers can all play a role in environmentalism. They can even be interwoven with the aesthetics of individuals who care about that environment.

The tribespeople of Horizon wear headpieces and wield spears that place feathers and leather alongside scrap alloys and rubber cables. The juxtaposition of these materials doesn't just suggest compatibility; it also forces us to consider what materials we think of as organic and what we think of as synthetic. While we often perceive leather and feathers as natural, and metal and rubber as unnatural, this clothing and weaponry is all humanmade. Are the Nora or Carja, with their combinations of manufactured and non-manufactured clothes, homes, and tools living an agrarian or modernised life? Our existing understanding of these concepts can't really account for them.

Horizon does, unfortunately, harbour the same environmental contradiction as many AAA games. On the one hand, we are the protector of nature, sabotaging the forces that would harm it. On the other, we plunder all of its resources without any direct concern for conservation. Because Horizon has a limitless supply of animals, trees, and flowers, we can approach its landscapes with the same greedy acquisitiveness of the pre-fall corporations but without the same deleterious results. Zero Dawn even encourages harvesting and hoarding items you have no use for. To craft and trade for the top tier outfits, weapons, and upgrades, you need to expend rare resources, but you often can't see what components you'll need for future items. Therefore, the optimal strategy becomes turning yourself into a human dragnet, pulling in anything and everything you can from your surroundings, not knowing which resources will be vital and which are surplus.

We also cannot ignore that Horizon doesn't let us employ synthetic items that damage the environment. It makes sense within the context of the world: the tribes have no complex manufacturing capabilities, and GAIA wouldn't design machines with any materials that would be hazardous to life. However, it is important to remember that as Horizon's world is without pollutants or rubbish or anthropogenic greenhouse gases, we can't be as unattentive in our real-life consumption and production of certain materials as we can in the game.

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This isn't to say that Horizon doesn't have some concept of existentially threatening technologies, however. This universe has constructive and destructive tech; it just doesn't see those categories as synonymous with the organic and the artificial. Where we might look at Horizon's universe and reflexively separate it into the natural and mechanised, its denizens divide it into the natural and corrupted. So, what makes a creature "corrupted"? It is its relation to The Eclipse, which we can further connect to Faro Automated Systems. While we might see a pseudo-ancient cult like The Eclipse and a globe-spanning corporation like FAS as lacking many similarities, there is a key idea that binds them together: Faro and the invaders share the drive to dominate everything around them. In reawakening HADES, The Eclipse is rejuvenating the old conflict ideology of the pre-fall corporation. What corrupts nature is not the synthetic but the drive for power over others.

This is where Horizon's disagreement with finding a corporate inroad to environmentalism comes in. In our world, trying to find a capitalist fix for our eco-crisis isn't going well. Not only could I restate the points at the top of this article, but we can also tie the issue more closely to companies. The firms who are leading the charge on green capitalism are largely those who've spent their time polluting the planet up to this point. Off the bat, they seem like the last people you'd want in charge. Still, it's necessary to not just look at who they are but also what they're doing. Companies like Nestlé, Coca Cola, and PepsiCo talk a big game about their recycling programmes, but they're among the worst plastic polluters in the world. And recycling schemes are often a lot less humane and helpful than they sound.

For a long time, a significant portion of western recycling has involved exporting trash to the global south or Asia, often to countries incapable of properly processing the material. That detritus has frequently included toxic and hazardous waste, and sending it overseas has its own carbon cost. The west once dumped that trash in China, where it dirtied the air and waterways, spreading severe health defects and cancers until China stopped imports in 2018. Now, we're saddling poorer South-East Asian countries with it, countries that have less capacity to process trash than China did. When it comes to companies cleaning up the ocean, the big polluters are mysteriously absent. As for organic farming, it doesn't inherently produce food that's any better for you, while synthetic GMO farming can. And with current technologies, organic farming is worse for the environment than non-organic, partly because genetically modifying organisms can make them more efficient to grow or raise.

However, from everything I've read over the past few years, the biggest buzz in the green corporate sector is in reducing emissions. In recent times, airlines such as BA, United, and EasyJet, and fossil fuel providers, such as Shell, BP, and Exxon, have been visible pillars in the movement towards net-zero carbon emissions. So, you might think that you're supporting people who are pumping fewer dangerous substances into the environment when you're buying from these companies. In reality, what they're usually doing is "offsetting" their carbon output by effectively paying someone else not to release CO2 or to plant trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

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That might not be such an awful approach if it weren't for the fact that 71% of emissions come from 100 companies, including many of the above. So, for the majority of the problem to be fixed, these megacorps can't keep passing the buck. They have to change how much carbon they emit, and even a very environmentally friendly smaller company has minimal power over the amount of pollution in the air. Reducing CO2 emissions also isn't the same as reducing the release of other greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide, or F-gases.

But what's particularly damning is how dubious these claims of carbon offsetting are and how cruel the side-effects can be on the vulnerable. In some cases, clearing land in Africa or South America to grow carbon-capturing forests has meant displacing people from their homes. And while we need action in the immediate, trees take time to grow. Once you do get a tree rooted, in the wrong conditions (the kind of conditions killing these trees in the first place), it can die off, releasing its carbon back into the atmosphere.

In the case that carbon offsetting involves protecting a forested area, there's basically no way to prove that you've done that. This act consists of predicting the future, which is never entirely possible, and there are all sorts of ways to game that prediction. You can cherry-pick data or model data using software that specifically says not to use it for this purpose or just claim to be protecting land that's already protected. All of which major companies are doing. These faulty carbon offset calculations misinform the public and allow these organisations to circumvent emissions laws. Fossil fuel providers were able to wipe at least 39 million tonnes of CO2 from the books of California via fake carbon offset.

Now, these firms do claim they protect the environment by investing in green energy solutions, but that investment often pales in comparison to how much of their money is tied up in dirty power. Much was made of the $300m fund for natural causes Shell launched in 2019. Yet, the previous year, it had spent more than 83 times that on fossil fuels. BP was legally challenged for branding itself as a green energy trailblazer, even while keeping 96% of its energy spending in fossil fuels. And all the while, these titans of industry are lobbying to water down climate protections. Over two decades, US climate lobbyists slid politicians more than $2 billion in an effort to halt environmental protections. A senior lobbyist for ExxonMobil even admitted to the company secretly using third-party shadow groups to push back against climate regulations.

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Horizon's backstory reflects this failure of big business interests to mend our ailing planet and the factional conflict that green capitalism creates. But it goes beyond saying that these corporations haven't saved people to state that we should not give them the kind of agency that would allow them to. In this story, a Biblically powerful firm does clean up the Earth, and it's still not enough to prevent the apocalypse. Faro and his investors yank the ecosystem back from the brink of armageddon, but they're ultimately just following the profit motive. When it becomes more lucrative to end lives rather than start them, Ted and co. turnabout and begin working towards the planet's demise, and they can do that because of all the capital they amassed revitalising our world. What would stop any real corporation from doing the same? Profit eats the Earth.

Faro Automated Systems end up in this absurd contradiction where their technologies work both towards and against the preservation of life on Earth. The company is responsible for the Faro Plague and Project Zero Dawn. The inherent contradiction of FAS's politics is represented in it arming warring factions, supplying weapons to both sides. It's a position that mirrors the paradox we're currently presented with, where many of the companies poisoning the environment are the ones telling us they're saving it. It's worth noting that in all of this, the rival "good" company, Miriam Industries, also isn't able to avert Faro's planetary destruction. The bigger companies will always do what is necessary to protect their profits, including forcing greener competition out of the market. Even letting the tech entrepreneur implement the last-ditch emergency button for humanity doesn't work. Faro's control over the project allows him to unanimously destroy much of the experts' work and kill every one of them.

Just as we can unite the philosophies of Faro and The Eclipse, we can also connect the CEO's beliefs to the Nora. They both believe in strength through ignorance. The people of Horizon's world are apathetic or opposed to researching history or challenging their beliefs and are distrustful of exploring the unknown. Rost disapproves of Aloy wearing the Focus, and tribespeople tell her that she shouldn't spelunk below the Earth because that's where demons live. As covered, the Nora are scared of anything outside of their comfort zone, so they don't venture beyond the borders of Mother's Heart. Aloy almost doesn't become the Seeker because most of the matriarchs distrust someone not born from human beings.

Ted Faro also wants to erect a wall between the people of the new world and the knowledge of the old world. He kills every Project Zero Dawn member and purges GAIA's databases. There's a concept in computing called security through obscurity; the idea is that you can prevent your systems from being breached by keeping the knowledge of their weaknesses from getting out. Experts across the board say that using obscurity as the primary or sole defence against attackers does not work. The reason being that there are so many industrious hackers working away at cracking networks and machines that there's always a chance someone will figure out your system's flaw on their own. Therefore, the only decent way to defend computers is to search for exploits, find fixes, and educate engineers on both.

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Both Faro and the sheltered tribes of Zero Dawn are reliant on security through obscurity: a belief in forbidden knowledge and forbidding knowledge. But bleaching out the teachings of the old work doesn't work; bad actors that Faro and the Nora have no control over dredge those lessons back up. The Eclipse weaponises that ancient comprehension of technology and dominance against their enemies. When they do, their victims lack knowledge of their methods of attack, and so, can't defend themselves. We sometimes find in our societies the view that spiritualism and science are two incomparable lenses through which to view the same phenomena, neither more valid than the other. Horizon: Zero Dawn disagrees. It shows the people who interpret machinery, chemicals, and electronics religiously as full human beings with a rich culture. However, it also displays that it is only through understanding the physical and technical basis of these entities that someone can harness them.

Zero Dawn demonstrates that to understand the web of Focuses as a computer network is to understand them better than someone who views them as telepathy. Someone who views the corruption signal as a computerised communication "gets it" to a greater extent than someone who believes it is a wave of evil. The proof of this superior knowledge in Horizon is that it's as people approach a scientific understanding of the technologies that they become able to manipulate them, either altruistically or selfishly. And if you are someone who wants to act constructively with respect to the environment, then you have to stand as a bulwark against those who act destructively. That's only possible with an accurate grasp of the technologies in play.

Horizon: Zero Dawn satirises a hole in the logic of anarcho-primitivism. Even if humans did manage to deconstruct the trappings of civilisation and start up a new life ignorant of bygone ways, that doesn't stop anyone outside your society from using the tools of civilisation for exploitation and war. At that point, your only recourse would be to use your own knowledge and engineering capacity against them, which you will have very little of if you've reduced your society to a primitive state. Trying to suppress the information does not secure you. In Horizon, it is only through learning about the nature of HADES and the corruption, and devising hacks with which to counteract it, that Silens and Aloy stop the second extinction. Even the Eclipse, the antagonists, aren't safe from ignorance. Their lack of understanding of HADES means they're at risk of being wiped out by a mysterious god.

