A .PDF copy of this Press Release can be found here.
A crowdfunded book of level design criticism.
“Groping The Map: Book 1” an in-depth analysis of four popular videogame levels.
York, England – May 13, 2013: Freelance writer Justin Keverne today publically announces his GoFundMe campaign (http://www.gofundme.com/2uocfo) to support the production of Groping The Map: Book 1, a continuation of the popular Groping The Map series of articles that started in 2010. The goal of the campaign is to fund the production of Groping The Map: Book 1 a .PDF eBook, which once researched and written will be made available free of charge.
Groping The Map (http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/?p=2310) is a series of in-depth examinations of a single videogame level. Each instalment features a detailed look at both the level itself and the game in which it appears. Frequently exceeding 10,000 words, they include an examination of structure, encounter placement, aesthetics, layout and related design issues.
Says series author Justin Keverne:
“There is already a wealth of work dedicated to environmental art and the use of specific level design software, but there are few examples of level design ‘close reading’ that really digs into how individual levels are created and the amount of work that goes into them.”
Says Borut Pfeifer, of Plush Apocalypse Productions (Programmer: Skulls of The Shogun):
“Justin’s writing on games, especially level design and narrative design, is exceptional. Please support his book as it will be a detailed, stand out, unparalleled look at the craft of level design.”
Says Steve Gaynor, of The Fullbright Company (Designer: Minerva’s Den, Gone Home):
“The work Justin does with Groping the Map illuminates the craft of level and game design in a way that’s very rarely seen.”
Says Daniel Hindes, Editor PCPowerPlay:
“Justin’s unparalleled insight into level design and aesthetic makes for fascinating exploration of the complex design that underpins some of the most immersive first-person experiences gaming has to offer.”
Production of Groping The Map: Book 1 has already begun however in order to see its timely release, and maintain the high quality of the previous instalments, support is being sought through a GoFundMe campaign. The donation model of GoFundMe is such that any and all funds raised can be accessible immediately ensuring that work on the book can continue even if the goal is not met. All money raised will go towards the creation of this book, with the aim of releasing sometime within the next six to nine months.
Says Justin Keverne:
“As an individual working on an eBook intended to be released free of charge, the model of other crowdfunding sites was not really suitable. Asking for money is always stressful, though I hope, and believe, people will find the work worthwhile.”
In the unfortunate event that production on Groping The Map: Book 1 is unable to continue all materials used in its creation (notes, screenshots, article drafts etc.) will be made available free of charge through the Groping The Elephant website.
GoFundMe campaign link: http://www.gofundme.com/2uocfo
Groping The Map series: http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/?p=2310
For any media inquiries, please contact:
Justin Keverne at CrashTranslation AT gmail DOT com
About Justin Keverne:
Justin Keverne is a freelance writer and independent game developer based in Yorkshire, England. A founding member and contributor to the stealth gaming site Sneaky Bastards (SneakyBastards.net), his most recent work, a 12,000+ word analysis of the level design in Arkane Studio’s Dishonored, can be found in the soon to be released first issue of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine.
Launched in May 2010 and based in San Diego, CA, GoFundMe has quickly become the #1 crowdfunding website in the world for personal causes and life-events. Hundreds of thousands of people have raised tens of millions of dollars for the things that matter to them most.
Since I started them in 2010 my Groping The Map articles have proven to be some of the most popular work I’ve written. In those three years however I have only been able to complete my analysis of three different levels, this is both a significant reduction from my original goal and a personally disappointment.
With each article my ability to analyse level design has increased, as have my talents as a writer. Recently I completed an approximately 15,000 word series on the level design in Dishonored for Issue 1 of the Sneaky Bastards magazine, and I think this is some of my best work to date. In an ideal world I would be able to focus primarily on writing such as this and produce these articles at a rate greater than one level analysis per year.
To that end I’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign with the aim of enabling me to focus on producing more Groping The Map content. The aim of the campaign is to produce “Groping The Map: Book 1″ a .PDF ebook, which once researched and written will be made available free of charge, and devoid of any DRM. Any support you can offer will go towards ensuring that I can focus primarily on these articles, with the goal of releasing Book 1 sometime within the next six months (subject to alteration). If possible I would like to produce some physical copies if there is sufficient demand. These physical copies would be sold at cost, however given the number of screenshots used these would need to be printed in full colour making the cost price somewhere in the range of £10 (before postage and packaging); that is an estimated price per-unit based on a run of fifty copies.
The current plan is for Book 1 to include four articles of approximately 10,000 words each on the following levels:
- The Omega Ranch – Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
- Nova Prospekt – Half Life 2.
- The Silent Cartographer – Halo: Combat Evolved.
- Jacknife – Mirror’s Edge.
I started Groping The Map because I felt there was a need for level design specific writing. There is already a wealth of work dedicated to environmental art and the use of specific level design software, but there are very few examples of level design “close reading” that examines every aspect of a level and its role within the rest of the game. With your support I can devote myself to working on these articles and hopefully within six months release a .PDF that will more than double the number of Groping The Map articles.
No matter how well the campaign does I still fully intend to work on additional Groping The Map content, I just can’t make any commitments as to the schedule without a change in my circumstances.
In his 2011 GDC presentation, The Identity Bubble – A Design Approach To Character and Story Creation, designer Matthias Worch builds on the work of Gary Fine (From his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds), using the conceptual model of frames to examine how players have multiple, often conflicting, internal voices. During play they are at once, people, players and characters, with different motivations operating within each frame.
Games allow us to participate in defining the behaviour of a character, our actions become theirs, our choices influence their behaviour. The player frame takes the lead in defining motivation and performing action. One common occurrence is the imposition of our desires upon the character, as Worch describes it: “This is the reason we play games: the ability to drive the action, to express ourselves, to lead.” As players our desires often lean towards efficiency, we may even strive for optimality when characters in fiction rarely do. When the player and character frames begin to drift apart, when our motivations as players no longer match those of the characters we are playing, we complain about dissonance. Our chosen approach determined within the player frame does not match that supplied by the fictional context within the character frame.
Frequently there is no choice, the game can’t be played in a way that doesn’t foster such dissonance. Even if you try the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed don’t allow for the efficiency it tries to fictionalise as being part of Altair’s character. In such instances, where the only options available are those that contradict the established narrative context, criticisms are justified. Worch’s method for avoiding this drift is to find ways that encourage the alignment of the character and player frames.
A commonality of each of the presented methods is that the character frame should be adjusted to align with the player frame. What of “self-correction”, of playing in a manner that is appropriate to the character; in so far as the abstracted nature of game mechanics allow? What if instead of determining the behaviour of characters based on the our motivations within the player frame we modify our behaviour to better fit the context of the character we are playing?
Early in my time with Tomb Raider it became clear what the game wasn’t going to do. The narrative is a tale of survival and growth, of overcoming extreme hostility. The mechanics you interact with to progress that narrative are high level abstractions of those concepts rather than attempts at simulation. Tomb Raider is, not a game about survival from a mechanical perspective, there are survival elements though they are heavily abstracted. Tomb Raider is a game about hostility and overcoming that hostility as a means of character growth. This basic conceit is presented and reinforced within the first ten minutes, as a Lara scrambles out of the cave she finds herself in though a variety of Quick Time Events and context sensitive actions.
