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.

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

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.

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

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

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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.

The Stealth Gaming Magazine.

 

Sneaky Bastards - Issue 1
Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine (Issue 1: Dishonored)

For the past year, along with occasional posts here, I’ve been writing for Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Blog. The work I’ve produced there has been similar in form to my Groping The Map series. Now Sneaky Bastards is looking to develop beyond the website into a print on demand magazine, and we need some help getting this project off the ground.

The first issue will focus on Dishonored, and my contribution will consist of approximately 12,000 words on the incredible level design within that game. Given the nature of print these articles will be shorter than both the standard Groping The Map format, and the series on Thief II: The Metal Age I’m producing for the Sneaky Bastards website. That isn’t to say the analysis will be any less in-depth, in fact the shorter format has enabled me to move away from the annotated walkthrough approach I had initially taken and focus more on higher level design analysis.

I would like to ask you to have a look at our Kickstarer page for Issue 1 of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine. The print and digital editions are included as reward tiers though if we can get the magazine off the ground they should be available in the future as direct purchases at a price closer to that of a traditional print magazine. For the moment we need to reach our target in order to make the magazine a reality so any and all contributions are greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

Boundary Conditions.

In any simulated system there are boundaries, points at which the model being used breaks down, where player behaviour is no longer accounted for. The most obvious of these are the physical boundaries of the game space, the chasm too wide to cross or the wall too high to climb. To a large extent the methods for dealing with these physical boundaries are well developed and understood; though it’s still not uncommon for the occasional invisible wall to appear blocking progress along what looks like a valid route.

Another form of boundary found within the simulated systems of video games are those between supported player actions and unsupported player actions. In his GDC 2004 lecture (.zip file) on the subject Clint Hocking details three ways in which a game can deal with this type of simulation boundary. They can either “extend the design” by adding additional abilities so as to extend the bounds of the simulation further; “support the failure” by allowing the simulation to break but providing alternate means of progress; or “end the game” with a game over screen or a similarly absolute resolution.

Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, extending the design offers more possibilities to the player but is little more than a way of moving the goal posts. Supporting failure again serves to provide additional possibilities as success at a given task is no longer the only means of progression, unfortunately supporting all failure states can lead to actions feeling like they have no consequence. Ending the game has the benefit of being the clearest means by which to resolve player action at the boundary but it is also the most artificial and heavy handed.

In a recent article on Dishonored, Robert Yang describes a way in which that game deals with a simulation boundary he encountered within the opening moments. My initial reaction to this criticism was that it seemed petty to criticize what is ostensible a tutorial for limiting player agency for the sake of teaching something. This was narrow-minded of me, Robert is raising an interest point about the manner in which Dishonored handles simulation boundaries, and how that compares to the games it is drawing its design influences from. Instead of softly accounting for any errant behaviour and shepherding players back into the supported space Dishonored instead chooses to set a hard boundary identified in some instances by an explicit game over screen. It’s a choice that, as he points out, runs contrary to the approached traditionally adopted by the “immersive sim”. Instead of extending the design or supporting failure as the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock do Dishonored instead resorts of ending the game when certain boundaries are crossed.

The benefit of such an approach is that the feedback is clear and unambiguous: this is an unsupported action, refrain from attempting it again. The same hard boundary can be enforced at many different points at the limits of the simulation, any actions that are unaccounted for can be dealt with in the same absolute fashion. A benefit of this approach is that it avoids one of the problems associated with softer boundaries which is that of repetition of behaviour  If I perform an unsupported action once, such as  jumping on an NPC’s head, it makes sense for this to elicit a response. Consider the Metro Cops in the opening sections of Half-Life 2. When you throw something at them, or otherwise antagonize them, they will push you back and tell you to stop, if you persist they will draw their stun batons and beat you. That is as far as the simulation allows them to go, you can keep throwing things at their head and keep getting beaten for as long as you like nothing further will happen.

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Apparently jumping on the head of the High Overseer is a Capital Offense in Dunwall. The game over screen is an inelegant but certainly unambiguous means of dealing with unsupported behavior.