Aloy is, in some sense, a chosen one, and like many other action game protagonists is nimble, resilient, and physically fit. What distinguishes her, especially within her own fiction, is that she doesn't fetishise anything. She doesn't think of nature as this untouchable, godly force, which means that she will meddle in it. When Teersa bows before the hologram of Sobeck, Aloy steps right up to it. When the Nora try to worship Aloy for saving them, she rejects it, telling them to treat her like just another person.

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Let's wrap up.

From Zero Dawn's perspective, it's not just that appeals to nature in the name of ecology are wrong but that they're incoherent. Arguing that you want to sustain the planet without the synthetic is like arguing that you want bread but don't want any baking. We're not going to get one without the other. Respect for the Earth without the knowledge or technology to save it is not enough; look at the Nora. But understanding and power without a fundamental care for the environment is ruinous; see Faro. The protagonist of Horizon exists as an aspirational figure because she is an alloy of these two schools of thought. She has consideration for the environment without so much reverence that she won't touch it, and she uses technology to help the ecosystem without aiding anyone who has a fundamental profit motive. We can, and must, do the same if we're to survive. Thanks for reading.

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A Better Difficulty III: Hitman

Note: The following article describes some mission details from Hitman (2016) and Hitman 2. I've tried to limit the spoilers to the early levels of each game, but if you want to solve all these missions for yourself, you may want to play up to Club 27 in Hitman (2016) and Another Life in Hitman 2.

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Last time on whatever this is, we looked at Forza Motorsport 6. We analysed it as a game that goes beyond tightening or loosening a few aspects of its challenges and leaving the player to figure out how to perform. We said that it instead allows the audience to construct a game that suits their abilities and desire for challenge. We observed that that game achieves its goal of honing player skills by taking the following steps:

  • Accounting for the player having different skill levels at different activities.
  • Incentivising them to take on more demanding tasks.
  • Giving them a safe space in which to experiment with the mechanics and interface.
  • Allowing them to practice the same tasks repeatedly.
  • Letting them adjust the difficulty of the game on the fly as they acclimate to the challenges.
  • Lending them a clear idea of the actions they need to take to succeed.
  • Giving them clear, immediate feedback about the quality of their performance.
  • Giving them a clear idea of alternatives to their current approach, especially when failing.
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Forza Motorsport met these requirements through mechanics like modular difficulty menus, the Driving Line, and the Rewind. However, in that article, I also mentioned that if you're trying to nurture the player's abilities in a non-racing game, you can't just transpose the mechanics from Forza onto it. There's no "traction" in Mr. Do!, so we could not map Forza's Traction Control onto its movement. Bust-A-Move does not involve piloting an avatar through 3D space, so there's no way to port Forza's Driving Line into. Any one method for helping the audience master play must be designed for the relevant play format. Work with a different type of game, and you will need different mechanics. But even understanding that, it can be challenging to see how implementing our bullet point goals would work outside of driving titles.

Another concept we must understand: the player and designer's tight control over the difficulty in Forza is a product of the game's relatively limited possibility space. In Forza's races, players continuously move forward around an explicitly outlined loop, with their only choices at any one time being to accelerate, brake, turn, and change gear. This does not mean that the game is shallow or necessarily easy, as judging exactly when to make each choice is a subtle art and executing each manoeuvre requires precise inputs and an intuition for physics. However, we should consider that plenty of games that aren't Forza have more tools, goals, areas, and general gameplay elements bumping around in them. When we do that, creating a comparable environment for skill improvement in other games suddenly seems painfully complicated.

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Yet, as the rebooted Hitman proves, it's not impossible to account for that complexity. Playing this series does not, for a second, feel like playing Forza, and yet we can see the same underlying concepts that drive Forza's design, underpinning Hitman's. It might sound unlikely that a stealth action game has an equivalent of the Driving Line or the Rewind, but they're in there if you know where to look. Single-player games generally put us through a period of onboarding. We need to feel them out, internalise the purpose of all the tools they give us, watch for patterns in the game state, and sometimes acclimate to new mechanics. All that is true of learning to play Hitman, but adapting to Hitman's challenges means much more than getting cosy with the basics and grasping a few level-specific concepts.

The objective in each of its missions is to kill all our assigned targets. Every one of its maps has unique costumes that get us access to areas closer to our targets, unique methods with which to kill these antagonists, and unique escapes for after we've dispatched our victims. Levels also contain "Challenges", which reward us XP and sometimes unlocks for exploring, roleplaying, or assassinating in a prescripted way. For example, slapping someone into the ocean with a fish or delivering flowers to a grave. In some cases, the processes to obtain costumes can also be specific to the stage. IO Interactive, the developer, designs missions not for us to beat once and then discard. They make them for us to play repeatedly, exploring different routes and strategies each time.

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In most single-player games, the player must execute on a pre-built solution to their current predicament or pick one from a metaphorical menu. They may encounter a puzzle where the designer dictates the order in which certain weights should be put on specific pressure plates. Or perhaps the developer has laid a corridor of monsters out in front of the player, and the player must decide what combination of firepower and psychic abilities they use to blast through it. In Hitman, the sheer volume of options available at any one moment makes participation less a case of picking a solution and more a matter of inventing one, a bit like in a grand strategy game or one of Zachtronics' creations.

Of course, to make informed decisions in how they construct an approach to a mission, players must develop an intimate understanding of the features of the map they're playing on. In Hitman, your level of applicable knowledge drops whenever you begin a new mission. There's a convincing argument that the most intimidating part of a Hitman stage is not the hot-blooded endgame of a level when you understand all its spinning gears. It's the early days where you can easily feel lost and underequipped.

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During play, audiences work with minimal health and unwieldy firearms, pressuring them to think through how they tackle tasks instead of rushing in. It's pretty doable to kill an enemy if you have a chance to shoot from a secluded location, training your shot on a stationary target. However, this is not a game where you can stand your ground and kill rooms full of adversaries if they blow your cover. The optimal strategy is to plan ahead so that you don't get caught. If more than a person or two spots you, you'll need to improvise an exit, and getting all of this right requires extensive knowledge of your surroundings.

So, you have a combination of potentially severe punishment for failure, high information density in environments, many goals per level, and a sandbox-like mission format. The designer has a lot to teach the player and must give them a reasonable chance of avoiding or mitigating failure. And they need to do all this without beating the game for the player or watering down the enormous volume of agency the systems lend audiences. As they aid the player, they can't assume too much about the current game state because the openness of the play means that the state can exist in many different configurations. Miraculously, IO Interactive pull it off.

Okay, no more background. The time has come to put Hitman's assists under the microscope. Let's start where any player does, with the difficulty menus. We'll be forgoing the simpler difficulty dichotomy from Hitman (2016) and looking at difficulty in Hitman 2 and III. In the latter two games, there are three explicit difficulty options: "Casual", "Professional", and "Master". Unlike Forza, Hitman does not allow the player to mix and match different aspects of difficulty through these menus. There's no way to move the enemy intelligence up but decrease the number of security cameras. You can't broaden the definition of "legal item" while also reducing your health.

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However, Hitman's main difficulty switch is much like Forza's in that it adjusts more than just health and AI competency. Also, in that its UI spells out what's happening under the hood when you select any one option. For example, the description for "Professional" in Hitman 2 reads as follows:

Unlimited saves.

All Mission Story Guides available.

Surveillance cameras active.

Cameras alert guards if illegal activity is spotted.

Combat is challenging but fair.

The same screen describes the "Master" difficulty with this set of bullet points:

One save per mission.

No Mission Story guides available.

Extra surveillance cameras.

Extra enforcers.

Ruthless and demanding combat.

Bloody eliminations ruin disguises.

NPCs are more attentive to sounds.

Specificity in the presentation of the settings allows for intentionality on the part of the player. If, for example, you're having trouble with the number of guards on a map, but you don't know that reducing the difficulty reduces the number of enforcers, then you're limited in your ability to solve that problem. It's the same if you want to turn off the temptation to save but aren't aware that "Master" lets you do that. Hitman's forthcoming approach to difficulty means you understand what each option implies. However, the menu which calls itself "Difficulty" is, in truth, only one of the difficulty menus. I mean, we could say that the map you pick is also a kind of difficulty setting: some are less forgiving than others and emphasise different kinds of challenge, but closer to the explicit difficulty menu, we have the Planning menu.

While Hitman's overt difficulty buttons lack the modularity of Forza's difficulty sliders, modular customisation is present in Hitman's Planning menu. Here, the player can decide where in the level they initially spawn, what costume they spawn with, and which items they carry in. Items include weapons, lockpicks, and distraction aids. These objects empower the player to carry out directly beneficial tasks in a level (usually killing a target or achieving a Challenge). Alternatively, items let them take an action that gets them closer to fulfilling such goals (e.g. Knocking out a bodyguard, fetching a weapon, or infiltrating a target's base).

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Certain areas contain certain items and targets, and designated costumes open up access to corresponding areas. E.g. A waiter's uniform would grant you entry to a kitchen, or a lab coat would allow you into a laboratory. So, when the player picks their starting location, outfit, and gear, they're exercising agency over how a session will challenge them. Their choices in that regard can play into or against their skillsets and knowledge, allowing for that lock-and-key approach to competencies and difficulties that we're looking for.

Requisitioning mines for a level will make more sense for a player who is better at manipulating NPCs into clinch points on the map. Bringing in a sniper rifle will be preferable for assassins with good aim. If the player wants somewhere to use their sniper, they may choose to spawn near a vantage point in the level, while someone more confident at sneaking into a target's stronghold may pop in in a regularly patrolled basement.

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Part of what's ingenious about Hitman's difficulty systems is that IOI makes adjusting the difficulty not a boring perusal of abstract UI elements but a hard-boiled exercise of choosing the right spy gear from the table. Poring over screens of garotte wires and remote explosives, you feel like the titular Agent 47. Moreover, the process of selecting equipment is a rush because each tool brings the promise of cutting down enemies and opening up levels in spectacular new ways. You dream about how you're going to sneak through that mansion with the hacking tool or make an idiot out of a gunman with the explosive rubber duck.

One last manner in which Hitman's difficulty menus align with Forza's is in the developer presenting them at the start of every mission/race. Hitman suggests you alter the difficulty at the beginning of a run with a few different nudges:

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  • Your cutscene briefings often end with your handler telling you to "prepare".
  • The Planning stage is framed as something you should do before a mission by virtue of it being called "Planning".
  • The Objectives, Planning, and Difficulty buttons are labelled 1, 2, and 3, suggesting that you should decide what difficulty to play and what your abilities will be before you enter the level.
  • The game does not remember your setups from previous playthroughs, meaning you must plug them in each time.

Again, difficulty is treated as something that applies only to the next play session and altering the difficulty is normalised. It encourages the audience to experiment with different difficulty setups, potentially growing their abilities. So, the player has donned their best disguise and filled their suit with only the most advanced spy gadgets. What does it look like when these objects interact with the fabric of the levels?