The manner in which Lara obtains a handgun, and in the process kills for the first time is messy, violent and problematic in several ways. Shortly after that she is confronted by others of the Solarii, the cult like inhabitants of the island. It’s possible to kill them quickly and relatively cleanly, it’s also possible to keep shooting them until they stop moving. Without intending to I made the choice that being highly efficient wasn’t appropriate or necessary. When time slowed down in that first encounter instead of using it to line up precise shots, I fired as soon as the gun was pointed at the Solarii and didn’t stop until he collapsed, then I did the same with his companion; I did what I felt Lara would do.
This is a pattern I repeated throughout, it stopped being a conscious decision almost immediately. I was not directly punished for being inefficient and messy, and the narrative and characterisation did nothing to contradict my behaviour. Initially it had been an experiment to see if I could get away without turning Lara into the “alpha predator of ‘headshot island’” and it was possible, furthermore it felt emotionally resonant in a way I believe being efficiency wouldn’t have.
Throughout the next few hours when confronted with armed hostility I played in an improvisational way, explosive barrels, fire arrows, horrific melee kills; every tool at my disposal combined into a mess of violence. I was mad at the Solarii for what they were doing to my friends and to me, and I took that out on them. Why use one bullet when I can use five? Why use a normal arrow when I can use a flaming one? I scrambled around, dodging attacks, stabbing people in the legs, smashing rocks into faces, screaming, swearing. It was a nightmare of brutality and violence. Once it was all over there was no Nathan Drake like quip just an exhausted sign of regret tinged relief, both from myself and Lara. Neither of us wanted to be doing this much fighting but if we wanted to survive we had little choice.
I had not modified my overriding motivation, I wanted to be entertained, to have a memorable experience, and I was, I did. What I had done was slightly modify my behaviour. To keep the “identity bubble” intact it is necessary to make adjustments to at least one of the three often conflicting frames, to correct for drift. Which frame needs correcting and who performs that correcting does not always need to be the same for every game.
Games are participatory, a shared construct of designer and player. It’s not uncommon to talk of how games should react to player behaviour, taken to an extreme this can become the arrogance of agency, the notion that it is the responsibility of all games to acknowledging and response to our behaviour no matter how unpredictable or contextually inappropriate. If games are about shared authorship don’t we, as players, have a responsibility to ourselves to move beyond “willing suspension of disbelief” into actively maintaining that “suspension of disbelief”?
Tomb Raider is one of the best games I’ve played. The verb is important, as much for what it means for a game as what it means in the context of “acting”, of “role playing”. I implicitly entered into a contract with the game, if it would provide me a consistent structure by which to contextualise my actions I would play within that structure. My behaviour when I was in control of Lara, and her behaviour outside of my control reinforced each other, strengthening both aspects. It required no more effort that playing “cops and robber”, I had a role and I played to that role, the result was an alignment of player and character frames unlike any I’ve experienced.
”Greetings, Garrett! Thou art expected, though not precisely… welcome.”
Coming two thirds of the way through The Metal Age the infiltration of Angelwatch in Life Of The Party would make a fitting location for the finale. Unlike the actual final level the Mechanist tower of Angelwatch was foreshadowed as far back as the second level, Shipping and Receiving, and for The Metal Age to conclude here would not have been inappropriate. This is not the end however and there are still great levels to come before the finale in Soulforge; that doesn’t stop Angelwatch from serving as a conclusion of sorts. The journey from the streets of Dayport to the Mechanist tower is symbolic of the change in the forces of antagonism from Sheriff Truart and his City Watch to Karras and his Mechanists. From this point the final five levels will see a greater focus on Mechanists and their supporters over the citizens of the City; Life Of The Party is the final time in The Metal Age that you will set foot in the City itself.
The story arc that started with Sheriff Truart’s clampdown on the “unlawful” is over, his death at the hands of Viktoria’s agents serving to bring to light the true danger facing the City. The threat once posed by Truart is nothing compared to what Karras has in mind. The shadow of the Mechnists’ plans falls across everything that has come before, yet the true extent of Karras’ machinations is only revealed once you reach Angelwatch.
With Viktoria’s slightly improved Vine Arrows to replace the Rope Arrows Garrett’s inventory is complete liberating the final third of The Metal Age to throw everything it can at him. Life Of The Party feels huge, the size of a level is not always an indicator of its overall quality yet here that scale is used expertly, a careful player can take a hour or more to reach Angelwatch where they will find there is nearly as much space within that single building as in the City streets surrounding it, and then they have to make their way back possibly while harassed by Mechanists.
This is Thief level design at it’s smartest, sprawling environments make for complex problems but by isolating each one within natural and consistent boundaries (household guards are responsible only for their building) it breaks the complex problem into manageable portions that can be dealt with individually. The logical separation of each building means this division of the level into pieces occurs almost invisibly. Form and function in perfect alignment. The discrete problems of the Thieves’ Highway can be dealt with on your own terms whereas inside Angelwatch you will need to be reactive, improvisational. Where the City is constructed from mismatched brick and wood illuminated by easily dowsed torches, Angelwatch is constructed from metal and stone, and lit predominately by electric lights. Wandering NPCs, blind corners and closed doors limit your ability to plan forcing you onto the back foot. A master thief when roaming the City Garrett is but a hunted insect inside Angelwatch.
Standing in the middle of Dayport one of the richest districts of the City, Angelwatch is an imposing statement of the Mechanists’ power and influence. It is also strangely devoid of purpose, six stories high yet with only a small chapel and office providing space of any clear utility Angelwatch is a façade. Too much of the building has been designed with a focus on presenting a particular image of the Mechanists rather than as a building with a function. Too many of the rooms appear designed for guests rather than the Mechanists themselves who have little use for carpeted floors or ballrooms. Compared to the Mechanist Seminary you will have visited earlier Angelwatch is an architectural billboard, a way of showing off the glory and power of the Mechanists while actually revealing very little.
If the level had begun on the rooftops within sight of the Mechanist tower it still would have felt like a complete experience, by extending out the surrounding areas of the Dayport district the impact of that first glimpse of Angelwatch is magnified. Though you will have infiltrated larger buildings over the course of The Metal Age those, like the First City Bank and Trust, were isolated locations divorced from the rest of the City. Dominating a portion of the City, towering over everything around it Angelwatch is large but in comparison to the buildings you will have passed through in order to get here it looks gargantuan.
Levels set in multiple locations, such as the Dayport sections of Life Of The Party can feel of a lower fidelity than those in set within a single specific place. The rooftops are rife with locked doors and inaccessible areas, while within Angelwatch every internal door can be opened, every room explored.
Life Of The Party show the disjointed view of the City as seen by a thief, moving through a few rooms of one building just to get into another, banks and castles and apartment buildings compressed together, rooftops repurposed as shortcuts, windows and skylights used as entrances and exits. None of these buildings are seen in their entirety there is just enough to provide a hint of its purpose. The mundanity of life within the City witnessed through the moving lens of the thief; the journey through Dayport is an impressionistic one, a brief patchwork of sights and sounds that leave the sense of having explored an entire city district. Then, climbing out of the window of one building onto the rooftop of another there it is, Angelwatch: complete, assertive, modern. Like an Art Deco portrait in the middle of a Impressionist landscape this new presence in the City is jarring and impossible not to react to; the Mechanists are here.