When considering the different ways in which games like Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored deal with simulation boundaries what stands out is that the times at which these games resort either to hard boundaries, or explicitly limiting player behaviour  is when players are required to interact with other characters. It comes as little surprise then that the series that relies most on resolving boundary infractions softly is System Shock, where there are no living characters with whom the player can directly interact.

In Dishonored the approach of presenting a hard boundary is exclusively reserved for dealings with NPC’s, specifically those the game has identified as allies. Dishonored is attempting, by means of hard simulation boundaries, to establish an identity for it’s protagonist Corvo Attano. This is why these boundaries are most obvious in the the prologue section (where Corvo is still the Lord Protector and the Empress is still alive), and in the Hound Pits sections between missions.  Certain parts of Corvo’s identity are defined, certain parts are not and the way Corvo treats the people deemed to be his allies is part of the former and something the player has little influence over.

Dishonored‘s design metaphor (that of being a supernatural assassin) doesn’t effectively account for Corvo having allies. As an assassin he only really has targets, and characters or objects that are preventing him from reaching those targets. Though appropriate fictionally even the notion of a non-lethal means of dealing with his targets starts to push at the bounds of that design metaphor. In the missions themselves where there are no explicit allies the approach Dishonored takes to simulation boundaries is to support failure. One of the side effects of which, as Clint Hocking describes, is that this serves to makes the game easier, there is almost always an alternate means of performing a required tasks or reaching a specific objective.

Corvo, and by extension the player, is assumed to be acting in the interests of the Loyalists even if they are not shared interests. This leads to the perception that the only meaningful actions are those related to people you are not required to be nice to, these are the only ones where player actions remain largely unrestricted and thus have direct consequences. In Dishonored the way you treat your “friends” is largely irrelevant. You are only judged by how you choose to treat people you don’t need to treat well.

For all that has changed in game design in the thirteen years since System Shock 2, games like it are still using conceptually similar means of dealing with living characters. These hard boundaries and limits on player agency are inelegant and often binary solutions that are jarring when set beside the softer less absolute means by which other forms of player behaviour are handled.

Ninja Skills.

So many of the elements prone to cause frustration in a stealth game are not present in Mark Of The Ninja, the clarity and consistency of feedback is some of the best I’ve seen in the genre. The straightforward manner in which visibility, audibility and even memory (Both of the player character and non-player characters) is visually conveyed puts the stealth mechanics of games like Splinter Cell to shame. No meters or radar systems, all the information that’s relevant and useful is displayed exactly where it does the most good, in the world. The basis of visibility may be binary but that ensures your current visibility is always instant readable, as is the the safety of different parts of the level.

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Illumination, vision, footsteps. A single glance is enough to provide all the information needed to bypass this patrolling guard without being detected.

With a fluid move-set, building on Klei Entertainment’s previous Shank games and a variety of multi-function tools Mark Of The Ninja offers opportunities for experimental play both intentionally and improvisational. The former is supported by allowing you to observe the spaces you are about to enter without having to put yourself at risk. This can take the form of either peering through grates, looking down from hiding places on the roof or, during later stages using an augmented vision mode that brings to mind both Arkham Asylum‘s Detective Mode and the Crosslink Mode of Gunpoint. Able to parse the play space before you enter and with the initiation of encounters in your hands Mark Of The Ninja allows players to be pro-active, to plan out their route through a space before choosing to commit to action. Players can formulate a plan and then feel suitably smart and skilful when they successfully execute it.

Of course, that isn’t always how things work out, sometimes that guard turns around at precisely the wrong moment, or that jump doesn’t take you as far as you’d like and suddenly you’re standing in the light with a dog on one side and an armed guard on the other. At moments like this the move-set available and the tools you are carrying go from being means of executing your cunning plan to desperate escape measure, at least they would if the “Restart Checkpoint” option wasn’t often the most expedient way to resolve such problems.