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In comparison to Forza's difficulty menus, Hitman's don't let us alter as much about the play. However, Hitman compensates for that lack of malleability in the setup phase by giving us radical agency during live play. Hitman is not the linear track of Motorsport or even the branching tunnels of most modern single-player experiences. Every inch of every map is querying the player about which choice, of many, they'd like to take. This is one way in which the game gently handles modular difficulty without the use of any switches or sliders.

Players can decide how much risk they take on by choosing how close they get to enemies or how publicly they commit illegal acts like stealing. They can select the kind of play that bests suits their skills by, for example, approaching challenges with firearms or more discrete kill methods. They can attempt to slip through an area by sticking to the shadows or observing NPCs' social patterns and stealing the right costume to go by unnoticed. Within these categories, audiences have many sub-choices. What routes do they carve out? Where do they stand when they fire their guns? What costumes do they wear? Over time, they can form and revise preferred methods for overcoming each obstacle based on their experiences.

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So, how does the game educate the player about their options within this arboreously branching space? And how does it do it without spoonfeeding them answers and interrupting the development of their skill? Hitman's levels have four means of signalling possible assassination possibilities or tricks to get closer to our targets:

  • Characters on the map gossiping about ways to manipulate marks.
  • NPCs wandering into our view wearing clothing we could steal.
  • Essential tools strewn about the map.
  • Scattered documents providing intel on the level.
  • Characters entering areas of the environment in which they are vulnerable, e.g. Standing at the edge of a high ledge.

It is not enough for the levels to simply implement these methods in isolation. Instead, they work because the designers carefully plan out which paths lead us to which clues. Let's take the first two assignments from Hitman (2016): Guided Training and Freeform Training. The setting for these missions is a wooden reconstruction of a cruise ship hosting a lively party. When we first play this level, we can see cocky high-roller, Terry Norfolk, leaning against a car. In the distance, there is a gangway that provides entry to the ship, but as two guards flank it, we can't just stroll onto the vessel.

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The tutorial has us steal a mechanic's costume and enter the ship through a service entrance. In front of us is a door, but instead of telling us to open it, the prompts instruct us to climb the stairs to our right. Above, we steal a crewmember's uniform and tend bar while our target, Kalvin Ritter, monologues. Ritter then takes a swig of wine and enters a private meeting with Norfolk. We sneak in through a window, clip Ritter the head, and beat a fast retreat.

After completing the map under strict command, the game invites us to beat it however we want. As the guided route had us pass by various level elements but not engage with them, it naturally draws us to investigate them on additional passes. Now knowing that Norfolk meets Ritter in seclusion, we could take some coins from near our spawn location early table, throw them on the ground to lure Norfolk away from his car, knock him out, and put on his clothes. With his suit, we could pass all the guards to meet with Ritter, who we then assassinate. Or, what if, after entering through the side passage, we walk through that closed door we didn't check out? On the other side is a vial of rat poison. We can steal that, and knowing when and where Ritter takes a drink of wine, slip it into his glass beforehand. When he heads to the bathroom to purge the poison, we drown him in the toilet.

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Let's look at the same suggestive environmental design in the game's fifth mission, The World of Tomorrow. Here, we can concoct a toxic meal in the kitchen and ring a bell in the yard outside. The bell calls target Silvio Caruso to the table, where he will eat the dodgy dinner. He begins throwing up over the side of a balcony, providing us with the perfect opportunity to kick him over the edge. That is, it would be perfect if it weren't for the enforcer standing between Caruso and us. The easiest solution is to run around to the other side of the building to bypass the guard. When we do, we slip by two slacking workers deep in conversation, an unlocked door, and an open entranceway with a gramophone inside.

A player returning to this stage now knows they can stop and listen to those staff on break. If they do, they'll hear that Caruso is obsessed with a gramophone owned by his late mother. Sure enough, we can use the record player as another form of bait to lure him into the open. If we head through the unlocked door, we enter the hidden love nest of our second target, Francesca De Santis. We can pose as De Santis's secret boyfriend, seducing her into that nook and using that opportunity to kill her. We may even notice that the yard we start from in this mission has a direct view of a church tower across the way. We might realise we don't have to make Caruso sick at all; we can just prepare his meal, climb the tower with a sniper rifle, and take him out from the church. These scenarios cover only one tiny corner of The World of Tomorrow.

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You can see how taking any route through a Hitman mission raises your awareness of alternate routes. Walking those alternate paths can teach you about other dynamics in the environment, and so on. The knowledge that the player gains from this exploration lets them better match the shape of a run to their talents. Someone who knows about the stairs and rat poison routes in the training map can implicitly make a choice about which best matches their skills and their desire to test those skills. The same is true of a player who knows about the gramophone and church areas in The World of Tomorrow.

Another crucial tutor for the up-and-coming assassin is the Mission Stories system (known as Opportunities in Hitman (2016)). This is the series' equivalent of the Driving Line: a series of arrows telling you where to go but leaving the tasks at your destinations up to you to perform. Each Mission Story consists of a sequence of steps the player can take to line them up for a particular murder method on a given target. When the player activates a Mission Story, a lightbulb icon appears over a character or object on the map, and the player receives a text prompt telling them how they must interact with it or them. For example, "Get the Helmut Kruger disguise" or "Find Florida Man's key". When they complete these directives, they get another instruction, e.g. "Call Margolis" or "Find a crowbar". These chains of objectives continue right up to the point that the player is standing before one of their targets, ready to execute them.

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These exercises fill in some gaps in the player's knowledge while still forcing them to close others through their own deduction. Even with the help of a Mission Story, the player often has to reason when in their activity cycle NPCs are most vulnerable, where the best spots to hide bodies are, or where bystanders might witness their crimes. Where Mission Stories do educate players, they do it on a few different levels: At the surface layer, players learn from Mission Stories where to find costumes and other items to manipulate strangers in future missions. In 15 Seconds of Fame, a Mission Story from Hitman (2016)'s The Showstopper, we pick up that we can use Helmut Krueger's costume to get behind the scenes at the fashion show. The Munchies Story from Hitman 2's The Finish Line teaches us where we can pick up the key to open the Miami map's food stand.

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On a slightly more subtle level, Mission Stories can teach players general patterns that they can exploit across most missions and increase their confidence in carrying out those exploitations. In 15 Seconds of Fame, the player learns that targets may be willing to meet them without a bodyguard if they're dressed as a close associate. Sure enough, within the same mission, although not in this Mission Story, the player can kill Dalia Margolis by meeting her dressed as a wealthy sheikh. In The Munchies, the player crowbars open a seaside shack and retrieves a food stand key from inside. This teaches players that they can open locked doors noisily, by force, or quietly, with keys, but that keys tend to be hidden and slightly challenging to obtain.

On the most indirect level, Mission Stories drag players past items and landmarks that suggest possibilities. To reach Helmut Krueger, we must stroll through the mansion's bar, where there's ample opportunity to poison someone's drink. We must also walk past the lawn on which there's a helicopter parked that we can use to exit after our dirty deeds, and we dispatch Krueger close to a garden shed full of dangerous tools we could use for all sorts of mischief.

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In The Munchies, the shack we break into contains a key to a level exit. And while, during this story, we inject an emetic into a meatball that our target (Robert Knox) then eats, there's also the possibility of returning on another pass and injecting the meat with lethal poison. We may also see Knox look out from his balcony to check whether the food truck is serving. In this moment, he leaves himself vulnerable to being sniped from the bay.

On top of the Mission Stories, various other teachers help the player fill in their understanding of the stages outside of their immediate cone of vision:

  • "Instinct" lets us view NPCs and objects through walls and highlights interactibles, targets, and enemies that will see through our disguise.
  • Text popups appear on-screen when witnesses get suspicious, when belligerents begin hunting us, or for other noteworthy occurrences.
  • The minimap lets us view enemies and architecture around us, including NPCs that may see through our disguise.
  • Labels bordering the minimap provide some information about our current state, e.g. That enemies are searching for a suspect or that they're hunting us.
  • Enemies vocalise when they see something that spooks them.
  • If we venture close to an enemy that can blow our disguise, an arrow appears. It shows the direction they're standing in relation to us and fills to indicate how close they are to sussing us out.
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Stealth games often get so married to realistic representation that they don't incorporate these more "gamey" UI aids. And what's particularly smart about Hitman's approach to them is that it turns many of them off on its Master difficulty, encouraging the player to use them as stabilisers during training but ultimately pressing them to perform without them.

Hitman's level design is second to none. I could happily spend a year's worth of articles disassembling it. However, we can infer from the above analysis that it's not the level design alone that allows Hitman to retain its highly open but educational nature. Instead, the developers combine Mission Stories, UI, and level design to keep us aware of our current performance while informing us of alternative approaches. Despite Hitman constantly feeding us information on the play, we retain the sense that we are the ones doing the instrumental work to achieve our goals. This is because it's mostly us who puts the various data streams together and acts on them. However, there is one more ingredient in the pot that creates that effect.

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In the first article of this series, I mentioned that solving puzzles in text adventures can feel unfair because they don't always tell us which actions our character can perform. We can't master tools if we don't know what the tools are. Challenges are one way that Hitman prevents the same ambiguity arising in its play. If there's a Challenge to drop a stalactite on our target, then implicitly, we know that's something you can do in the level. If there is a Challenge for solving a chess puzzle, then you know that's possible.

Not all Challenges lead directly to a solution for the mission: some simply reward us for exploration, but exploration develops our knowledge of the map, helping us toward mastery. Some Challenges also reward us for carrying out deliberately contrived tasks like feeding all the targets in an environment to a hippo or finishing a stage without donning a disguise. It's relatively obvious how such actvities grow our skills. Lastly, there are a few exceptional Challenges that have their text "redacted". We must extrapolate their objective from their name, picture, and what we know about the level, forcing us to pay particular attention to our environment and its contents.

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Let's return to a couple of issues that occur in Forza Motorsport 6. Firstly, players of Motorsport 6 had limited incentive to keep turning up the difficulty past a certain notch. This was because the extrinsic motivations for doing so were rewards that mostly translated into new vehicles. So, once you'd gotten a few fast-as-lightning cars in your garage, why would you keep making the game harder for yourself? What goods would you gain from doing so? Secondly, Forza's "Mod" system pushed players to impose new handicaps on themselves. However, once the player found a Crew Mod that would provide their optimal ratio of rewards to disadvantages, there was diminished encouragement for them to try and change up their playstyle.

Hitman shows a superior approach to tempting audiences into developing their talents. Players unlock new starting locations, gear, and costumes as they gain experience points, and Challenges are, by far, where there's the most experience to be won. So, how does the game prevent you from unlocking the slickest spy equipment and then ignoring the Challenges from there? Hitman subverts this problem by making Challenges, and many of the rewards for beating them, level-specific.

