Guest Post, written by: Caitlin Moore.
I don’t play shooters. We had GoldenEye when I was a kid but I only ever played against my brother and I’ve mostly avoided them since. I was initially drawn to Destiny despite this for a couple reasons. Partly it’s a function of dating a guy who is writing a book which examines the level design of a section of Halo in detail. I have sat through multiple lectures about its combat design, the way the game forces you to be clever about which weapons you use, the different behaviours the enemies exhibit, etc, etc, ad nauseum (lest anyone think this is a gendered thing let it be known that I have subjected him to treatises on the finer points of Harvest Moon more than once). The point is that I now have an intellectual appreciation for Halo and other shooters that I used to dismiss out of hand.
One of the reasons Destiny is the first shooter I’ve tried since then is that I tend to panic when shot at, particularly if I can’t find the shooter; I feel overwhelmed when enemies get close and in first person I struggle to keep track of what is out of sight. In Destiny this is less of a problem. The enemies shoot relatively slow, highly visible projectiles and as long as I stay far enough away, or keep my back to the wall, I can keep an eye on everyone who is trying to kill me and avoid their efforts. While some of the enemies like to get in close, like the Dregs of the Fallen or the Thralls of the Hive, Destiny gives me a way to manage them in the form of the melee attack. I have been playing as a Warlock, which particularly helps as her melee attack shoves enemies backwards when it doesn’t kill them, granting me some breathing room. Spacial awareness is still an issue for me but here one of the major complaints about Destiny actually works in my favour; if I have to return to an area over and over again then eventually I will memorise where the best cover is and I can avoid the corners I know I’ve been trapped in before.
There are other aspects of the gameplay that I know exist in other games but that I am only discovering for the first time with Destiny. The biggest thrill for me has been my gradual mastery of timing. I had heard people talk about how powerful games can make you feel but there is almost no comparison between the intellectual satisfaction I have experienced when mastering an RPG and the sheer pleasure of taking down waves of enemies, the joy of staggering a Thrall long enough to reload before hitting the melee button as he jumps toward you, or the gratification of popping out of cover just as your health refills to take down the last enemy in one shot. As I’ve played and my confidence in my abilities has grown I’ve become more aggressive, actively chasing down unshielded Captains or standing in the open to line up a precision shot on a Vandal as he fires at me. When this works, or I make it through a gruelling Darkness section, I feel invincible in a way few other games have ever managed. When it doesn’t? I go back to playing cautiously until my confidence returns.
My newfound appreciation for the gameplay wouldn’t have been enough to get me to keep playing Destiny if it weren’t for the story. People have mocked the naming conventions but they fit perfectly with what I think the game is trying to achieve. The lore reaches for the classic fantasy of Earthsea layered underneath the outward appearance of the space fiction of Arthur C. Clark and others. This sounds like it should be unbelievably pretentious but I believe it works if you are willing to delve into the Grimoire. Everything fits seamlessly if you do, with gameplay and story working to reinforce each other. For example the Dregs behave more aggressively in combat than the Vandals or the Captains and of course they would since their second pair of arms have been docked and they have to earn the right to regrow them. I have come across three Fallen Houses so far as I play; the House of Devils, brought low by the death of their Archon early in the game but still swarming the Cosmodrome; the House of Kings, determined after the fall of the House of Devils to take control of an old Warmind that could prove critical to the Guardians; and the House of Exiles, mostly made up of Dregs living among the Hive on the moon, while doing patrol missions there it is possible to thwart attempts by them at raising a mixed army of Fallen and Hive. These Houses each have a different colour scheme and appear at the appropriate points in the story but I only noticed because I had been primed to by the Grimoire; the Hive have similar distinctions although their ranks are made up of different religious sects.
I also want to address some of the complaints about Peter Dinklage’s voice acting. So far I have only reached the moon and it’s possible that it gets markedly worse later in the game but there have been several incredible moments from him. One early on is the first meeting with the Speaker. The Speaker expresses his hope that your Ghost chose his Guardian well and his response is “I did… I’m sure of it”. His uncertainty rings clear, but so does his willingness to put his faith in you. Later, on the moon, you come across a dead Guardian. Your Ghost asks “Where is his Ghost…?”. His sudden fear for himself and horror at what might have happened to his fellow Ghost come through perfectly. Peter Dinklage’s voice acting does a remarkable job of getting across the idea that your Ghost is an independent entity, with his own hopes and fears. The game reinforces this through the Grimoire but these lines exist outside of that, even if you never read a single card you will hear them.