The primary method by which different approaches are encouraged and rewarded throughout Mark of The Ninja is via points and leaderboards. Remain concealed while a guard passes by your location? “+200 Undetected”. Conceal the body of one of your unfortunate victims? “+250 Body Hidden”. Each level also has three bonus objectives, which can range from reaching a specific location undetected, to avoiding taking any damaged while traversing a trap filled room. Successfully achieving these bonus objectives grants seals that can be used to upgrade your abilities, as does finding the three scrolls hidden in each level. Being spotted by an enemy does not immediately cost points though it can make achieving some of the bonus objectives harder, however allowing an alarm to be triggered does immediately cost; a scarlet “-800” appearing  in the top left of the screen. As well as needing to deal with the consequences of the alarm itself players will have to deal with the instant loss of 800 points from their total. When most individual actions grant between 200 and 400 points this can be a difficult loss to compensate for. That’s why whenever I see that “-800” I instinctively stab at the Start button and Restart Checkpoint. Despite the tools available being ones that I feel would allow me to resolve the problem presented by alerted guards and the alarm, the presence of a clear decrease in my point total is one I have trouble accepting. It feels like a much more definitive failure that it truly is, or needs to be.

Mark Of The Ninja 01
This is not an unrecoverable situation, though the likely point punishment associated with reaching this stage makes “Restart Checkpoint” the easily achievable optimal solution.

The use of points to grade performance and to encourage certain play styles is not something I have a problem with in itself. Unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution where the clear benefit offered by stealth stood in contrasted to the supposed freedom of approach Mark Of The Ninja is upfront about its nature as a stealth game. There are parts where the grading is handled well, specifically the 5000 point bonus for completing a level without killing anybody is something that has certainly motivated me to try. The difference between this encouragement not to kill and the discouragement from setting off alarms stems from the manner in which they are presented. The former is only referenced at the end of each level when the total score is being calculated. There is no “-5000” that flashes on screen when you perform your first assassination in a level. I can’t help but imagine that if there had been many more people would attempt a ghost run and quickly become frustrated.

Confusingly what feels like a more fitting solution is already present. In the post-level scoring screen there is a 3000 point bonus for not sounding any alarms. So there is both a direct penalty for sounding an alarm and a  bonus that is only attainable if you managed to avoiding doing so. Does there really need to be the former? The encouragement to avoiding sounding alarms would still be present with only the post-level bonus. Recovery from failure can present some of the most memorable experiences in a game and moving the decision of whether to attempt to complete a section without setting off an alarm from the point at which it occurs to a point after recovery may have been achieved would grant the opportunity for these memorable moments to occur. Mark Of The Ninja has the  mechanics to allow for memorable improvisational play, but the manner in which it grades performance seems liable to discourage it.

The polite horror game.

Dead Space: Extraction is a game that knows what it wants to be. Within a series that wears its horror film influences on its sleeve Extraction is the most direct translation of those influences to the video game form. As an on-rails shooter the cinematography and pacing are an obvious point of comparison sharing as they do many of the hallmarks of the horror cinema the game draws from. Though many games make pretensions to having Hollywood  level scripts Extraction is the first game I’ve played in several years that actually felt like it had a script that could be from a film, based as it was around a limited cast of characters and the interactions between them more than on some plot critical MacGuffin. Each character you encounter over the course of the game’s approximately six hour campaign is clearly differentiated by their background, their visual design, their personality and their accent. It presents one of the most authentically diverse casts I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and manages to be a rare example of a game that passes the bechdel test.

Forced together under extreme circumstances the differing motivations of each character begin to reveal themselves and the plot is propelled forward primarily by these reveals and the direct obstacles the characters find in their path. Even the most limited experience of the conventions of horror films will be enough to realise not all of these people are going to make it out alive, and though some tropes become overused the script does manage to leave you guessing as to who exactly is going to make it out alive, if anybody.

Suffice to say some people don’t make it. All of these characters harbour a secret and this is at the heart of what prevents them from devolving entirely into clichés.