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To tick off the challenge Tunnel Vision in Hitman (2016)'s The Gilded Cage, we must kill Reza Zaydan in the tunnel with an exploding oil drum. Achieving Stand Still in Hitman 2's Chasing a Ghost means assassinating Vanya Shah with a tape measure while dressed as a tailor. And challenges like killing all targets while wearing a suit or poisoning our prey to death, we must unlock per level. Therefore, there's no getting around developing various new skills and learning each map if we want to max out our level on each stage.

On the other end, suppose I am playing Hitman III, and I earn enough experience to open up a new starting location or hidden stash in Dartmoor. Those advantages don't carry over to any other level. I couldn't just get good at playing Dartmoor, neglect growing my skills on any other stages, and waltz through them with my cool new toys. For any and all environments, I must win my rewards in them by demonstrating skills at them. This creates a feedback loop in which we receive new starting locations and items to use in a level, we put them into practice, and in doing so, improve our skills at that one stage. When we become more talented at manipulating a map, we can achieve better results in it, unlocking more elements to use, and round it goes.

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Further, this level-specific reward scheme lends the designers plenty of control over our learning experience. They can ensure that we do not start deep into a level with a disguise that opens all doors. Instead, we must learn and demonstrate knowledge of the basics of the map before we can skip ourselves past the chance to dial in that fundamental understanding.

In essence, Hitman's rewards motivate players better than Motorsport 6's because Motorsport 6's rewards are fungible, whereas Hitman's are largely unique. In Forza, one pile of cash is as good as another, so once you have enough cash, why keep bumping up the difficulty? In Hitman, rewards often cannot be replaced with each other, so even after you've made considerable headway in a stage or the game overall, there's still a reason to test your mettle at all sorts of new tasks. And the Challenge system is pretty flexible too.

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Note that by awarding XP for a wide range of different objectives within any one level, Hitman initially moulds itself to the player's talents. Whatever activities within the game the player is best at, they'll find Challenges to accommodate. But the more they play a mission, the more easy Challenges they clear. So, they must move ever further outside their comfort zone to keep earning experience.

In all cases, the player can experiment with new approaches without fear of throwing away a whole level's worth of progress. It is possible via the game's save game options, Hitman's answer to Forza's Rewind. On the Casual and Professional difficulties, the player may save and reload their game at any time. Like Forza's Rewind, Hitman's saves encourage players still studying the game to play it risky and find out what they can get away with. If anything goes catastrophically wrong, they can turn back the clock. However, it's not just the existence of this mechanic that allows the player to rehearse and revise; the implementation is everything.

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To start, note that the Save Button is the first option on the game's Pause Menu, while the Load is the second. In four quick button presses (On the PlayStation: Start, X, X, X), the player can create a suspend point, and in just five (Start, Down, X, X, X) can load from that checkpoint. The save menu allows us to identify, at a glance, where we made each of our saves and in what order. It does this by pairing them with a thumbnail and identifying timestamp. On a nominally powerful system, accessing menus and saving the game are both near-instantaneous processes, and load speeds are comparatively brisk. If it were time-consuming to save and load, the player would not readily use this system, and so, wouldn't frequently experiment.

Secondly, note how the Save Menu encourages the player to keep multiple restore points. The UI presents many autosaves and manual saves together on the same screen, with save slots just one press of the D-Pad away from each other. Individual mission attempts in Hitman are typically longer than races in Forza. Forza allows the player to mould the difficulty between play sessions; in Hitman, they must make many of the same choices during sessions. This means that while Forza is more suited to a linear mode of time travel to help players practice, Hitman is more suited to a branching time travel system.

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To get a picture of how time travel works in Hitman, consider this example: I may reach a fork in my career where I could choose to find some poison, drizzle it into a victim's drink, and try and trick them into ingesting it. Else, I might be able to fetch a screwdriver, sabotage a machine to make it explosive, and coax my target near it. Let us imagine that I take the poison route rather than the machine route, and when I decide to, I make a save so that I may return to this moment if things go awry. I may then successfully obtain the poison but be unsure that I can pour it into my foe's drink without being seen, so I make another save just in case. Then, as I am spiking their drink, a nearby staff member spots me and runs to alert a guard, so I make a third save and run after them, attempting to silence them before they can get help. However, I end up with a bullet in the head and a "Game Over" screen on my monitor.

In this scenario, if I only had a single save slot, I could only reset to when the staff member was about to cry for help, and that might be a sticky jam to get out of. A Rewind mechanic could help me roll back when I decided to poison my target, but rewinding a whole ten or fifteen minutes would be exhausting. With the multiple save system, I can choose one of three save points to regress to. This is useful because I now have a clearer idea of how things will turn out if I pursue my poison strategy and when in the sequence of events my prospects are likely to dip. As in Forza, this Rewind system cannot perform the tasks for me, but it does provide a quick doover meaning the gap between learning from a mistake and putting that learning into action is as small as possible.

And that's it. That's the totality of the mechanics that Hitman uses to help the player toward mastery of its systems. As we did with Forza, let's look at the principles we wanted to see represented and the mechanics from this game that implemented them.

PrinciplesMechanics
Making a difficulty system that accounts for the player having different skill levels at different activities.Variety of methods to progress through levels.
Incentivising the player to take on more difficult tasks.Unlocking new items, XP rewards, Challenges.
Giving the player a safe space in which to experiment with the mechanics and interface.Save system.
Allowing the player to practice the same tasks repeatedly.Save system.
Letting the player adjust the difficulty of the game on the fly as they acclimate to the game.Difficulty prompts at the start of each mission, levels having exceptional variation in how you tackle problems.
Giving the player a clear idea of the actions they need to take to succeed.Level design that teaches you where items are, Mission Briefings, Mission Stories, Minimap, Instinct, Challenges, conversations, documents.
Affording the player clear, immediate feedback about the quality of their performance.Popups on screen that tell the player about changes in the level state, level state listed above Minimap, NPCs vocal about their perceptions of you, Suspicion Indicator.
Ensuring the player has a clear idea of alternatives to their current approach, especially when failing.Mission Stories, level layout, Challenges, documents, conversations.
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Hitman is a game nothing like Forza and yet relies on the same fundamental principles of challenge. It works with the player to grow their skill rather than just lowering the difficulty bar or leaving the player floundering below it. While Forza primarily uses explicit difficulty options to let the player tune challenge, Hitman uses a combination of implicit and explicit. By growing the player's talents on both fronts, audiences can achieve an empowering sense of mastery. Thanks for reading.

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A Better Difficulty II: Forza Motorsport 6

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The appeal of punishing skill-based games like Dead Cells and Hollow Knight, and the accessibility of mainstream titles like Golf with Your Friends or Spider-Man (2018) look to be irreconcilable. We think the profound sense of triumph that we derive from those former games wouldn't come unless they punched us in the stomach time and again. If they didn't set the bar so high, we'd never see our skill level skyrocket as it does during these experiences. It follows that more casual players with less willpower and scant experience with games will not be able to clear that bar, and so, won't be able to feel the same sense of expertise.

And it's probably right that you can't build something that's exactly a Dark Souls for the general public. But I'd also argue that difficulty is relative and that the emotional appeal of masocore titles is fundamentally not down to them imposing some objective standard of performance. It's about them creating an environment in which we can see ourselves mastering an activity. When we start thinking of difficulty as something subjective and intrinsic reward coming with the right environment, we can imagine this empowering sense of mastery existing outside of a niche corner of gaming. We can recognise that these ideas appear in the medium on a much broader scale.

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As I discussed in a previous article, a designer best helps players improve their skill when they:

  • Make a difficulty system that accounts for the player having different skill levels at different activities.
  • Incentivise players to take on more demanding tasks.
  • Give players a safe space in which to experiment with a game's mechanics and interface. I.e. Not punishing them so severely that they are afraid to try new things.
  • Allow players to practice the same tasks repeatedly.
  • Let players adjust the difficulty of the game on the fly as they acclimate to challenges.

I'd add to these points a few common rules from game design that work to the same ends:

  • The player should generally have a clear idea of the actions they need to take to succeed. E.g. In many platformers, such as Ristar, the exit to the level is on the right of the stage, so the map layouts generally signal that we should move to the right to progress. Simultaneously, spikes signal regions of the environment into which we should not move.
  • The game should give the player clear, immediate feedback about the quality of their performance. E.g. In shoot 'em up, Gradius ReBirth, if we inflict damage to an enemy, a red explosion appears where we hit them. If our shot fails to make a dent because the enemy is invincible, we see a blue explosion where our round landed.
  • The player should have a clear idea of alternatives to their current approach, especially when failing. E.g. In an RTS like Total Annihilation, if the soldiers we've deployed start dying off, we can open a panel full of other units to place on the battlefield instead. However, in many text adventures, such as Planetfall, the problems are unsatisfying to solve because we don't know the set of actions available to us. We can only use trial and error to see which written commands the game does or does not respond to.
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One of the most recognisable instances of a game series hitting these points and the five mentioned above is Turn 10's Forza Motorsport. When I started playing Motorsport 6 earlier this year, I felt comfortable with the game but didn't have a handle on the simulation elements. I'd never learned how to manually shift in the Forza games, and I wouldn't play without Assisted Braking on. However, the difficulty settings and feedback loops of Motorsport 6 meant that all that changed.

In my last blog, I mentioned that traditional difficulty settings are of limited use because there are many areas of challenge they don't operate on. The line between arcade racers and racing sims is a product of the restricted scope of typical difficulty settings. In any one driving game, we might be able to tweak the abilities of our opponents. However, if we wish to experience different levels of mechanical complexity or significantly different vehicle handling, we have to play an entirely different game. The menu options just do not exist in a Horizon Chase Turbo to turn it into an F1, nor do the options exist in an F1 to turn it into a Horizon Chase Turbo. Forza eliminates the dichotomy between sim racer and arcade racer by allowing us to mix and match elements of both.

In Forza, setting the game to Easy, Hard, or any other difficulty does more than just determine the aptitude of other drivers. It adds or removes mechanics from play and transforms the handling model of our vehicle. The menus in which we control these changes explicitly clarify what underlying gameplay elements each difficulty option alters and how it alters them. In Motorsport 6, if we switch the game from Hard to Veteran, we can see Stability Management turns off. If we move from Medium to Easy, we can observe the Steering shift from Normal to Assisted.

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We can also set every one of these difficulty components individually, allowing the game to accommodate our unique skillset and tolerance for challenge. E.g. If we have a knack for knowing just when to brake but struggle to control our rotation and speed simultaneously, we can disable ABS but activate Automatic Shifting. If we're often left in the dust but have an irresistible urge to improve, we can set the AI drivers to "Highly Skilled" but turn the "Rewind" mechanic on. In all cases, the game gives a detailed text description for each setting, leaving no ambiguity about the function of the menu elements. For example, this description of the "Simulation" setting for Steering:

"Simulation steering eliminates any damping and steering speed assistance for a more realistic, one-to-one effect, making counter-steering much quicker. Please note this mode is difficult with a controller, and is recommended for advanced players".

