Design By Example: Reactive Takedowns in Dishonored 2.

Stealth play exists on the tenuous edge between concealment and conflict. Between avoiding NPCs and actively confronting them. When the player is detected most stealth games shift into a different style of play, one focused on either combat or rapid disengagement. Multiple styles of play with skill sets that don’t overlap cleanly, forced to exist within the same game.

This divide is a soft-boundary within the simulation. The models of detection and combat operating at different levels of fidelity, causing a disconnect when you shift from one to the other. This boundary is most obvious when crossed in the other direction. After transitioning from conflict back to concealment AI controlled NPC will eventually “forget” the presence of the player despite potentially having seen one of their friends killed in front of them; behaviour inconsistent with their aggressive search and combat routines. There are many good reasons for handling the simulation in this manner, unfortunately that doesn’t make the state change smoother. Games of the Immersive Sim genre have traditionally provided for a less messy transition between these states. Built around a consistent simulated world, the state change alters the means and motivation for engaging with the possibility space but not underlying rules themselves.

The spectrum of powers and abilities available to you in Dishonored 2 – along with the underlying simulation rules – don’t entirely resolve this conflict either, though they go some way toward smoothing the transition. What Dishonored 2 does do is play with that threshold between concealment and conflict. Allowing you to remain within that liminal space even in the face of mistakes and sudden occurrences that would otherwise result in fight or flight.

A successful block will stagger an NPC, allowing you to initiate a reactive takedown.

When detected there is a limited window where, if close enough, you are able to punch and then grab an NPC, restraining them in a chokehold. Traditionally when discovered by a patrolling NPC your options are limited. You can attempt to kill them which can be both noisy and messy, or you can accept detection and make a run for it. In Dishonored 2 this moment is extended, stretched out into a window of opportunity. Barely a few seconds but long enough to act, to regain the advantage, rendering the troublesome NPC unconscious and remaining in a concealment state rather than fully breaching the boundary and initiating conflict.

You deal with the immediate concern of being detected, replacing it with the new one of what to do with the body? Having prevented an alert, you now have time to deal with the next problem on your own terms.

If we consider the shift from concealment to conflict as the failure state of stealth, then this ability to incapacitate enemies in your moment of discovery provides partial failure. You have not been entirely successful at remaining hidden, but you have managed to avoid entering outright conflict. The strength of partial failure comes from the way its consequences can spiral outward effect all future decisions while not directly forcing you into either a different style of play, or a complete restart.

You’ve avoided detection for the moment, but now you need to do something about the unconscious body. Carrying it around means you won’t have access to your sword, and makes movement slower. If you can successfully hide the body you may be in a better position as there will be one less NPC available to potential discover you in the future. Unfortunately, NPCs in Dishonored 2 can adjust their patrol routes to compensate for missing companions. Removing one might well make things easier for you but not necessarily in the ways you were expecting.

Partial failure such as this also exposes you to more of the game’s systems, as the world state changes so too does the possibility space. An unconscious NPC is an extra element to deal with, a new entry point into the games systems to explore, certain opportunities are available now that weren’t before.

Unconscious bodies can be thrown at other NPCs, staggering them for long enough to grab them in turn.

These reactive takedowns are not only limited to the moment of initiate discovery, you can trigger one any time you are able to stagger an NPC. This can be achieved either by throwing something at them (including another unconscious guard, in what rapidly becomes a comedic escalation), or blocking their sword attack. A way of allowing you to engage in combat, if necessary, without being forced to resort to directly lethal violence. This further extends your ability to take back the initiative in the few seconds before everything spirals out of your control.

Games built on offering players a range of solutions require not only a rich possibility space, but also the time necessary to parse the potential options and choose an appropriate one. If the options available are logical and readable that window doesn’t need to be large, about as long as it takes to stagger and choke an NPC.

The tension of the stealth genre comes from the constant presence of the boundary between concealment and conflict. By allowing partial failure, and therefore partial recovery, Dishonored 2 keeps this division intact by extending the threshold. It creates a liminal space where your failure to remain entirely undetected has consequences, but ones that can be resolved using your existing stealth skill set rather requiring a state change into using those skills necessary for combat or evasion.

Design By Example: Secrets and Upgrades in DOOM.