Life Of The Party is not the introduction to the Mechanist Order or it’s mysterious leader, it is instead a reframing of the Mechanists from shadowy conspirators operating at the fringes of society to direct antagonists. It could have been made differently, separated from the City the infiltration of Angelwatch would still have made for a strong level, without the Mechanist tower the rooftops of the Thieves’ Highway could easily provide the layout for a myriad other levels; much as the City streets played host to both Ambush! and Trace The Courier earlier in The Metal Age. It could have come at an earlier point, maybe replacing Eavesdropping and seeing Garrett sneak into Angelwatch to overheard Karras’ meeting with Truart in his office. By occurring when it does, in the way it does Life Of The Party achieves with space a statement that would have felt clichéd if put into words. The Mechanist are taking over the City and their ways are not the old ways, now they have arrived nothing will be quite the same again. Only when directly juxtaposed with “normal” City life do the extremes of the Mechanist doctrine become real. A grand edifice looming over the streets and rooftops of Dayport, Angelwatch is for all its imposing visage still strangely artificial, much like the religion of Mechanists it has been created in the image of one being, not the Master Builder who they profess to serve but Father Karras.
NOTE: A comparison of Life Of The Party to the earlier version The Uninvited Guest is forthcoming, though there is no set time frame for that yet.
- Life Of The Party is the work of Designer Emil Pagliarulo.
- Thief II: The Metal Age is the work of Looking Glass Studios (Now closed). It was published by Eidos Interactive, now a subsidiary of Square-Enix.
- Additional material on Thief: The Dark Project, Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows was obtained from Thief: The Dark Wiki.
”These are strange times indeed when the builder’s chosen must cater to the folly of the unworthy.”
Annotated Walkthrough, 7:
After avoiding any wandering guests on the stairs the sixth floor landing offers some shadows in which to wait before you enter the ballroom. The door is unlocked and the light illuminating the area immediately beyond is easily extinguished by the switch beside. Vilnia, commander of the Mechanist guards within Angelwatch, can be found talking to one of her men in the southeastern corner of the ballroom. They are standing close enough to the elevator that despite it being possible to reach the sixth floor using it, remaining undetected presents a significant challenge.
Largely empty of people, the party having clearly broken up some time ago, the majority of the sixth floor is in darkness, the few pools of light from the overhead lights easily avoided. The ballroom floor is composed of tiles of what looks like marble or some other hard stone. Garrett’s footwear will make crossing it stealthily a laborious process, fortunately there are large wooden tiles edging the marble around the perimeter of the room. Providing a nice aesthetic contrast to the black and while stone tiles the wood is soft enough to reduce the sound of your movements, enabling you to circle the room without drawing unwanted attention.
A large fountain dominates the centre of the room, providing a thematically consistent means of breaking up sight lines. If you choose to brave the tile floor there are a few piles of coins to be recovered from the water at the base of the fountain, possibly at some point during the night’s festivities somebody mistook it for a wishing well.
Moving left from the doorway the wooden tiles run the length of the north wall, staying on them will take you past an arrangement of empty chairs toward a pair of guests. They are standing near what would be the eastern fireplace, all but one of the chimneys on this floor being closed off and hung with Mechanist banners instead. A woman and a man, the latter has a coin purse on his belt though, as somebody has pushed a chair against the wall near them, in order to acquire it you will need to risk moving across the marble floor; this is the type of situation were a Moss Arrows would be perfect though the one hundred gold coins in his purse might not be worth expending resources to obtain.
Near the opposite wall, on the far side of the fountain, a Mechanist worker bot sits watching over a selection of instruments. Of the three only the harp can be interacted with, though Garrett isn’t exactly blessed with musical talent. The flute and horn arranged next to the harp can neither be played nor stolen which does bring up the question of why the Worker Bot chose this place to sit? If it had been one of the Servants standing in its place the knowledge that they were once people would have given this little tableaux an extra layer of melancholy.
South of the instruments the gramophone on this floor can be found in its customary position on a table beneath a portrait of Karras. This is the final recording in the sequence of six though it is unlikely to be the sixth recording you will have found. Starting with an audible record scratch the message goes on to explain how the Servants that have been gifted to each of the guests will have arrived at their properties by the time those guests return. Karras also explains that occasionally the Servants will need to return for “small adjustments” and will do so at the signal from the “guiding beacon”. These are aspects of their construction and design that will prove to hold great importance for the conclusion of The Metal Age.
Approaching the gramophone will likely trigger a conversation between Vilnia and her subordinate. He is distinctly unimpressed with the manner in which Karras is treating the nobles of the City, people he deems “unworthy”. Vilnia is quick to reassures him, reminding him of Karras’ ability to control the Servants at his whim and making the first mention of “rust gas” and referring to the Servants as “weapons”. This is the most explicit acknowledgement yet that the Servants are a vital part of the Mechanist leaders plans.
Once their conversation has been concluded Vilnia will head towards the stairs and the fifth floor, if you intercept her on the way you can steal a key from her which will make gaining entry to Karras’ office easier. Given that the conversation between her and her fellow Mechanist can trigger when you are close to the gramophone one way to avoid the recording drowning our their conversation is to allow the latter to initiate and then return to the landing. From here you can remain in darkness and still hear what is being discussed. Vilnia will pass through this area on her way downstairs and can easily be relieved of her possessions, once this has been done you can return to the gramophone to listen to Karras’ recording, before following her down to the fifth floor.
The fifth floor is the busiest of any within Angelwatch, it is also the most self contained with a kitchen, dining room and private bed chambers, along with his office. The fifth floor appears to contain everything Karras might need to maintain his position as head of the Mechanists without ever leaving Angelwatch. With the Mechanist founder absent those left on the fifth floor are primarily guests who have yet to retire for the night, along with a trio of guards. Two of the latter follow strict routes which can be observed and predicted the third stands immobile outside Karras’ office. The guest are prone to wander at a whim and care must be taken to avoid running into them accidentally.
From the landing a series of right angled turns block the majority of the fifth floor from view, the patrol of one of the Mechanists on this floor will take him right out onto the landing though the shadows against the western wall of the corridor provide enough concealment to avoid detection.
Along with being the busiest Angelwatch’s fifth floor is also its most spatially complex unlike the floors below, where space is taken up by the large central atrium, the rooms and corridors of the fifth floor fill all the available space. Though many of the rooms on this floor can be entered through multiple doors, they all open onto one of the long, regularly patrolled corridors. The presence of mobile NPCs either in the corridors or the rooms themselves encourage observation and a slower pace; such a methodical approach to exploration will be rewarded as alongside the Objectives you will need to complete on this floor, there are more secrets to be found here than in all the other floors of Angelwatch combined.
The hallway from the landing ends in a ‘H’ shaped junction, a closed door blocks the way ahead while a short corridor leads further into the fifth floor; before branching into two further corridors leading to the east and the north.
Through the door to the east is a roughly ‘L’ shaped room within which Vilnia can be found if you have followed her down from the sixth floor. Though this room is lit with electric lights mounted on the walls the NPCs that reside within (a male noble and potentially Vilnia) stand with their backs to the room. This space is on the route of a wandering noble woman in a red dress and at the Mechanist who patrols out onto the landing, fortunately the carpeted floor will allow you to rapidly move to avoid their detection should any of the doors open unexpectedly.