Or this one for the "Fuel and Tires" setting for "Damage":

"Cars will show the appearance of damage, but there will be no physical effects. Tires wear out based on your driving technique, and fuel is consumed as you race".

In most titles, the difficulty is a dial that the player turns, but Forza makes it a mechanical configuration that they construct. The player makes choices about the difficulty that a designer traditionally would. That creates a workload that the most casual audiences may baulk at, but when accomodating the specialised and demanding challenges of something like a racing sim, this control over types of difficulty can be perfect. Instead of the designer trying to assume the player's skills and setting up challenges to match, the person who best understands the player's talents: the player themselves, can set those challenges.

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Like most games, Forza lets us experience an increase in difficulty over time. However, unlike in most games, in Forza, the bulk of the potential difficulty increase derives not from hardcoded curves toward the unforgiving but from the player pushing themselves by adjusting the difficulty options. XP and currency bonuses exist for those who amplify the hardships, incentivising them to take on greater and greater challenges. The framing of these bonuses is also integral to that encouragement. It is not that the driver receives a penalty for keeping "Assists" on; it's that they get a reward for turning them off. This tells newbies and casual players that the way they're competing is valid while still giving them a reason to develop their skills and rewarding their efforts when they do. Different car classes and novel tracks further encourage drivers to step up their game. For example, you may be able to corner with Traction Control off when you're driving a cooperative hatchback, but doing it in a prototype Formula One vehicle might take some training. You might think that you can overtake other drivers perfectly on dry ground, but what happens when you try to run the same courses in the rain?

Note that Forza and most other modern racing games will credit you with success, even if you don't come first in a race. If that weren't true, you would be motivated to set the difficulty low to guarantee a win and the rewards that come with it. Through using that strategy, you wouldn't push yourself. In Motorsport 6, even losers can earn decent prizes, making the user more secure in their experimentation. And coming anywhere from first to third counts as a success. So, you are incentivised to put yourself in a position where another car or two has a good chance of overtaking you and clinching first. If you're competent, you have a solid opportunity of succeeding at a race while likely having further obstacles to overcome, allowing you to improve your skill safely.

Forza Motorsport 6 also uses its Mods system to dangle additional carrots in front of players who heighten the difficulty. In each race, the player has three "Mod" slots to fill with cards from one of three categories:

  • Boosts are consumables that amp up the rewards at the end of a race or bolster your vehicle's performance in that race. For example, giving a +60% credits bonus or moving you up two places in the starting grid.
  • Crew are non-consumable add-ons that improve your vehicle. For example, by adding 10% more horsepower or reducing weight by 7 points.
  • Dares are non-consumables that amplify your rewards in exchange for lumping you with some disadvantage. For example, a +10% credits payout for increasing the time it takes to shift gears by 0.5 seconds or +30% credits if you play with the camera locked to your front bumper.
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We can see plainly how a Dare encourages the player to adapt to new challenges, but in truth, all the Mods work to tempt us into making the game that bit harsher. They are another means through which the design frequently prompts the player to modify the difficulty and sand the edge off some of the more taxing difficulty changes. Maybe I wouldn't normally be able to take corners with Assisted Braking off, but if I have a Boost or Crew member that can upgrade my car's grip, I might give it a try. Perhaps Expert AI would generally be able to thrash me, but if I can move myself to the front of the grid, I might give beating them a shot.

Motorsport 6 does make a couple of conspicuous blunders in trying to lure us towards mastering its mechanics. Problem one is, oddly, one we also saw in Luigi's Mansion 3. It's that it just doesn't give the player much to spend their money on. I'm no Lewis Hamilton, but by about two-thirds of the way through the career mode, I had more cash than I knew what to do with. The lack of a home for these credits is disappointing. If increasing the difficulty generates more money, but earning more money gives diminishing returns, there's a diminishing incentive to increase the difficulty. You might think, "at least when the player makes races harder, they still get more XP, keeping them on the right track in developing their skills". You wouldn't be totally wrong about that; XP can be gratifying to earn without it unlocking any further rewards. However, where it does hook into the larger systems, XP translates into level increases, which translate into:

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  • More cars we might not need.
  • Credits which, as we just mentioned, become superfluous.
  • Mods that effectively convert back into XP and money.

There may be no fix for this. The cars in the modern Forza games are priced within a casual player's reach. It makes it that everyone can experience a variety of automotive experiences, including driving the most prestigious vehicles, without having to grind. And if the developers implemented too many RPG-style upgrades for the player to spend their income on, the game would stop being a test of their skill and primarily reward sheer time spent in the software.

Problem two: It's too easy to get cosy with a particular Dare and Crew member and slot them in for every race at the exclusion of all others. Once we find an ideally profitable combination of Mods, we have no reason to vary our Mods, and thus, the scope of our challenges becomes much smaller. We end up in a comfort zone where we are not testing ourselves, and therefore, suspend our development as a racer. Fortunately, unlike problem one, problem two has realistic solutions. If Crew and Dares were consumable, or if their effects tapered off when used many times in a row, we would have a reason to change up our racing style.

Despite these two shortfalls, the game ticks off our first and second bullet points for how a designer should treat difficulty. It acknowledges the multi-faceted nature of skill and responds to it, and it incentivises us to grow those facets. But what about the next three: Giving the player a safe environment to experiment in, allowing them repeated practice of the same manoeuvres, and letting them change difficulty on the fly? We haven't spent as long discussing these requirements. Most obviously, Motorsport 6 represents these ideas in enabling us to alter the challenge between races. Less obvious is how Forza's UI and structure regularly invite the player to modify the difficulty even sans Mods. In many single-player games, there is no option to alter difficulty without starting a new save file. Others let you change it at any point but nestle that option away in a menu that you'll probably never look at.

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As a racing game, Forza is split into discrete play chunks of play: races. The downtime between races constitutes a natural rest period in which we might reconsider our difficulty settings and modify them based on our previous performance and expectations of upcoming challenges. It's not unlike how a real racing team might retune a car for a specific race. We might note that the upcoming race will be a sprint, and so, turn up the AI intelligence. After all, if we fail the race, we won't have spent too much time on losing. We could see that the next event will be held at night when friction on the track is much lower, and so, turn traction control on. For more dedicated players, literal tuning is also something they can do to make their vehicle play into or against their strengths.

Motorsport 6 could deliver us seamlessly from one race to the next. Instead, before every race, we see a menu in which the "Start Race" buttons sit alongside difficulty options. The buttons to change difficulty are only ever a few presses away from "Start Race", and selecting them is a choice suggested to us with literally every event we play. In the current Forza games, the player winning or losing multiple times in a row also causes the game to ask whether they want the AI capability bumped up or down a level.

Most video games see difficulty as a modifier that applies permanently, or at least, to one playthrough of a game. Forza presents difficulty as something that need only apply to the current race you're competing in. When you think of difficulty in these volatile terms, experimenting with it doesn't feel like a big deal. If you go overboard and make the game too hard in one way or another, you can always turn it back down the next time or even hit "Restart" if your race has gone totally sideways. The options are right there, and the game presents them with enough regularity that you are always conscious of them.

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The power to alter the rules of each race lets us practice with different challenges on the macro-level, but it's the game's "Rewind" mechanic that makes the same possible on the micro-level. If we have the "Rewind" Assist turned on, then we can press the Y button to turn time back a few seconds at any point during a race. It's perfect for if we spin out or veer off the track. It's, again, an example of how more security can expand the extent to which the player can experiment with challenge, and therefore, hone their skills. I was able to learn manual gear shifting and to drive without Assisted Brakes because of the Rewind mechanic. It let me take the same turns over and over, with these rules in play, until I got my inputs right.

The difference between how the player paid for their Rewinds changed between the fifth and sixth entries in the series. In Motorsport 5, you took a haircut on your end-of-race credits for the number of times you rewound during a race. In 6, you effectively pay a flat rate and then can use the Rewind as many times as you want without incurring further penalties. I'm not sure that either of these is the "right" approach, but it is relevant to note how they bring out different player behaviours. Under 5's system, you're encouraged to wean yourself off of the Rewind slowly but never entirely untie that safety net. You do receive more reward for using the Rewind only three times a race as opposed to five, but when it's always an option just to turn back time, you may not learn to drive without it entirely. As 6 implements the mechanic, you don't have a push to gradually reduce your use of Rewind. Using a Rewind once in a race or twenty times leads to the same reward output. However, there is a greater incentive to learn to go without it entirely, trading the handicap for a 10% reward increase.

Note that while there is no formal option to set the number of times you can use the Rewind mechanic, this is one area where you can make an implicit decision about the game's difficulty, utilising the Rewind as much or as little as you want. While this mechanic may at first appear as a cheat that removes challenge from the game, notice that it can never perform the required manoeuvres for the player: the player must always demonstrate that they can do them on their own. The Rewind mechanic only changes the number and frequency of opportunities the player gets to take any one turn or straight.

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The Rewind works in harmony with the mechanic most associated with Forza: the Driving Line. In many racing series, including this one, precision performance is about controlling and exploiting your car's momentum. You want to slow for corners instead of trying to speed through them and overshooting. You need to slingshot yourself into curves in the track, allowing the weight of your car to propel it forwards even as it brakes. There is an invisible line in racing games that represents the optimum path that the player should cut through the circuit. But if it is invisible, how is a rookie player meant to learn to follow it?

Forza gives us the option to make the "Driving Line" not just an abstract construct in the play but a visual indicator on the course. This guide is, by default, blue, but fades into yellow to show when to relax the accelerator and red to display when to brake. The player can modify the difficulty to get the full Driving Line, have it only appear for braking sections, or turn it off entirely.

As with the Rewind, it's easy to get sucked into seeing the Driving Line as some kind of hack. In practice, this is never the case. Just as enemies in an FPS mark where we should shoot, the Driving Line tracks the space we must angle our vehicle into. But in both situations, a sense of challenge is retained because it's one thing to know what we should be doing, and another to have the hand-eye coordination and physical awareness to pull it off. The Driving Line cannot tell you how much pressure you need to apply to the left stick or how long you need to hold it to stay on route. It cannot tell you the optimal moment at which to accelerate out of a turn. It can't tell you when to shift gears up or down, and if you come off the Line, there's no guide on how to get back on it.

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Circumstances sometimes make it so that you cannot magnetise your car to that Line even if you are in perfect control of your vehicle. Glare on the asphalt can obscure this UI element, or it can lead you through a puddle you'd rather avoid. Frequently, an opponent is driving through the space it occupies. Like Forza's other Assists, the Driving Line does not arbitrarily loosen the difficulty. Instead, its job is to fill in the gaps in our tasks, reducing the steps we need to perform to succeed.

