An honest illusion.

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.

Sneaky Bastards Issue One, now on sale.

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.

Issue One covers Dishonored and the two pieces of story based DLC.

Issue One covers Dishonored and the two pieces of story based DLC.

Laid To Rest.

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.

An empty house through a looking glass.

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.

Groping The Map: Book 1 – SAMPLE.

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.

Groping The Map: Book 1

Groping The Map: Book 1

Press Release: Groping The Map: Book 1

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

Web: http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/

Twitter: @GTElephant.

 

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.

About GoFundMe:

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.

The future of Groping The Map…

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.

The role of her life.

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?

Tomb Raider 08

Lara isn’t efficient, at least not in the way a large percentage of video game protagonists are; not in the way her previous incarnations were. Lara improvises, she “makes do”, she survives.

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.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 9.

 “Greetings, Garrett! Thou art expected, though not precisely… welcome.”

Life Of The Party 85

The voice recordings are the closest The Metal Age gets to audio logs. The need to discover and listen to each of them encourages exploration of Angelwatch.

Conclusion:

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.

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The Dayport district is dense with buildings, most scant feet apart. Old stone towers butting up against more contemporary constructions of wood and plaster.

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.

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Life Of The Party is a level of contrasts, the petty squabbles and bickering of the City’s various households set against the organised and single minded Mechanist Order.

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.

References:

  • 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.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 8.

 “These are strange times indeed when the builder’s chosen must cater to the folly of the unworthy.”

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The eerie chanting audible below is much clearer on the sixth floor, it seems to be emanating from the fountain or possibly something within.

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 eleva
tor 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.

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Securing the key to Karras’ office from Vilnia will make things easier when you reach the fifth floor. Allowing Vilnia to remain conscious after you’ve secured the key is optional.

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.

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From the fifth floor landing there are three right angled turns before you can even see the main corridor of the fifth floor. Rounding each corner provides an increasingly more complete view of the space ahead.

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.

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Karras has no compunctions about discussing potentially disturbing topics while others eat. The truth of their origins casts a sinister light on the much smaller framed Servant who walks a route between the dining room and the kitchen.

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.

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The chest at the foot of the bed contains only a metal mace, it seems Karras has little regard for worldly possessions.

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.

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Opening the safe in Karras’ study will trigger the appearance of this golden cherub like creature. It’s reaction to you is dramatic and though it will run off it doesn’t raise the alarm or attract any attention to your presence.

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).

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As on the floors below the lighting creates a diagonal pattern of light across the floor, allowing you to move from one side to the other while remaining concealed. Entering Lord Bafford’s room will require you to risk being seen however.

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.

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Karras may have predicted Garrett’s arrival yet he remains confident in the ability of his security devices and Mechanists to ensure his “departure”.

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.

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