I can’t fault anyone for finding Destiny lacking. My experience with it is by no means the norm, the gameplay that I find so satisfying isn’t new to most and as much as I wish more players would delve into the story I can’t blame those who assume the game itself doesn’t care whether they do or not. This is a shame because Destiny is so much more than it appears at first glance. The enemies have more depth and nuance than the broad banner of “the Darkness” suggests. The brief descriptions on some items hint at a longstanding rivalry between Hunters and Warlocks. While I suspect the Traveller remains a silent, enigmatic orb throughout the game, that my Ghost was born from it makes me inclined to learn more about it. I encourage anyone who plays to take the time to look past the surface to the rich history beneath.
Note: This was originally posted as a comment on the Sparky Clarkson article I link to. As I was writing I realised there was a broader point to be made, so I extended and adapted that comment into this article.
Sparky Clarkson didn’t like Remember Me as much as I did; reading his analysis helped me understand my own feelings and why certain types of cinematic action game have a tendency to feel awkward and dishonest. I believe it’s due to a misguided attempt to hide from players that they are taking actions within a fictionalised virtual world that has its own specific rules and limitations; a focus on cinematic as the end rather than the means.
I agree that the goal of the “cinematic action game” genre is to “engage the player as closely as possible with the characters and their stories” but I don’t think making systems invisible is the only, or even the best, way of achieving this.
To digress slightly, the oft misused and maligned concept of “immersion” is frequently cited as the point at which players “forget they are playing a game”. It is better understood from as a form of holistic completeness and coherence, rather than one of “systemic invisibility”. The player is never going to “forget they are playing a game” to any reasonably measurable degree, the artifice of the real world is too ever present to make that an achievable, or particularly rational, goal; no matter how deeply I am absorbed in a game if my bladder is full my body will relay that information to me urgently and persistently. What is a more useful way to frame immersion is as the presentation to the player of an environment where every action is responded to coherently and consistently so that there are no rough edges to their experience, no jarring edge cases where the implicit or explicit rules of the system break down and the illusion of completeness and wholeness is shattered. This is the “immersion” of the “immersive sim”, games like Thief: The Dark Project or Deus Ex which, no matter the technology used in their construction, are never going to fool anybody into thinking that they “are really there”, but which have a systemic honesty and consistency that makes them feel like complete worlds; where actions have discernible consequences, and it’s easy to get drawn into their constructed environments. This is also why Dark Souls is incredibly immersive despite its third person camera, overly large HUD and onscreen health bars; honesty and consistency.
The cinematic action game genre doesn’t have immersion as one of its goals, instead the means by which they strive to “engage the player as closely as possible” is through ensuring that the player and character frames are always synchronized, that there is minimal drift. The claim that the goal of the cinematic action game genre is that of systemic invisibility is a conflation of intent and methodology. Cinematic action games use the tropes of cinema toward the same ends, but that cinematic mimicry is not the end in itself. The goal, as it is with cinema, is to evoke empathy between audience and subject, between players and characters.
There are genres for which making the systems invisible, either initially or entirely, is a goal however these games are built with a degree of systemic depth and complexity that rewards exploration and experimentation. Cinematic action games rarely share this systemic depth because they are designed to tell a specific story and make the player feel a part of that story for however long it lasts. One of the best means by which this is achieved is through clarity and consistency; the rules and limitations need to be clear and consistent if the player and character frames are to remain aligned. This is why cinematic action games that try to make their systems invisible often fluctuate between two extremes with systems that are either unclear and arbitrary, or unintentionally obvious.
The diegetic navigation overlay of Remember Me is functionally no different to the colour coded signposting of The Last Of Us. Both serve to differentiate usable surfaces from those that, despite being the same size, shape and within a reasonable distance of the character, are not usable. One key difference between The Last Of Us and Remember Me is that the latter never puts you in a position where you have to make a guess as to whether a surface is usable or whether the colouration is just an aesthetic choice and not a usability one. The Last of Us uses yellow in multiple and often conflicting ways: to signify usable surfaces, to draw the eye to points of interest, and as a means of aesthetic colouration associated with military barricades and warning signs. Two identical objects might be highlighted by yellow paint, one is scalable the other is not; because this happens frequently the colouration cannot be trusted and the difference between what is and isn’t usable begins to feel arbitrary. The character knows something you don’t (that one surface is functional the other purely aesthetic) and the notion that you are going through this experience together starts to break down, the frames diverge. This is a problem Remember Me never exhibits because it is absolutely clear at all times what is and isn’t usable, this helps maintain the alignment of player and character frames by constraining valid player actions to those that are relevant within the current context.