While Extraction succeeds on many aesthetic and technical levels it’s notable that the one area where it struggles the most is when it tries to be scary; when it tries to evoke the same emotions as the horror films it aspires to. The unbroken first person perspective, while capable of providing moments of brief tension and some surprisingly effective jump scares, doesn’t allow for the dramatic irony that is successfully exploited throughout horror cinema. While the other Dead Space games use a similarly restricted camera, the ability of the player to control both the camera and the protagonist’s movement actually adds to the suspense; events can occur and threats can arrive from areas not currently within the player’s field of view. Extraction is kinder in it’s presentation, the camera will always turn to direct your view to the current threat and the Necromorphs will limit themselves to attacking from that direction. Only once all threats have been dealt with will the protagonist then turn, allowing subsequent attacks from a different direction.

Only attacking when players can see them is decidedly polite on the part of the Necromorphs an attitude reminiscent of the mooks in an action film who will patient wait for their turn before attacking. As a means of preventing the player from feeling cheated this consistency makes sense, yet it also undermines any attempt to provoke a sense of unease or fear in the player. When you know you are always going to be pointed towards anything threatening there’s no uncertainty yet it’s within the uncertain and the ambiguous that fear grow.

Seeing is not always believing. Extraction does not shy away from presenting situations and encounters that are not always what they seem.

As a game that allows, we could even go so far as to say expects, to be replayed for higher scores and better ratings, there is a further logic to this consistency. To enable players to master each level it makes sense for enemy placement and attack patterns to be consistent and predictable. Yet there might be ways to keep to the optimising requirements of the score chasers while still providing an experience able to provoke fear and unease.

Interestingly some of the the best techniques for doing this are ones I would be reticent to recommend for any other style of game. There are a number of variation but the underlying principle of all of them is to use the fact the player has a limited ability to move the camera against them, to actively work in opposition to player desires and expectations, to intentionally obfuscate and frustrate. The way to make Extraction more frightening is to do the opposite of what the first person perspective is used for in other genres, by reinforcing the already existing separation between protagonist and player. It’s a difficult line to walk, too much frustration and nobody will want to play, but too little about you have a horror game that is only scary because of its context not its content.

  • Instead of only moving the camera once all Necromorphs have been dealt with we could instead link certain camera movements to a timer: face this way for thirty seconds then this way for ten seconds. Under threat from all sides the protagonist would naturally shift their view between each threat instead of focusing only on one to the exclusion of all others leading to them turning away while there are still enemies approaching in order to deal with threats from a different direction. With known threats now approaching from beyond your field of view the threats you can see become not just a problem in their own right but also an obstacle to your ability to deal with the other threats.
  • Foreshadow attacks by allowing players to see threats that the protagonist doesn’t react to. A Necromorph moving fast across part of the screen, clearly a threat but the protagonist turns away before the player can react. It’s still out there and will become a more direct threat at some time, but when, and from which direction?
  • Require the player to use some portion of the to screen perform one action while still engaging in combat on the rest of the screen. This technique is used a few times in the early chapters of the game with the screen split between a combat sequence and a puzzle, but it is abandoned thereafter despite it providing one of the most tense moments of the game.
  • Allow the protagonist to keep moving while under attack, throwing off the ability of the player to aim accurately at the approaching Necromorphs. This is something Extraction does begin to do in the later levels but even then it is used sparingly. Not knowing if you are going to stumble and miss a shot is frustrating and makes the environment itself a threat.

These tweaks, along with variations and combinations of them, could really help to increase the tension of Extraction with only few changes to the core systems and while maintaining the balance between player and protagonist that exists in any game that doesn’t allow the player control over basic movement and world interaction.

There is a lot to enjoy in Dead Space: Extraction, from a plot that actually makes sense, to characters that are relatable without relying entirely on clichés, to more of the superb Dead Space aesthetics and environmental design. With all that going for it, it was sad to find the moment to moment experience failing to reach the highs of tension and fear that it felt like it was striving for. If Extraction had been able to capture the unease and prevasive dread of the original Dead Space, or better yet that of the thematically similar System Shock, I think it would have had a strong claim for the best of the series.