The door immediately to the south opens onto the main east to west corridor of the fifth floor opposite the locked and guarded door to Karras’ office. Unless you plan to deal with the Mechanist guard directly it’s better to avoid entering the corridor through this door. Beyond the door a noble man stands in front of a small table, upon which are two golden cups that he will remain oblivious to the sudden disappearance of; he is equally nonplussed by the separation of him from his purse and the fifteen gold coins it contains.
Beyond him an interior wall extends into the room narrowing it just before it extends out to the northern wall; a second table is positioned below a window in the exterior wall. The journal on the table details the names of those in attendance. Interestingly, despite their protestations to the contrary, the Rothchilds were in fact invited though for whatever reason the invitation never arrived. Also invited were a number of other nobles whose names may be familiar, including Lord Bafford first encountered in the opening level of Thief: The Dark Project. One name that will not be familiar, at least not yet, is that of Lord Gervaisius; this Mechanist support will become more important as events unfold leading to a series of visits to his home.
Opposite this table, in the corner created by the space taken out of the room, a door to the south opens onto a small darkened area at the end of the main corridor. The dining room is through a set of double doors to the east, while the kitchen can be accessed by the door on the far side of the corridor. Despite being passed through by both a metal Servant and the wandering noble woman, this space is dark enough to remain concealed provided you don’t block their path. This darkness at the end of the main corridor will allow you to observe the door to Karras’ office and the guard standing outside; from here a Gas Arrow can swiftly render him unconscious, alternatively a Noisemaker or other thrown object can be employed to draw him away from his position. Care should be taken with the latter tactic as sometimes the Mechanist will not correctly reset to his previous alertness state once he returns to his position outside Karras’ office and this can make it much more challenging to leave the office without being detected.
Through the double doors to the east the dining room is now empty, within a gramophone has been placed at the head of the table. Karras is clearly still having problems with the technology as the recording skips several times before beginning properly. The fourth in the sequence of six this recording see Karras become explicit about the origins of the metal Servants he has gifted to his guests, their transformation was not a matter of choice; his nasal tones showing rare emotion as he describes their former lives, the idea of such an “useless” existence disgusts him.
One of the Servants, this one noticeably smaller in stature than the others you may have encountered, walks between this room and the kitchen to the south. Nothing is made of the different size of this Servant though given their origins it is plausible that not all of the Servants were adults when they were mutilated.
The eastern fireplace is open on the fifth floor its fire providing the main illumination and presumably primary heat source for the kitchen. Just inside the door a fully grown Servant stands with his back to the door, easily avoided, he will search for you if you make a noise within the kitchen. A hole in the floor directly to the south of the fireplace connects to the vents that run throughout the building making this both a potential entry point onto the fifth floor and a means of rapid egress once your Objectives have been completed.
On the southern wall of the kitchen a door opens into another corridor that runs the width of the building behind Karras’ office, from his private chambers in the southwestern corner to the elevator in the southeastern. Beside this door a note has been affixed to the wall, this is a duplicate on the second floor detailing the deactivation of the mechanical security devices and the placement of a guard outside Karras’ office.
The southern corridor can also be reached from the store room off the kitchen, the darkness within making this a good place from which to observe the movements of the noble woman and the Mechanist guard who regularly move through this area. The space between the southern fireplace and the elevator is well lit with a clear line of sight along it’s length. Though there is a dark area around the kitchen door than can be hidden in while waiting for the elevator to arrive attempting to reach the fifth floor using it means gambling that neither the Mechanist nor noble woman are anywhere along the corridor.
Further along the corridor to the west, opposite the southern fireplace a door opens into a small and apparently empty closet. If you look between the interior door frame and the wall you will be able to spot a switch that once pull opens a concealed panel in the back wall of the closet, the wall shared with Karras’ office. Inside this secret compartment are the controls for the Wall Safe Alarm, switching this off will prevent the alarm from triggering when you use the safe in Karras’ office making the escape from Angelwatch easier.
In the southwestern corner are two rooms with unusual layouts; the smaller bedroom appears to have been created by taking an irregular shape out of the larger study. Spartanly furnished but with distinctively patterned walls these two rooms are clearly for somebody important, and with Vilnia having her own chambers on the second floor it seems likely that these are the private chambers of Karras himself.
The doors to both these rooms are locked, the key hanging from the belt of the Mechanist who patrols this part of the fifth floor; he will use it to open the door to the study and make a brief survey of the room before returning to his patrol. You can use this opportunity to sneak in behind him and should you get trapped on the wrong side of the locked door there is another key on the study floor beneath the desk.
There is a locked safe in the rear portion of the study, and within is the latest draft of The New Scripture of the Master Builder, rewritten from its original form as a Hammerite religious text this updated scripture details Karras’ plans imbuing them with divine guidance. This latest draft deals specifically with the Servants and their deployment across the City as instruments of the Builder’s Plan.
Returning to the corridor, two more doorways can be found to the north, each of which opens onto a bedroom. The first is dark, its inhabitant asleep, the key on top of the shelves beside the bed provides a clue as to who this guest is, Lord Carlysle. The inhabitant of the second room is still awake and can be found standing in front of the western fireplace; as he is known to be in attendance this has been presumed by some to be Lord Bafford himself though there is little evidence to support this (personally I like to think it is him).
Between the two guest bedrooms on the opposite side of the corridor is an alcove within which stands a statue, a closer look at the head of which will reveal one of its eyes to be a button. When pressed this button will unlock and open a secret compartment opposite Lord Carlysle’s bedroom inside are a Gas Arrow and a Mine alongside a pair of potions; if you have failed to deactivate the alarm in Karras’ office these may come in useful during your escape.
With your other Objectives complete it’s now time to enter Karras’ office and locate whatever you can relating to the ‘Cetus Project’. Observation and timing will allow you to avoid everybody but the static guard outside, and if you have obtained the key from Vilnia the locked office doors should present no problem. As well as the expected desk Karras’ office contains yet another gramophone, once you listen to it you will understand exactly who the “special guest” mentioned in the note to Vilnia was; Karras has been expecting you.
Behind Karras desk is a picture of an island dominated by a lighthouse. The only painting within all of Angelwatch not of Karras himself it immediately draws, the eye the blue of the water contrasting sharply with the browns of the wall. A switch on the underside of the desk will slide this picture aside to reveal a wall safe and the plans for the ‘Cetus Amicus’. These plans list the location of the project as Markham’s Isle and it’s possible this is the island in the picture. If you have not located or disabled the Wall Safe Alarm operating the button under the desk will trigger alarms throughout the building. Along with making escape from Angelwatch difficult triggering this alarm will also result in a number of Mechanist guards waiting for you on the rooftops beyond, including a Crossbow guard outside the vent access hatch.
In order to finish the level you will need to return to the bell tower where you started, the quickest way is via the Shemenov Estate, especially if you have already dealt with the guards within. With the knowledge of Karras’ plans in hand its now time to do something about them.
For the past year, along with occasional posts here, I’ve been writing for Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Blog. The work I’ve produced there has been similar in form to my Groping The Map series. Now Sneaky Bastards is looking to develop beyond the website into a print on demand magazine, and we need some help getting this project off the ground.