Cinematic action games and other genres that combine multiple forms of play usually divide the environment into spaces that serve one form and those that serve another. Exploration spaces give way to combat spaces or vice versa. The “obvious combat arena” level design is a common problem where certain aspects of the design of combat spaces are so obvious that they are instantly recognisable as such unintentionally foreshadowing the combat encounter to come; the “room full of chest high walls” problem.
Remember Me is no different to other games it its division of space between different forms, one way in which it avoids the “obvious combat space” problem is by simply not attempting to hide it; when you enter a combat space combat begins, there is no ambiguity between the use of spaces and therefore no divergence in awareness between player and character. At several points during The Last of Us you have the opportunity to explore an area that will later become a combat space. You are not made aware of this change in function directly but the differences in the spatial layout and the items available become glaringly obvious indicators that this is not an exploration only space despite what it may portray itself to be. Bricks and bottles only appear as items you can pick up within in a combat space, so the moment you see them you know what’s coming even if that change in state doesn’t trigger until after a cutscene. The shape, size and distribution of cover objects is immediately identifiable and distinctly artificial; even before you are introduced to the game’s combat systems. Instead of making the transitions between exploration and combat invisible The Last of Us makes it obvious in a way that gives the player greater forewarning than the character, creating a gulf between the two, and undercutting the tension created when safe spaces become suddenly hostile. Remember Me avoids this problem because combat spaces are immediately identifiable and combat within them occurs immediately. You, as the player, know something is a combat space the same moment Nilin does.
Games are artificial constructs, they have unique rules and limitations and in order to engage with them, in order to play, those rules need to be clear and consistent; or unclear and inconsistent in ways that the game is designed around. Cinematic action games are build upon a foundation of ensuring the player and character frames remain aligned and that any drift is kept to a minimum. It’s a relationship of trust, trust is built on honesty, and when the boundaries of the simulation are clear the game has to be honest.
Games have their own language, written in health bars, and experience points, and combo meters, systems designed to feed back information to the player with clarity and consistency. To strike out against the artifice of games is an insidious form of cinema envy, one that presumes that the language of cinema is the more developed language and the one toward which games should strive. Cinema is subjective, the camera lies frequently and intentionally; cinema disassembles and ambiguates as a means of eliciting an emotional response. This form of emotional manipulation has its place but when the player is in control, when their actions become those of the character such dishonesty is undesirable, it drives a wedge between the two, pushing the player and character frames apart in potentially irreconcilable ways.
Attempting to hide or obfuscate the boundaries of a virtual world can too often lead to confusion and ambiguity, to a game that feels dishonest. Without clear rules applied honestly players are left to second guess themselves and the game, the convergence of player and character frames that is the goal of the cinematic action game genre breaks down. Why can I climb this piece of yellow bordered scenery but not that one? Did I miss that bandit while exploring or did he only spawn after I opened the door? I don’t have the answers to those questions because The Last of Us is not honest with me about the application of its rules, they are hidden behind cinematic tropes. But I do I know that Nilin will always make that jump and that we both know when a fight’s about to start.
The first issue of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine is now on sale, available to purchase in either .PDF or print editions the magazine features 100 pages of full colour ad-free content on Arkane Studios’ Dishonored. Alongside interviews, a stealth focused review, and critical commentary, the magazine features 48 pages of level design analysis from me on every level in the game and the two Daud focused pieces of DLC (The Knife Of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). This analysis takes a similar form to my own Groping The Map content, and that I have already been producing on Thief II: The Metal Age for the Sneaky Bastards website, albeit more focused and condensed to better fit a magazine format.
Guest Post, written by: Caitlin Moore.
For me, the most unambiguously happy part of Gone Home was the conclusion of Oscar’s story. This may seem a strange thing to say give the accepted reading of his story (since confirmed by the developers), that he abused his nephew Terrence, the father of both the player and Sam. That isn’t how I read it though.
Oscar’s is the most nebulous story in the game, the one with the least substance, the one that requires the most input from the player. I decided quite early on that he was homosexual. He was so strongly connected to Sam, with the other characters barely acknowledging him, that I couldn’t see any other possibility. Early on, when the game is still teasing you with its ghost story, you find notes from Sam talking about using a Ouija board as well as books about exorcism and possession. She wants to summon Oscar, find out what he wants and lay him to rest. It’s one of the first bonding moments for Sam and Lonnie, the two girls giggling inside their makeshift fort, scaring each other in an excuse to be closer.