On its face the concept of collectibles in DOOM is counter intuitive. This is a game about combat. Fast combat. Moving and shooting distilled to their essence, then exploding in geysers of demon blood. It’s not uncommon for collectibles to provide some consequential benefit when obtained, but the way in which this has been handled in DOOM feeds back into the core combat loop though multiple overlapping systems. The various collectibles don’t simply encourage exploration of the game’s physical spaces but its systemic ones too.

The collectibles you can locate in DOOM fall into three broad categories. First there are the pure collectibles, the tchotchkes: small portions of classic Doom levels, and UAC MarineGuy toys. Serving primarily as Easter Egg, once collected these allow you to play maps from the previous Doom games, and view in-engine models of the various enemies and weapons.

The second form of collectibles are the Argent Cells, Praetor Tokens, and Field Drones. These are objects that when collected either directly provide, or allow you to purchase, permanent upgrades. Argent Cells will boost your Health, Armour, or Ammunition capacity. Praetor Tokens are used to purchase upgrades for your suit, providing benefits such as reducing the amount of environmental damage you take. Finally, by locating Field Drones you can obtain a weapon modification which grants a secondary fire option that provides additional functionality; two modifications are available for each weapon (excluding the Pistol and Super Shotgun).

The third form of collectibles are the Rune Trials. Each trial leads to a separate challenge level where you are required to perform a set task under specific constraints. If successful you are rewarded with a rune, of which three can eventually be equipped at a time. These runes provide a bonus ability, such as increasing the range at which you can perform a glory kill. Each rune ability can be upgraded by performing a task associated with that ability a given number of times. Upgraded runes provide a more power version of their base ability.

Once first introduced all these collectibles – with a few exceptions – are located only within the secret areas of each level.

There are purely narrative collectibles which don’t feed back as neatly into the other game systems. Usually located along the critical path they are easily grabbed while passing through areas and rarely require you to actively go looking for them.

Throughout the course of DOOM you can unlock a series of Weapon Upgrade Points, these can be obtained either through combat performance, completing a set of level specific challenges, or locating secret areas. Weapon upgrade points are used to add additional abilities to your weapon modifications, increasing their power and utility. There are between two and three initial upgrades available for each weapon modification, they can be purchased in any order with the cost increasing for each subsequent upgrade. These weapon upgrade points are at the core of where the collectibles feed back into the combat system. Finding all the secrets in a level grants one weapon upgrade point, finding them all of will provide another.

In order to increase your potency and proficiency in combat it is beneficial to equip runes and suit upgrades, the act of locating these also goes toward gaining you a weapon upgrade point. Upgrade points that can’t be used except on weapons you have already modified, for which you will need to have located a Field Drone.

You might not care about collecting all the MarineGuy toys, but if that’s all that stands between you and finding the secrets within a level, and you are one weapon upgrade point short of upgrading your Plasma Rifle, taking a few minutes to find that last MarineGuy is likely time well spent.

Your weapon modifications aren’t just useful for the abilities they provide, like the runes they can also be upgraded through specific use. Once you have obtained all initial upgrades for a weapon modification you have the ability to upgrade it one last time. These final upgrades offer significant improvements, but you cannot even begin progress toward these final upgrades until you have first purchased all previous upgrade levels.

These overlapping systems not only encourage exploration but also experimentation, the abilities available when you have fully upgrade a rune or weapon modification are substantial, such as being able to fire some of the game’s most weapons effectively indefinitely. These can only be obtained from using the weapon modifications and runes in certain ways. Not always in line with your standard approach, the reward for performing the rune and weapon modification specific challenges are potentially worth changing up your play style for. This is also the case with the per-level challenges that provide additional weapon upgrade points. Not only does this type of “get better by doing” approach naturally reinforce the game’s combat systems, it also highlights some of the ways in which these systems can be used that you may not have been aware of, and encourages you to experiment with them.