The first issue will focus on Dishonored, and my contribution will consist of approximately 12,000 words on the incredible level design within that game. Given the nature of print these articles will be shorter than both the standard Groping The Map format, and the series on Thief II: The Metal Age I’m producing for the Sneaky Bastards website. That isn’t to say the analysis will be any less in-depth, in fact the shorter format has enabled me to move away from the annotated walkthrough approach I had initially taken and focus more on higher level design analysis.
I would like to ask you to have a look at our Kickstarer page for Issue 1 of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine. The print and digital editions are included as reward tiers though if we can get the magazine off the ground they should be available in the future as direct purchases at a price closer to that of a traditional print magazine. For the moment we need to reach our target in order to make the magazine a reality so any and all contributions are greatly appreciated.
A number of people whose opinions I have come to trust have assured me that Binary Domain is a game worth playing. I tried the demo on Xbox 360 and was left with no particularly memorable impressions, however when I was able to purchase it at a sale price – for the same console – I did so as the people praising it had a lot of positive things to say about its combat mechanics, narrative and themes.
While I was playing the first hour of the game I took some notes. The reason the notes only cover the start of the game is that I have since restarted twice in an attempt to understand why my reaction, as shown by the notes, is so predominately negative. I have yet been unable to reconcile my experiences with the praise lauded upon the game. It is not simply a case of not liking a competent game as much as others, this has occurred before and will again, rather I am concerned because I think Binary Domain is a genuinely badly designed game, one that makes mistakes in interface and encounter design I had thought long solved.
So what follows are my notes, as taken while playing, with some additional clarifications to help you and I can understand why it provoked such a negative reaction. I have changed the order in which I took them as certain points are better explained in light of others.
Actually about as funny as it thinks it is.
It’s rare to find a game that’s genuinely comedic, and all too often action games swing the other way becoming overly self-serious, Binary Domain manages to find a tone that feels much closer to something like Beverly Hills Cops than I was expecting. It’s a brash action game and knows it, the script has yet to try to be anything else.
Why is A vault over cover but B climb?
This confounded me when I first played and I still don’t have a handle on it. The B button is nominally the “Interact” button, except when it isn’t. The A button will enable you to take cover and then vault over or dart around that cover, but B is required to climb up onto something, except when that something is a ladder in which case the A button is required. Operating a device in the world requires the B button however if that devices is a control panel for a crane you cannot exit the crane interface by pressing B you instead have to press A.
Why give the character a voice if he’s not going to vocally respond? Conflict with voice input probably.
This seemed confusing at first until I remembered that the game has the ability to respond to the player’s spoken voice commands. For that reason I can understand not having the character voice those comments as that would be redundant and potentially confusing. For players who are not using voice commands it’s a little jarring have the protagonist speak freely until you are given control of what he says. I can see this becoming a non-issue very quickly.
Off putting lag\acceleration on movement controls. May need to lower sensitivity.
This is probably my biggest complain: I cannot hit anything consistently. I am either wildly overcompensating or sluggishly dragging the cross-hair slowly into position depending on the sensitivity I have selected. I’ve been using dual analog controls since the era of Halo: Combat Evolved but playing Binary Domain I feel like I’ve never touched a controller before. This has been a large factor in my restarting of the game, I had hoped that more time with it would acclimatise me to the control scheme, unfortunately that has yet to be the case.
All the weapons so far sound incredible similar and you need to fire them a lot, sound scape is muddled cacophony.
A minor complaint initially but when combined with the next it makes the sound-scape of Binary Domain a variation on a small number of weapon and impact sound effects, all of them similar and after an extended combat encounter I wanted to rest my ears.
You’d think they’d have chosen ammunition that does some actual damage against robots.
I appreciate that it is the start of the game, but every enemy I have encountered takes several seconds of sustained fire to destroy. It was pointed out to me that my approach should be to attempt to target vital parts of the enemies and so disable them, or turn them against their own. With the controls the best I am usually able to do is position the cross hair on the centre of the enemy’s body, the degree of fidelity I would need to perform head-shots consistently is one I am unable to achieve.
Very aggressive enemies for a game with such a limited range of melee, or other close combat, options. Enemies will close and flank you with little you can do to stop them. Repositioning requires you to exit cover, so you expose yourself to those enemies ahead of you.
Enemies have a tendency to close range rapidly and either attack directly or move behind me. The former is frustrating as there are few options to deal with enemies in close range, the latter is almost always lethal as reposition in combat to deal with enemies to the rear or sides will disengage you from cover opening you up to attack from the front.
The focus button rotates the player to face the target not just the camera.
Like Gears of War there is a button to focus the camera on an important event or location. In Binary Domain it does not just turn the camera, it turns the player as well. This has led to me getting killed on at least two occasions.
Cover is almost exclusively perpendicular to the line of advancement you can’t flank enemies while remaining in cover. Nor can you move move between cover as fluidly as other cover shooters, it’s a first generation cover shooter closer to Mass Effect 2.
The layout of the levels so far have been linear, with the AI advancing down that line opposite your direction of movement (Except when airborne enemies spawned in behind you, but that is an entirely different complain) cover is predominately perpendicular to the line of advancement, allowing you to take cover from direct incoming fire. There has rarely been cover positioned parallel, or at an angle, to the direction of movement. Such cover would allow you to reposition to flank approaching enemies or deal with those enemies that have run past you. A good example of the type of space that I’ve yet to see in Binary Domain can be found at the end of the first level of Gears Of War. Exiting the prison Marcus and Dom enter a patch of ground dotted with low walls positioned both perpendicular and parallel to their direction of movement, Locust are positioned throughout and the layout allows for multiple possible routes through the space while remaining in cover. You can position yourself opposite the Locust and engage them directly or you use the space tactically moving around to flank them.
Doesn’t feel as fluid and responsive as Gears of War, or in fact Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
This is tied to the previous comment regarding my difficult aiming, but is more concerned with the basic movement either out of or between cover. In those rare instances where such angled or parallel cover does exist there are no options to shift position to it without leaving cover, you cannot move around corners while remaining in cover the way you can in Gears of War, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. These factors make moving in any direction other than directly forward inadvisable, limiting your options to staying put and shooting everything as it approaches - hoping you can destroy them before they run past, and thus outflank you – or advancing directly towards the approaching enemy and engaging them at close range, the options for which are limited.
Not everything that looks like cover is.
Compounding my previous complains are objects or elements of level geometry that in another game could conceivably provide cover but in Binary Domain do not. This is particularly egregious on the roads approaching the Sea Wall and again on the far side. The road surface is frequently split and buckled, with some sections of road higher than others. While you can climb up these sections, you cannot take cover behind them, despite them being close, if not identical, in height to the low walls and blocks that do provide cover.
10 Days Earlier…
When this cut-scene occurred I was disappointed it was not the opening of the game, it at least offers a stronger context for my actions than that provided initially and though the voice acting and script can be a little peculiar on the whole it was largely entertaining. The premise itself is one I have seen before though that doesn’t mean it is an uninteresting one. My fear is the given the nature of the “Hollow Children” either the player character, one of his squad, or the character he has come to Japan looking for will turn out to be one.
Some of the problems I have might change as I progress further in the game, something I fully intend to do exclusively because of the positive comments I have heard. If I was unaware of such comments I would have abandoned Binary Domain at some point during my second time through the opening sections; so far I see nothing that has made me want to continue rather the game has been frustrating and overly punishing.