The Driving Line and Rewind work hand in hand with Forza's most explicit form of feedback. When we skid around a corner, the game will tell us "Good Turn" if we stayed roughly on the Line or "Perfect Turn" if we matched it exactly. Imagine receiving this criticism without being able to see the Driving Line. You'd know when you've made a "Perfect Turn", but without knowledge of the invisible route, you'd struggle to form an understanding of what a "Perfect Turn" means. Many games harbour this issue where they'll tell you if you made the right move but don't tell you what about it was right, hampering you from replicating it in the future. Motorsport 6 can show why it was correct and shouts out equivalent ratings for your drafts and drifts. Although, it does not lend similar guidance on how to execute those last two feats properly.

Let's summarise by taking our list of ideal design principles for training the player and match them against the Forza mechanics that implement those principles:

PrinciplesMechanics
Account for the player having different skill levels at different activities.

Modular difficulty settings, Mods.

Incentivise the player to take on more demanding tasks.Instinsic reward, XP, monetary rewards, finishing higher on the podium.
Give them a safe space in which to experiment with the mechanics and interface.Rewind, splitting the game into races with discrete difficulty settings.
Allow them to practice the same tasks repeatedly.Rewind.
Let them adjust the difficulty of the game on the fly as they acclimate to the challenges.Splitting the game into races with discrete difficulty settings.
The player should generally have a clear idea of the actions they need to take to succeed.Straightforward mechanics, Driving Line.
The game should give the player clear, immediate feedback about the quality of their performance.Turn Ratings, Drift Ratings, Draft Ratings, Driving Line, player position in race.
The player should have a clear idea of alternatives to their current approach, especially when failing.Foregrounding difficulty options, prompts to change difficulty, Driving Line.
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Of course, the Forza mechanics don't port well to most games outside the racing genre. However, the important detail here is that the bullet point principles they represent boost the player towards mastery, aiding them in overcoming obstacles without eliminating challenge. Such principles transcend any one game format. Thanks for reading.

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A Better Difficulty I: Trouble in Challenge City

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For many players, developing their skill at a game is infinitely more rewarding than a game just telling them they're skilful. It's why titles like Dark Souls, Cuphead, and even Crypt of the Necrodancer attained cult status: they were wellsprings of intrinsic reward. We can label all rewards, both inside and outside of video games, either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic reward has to do with our perception and expression of ourselves; it comes from within. Intrinsic rewards include feeling talented, intelligent, or creative. An extrinsic reward is something we obtain; it comes from the outside world. In a video game, that could mean levelling up, scoring points, seeing a cool animation, or learning that we're growing on a character we like. All games use intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, but the most popular high-difficulty titles are weighted towards intrinsic prizes.

These games are less about the transformation of the protagonist and more about the transformation of the person holding the controller. In these titles, tasks that once seemed impossible can, hours later, fall within our wheelhouse. Through mastering them, we can attain a confidence that stretches beyond any one game to many games, and maybe even other areas of our lives. We start asking, "If my personal limitations in this game turned out to be illusions, what other limitations I see in myself might be illusions too?".

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It's a special experience because it's not one you can get in media outside of games, and I think we can agree that it would be a plus for more people to feel that confidence. However, even a seasoned gamer can find many of these transformative titles impenetrable. We could say this inscrutability comes with the territory; it's just what happens when a game demands a dramatic improvement in our talents over time. For many people, a demanding game is a frustrating one, and different players have different tolerances for frustration. Still, that's not a complete answer for why this play format is offputting to some gamers any more than it's a complete answer for why it's appealing to others.

The sense of accomplishment that comes with substantially developing skills is something we find in many arenas outside of computer games. It's what education is all about. But formal and even many informal educational environments don't just present us with difficult tasks; they give us some guidance on performing those tasks. They also frequently provide a space in which to experiment with solutions and techniques, allowing us to find the best ones for the job. You don't just stumble into being a whiz at mathematics or baking; it takes some trial and an almost equal amount of error.

Experiment is risky by its nature. You don't know if your new methodology will help you reach your goal, and where applicable, you don't know whether you will be able to execute your technique satisfactorily. So, we tend to train in safe environments where failure doesn't come with a high cost. You won't find apprentices testing their mathematical ideas in constructing a nuclear reactor or learning the basics of baking in a Michelin star restaurant. And if we have a project on which failure could mean severe loss, we're likely to play it safe and stick to proven methods instead of risking untested ones. Understanding that dynamic is essential if we want to study how people play games. If a designer implements heavy penalties for player failure and a high risk of failure, the player is less likely to get creative and learn more about the game's systems.

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Now, Soulslike games use a workaround to stop players from taking the safe way out. They frequently introduce new enemies that will obliterate the player if they don't learn fresh approaches and techniques. It's evolve or die. But this brutal pressure on would-be warriors can backfire. Some players you can throw in at the deep end and watch surface triumphant, astounding themselves with feats of improvement far beyond their expectations. Other players, however, may just climb out of the water dejected and never return. If a user stops interacting with your game altogether, then you can guarantee they're never going to experience any of those intrinsic rewards you want them to.

Extreme difficulty games create large gaps between the player's current skill level and the skill level necessary to overcome the next significant challenge. But on average, people don't push themselves to their limits when they're zero sets to four or when the next car they have to overtake is a mile away. They give it their all when they're on the tiebreak set or when they need to make up just a few hundred meters to pass the car in front. This is why the majority of games make the next challenge just that bit more demanding than the previous rather than placing success on a far-off mountain.

There's a convincing case for meeting player failure with harsh punishment: when the user finally succeeds, they feel they have overcome enormous adversity. But there's also a compelling argument against severely punishing players: failure teaches us what approaches don't work, and therefore, is a part of working towards success. Given that, you could say that a game should not instil too much adversity to failure in a player. Rewarding losing would be counterproductive, but so may be making the state intolerable for participants.

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The nature of the punishment also matters. In education outside of video games, we can see that the most efficient way to learn a skill is by repeating patterns concurrently. You'll be painfully familiar with this fact if you've ever lived next door to someone learning an instrument. However, it's common for a game to respond to a fail state by setting the player back to a checkpoint long before the challenge they were working on, preventing sustained practice.

Soulslike games delight in pitting us against bosses that we'll likely need many sparring sessions to overcome. However, those same games often make it so that when we die, we can't immediately return to honing our skills against that boss. We have to run back through a good stretch of a zone to continue our practice, interrupting our learning. I'm not saying that adamantium tough games like Ruiner or Salt & Sanctuary shouldn't exist or even that developers should alter them. Still, I believe there's room in the medium for more accessible spaces in which to master skills. Let's return to discussing one of gaming's most misunderstood concepts: difficulty. We need to carve out a rough picture of what it means.

Some of our discussion of mastery so far has touched on the idea that designing difficulty is about finding the appropriate level of challenge to match a player's skill level. If the game is too hard, it may alienate the audience from testing themselves, but if it's too easy, they'll be unable to sharpen their teeth on the challenges. However, we must remember that the right difficulty is also one that acknowledges the player's level of openness to being challenged. The "Hard" difficulty setting on one game may be moderately challenging for one competitor and gruelling for another. However, if the former person only wants a moderate challenge and the latter person wants to be pressured to improve, it is the right difficulty setting for both of them. This is true despite the difficulty setting arguably being mismatched with the less skilled player.

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Here's another common myth: Difficulty is one metric. It's the big lever we set to somewhere between "Easy" and "Expert" when we start a new game. But think about everything that decides how hard a game is. It can include:

  • The handling of the player avatar.
  • The intelligence of the enemies.
  • How labyrinthine the level design is.
  • How many rules the player is expected to memorise.
  • How many values they must keep track of at the same time.
  • How explicitly hazards are indicated.
  • How quickly the player has to react.
  • And much, much more.

We can break each of these factors down into sub-factors. For example, handling could include how high a player avatar can jump and how quickly it can change direction. The intelligence of the enemies could consist of knowing how to position themselves relative to their target or knowing which weapons are suitable for each job. We can then divide some of these sub-factors into sub-sub-factors, and the sub-sub-factors into sub-sub-sub-factors, and so on.

Think about four different games. Say, Blaster Master, Shining Force, Sudoku Quest, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It's not just that these titles have different "levels" of difficulty; it's that the way in which they are difficult differs. The difficulty of dodging enemies and timing our shots in Blaster Master is different from the difficulty of strategically placing, commanding, and outfitting our adventurers in Shining Force. The difficulty of Blaster Master and Shining Force are incomparable with Sudoku Quest's difficulty, which rests in processing certain configurations of numbers across space. All three of these difficulties sit apart from the difficulty of a Phoenix Wright trial in which we must seek out inconsistencies in our debate opponent's arguments.

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And, of course, every player that arrives to a game does so with a different skillset. Maybe a player is good at brute force logic but a bad shot. They could be comfortable with memorising testimony and evidence but unskilled when thinking about how they can play character abilities off of each other. There are many kinds of challenge, many levels of skill a player can possess at each of those challenges, and many different challenge types to have a low or high tolerance for. And those difficulties don't just exist between games but within them, as the same game will ask us to take on many different tasks. RPGs often tease out our management skills and combat strategy, action-adventure games often drag us into both hand-eye coordination exams and puzzles.

Therefore, matching the player's skills and taste to the game's difficulty is not simply a process of giving a casual player an easy game or a veteran player a hard game; the appropriate game is something more bespoke. Its difficulty levels match the respective skills of the player and their desire for challenge in each skill area. Finding the appropriate difficulty now seems less like finding the right notch for a lever to sit on and more like finding a lock that matches the player's key. Each pin must be at the right height to accommodate each of the key's teeth.

So, how do games handle the modular nature of difficulty? Well, in a lot of ways, they don't. Think about what the difficulty slider of the average action game does. It increases enemies' strategic aptitude and perhaps also their health and attack power. Maybe it changes how much ammo you can expect to pick up from your environment or the number and types of enemies you'll face. Compare these settings to everything that can make a game challenging. If it helps, use our bullet-pointed list from above. We can expect many of these elements of challenge to remain static, even as we adjust the waterline of the difficulty. "Difficulty" as a game option often covers only a limited region of "difficulty" as the player experiences it.

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For example, the handling of the player model, the navigability of the environment, and the complexity of play are sizeable factors in deciding the skill you need to play a game. Yet, the difficulty setting modifies none of them. In aerial dogfighting sim Ace Combat, I can use the difficulty setting to toggle enemy pilots between rookie and expert. Still, it does nothing to make it more intuitive to pilot the plane, which for me, was an enormous hurdle to being able to play. In X-COM: Enemy Unknown, I can toggle the difficulty setting to decide how crafty the invading aliens are, but it doesn't reduce the mental load of learning all the systems I need to know.

This is why difficulty sliders are standard in shooter, racing, and strategy games but rare in platformers or environmental puzzlers. If "difficulty" only refers to the threat the AI pose and maybe a few player variables, then it will apply in a shooter, racing, or strategy game because those games all have complex adversarial AI. Platformers and environmental puzzle games typically don't. To make a platformer easier or harder, the player movement and level design would have to be modified. For an environmental puzzle game, the designer would have to forge new puzzles for each difficulty.