As you can only equip three runes at once, it behoves you to think carefully about which you want to take. You only gain the abilities of those you have equipped. So, while sticking with three you have fully upgraded makes sense given the strength of their abilities, doing so means you will not be able to upgrade any of the others. Nor take advantage of their abilities. You can personalise and define your own play style based on the runes you equip but swapping them out can lead to interesting systemic interactions. You might want to equip the rune to allow you to engage in a glory kill from a longer range (Seek and Destroy), however if you are taking this it would make sense to also equip the rune that gives you armour from performing glory kills (Armored Offensive). If you are getting armour rapidly you will have an easier time upgrading the rune that requires you to be at full armour (Rich Get Richer). This rune when active means that once you are above 100 armour firing your standard weapon uses no ammunition, the benefits of which are obvious. This rune is especially useful if you are now getting armour from every enemy you glory kill, and potentially picking it up from much further away because of another rune (Vacuum).

Weapon Upgrade points can also be obtained through combat; however, you will only ever be able to obtain five (half of those available within a level) without completing the additional challenges or discovering secrets.

 

Exploring the levels for secrets and investing in upgrading your weapons and runes means that by the closing stages of DOOM you could be wielding a fully upgraded Mobile Turret which can do 660 damage-per-seconds, go through multiple targets, and never overheat (fully upgraded Mobile Turret modification). While also having two chances to come back after death (upgraded Saving Throw rune), be facing enemies that can drop ammunition for your BFG (upgraded Ammo Boost rune), and be able to fire your standard weapon for free if you have over 75 armour (upgraded Rich Get Richer rune). All while taking reduced environmental damage (Hazard Protection suit upgrade), and gaining a full health refill every time you activate a power-up (Healing Power suit upgrade).

The very heart of DOOM is movement and weapons, and though the hunt for secrets can feel slow and incidental doing so will directly improve your combat abilities in dramatic ways.

Design By Example: Intelligence Dossiers in Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol is fictionally a game about being an intelligence operative, a spy. Separate from the aesthetic trappings culturally associated with espionage, the way in which it deals with information itself reinforces this theme of intelligence gathering and exploitation.

In-game fictional collectibles are not uncommon. From books to audio logs, these often exist to provide context, or to help with specific puzzles. An audio log in one level can detail the code to a locked door or foreshadow an ominous plot reveal in several hours’ time; they are either explicitly useful or narrative colour, occasionally both.

Events in Alpha Protocol can play out differently depending on your actions and your relationship with particular characters; knowing how to placate or off-balance others is an important skill.

Events in Alpha Protocol can play out differently depending on your actions and your relationship with particular characters; knowing how to placate or off-balance others is an important skill.

In Alpha Protocol one of the resources you can collect are Intelligence Dossiers. Obtained either by talking to other characters or finding them in the world, each Dossier unlocks additional information on a particular individual or organisation. This information is presented in the game as contextual narrative: descriptions of characters, their history and relationships. Where these Dossiers differ from similar collectible information in other games is in the influence they can have upon your actions. A particular character’s Dossier will rarely state explicitly how they prefer to be spoken to, though by reading between the lines you can ascertain their likely reactions to a given approach.

Organisations that you can find yourself in conflict with over the course of Alpha Protocol are differentiated by their clothing, weapons, and tactics. All of these things can be learnt from their Dossier, allowing you to identify potential enemies and friends through observation. With this knowledge you can determine their likely allegiances and goals, and the most beneficial way in which to interact with them. Even if you chose to always take the same approach to each situation knowing how particular individuals and organisations are liable to react can allow you to prepare for the consequences of your actions.

Dossiers can give you intelligence on the appearance and tactics of a given organisation allowing you to plan your interactions with them, or react to their sudden appearance.

Dossiers can give you intelligence on the appearance and tactics of an organisation, allowing you to plan your interactions with them, or react to their sudden appearance.

The decision to search a room or hack a computer is one that occurs at the moment-to-moment level, though because of the information you can obtain these low-level choices can have a substantial impact on your high-level plans. Choosing to explore an area and hack a computer hidden in the basement might provide you with the specific piece of intelligence you need avoid getting into a gunfight with somebody several hours later; you now know exactly what to say, or what not to say.

Intelligence Dossiers in Alpha Protocol are beneficial not simply as collectibles but for the increased options they provide. In Alpha Protocol “intelligence gathering” is more than a fictional justification for your actions, intelligence itself is one of the most useful and valuable resources you can obtain.

Design By Example: Organic Resupply in Super Metroid.