It is possible some of the specific control problems I have are because I have not understood the information the game has provided me, however if this is still the case on my third encounter with the opening sections of the game some of the fault must now lie with the manner in which the gave conveys that information.
The following article was original written and published as part of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative in 2009. Due to changes in the the design of the VGHVI site the original form of this article is no longer available, so I sought and obtained permission to republish it here. A .PDF version is also available.
Game within a Game - Freedom and Control in Assassin’s Creed
At the heart of all games is the dichotomy of freedom and control. This dichotomy separates the desire for self expression and exploration that goes to the root of play, and the rules and structures required by a game. It separates the player’s desire for meaningful choices and the ability and willingness of the designer and underlying technology to provide them. Games offer us the ability to visit detailed imaginary worlds conjured by the minds of talented designers, and implemented with the latest technology, while at the same time they demand that we accept certain inherent limitations and abide by specific, sometimes counter-intuitive, rules.
Even a game like Assassin’s Creed that appears to offer unprecedented freedom is full of artificial constraints and restrictions on player agency. However, I argue in this paper, Assassin’s Creed walks a different path to most games. Its game within a game structure serves as an embodiment of all the restriction and artificiality inherent in games, yet instead of distancing itself from these limitations it attempts to embrace them, making them a part of the narrative conventions of its story.
The game- story opens at some undisclosed time and place where a character named Desmond Miles is kidnapped and experimented on by the mysterious Abstergo Industries as ‘Subject 17.’ In the course of these experiments, Desmond Miles relives the experiences of a distant ancestor, the disgraced assassin Altair ibn La-Ahad. Desmond enters Altair’s world through the use of a device identified as the Animus. It is presented to him, and therefore us, as a means of experiencing a virtual world, albeit one constrained by certain rules and conventions, one decidedly game like.
“Vidic – When we switched the animus control scheme to use standard videogame controls I guessed that the subject’s learning curve would improve, but the increased acclimatisation rate we are seeing in these slacker types is astounding.”
In some ways the Animus of the game-story is the prototypical game system, a mediating device that enables us to experience an imaginary world and enact the role of somebody other than ourselves. The Animus is for Desmond a liminal object that sits on the threshold between two worlds, allowing interaction between them in the same way that a console controller does for us.
Our conduit into this ‘other world’ is equal parts guide and jailor, providing freedom to explore with one hand while restricting our ability to take direct action with the other. As Desmond is restricted to the events of his ancestor’s memory, so we too are restricted to those actions defined by the game’s designers. While playing we can no more transcend the designer’s world than Desmond can, while inside the Animus, step outside the bounds of Altair’s recollections.
For a supposed prisoner Desmond is a curiously willing participant in the Animus experiments. Every morning he gets up and dutifully enters the world of Altair. He makes the occasional cynical comment, on one occasion asking his captors: “Oh, wonder who I get to kill today.” But like the dedicated gamer he will return regardless of the complaints he voices.
Even the name of Desmond’s liminal object is itself a play on this notion of accessing a different character. Carl Jung uses the term Animus to describe the masculine aspect of the female psyche. It is said to be responsible for the qualities of rationality, authority, objectivity, initiative, courage, conviction, action, aggression, and brutality. The animus, along with its counterpart the anima, are responsible for the archetypical image of the opposite gender Jung believed was inherent in all of us.
Accurately fulfilling all the characteristics usually associated with the masculine aspect Altair can be read as the embodiment of everything that is traditionally considered male. He is “an anthropomorphised phallus, a phallus with muscle.”, he is the archetypical action hero “a simulacra of an exaggerated personality”. Extending such a reading to the entire game, Desmond takes on the role of the archetypical action game player. If within every man is the mental image of the archetypical woman and vice verse, Assassin’s Creed seems to be saying that within every player is the mental image of the archetypical player character.
Assuming the role of Altair’s the initial illusion of available freedom can be intoxicating. If it looks like you can reach somewhere you usually can, although it may take some effort. This superficial freedom to explore is liberating and can lead to hours simply spent running around the rooftops and climbing towers.
This freedom is not provided gratis, for the player’s ability to directly control the actions of Altair is limited. The player does not control the precise timing of each jump or the placement of each hand or foot. The player’s role is once removed; they are the director of Altair’s actions, providing the route, guiding but not necessarily controlling. All actions in Assassin’s Creed are contextual, just as are all actions in any game; devoid of context every game can be broken down to pressing a specific button in a specific sequence at a specific time.
As the player explores, they find some locations that either cannot be accessed or that seem important but are inconsistently empty. The former occasion carries a ‘Memory Not Accessible’ warning from the Animus. The player is destined to revisit these locations at some point in the future but until their journey through Altair’s memoriestakes them there those locations are either entirely inaccessible or serve simply as empty stages awaiting their moment in the spotlight.
On closer examination Altair’s Holy Lands are full of those artifacts of gaming, collectable objects that serve no purpose other than to be found and consumed by the player. Indeed, the game encompasses three expansive cities teeming with people most of whom are little more than scenery. Even the natural laws are put on hold inside this world; it is always the same time of day despite Desmond supposedly spending hours at a time connected to the Animus.
It is thus clear that the Animus is not simply granting Desmond access to his genetic memories, but also filtering them, modifying them.
“Vidic – Lucy, didn’t you say that the new animus update allows us to jump to the assassination mission without doing all of the investigation missions? We need the animus to fill in the blanks on some of these if we are going to make our deadline.”
The expediency of game-story means that only the important elements are presented to the player. The environment inside the Animus is not a recreation of the real world though it makes pretentions to it. The laws of time, space and causality do not operate the same way in games as they do in our own world; we accept this fact as part of the deal we make when we choose to play. Altair’s world is a carefully crafted illusion, a stage upon which only certain performances can be enacted. Though provided with the opportunity to visit the cities of Acre, Damascus or Jerusalem the means by which Altair can interact with the world are limited to those necessary to the furtherance of the plot. Intimidation, Pick-Pocketing, Eavesdropping and Combat are the actions that make up the majority of the game. Though the scope to explore the game’s version of the Holy Land is large, there is surprisingly little narrative embedded in the environment itself. There are objects and characters hidden throughout the game but these serve a purely supplemental purpose, for example collectible flags, or Templar Knights that exist solely to be slain. The latter are guarding chests which are ultimately meaningless in the larger context of the game. They cannot be opened and what they contain is never mentioned. An apparently perfect opportunity for narrative is wasted; instead the game chooses to rely on didactic cut scenes for its exposition. Freedom to explore the story is sacrificed for the controlling hand of the designer. Combat itself, usually the domain of direct action and immediate response is an equally restrained affair; brutal, violent and graphic, but almost balletic in its application. Altair is able to dispatch dozens of foes without injury provided the player is able to time their button presses accurately. As in the gameplay of a rhythm action game, all fights can be won with a single button. Blocking automatically, Altair can counter any attack if the player masters the timing. When the player makes a successful counter, they are presented with a graphic sequence of Altair dispatching his foe with brutal efficiency, a sword through the gut, a dagger across the throat, or any of a dozen other graphic scenes of melee combat. These counter attacks get increasingly violent as more of Altair’s abilities are returned to him, however the player is never granted any more control of their execution beyond the act of initiation.