Outside of their limited scope, traditional difficulty settings have other shortcomings. Developers often make the player pick a difficulty setting that will last for the game's length without the player knowing what it's like to play at that level of challenge. The many different types of difficulty only make the long-term effects of each difficulty option more ambiguous. With the unpredictability of games, how can you tell what's going to happen ten or fifteen hours into the future?

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And, of course, the player's skill level will increase as they progress through the game. Designers compensate for that by increasing the difficulty as they go. However, different players' skills are bound to grow at different rates. It's a fact accepted in formal education, but that gets discussed a lot less in mainstream gaming circles. My experience is that this is one more issue that disproportionately impacts those who have spent less time in the hobby. I know I quit a lot of games when I was younger because I was fine until about two-thirds in and then discovered that the challenge of the play had come out of sync with my skill.

Now, the good news is that the game design community is aware that explicit difficulty options have their limits and have long been providing players ways to choose their challenge outside of explicit difficulty decisions. When I talk about explicit difficulty decisions, I mean formally telling the game how we want to play. For instance, selecting "Hard" at the outset of a campaign or clicking a checkbox to turn on permadeath. We usually make these choices in a menu outside of live play. There are also implicit ways to select difficulty: decisions about how we want to play that we don't express to the game in clear formal terms. They vary by game, but here are some of them:

  • Deciding the route we take through a level.
  • Deciding whether to fulfil an optional mission objective.
  • Deciding whether to try and obtain a collectable.
  • Deciding what character we play.
  • Deciding what gear we use.
  • Deciding whether we kill, hack, or stealth our way through a room in an immersive sim.
  • Deciding whether to try and attain a higher score or rank on a level.
  • Deciding to place arbitrary constraints on ourselves that aren't enforced by the game, such as in a speedrun or pacifist run.
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These implicit decisions are typically expressed through live play and don't involve clicking a menu option. Instead, we signal these choices through behaviour and through settings that indirectly reference difficulty. Additionally, while explicit difficulty options usually affect entire playthroughs or sessions, implicit decisions typically allow us to set the degree of challenge on the fly. I could be playing Ghostrunner and have been going out of my way to collect the hidden artefacts up to a certain level but then get in over my head. In which case, I could implicitly lower the difficulty by ignoring the collectables and focusing solely on completing the main goals. Or say, I work my way through the first few missions of Sniper Elite 3, avoiding the optional objectives, but after a warmup, I feel confident and want to jack up the difficulty. I can do that by completing the optional objectives for the coming levels.

Implicit difficulty decisions also let you alter the resistance you receive from the game with respect to different kinds of challenges. Imagine you are playing Prey (2017), and you have impressive hand-eye coordination but poor spatial awareness. You may choose to shoot your way through a room rather than sneaking through it. A person with the inverse skillset may make the opposite choice. When playing Apex Legends, a player who feels they're poor at deceiving opponents could challenge themselves by controlling the hologram-slinging soldier Mirage. If they want to test their ability at managing their team's health, they'd be better off picking Lifeline, the medic.

I've heard some designers say that the advantages of implicit difficulty choices mean that they should replace explicit difficulty choices. However, the two often serve different functions, and so, are not interchangeable. Deciding to go for 100% completion in a game makes it hard in a way that turning up AI health doesn't. The challenge of completing additional, tougher platforming sections is not the same as the challenge of permadeath. In some cases, these implicit choices can change the tenor of a section of the game but cannot change the overall hardness. E.g. A certain power-up in a top-down shooter like TwinBee might bring its challenges in line with your skills, but you won't be able to keep it with you for the whole game. Perhaps not even for the majority of it. Or suppose you're playing a roguelike, like The Binding of Isaac. The compulsory rooms could be too easy for you, but optional rooms pitch the difficulty just right. If that's true, then about 50% of the game still fails to develop your talents.

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Implicit difficulty decisions as we know them cannot fill the holes left open by typical explicit difficulty decisions. They would not solve my Ace Combat problem and would at least struggle to remedy my X-COM troubles. Especially when the basic operation of a game is a challenge, implicit difficulty decisions are of limited use. And even in solving issues like differences in navigational aptitude or reaction time between players, they can only go so far before creating wild variations between the difficulty of mainline challenges and optional objectives.

It's also pertinent to mention that some game formats provide many different ways to tackle challenges and choices about which challenges to tackle, and other designs are more prescriptive and linear. It's possible to identify how implicit difficulty choices could play a pivotal role in Devil May Cry or Monster Hunter, but harder to see how you'd fit as many implicit difficulty options into a Road Rash or a Skullgirls.

Now, you might ask why I'm framing difficulty as a choice at all. Some games dynamically alter the degree of challenge by reading how the player has performed previously and setting their upcoming challenges accordingly. And hey, software engineers are doing a lot with neural nets these days. Maybe in the future, an AI will be able to read all elements of our skill and tune challenges to be a perfect match for our skill. Today, that luxury does not exist. Dynamic difficulty systems can make adjustments that nudge games further in line with our desired level of pushback. However, like option-based difficulty systems, today's automated difficulty systems don't operate on many of the aspects of a game that determine the difficulty.

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Dynamic difficulty systems present another few problems in their own right. Firstly, they make it so that the only way the player can lower the difficulty is to fail repeatedly. The user may feel as though they are banging their head against a wall, repeatedly losing, while the game slowly eases itself to the correct accessibility. This is why horror games such as Resident Evil 4 and Amnesia: The Dark Descent contain some of the most lauded implementations of dynamic difficulty. In such games, the player expects to frequently come face to face with the monsters and be struck down: that's part of the appeal. The same attitude does not apply to a conventional empowerment game like inFAMOUS or Outriders.

Secondly, this relationship between failing and the reduction of the difficulty may also incentivise failure too heavily. I might argue that the player should receive an encouraging reward when they fall down so that they're motivated to get back up and overcome the challenge. However, with dynamic difficulty, they can perform laxly and overcome the current section of the game without improving their skills at all.

Thirdly, dynamic difficulty settings assume what the player wants to happen when they lose. For fiendishly hard games like Downwell or Getting Over with Bennett Foddy, it would be violating their spirit to lower the difficulty whenever we fail. We don't play these games to have them ease their challenge to meet our skill level. We play them to raise our skill level to meet their challenge. Being able to fail the same task, at the same difficulty, many times in a row, is a crucial step in the learning process.

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Let's review: The experience of growing to meet monumental skill challenges is special and unique to games as a medium. However, most players grow not by facing up to the masocore trials that are most famous for honing skills but by chasing goals slightly out of their reach. The ideal environment for self-improvement is usually one that lets the player practice a task without interruption and enables them to experiment with solutions without incurring debilitating punishments.

Within this environment, any attempt to match difficulty to player skill must recognise that talent is not a singular metric but consists of a series of different competence levels, each matching a different kind of challenge a game can present. Furthermore, each player has different tolerances for different kinds of challenge. Explicit difficulty settings in games rarely take these realities into account, providing limited options which only alter some aspects of difficulty.

Dynamic and implicit difficulty options are not replacements for explicit difficulty settings but can better fit the difficulty of a game to a player. In the case of implicit difficulty options, their generally modular approach to difficulty partially acknowledges the multi-faceted nature of skill. However, these approaches are only suitable for certain species of game, and to some degree, suffer from the same issues as explicit difficulty options. So, what might a game that fully accounts for modular difficulty look like? We'll explore that next time. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2021: EA

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A few years ago, there was something about EA's yearly product presentations that felt perfunctory. The agony of them was that the publisher had games that would make your mouth water and your eyes dilate, but then they also had entries in their yearly series and less polished casual games, both of which acted as extra-strength sedatives. You couldn't ignore an EA showcase because you'd regret not seeing the cream of their crop, but if you tuned into one, you'd also see a lot of games that had you begging the presenters to just move on.

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Since then, EA has made a concerted effort to better engage their audience and present something that fizzles and crackles off the screen. Their approach can be abrasive; in years past, they've leant heavily on celebrity appearances and excitable Twitch streamers screaming their way through Battlefield matches. However, we are at a place where it feels like the publisher can broadcast their annual presentation on YouTube and not have a highly upvoted comment about which bit of the video you need to skip past.

This year's live event was powered by the unlimited energy reserves of WWE's Xavier Woods. Woods sometimes came across as inauthentic, overselling games that spoke for themselves, but his larger-than-life personality filled the stage. With Woods running the show, you forgot that there was no audience, an exemption that was presumably down to COVID restrictions.

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With Codemasters in their empire, EA can expand their racing game library from the arcade genre into the more simulatory. Despite having quite a bit of experience in racing games, I've generally stayed away from the more realistic end of the genre and don't know what to expect from a GRID. What exactly makes GRID different from a Gran Turismo or a Project CARS? I'm not saying there isn't a distinction; I'm just saying I don't know it, and the appearance of the game at EA's event didn't help clarify. When prompted to speak on GRID Legends' mechanics, designer Becky Crossdale mostly discussed the classes of car in the game, which aren't really mechanics.

It's also a little unusual to see a track racer sold primarily on its story mode; that's not what these games are prized for. Having said that, the use of FMV cutscenes for a title with this setting is refreshingly unique, and I am amazed by the gap between Ncuti Gatwa's acting in Sex Education and in the scenes we saw for Legends. It's a transformation from sassy misfit to hard-nosed racing driver.

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Character-driven multiplayer games like Overwatch and Apex Legends have become hotspots for original character design. As audiences have come to know the standard shooter classes like the back of their hand and seen the same character tropes in games time and time again, developers have had to start thinking outside the box. We've all seen the gun-slinging space cowboy and the bloodthirsty orc, but I bet you've never seen anyone quite like Seer: a Protoss Victor Vran who dances a path across the map while dispatching futuristic recon drones. Yet, given the amount of time EA dedicated to Apex Legends, it's disappointing that we saw no Seer gameplay. It's not that they're not ready to show it, but this was a teaser for a teaser, with them holding back live Seer footage until the 26th.

Speaking of original takes on the familiar, I've seen a lot of third-person action games and a fair number of deck-builders, but I've not seen a deck-based, dice-infused, third-person combat game like Lost in Random. While it's hard to find a title that doesn't in some way include a random number generator, the generator rarely becomes a diegetic entity in the environment. No one presentation for a card game can ever convey a full sense of its quality, as the appeal is not so much in the basic mechanics as in the complex dynamics between the cards. It's, therefore, a boon to Lost in Random that it can immediately dazzle with its quirky American McGee-style art.