The basement contains most of what we know Oscar’s life story, told through newspaper clippings and his own letters. In 1963 his world fell apart. He was rejected by his family and even his attempts to prove that he was willing to change couldn’t bring them back to him. It’s not hard to imagine that the sin he committed was nothing more than being homosexual. Given the way gay people are still treated I was more than willing to believe that Terry’s parents would take him away and refuse to let him see his uncle anymore. Even the letter to Terry, sent in 1972 after the first pride marches began and only a year before homosexuality was taken out of the DSM, speaks to this. Maybe Oscar started to allow himself to think that he wasn’t mentally ill and that his family would welcome him back, a hope clearly dashed by a man who can’t admit that his own daughter is going through anything more than a ‘phase’. On the other hand, it’s possible that Terry never knew why he lost the uncle whose house he had spent much of his childhood in. The time he keeps returning to in his books, the year that he lost his uncle and the country lost a president, could be seen as his attempt to rescue a man and a happiness taken away without explanation.
With the house divided into sections the basement is clearly Oscar’s territory. Except it isn’t anymore. This is where the player witnesses Sam and Lonnie’s relationship start to become serious, where you find (and blushingly discard) evidence of their sexual relationship. This is Sam’s space now.
All of this is depressing. I felt sorry for Oscar, locked alone in his own home, more than any other character. After all they still have their lives to live, any problems they face can still be overcome. That he was so linked to Sam gave me hope for him and the ghost story the game tells is a happy one. Towards the end you come across the secret cupboard the two girls performed the summoning in, the last loose end for Oscar. Where Sam’s love for Lonnie, her acceptance by both Lonnie and herself, is enough to lay Oscar to rest. No matter what else happens, Sam will never find herself alone or unloved.
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is a game with a very specific legacy. Beyond simply the referential filing cabinet code, this is a game that strongly evokes the storytelling techniques and style of Looking Glass Studios.
Nearly twenty years ago System Shock was released, allowing players to explore and uncover the fate of Citadel Station and its inhabitant; and witness the birth of the unforgettable SHODAN. At the time convincing interactions between players and human characters was challenging. As a means of sidestepping that problem Citadel Station was depopulated, everybody was either dead or had become horrific monsters incapable of coherent discourse. The events onboard Citadel Station were there to be discovered in what its inhabitants had left behind: scattered audio logs and environmental detritus.
In the intervening years other methods have been used to deal with the challenge of interacting with other characters. In Thief: The Dark Project and its successors the City was inhabited, instead it was the player’s role as a thief that discouraged and limited the means of interacting with those characters. Gone Home revisits the method employed by the original System Shock to overcome this still challenging problem, though the Greenbriar home is simply empty, rather than filled with dead bodies, the result is the same.
The Greenbriar home is littered with environmental details, the story of what has happened to your family in your absence is told through notes written to friends, and the placement of specific objects in specific places. It’s a game about environmental storytelling and narrative archeology. The story of the Greenbriar family is developed using the same tools that you use to explore the history and events on board Citadel Station.
Sam’s journal entries, uncovered gradually and potentially out of chronological sequence are, in functional terms, audio logs. Their placement and that of the other environmental details within the house is a way of matching physical exploration to temporal exploration, each area of the Greenbriar home that is unlocked, moves you forward in time through the events of the last year. The same mapping of chronology to physical space can be seen very clearly in BioShock 2 (a game which the core member of The Fullbright Company worked on, and one that itself is heavily indebted to the storytelling and design techniques of earlier games like System Shock). Each area of BioShock 2 represents a different stage in the life of Eleanor Lamb, from her birth and early childhood (Ryan Amusements) to her time spent under the care of Grace Holloway (Pauper’s Drop), through her time as a Little Sister and her eventually recovery and the experiments that were performed on her as a teenager (Fontaine Futuristics and Outer Persephone).
In both Gone Home and BioShock 2 (and of course the previous System Shock games before them) the further onward the player explores physically the more recent the narrative elements within the environment become, until the final moments where the past and the present meet, and the two strands of the story merge.