Even the assassinations themselves, scenarios that that seem ideal opportunities to exploit the freedom available to Altair, are heavily proscribed affairs. They end almost universally in a chase or fight against the intended victim and his enraged guards. As in the game’s combat, the player can initiate the assassination, but the eventual outcome is rarely under their control.
Each successful assassination is bookended by a nominally interactive death-bed monologue from the victim, aimed at informing Altair of how wrong he, the player-character, has been, and how he is a pawn in a larger game. Proud and arrogant Altair is still ultimately as much a puppet of his masters as those whom it is his mission to assassinate. In these death bed moments, often akin to BioShock’s famous reveal, Altair is told time and again that he is a tool of a higher power, a puppet, blindly obeying his masters without questioning. Regardless of whether he realises it his world is designed so that the only option available is to continue on his murderous path, and so he does, unaware until the end that he is truly no more in control of his fate than anybody else in his world.
Similarly during those few times outside the Animus when the player controls Desmond the options available are limited to basic movement and interaction. The player’s agency is restricted to those actions that further Desmond’s plotline or return you to the Animus to further Altair’s. Players’ control of Desmond is direct but heavily restricted. Desmond is the archetypical player his inability to control his fate is analogous to our own lives and the lack of power we all have over the whims of fate. Yet for all his freedom, for all his certainty, Altair is just as much a victim of circumstances beyond his control as the imprisoned Desmond is of Abstergo, as the player is of the game design, as we are of our own lives Rationality, authority, objectivity, initiative, courage, conviction, action, aggression, and brutality, these might be the aspects players take on as characters in a game but ultimately these can only be used in service of the game itself. There is no freedom except that which is granted by those really in control, it is the philosophy of the assassin’s themselves: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
As Desmond gives himself over to the Animus with its indirect control, self contained laws of physics and time and artificial restrictions in order to experience the world of Altair, so too do we give ourselves over to games and all their artifice in order to experience the worlds they present to us. We allow restrictions to be placed upon our actions in order to feel an illusion of freedom, in order to explore an imaginary world and wield imaginary powers. Assassin’s Creed is as inherently restrictive as any other game, all it’s freedom is an illusion, but at the same time it shows an awareness of its own restrictions, and takes pains to explain away as much of this artifice as possible.
The overall goal of the Animus is to access a repressed portion of Desmond’s genetic memories. In order to achieve this access Desmond is forced to relive the memories of his previous ‘life’ as Altair, staying synchronised, staying as true to the real memories as possible in order to fully integrate the personalities of Desmond and Altair, thus granting Abstergo Industries access to those vital memories. In order to be allowed to continue to wield power Desmond is required to conform to the archetype of Altair.
This ultimate goal of complete synchronisation between Desmond and Altair embodies the transformative potential of the experience of gameplay. Altair’s abilities start to bleed back into Desmond, transforming him. In the final moments of the game some of those latent abilities unlock fully granting Desmond a few moments in which he can use Altair’s ‘Eagle Vision’ to tell friend from foe; that is, a few moments in which his time within the game has altered his perception of reality. Desmond’s time as Altair has had a profound effect on who he is. He has left changed, different, enriched by the time he spent inhabiting the mind of his ancestor. As we are when we give ourselves over to the experience of playing, allowing the game, and through it the ideas of its creators, to color the way we look at the world around us.
To study Assassin’s Creed is to study the very essence of the video game itself. For all its technological advances Assassin’s Creed is still intrinsically bound to the fundamental structure of games; eternally locked in the struggle between freedom and control. For all the fictional explanations surrounding the Animus, the player of Assassin’s Creed is ultimately just as much a puppet as Desmond or Altair. Rather than a puppet of a mega-corporation or of a secret society, however, the player is the puppet of a French-Canadian Creative Director named Patrice Desilets and his team at Ubisoft Montreal.
The dichotomy between the freedoms of interactivity and the restrictions of imposed constraints is the core conflict that exists throughout all games. It is a challenge that all game designers must face, “If he draws his lines too loosely the game will be dull because winning will be too easy… On the other hand, rules are lines that can be drawn too tightly, so that the game becomes too difficult. And if a line is drawn very tightly indeed the game is squeezed out of existence.” The situation is worse for those designers that that seek to present some form of narrative within their work. Attempting to obscure this dichotomy with sophisticated narrative devices, or clinging to a hope that players will be complicit in pretending the division does not exist, is a methodology that does little to confront the problems at the very heart of the interactive medium. Assassin’s Creed highlights a way in which designers can explicitly acknowledge this interplay of freedom and control and use it to serve the narrative goals of the game. The nature of this dichotomy seem best studied through direct engagement with it in our game stories, by building mechanics around it, by making it a part of the very structure of the game itself and allowing their players to find their own answers through exploration, and play, after all “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
 Throughout the game’s manual, various notes have been ‘scribbled in the margins’, these are purportedly from one of the scientists working for Abstergo Industries implying the manual itself is an extant object in Desmond’s world.
 Janet Murray introduced the concept of the luminal object as one that is “located on the threshold between external reality and our own minds.” Janet H Murray Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997 (Chapter 4 “Immersion”, Page 99).
 Carl J. Jung Marriage as a Psychological Relationship (1925) http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/j_anima.html
 Barbara Creed, From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism Screen,1987
 “It is a very disturbing sensation, but an effective one, an original twist of plot and emotion unique to the medium. It forces the player to seriously think about their own agency. Being betrayed by others is a common twist, but being betrayed by yourself is something else entirely.” Andrew Vanden Bossche Analysis: Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24822
 Bernard Suits Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, 1990.
 “The story is the antithesis of game. The best way to tell a story is in linear form. The best way to create a game is to provide a structure within which the player has freedom of action.” Chris Crawford, The Art Of Computer Game Design.
In any simulated system there are boundaries, points at which the model being used breaks down, where player behaviour is no longer accounted for. The most obvious of these are the physical boundaries of the game space, the chasm too wide to cross or the wall too high to climb. To a large extent the methods for dealing with these physical boundaries are well developed and understood; though it’s still not uncommon for the occasional invisible wall to appear blocking progress along what looks like a valid route.
Another form of boundary found within the simulated systems of video games are those between supported player actions and unsupported player actions. In his GDC 2004 lecture (.zip file) on the subject Clint Hocking details three ways in which a game can deal with this type of simulation boundary. They can either “extend the design” by adding additional abilities so as to extend the bounds of the simulation further; “support the failure” by allowing the simulation to break but providing alternate means of progress; or “end the game” with a game over screen or a similarly absolute resolution.
Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, extending the design offers more possibilities to the player but is little more than a way of moving the goal posts. Supporting failure again serves to provide additional possibilities as success at a given task is no longer the only means of progression, unfortunately supporting all failure states can lead to actions feeling like they have no consequence. Ending the game has the benefit of being the clearest means by which to resolve player action at the boundary but it is also the most artificial and heavy handed.
In a recent article on Dishonored, Robert Yang describes a way in which that game deals with a simulation boundary he encountered within the opening moments. My initial reaction to this criticism was that it seemed petty to criticize what is ostensible a tutorial for limiting player agency for the sake of teaching something. This was narrow-minded of me, Robert is raising an interest point about the manner in which Dishonored handles simulation boundaries, and how that compares to the games it is drawing its design influences from. Instead of softly accounting for any errant behaviour and shepherding players back into the supported space Dishonored instead chooses to set a hard boundary identified in some instances by an explicit game over screen. It’s a choice that, as he points out, runs contrary to the approached traditionally adopted by the “immersive sim”. Instead of extending the design or supporting failure as the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock do Dishonored instead resorts of ending the game when certain boundaries are crossed.