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The Battlefield: Portal trailer continued to highlight that while the series remains the king of multiplayer spectacle, it also has one of the largest tonal gulfs between single-player and multiplayer. That's perhaps not an issue in itself, but I've remained uncomfortable with how EA DICE take the horrors of real wars and even specific battles in those wars and then sell them on as pulse-pounding playgrounds of empowerment. But I don't want to beat a dead horse. Playing Halo's Master Chief Collection recently, I was struck by how flashing through maps and weapons from many different Halo games created an experience distinct from any one Halo multiplayer's. It becomes an arcadey jukebox where you're never bound to one set of rules or one look for very long. Battlefield: Portal looks to do something similar to Battlefield, but it takes it a step further.

We've seen plenty of classic games honoured with collections and remasters; it makes sense from a design standpoint that the evolution of that is taking the elements from those individual games and mixing them up like a smoothie. Battlefield has long had a restriction wherein the unique setting of each game has meant that much of the time, the series could not carry beloved maps forward into future games. Sometimes it couldn't carry guns or vehicles either. Now, DICE is throwing caution to the wind and saying, "Fuck it, this isn't a war sequence, this is a sandbox", and that's the way out. It leaves Portal somewhere between a love letter to the series and a platform for transformative, original creations.

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Last up, we have the Dead Space remake. Having recently played back through the original game, I can say it holds up just as well as you'd want. The combat feels gnarly and desperate, pushing you to find any inch of ground you can against an onslaught of meatshield zombies. The user interface remains one of the most economical and thoughtful in the medium's history. The Ishimura has an atmosphere you could cut with a knife and is peppered with some undeniably cool retro-future displays. Truth be told, the original Dead Space's look remains so striking that a ground-up remake doesn't feel all that necessary, but I'd happily play through it. With any luck, it'll also get us to what I think we truly want from this series: a Dead Space 4.

Year on year, EA's annual event has strayed ever further from the mothership of E3. It's an example of the redistribution of gaming news throughout the calendar. One that has prevented the summer period from clogging up with more gaming announcements than we can process. In that sense, it's a positive that EA Play Live now happens in late July. But existing so far from the other industry showcases of the year can be a blessing or a curse. You don't fade into the wallpaper, but if you're trying to create a gaming event in your own right, you need a lot of big announcements to prop you up, and I don't quite think EA was there this year.

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EA Play Live 2021 was a far cry from the sometimes sleep-inducing EA presentations of a few years back, but a certain substance is still missing. The games this year were promising, and the host contagiously energised, but when you add it all up, forty minutes of presenting gave us gameplay reveals for just two new titles. As one of the biggest names in video game publishing, EA is capable of so much more. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2021: Wrap Up

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I think I've been hearing people say that we've reached the end of the line for the last six E3s; that the expo can't continue because of a clash between the current state of media marketing and the communication channels E3 uses. But I think the idea of this rigid, immutable E3 that will blow away like a sandcastle in the wind ignores the historical polymorphism of the event. E3 used to be an industry-facing meet-up slathered in earnings calls and pie charts but increasingly aimed to wow these companies' customers. Eventually, the managers decided they wanted to cut back on promotional models and gatecrashers. As streaming technology improved and the web became ubiquitous, more publishers turned away from filtering their E3 announcements through critics. They began directly interfacing with prospective buyers until the physical convention became a mixed consumer and press event. Maybe one day in the foreseeable future, E3 curls up and dies, but for now, it evolves, and no year has provided a better example of its ability to fit new containers than 2021.

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No show floor meant no booths or in-person interviews, so mid-tier publishers and indie developers had to find alternate means to get the news of their games out. The result was a torrent of side streams which were sometimes threadbare, but other times, a mine of hidden gems. In previous years, I've said that it's becoming impossible to talk about everything at E3. This year, you had your work cut out for you if you even wanted to see every game that appeared on a stream. So, accept the games I'm about to talk about as only a tiny sliver of the entertainment that stood out at 2021's expo.

We're spoilt for charming indie treasures, but character designs or environments in such titles can sometimes lack detail. Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan is rich in its city, wilds, and characters. While it has a proud reverence for Fleischer's early cartoon art, it is interesting that the game's goal is to banish the black and white, rejecting the retro look and welcoming in something more colourful. Bird Problems is a comedy that, intentionally or not, finds an unsettling air in the humble tragedies and disembodied laughter of the US sitcom. On paper, nothing should make it all that creepy, and yet, I am getting strong Too Many Cooks vibes from this one.

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There's a common urge to believe indie projects have stunning art design, but AAA products have a realistic look. Pint-sized puzzler Woodo and space industry manager Ixion challenge that view with natural lighting and pristine surfaces. I've seen a lot of people use Tetris as a lens through which to understand real-world spatial organisation tasks like arranging shelves or stocking storerooms. Unpacking brings the metaphor full-circle, turning the process of placing our belongings in a new home back into a puzzle. Of course, anywhere you have peoples' possessions, you also have an environment that tells a story about those people.

For as many video games have let us play with time, I've never seen one do it quite like The Lemnis Gate. This FPS starts with players each taking twenty-five-second turns to act within the world. Those twenty-five seconds are then replayed, with players trying to sabotage their opponents' actions from the original turn. Those twenty-five seconds are then played over, and what you end up with is a complex layering of time-travel agents trying to kill other time-travel agents. There's a beautiful potential here to make players think about combat as they never have before and force them into strategic uses of tiny chunks of time.

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As a Civilization fan, I'm keeping one eye on Civ-like Humankind. However, I found that its trailer at the PC Gaming Show neglected the essential work of showing where it breaks from its spiritual predecessor. Next Space Rebels is another game heavily inspired by a previous: this time, Kerbal Space Program. These engineering simulators often make you feel like a hobbyist glueing together an irresponsibly dangerous contraption in your garage. Here's a game literalising that idea. Gigabash is one of those creations that gets a lot out of taking a familiar idea and changing the framing. In the brawler, huge monsters duke it out in a concrete cityscape, flattening buildings with their mighty punches. Having that destructive influence on your surroundings looks like a lot of fun.

Citizen Sleeper is an RPG with a difference. Instead of the actions you can take simply being a test of your characters' skills, you roll a set of dice each turn and then decide where to spend each resulting figure you end up with. I'm always fascinated by video games that import tabletop mechanics, and there's a satisfaction in matching the right resources to the right tasks. Also, the music in the Citizen Sleeper trailer: a banger. The OneEx Player is effectively a handheld gaming PC with the Switch's form factor and button layout. That means it's probably out of my price range, but the idea of a gaming rig that can play whatever I want is very appealing. Speaking of the PC, I was pleasantly shocked to see proof that Gabe Newell is still alive. I was certain that this was an Emperor of Mankind situation.

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Most of the games above came from the IGN Expo, the PC Gaming Show, or Wholesome Direct, which were all exciting additions to the lineup this year. That last briefing, especially, showed some scintillating originality. Sadly, some conferences felt entirely needless. Gearbox's was largely Randy Pitchford bothering various actors backstage at the Borderlands film shoot. Koch Media put developers in the uncomfortable position of answering questions about games they couldn't show in any detail. I love to listen to creators talk about their work, but their answers only have relevance when we can see the media to which those answers apply. The whole thing was also given an oddly corporate overtone by each developer being asked how Koch helped them.

Bandai Namco might have done better this year if they'd made it explicit that they were only showing off one title. I'm pretty up on the E3 schedules, and even I wondered if I was missing something. That one title was House of Ashes, the modern military horror from Supermassive. While the medium has danced around the war in Iraq or even inaccurately stated that recent operations in the middle-east were a roaring success, House of Ashes is openly talking about the war and seems to be suggesting that, yes, it was hell. Using monsters to embody that hell is an original and evocative approach. Still, when you've got a developer in an interview talking lasciviously about how many death animations the game includes and how gory the soldiers' ends will be, the whole thing feels like a really tasteless exercise. I could stomach House of Ashes being yet another Iraq War retrospective that sees the conflict only from the western side, but if this is going to be a haunted house ride about a real war that killed hundreds of thousands, I don't want any part in it.

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Capcom's presentation had this odd directorial quirk that doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but that I can't stop thinking about. You'll notice that most of these briefings are delivered directly to camera, simulating a one-on-one conversation between the speaker and viewer. Capcom kept taking these long diagonal-on shots of presenter Rachel Quirico. It's a technique you might have seen in some documentaries recently. It breaks the illusion of a direct link between the viewer and speaker to remind the audience that they are watching someone being filmed, who exists with their own focus and in a larger world. Great if you're making a show about events in the larger world. I have no idea what it's doing in a promotional pitch.

That new Ace Attorney game looks fun, though. The voicing is awful, and the animation is overacted. I preferred the older Phoenix Wright approach of leaving the expressions symbolic, so your imagination could fill in exact details about how these characters are moving. But you can see the designers shaking up the format by having us contradict many jurors instead of one lawyer. The new structure allows us to analyse many arguments and take them in bitesize form instead of rooting around in one long speech to see where the pieces don't fit. Having our triumphs rebalance the scales of justice provides an impactful visualisation of our success.

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Devolver once again knocked it out of the park as the only company that can still do reliably narrative-driven press conferences. I've heard and even voiced the criticism before that sometimes Devolver is guilty of the very industry practices they're satirising. Still, I think they've gotten better at avoiding that pitfall just through making many of the services their conferences are built around fictional. There is no Devolver Max Pass+, yet the ideas behind this fake subscription service exist at the heart of our industry. This was a postmodern mockery of our industry where it's not entirely clear whether we can buy this service or what we'll get when we do. It's appropriate in a financial ecosystem of lootboxes containing mystery items and subscription services with uncertain futures.

I enjoyed the Square Enix conference this year more than I expected. Who'd have thought the Guardians of the Galaxy levels might look right like landscapes out of Death Stranding? And with a highly original look for the monsters. And why not use licensed music in campaign modes? Movies do it, so why do computer games relegate their licensed tracks to the radio? Of course, you would hope that they wouldn't repeat them too often, and all that squad chatter could get overwhelming. There was a lot of dialogue in the demo, but the jokes were hit and miss for me. If you're meant to be paying attention to the Guardians' cross-talk at the same time as focusing on shooting straight, that could get a bit much. I also have to echo the criticism that I'm not sure I want to spend an entire game as Starlord; the Guardians films, have after all, shown us all the cool tricks that Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax can also pull off in a fight.

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It's so weird that Square Enix wouldn't port their upcoming Final Fantasy remakes to the Switch. These games worked on the Gameboy Advance and DS because the low resolution and uphill grinds render them perfect to play while focusing on something else, like a TV programme or a commute. The Switch could do the same thing all over again. Lastly, we come to Life is Strange: True Colors. A protagonist that can read minds could be a great way to keep us in the shoes of one person while letting us explore the overflowing contents of every other characters' heads. Think of it as a serious Psychonauts.

And with that, we come to the end of another E3. While I don't want to trivialise the ongoing hardships that the coronavirus is creating for developers, it was wonderful to see that the industry has endured. That it's continued making games on such a scale and with such high quality is proof of the resilience and dedication of creators from across the world. Thanks for reading.

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