Consider System Shock 2, the closing stages sees you explore the biomass of The Many while listening to the breadcrumb trail of audio logs recorded by Doctor Prefontaine; at this late stage the past (as represented by the audio logs and other environmental details) and the present are barely minutes apart, in fact you arrive just moments after the doctor meets his fate as recorded in his final audio log. The same experience occurs in the attic of the Greenbriar house, the past as narrated by Sam and the present as explored by you as her older sister Kaitlin, are barely moments apart until, discovering the final journal entry, the final gap between past and present is closed the two threads knitting together.
That gap, that space around and between that which is known is at the heart of what gives this form of storytelling its power. Gone Home and System Shock, these are games about space; not simply physical spaces, the Greenbriar house and Citadel Station, but the space between, the things not said. The entire story of what happens is never revealed explicitly, instead you discover isolated moments of it in the form of an audio log or a written note, the space between those pieces and the other pieces of narrative you collect is left for you to fill. The order in which you discover each piece is controlled somewhat through gating and the mapping of physical space to temporal chronology however it is never enforced, you might miss a piece of information or discovering it out of order and this will change your understanding of the space formed by these pieces.
It is narrative by suggestion and inference, there are specific points that are defined but the space between them, the context in which these things occurred is for players to determine, and potentially reevaluate as new information is presented. In Gone Home, you can discover letters from your mother Jan to her friend Carol, discussing Ranger Rick who has just been transferred to work with your mother. You never know explicitly what your mother’s feelings are towards Rick though you can infer them from the suggestions of Carol and other things you discover within the environment; like the perfect evaluation Jan gives him along with the recommendation that his temporary transfer be made permanent. The implication that your mother is having an affair with Rick (in intent if not in deed) is clear, however this is a context that is fluid and open to interpretation and reexamination. One of the strongest indications of there being some form of relationship between Rick and your mother is the discovery of a book of Walt Whitman erotic poetry under her side of the bed within is a bookmark with a handwritten note by Rick. In the context in which these pieces of information are first discovered the inference is that Rick has given this book to your mother, however there is nothing to confirm that the message on the bookmark is referring to this book and not another; in fact given subsequent discoveries about the relationship of Rick to his girlfriend, and that of your parents it’s entirely possible, potentially even more likely, that the bookmark was referring to a different book entirely and that the presence of the book of erotic poetry in your parents room has an entirely different connotation.
This recontextualizing of information based on new insights is far from exclusive to Gone Home, though it is another aspect common to games of the Looking Glass Studios legacy. Early in Thief II: The Metal Age Garrett is asked to break into Shoalsgate Station and plant evidence against a member of the City Watch, when Garrett begins to question the task he is “distracted” by a bag of coins. Over the course of this mission things are learnt about Lieutenant Mosley (the woman who will benefit directly from the smearing of her colleague) that suggest she is not the most effective member of the City Watch when it comes to dealing with the Pagans. Only later will you discover that she is herself a Pagan working for the wood nymph Viktoria and though it is never explicitly explained this knowledge recontextualises the visit of Shoalsgate Station almost entirely. The appeal to Garrett’s avarice and hubris to distract him and ensure his cooperation is the same technique employed by Viktoria in Thief: The Dark Project, and every action you took within Shoalsgate has served to get one of her loyalists into a position where they could eventually assassinate Sheriff Truart. New information has recontextualised something that on the surface seemed like a simply case of internal politics and betrayal.
The techniques employed by The Fullbright Company in Gone Home have a long tradition, that can be see not only in games from Looking Glass Studios itself but also those influenced by them. That these techniques can be used to tell the story of both the horrific events of SHODAN’s birth on Citadel Station to the simply and honest tale of a Greenbriar family in mid-90s Portland, speaks to the strength and latent emotive power of these relatively simple techniques. To the potential that exists within those spaces between.
In order to promote my work on Groping The Map: Book 1, I have decided to release a .pdf sample of the first nine pages of the chapter on Nova Prospekt from Half-Life 2. Consider this a “vertical-slice” of the book, as you can see I have made some changes from the traditional format that the articles had when posted directly to this site. I’d greatly appreciate any and all feedback on this sample and please feel free to share this as widely as possible.
In addition to this sample of previously unseen work I have complied the three existing Groping The Map articles into .pdf files for easy distribution, they can be found here, again feel free to share as widely as possible:
Additionally I, along with a collection of other really smart writers have started RunJumpFire. I have a new weekly column there called Design By Example where I analyse one specific game mechanic or mechanism each Wednesday. Currently I have articles up on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Super Metroid, forthcoming this month are articles on Dishonored and Alpha Protocol, the column archive can be found here.
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.