The benefit of such an approach is that the feedback is clear and unambiguous: this is an unsupported action, refrain from attempting it again. The same hard boundary can be enforced at many different points at the limits of the simulation, any actions that are unaccounted for can be dealt with in the same absolute fashion. A benefit of this approach is that it avoids one of the problems associated with softer boundaries which is that of repetition of behaviour If I perform an unsupported action once, such as jumping on an NPC’s head, it makes sense for this to elicit a response. Consider the Metro Cops in the opening sections of Half-Life 2. When you throw something at them, or otherwise antagonize them, they will push you back and tell you to stop, if you persist they will draw their stun batons and beat you. That is as far as the simulation allows them to go, you can keep throwing things at their head and keep getting beaten for as long as you like nothing further will happen.
When considering the different ways in which games like Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored deal with simulation boundaries what stands out is that the times at which these games resort either to hard boundaries, or explicitly limiting player behaviour is when players are required to interact with other characters. It comes as little surprise then that the series that relies most on resolving boundary infractions softly is System Shock, where there are no living characters with whom the player can directly interact.
In Dishonored the approach of presenting a hard boundary is exclusively reserved for dealings with NPC’s, specifically those the game has identified as allies. Dishonored is attempting, by means of hard simulation boundaries, to establish an identity for it’s protagonist Corvo Attano. This is why these boundaries are most obvious in the the prologue section (where Corvo is still the Lord Protector and the Empress is still alive), and in the Hound Pits sections between missions. Certain parts of Corvo’s identity are defined, certain parts are not and the way Corvo treats the people deemed to be his allies is part of the former and something the player has little influence over.
Dishonored‘s design metaphor (that of being a supernatural assassin) doesn’t effectively account for Corvo having allies. As an assassin he only really has targets, and characters or objects that are preventing him from reaching those targets. Though appropriate fictionally even the notion of a non-lethal means of dealing with his targets starts to push at the bounds of that design metaphor. In the missions themselves where there are no explicit allies the approach Dishonored takes to simulation boundaries is to support failure. One of the side effects of which, as Clint Hocking describes, is that this serves to makes the game easier, there is almost always an alternate means of performing a required tasks or reaching a specific objective.
Corvo, and by extension the player, is assumed to be acting in the interests of the Loyalists even if they are not shared interests. This leads to the perception that the only meaningful actions are those related to people you are not required to be nice to, these are the only ones where player actions remain largely unrestricted and thus have direct consequences. In Dishonored the way you treat your “friends” is largely irrelevant. You are only judged by how you choose to treat people you don’t need to treat well.
For all that has changed in game design in the thirteen years since System Shock 2, games like it are still using conceptually similar means of dealing with living characters. These hard boundaries and limits on player agency are inelegant and often binary solutions that are jarring when set beside the softer less absolute means by which other forms of player behaviour are handled.
So many of the elements prone to cause frustration in a stealth game are not present in Mark Of The Ninja, the clarity and consistency of feedback is some of the best I’ve seen in the genre. The straightforward manner in which visibility, audibility and even memory (Both of the player character and non-player characters) is visually conveyed puts the stealth mechanics of games like Splinter Cell to shame. No meters or radar systems, all the information that’s relevant and useful is displayed exactly where it does the most good, in the world. The basis of visibility may be binary but that ensures your current visibility is always instant readable, as is the the safety of different parts of the level.
With a fluid move-set, building on Klei Entertainment’s previous Shank games and a variety of multi-function tools Mark Of The Ninja offers opportunities for experimental play both intentionally and improvisational. The former is supported by allowing you to observe the spaces you are about to enter without having to put yourself at risk. This can take the form of either peering through grates, looking down from hiding places on the roof or, during later stages using an augmented vision mode that brings to mind both Arkham Asylum‘s Detective Mode and the Crosslink Mode of Gunpoint. Able to parse the play space before you enter and with the initiation of encounters in your hands Mark Of The Ninja allows players to be pro-active, to plan out their route through a space before choosing to commit to action. Players can formulate a plan and then feel suitably smart and skilful when they successfully execute it.
Of course, that isn’t always how things work out, sometimes that guard turns around at precisely the wrong moment, or that jump doesn’t take you as far as you’d like and suddenly you’re standing in the light with a dog on one side and an armed guard on the other. At moments like this the move-set available and the tools you are carrying go from being means of executing your cunning plan to desperate escape measure, at least they would if the “Restart Checkpoint” option wasn’t often the most expedient way to resolve such problems.
The primary method by which different approaches are encouraged and rewarded throughout Mark of The Ninja is via points and leaderboards. Remain concealed while a guard passes by your location? “+200 Undetected”. Conceal the body of one of your unfortunate victims? “+250 Body Hidden”. Each level also has three bonus objectives, which can range from reaching a specific location undetected, to avoiding taking any damaged while traversing a trap filled room. Successfully achieving these bonus objectives grants seals that can be used to upgrade your abilities, as does finding the three scrolls hidden in each level. Being spotted by an enemy does not immediately cost points though it can make achieving some of the bonus objectives harder, however allowing an alarm to be triggered does immediately cost; a scarlet “-800″ appearing in the top left of the screen. As well as needing to deal with the consequences of the alarm itself players will have to deal with the instant loss of 800 points from their total. When most individual actions grant between 200 and 400 points this can be a difficult loss to compensate for. That’s why whenever I see that “-800″ I instinctively stab at the Start button and Restart Checkpoint. Despite the tools available being ones that I feel would allow me to resolve the problem presented by alerted guards and the alarm, the presence of a clear decrease in my point total is one I have trouble accepting. It feels like a much more definitive failure that it truly is, or needs to be.
The use of points to grade performance and to encourage certain play styles is not something I have a problem with in itself. Unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution where the clear benefit offered by stealth stood in contrasted to the supposed freedom of approach Mark Of The Ninja is upfront about its nature as a stealth game. There are parts where the grading is handled well, specifically the 5000 point bonus for completing a level without killing anybody is something that has certainly motivated me to try. The difference between this encouragement not to kill and the discouragement from setting off alarms stems from the manner in which they are presented. The former is only referenced at the end of each level when the total score is being calculated. There is no “-5000″ that flashes on screen when you perform your first assassination in a level. I can’t help but imagine that if there had been many more people would attempt a ghost run and quickly become frustrated.
Confusingly what feels like a more fitting solution is already present. In the post-level scoring screen there is a 3000 point bonus for not sounding any alarms. So there is both a direct penalty for sounding an alarm and a bonus that is only attainable if you managed to avoiding doing so. Does there really need to be the former? The encouragement to avoiding sounding alarms would still be present with only the post-level bonus. Recovery from failure can present some of the most memorable experiences in a game and moving the decision of whether to attempt to complete a section without setting off an alarm from the point at which it occurs to a point after recovery may have been achieved would grant the opportunity for these memorable moments to occur. Mark Of The Ninja has the mechanics to allow for memorable improvisational play, but the manner in which it grades performance seems liable to discourage it.