Following Ridley and the last surviving Metroid down to the surface of Zebes, bounty-hunter Samus Aran finds, amid the scattered remains of Chozo civilisation, a planet teeming with life. The statues left behind by the Chozo provide upgrades to Samus’ suit, altering its capabilities and allowing her to continue her explorations into once inaccessible areas. In addition to these character-altering modifications, other rooms through Zebes offer Samus the opportunity to resupply her Energy or Missile reserves, while returning to her ship will enable a complete resupply of all resources.

Alongside these explicit means of resupply the fauna of Zebes, when killed, may leave behind a pick-up that can restock a limited quantity of one of Samus’ expendable resources. What, if anything, the creature will provide upon death is dependent upon her current status; if any of her resources are at maximum a pick-up of that type will not be dropped.

Most creature types respawn when Samus re-enters an area, allowing them to be farmed to keep her Energy tanks topped up. One exception to this are the pipe based creatures that spawn every few seconds and travel horizontal across the screen. Because these creatures continually respawn without any action on the part of the player they provide a means of fully resupplying without the need to exit and return to an area; they can be easily farmed for Energy capsules and other resources.

The organic nature of the pipe enemies allows them to be placed in organic areas where an Energy recharge station would look out of place.

The nature of the pipe enemies as fauna allows them to be placed in organic areas where an Energy recharge station would look out of place.

The various forms of pipe creatures make use of at least three separate but related mechanics and it is the relationships between these which allow them to function in the way they do. They are a classic example of dynamics at work, a change to any of the underlying mechanics would alter the way you interact with these pipe creatures. If they spawned in the same manner as other creatures, their use as a form of resupply would be no more effective than any of the other fauna found throughout Zebes. If the pick-up left behind upon death wasn’t related to Samus’ current status there would no longer be the certainty that every time they were killed they would provide something immediately useful, the act of farming them would become a gamble. Additionally, if firing beam weapons drained Energy, or if the creatures could only be killed by Missiles or Super Bombs, the benefits of killing them would be counterbalanced by the cost of doing so.

Another way to perform a complete resupply is to return to Samus’ ship on the surface of Zebes, though this is only possible at certain points and once you descend into the depths of the planet it can be a long time before you are able to return.

Another way to perform a complete resupply is to return to Samus’ ship on the surface of Zebes, though this is only possible at certain points and once you descend into the depths of the planet it can be a long time before you are able to return.

The function of the pipe based creatures is particularly interesting in that they allow the expenditure of time for resources. The ending of Super Metroid depends on the time taken to complete the game so utilising the resupply dynamic of the pipe creatures can get you out of a difficult situation at the cost of time, which may alter the ending witnessed.

These pipe creatures are organic resupply points, where time can be sacrificed for a complete replenishment of resources. This dynamic is never explained, the act of discovery is a sign that you have developed an understanding of the underlying systems. You are rewarding for showing this understanding of how the game systems functions in a way that is in context and non-patronising.

Design By Example: Vertical Movement with Dishonored’s Blink.

In Dishonored, the first power granted you by the Outsider – the only one which you have no choice over – is the short distance teleport, Blink.

What Blink offers is more than simply the ability to instantaneously move forward. If that was the extent of its power it would still be useful but it wouldn’t be as disruptive as it is. Rather than being restricted to directly ahead, the destination of your Blink can be anywhere within a sphere around your current location: the roof of a building, the floor behind an NPC, or the middle of the air. Provided there is a straight line between your current position and the destination, you can Blink there.

The elegance of Blink comes from the few restrictions placed upon its use. It is not context dependant; there are no specific “Blink-able” locations. It can be used to move through any space that you would normally be able to occupy; so you cannot move through solid surfaces or active Walls of Light. Finally, it uses the same amount of Mana as is automatically replenished, making it readily available. With so few restrictions, the decision of when, where, and even if, to use Blink is left up to the player.

If the destination of your Blink is on the edge of a scalable surface, Corvo will automatically climb up allowing you to reach the top of objects, even if you can only target part of them.

If the destination of your Blink is on the edge of a scalable surface, Corvo will automatically climb up allowing you to reach the top of objects, even if you can only target part of them.

Instantaneous movement between two points on the same horizontal plane is useful; the effect Blink has on your perception of, and engagement with, vertical space is where it becomes truly transformative.

By not being limited to the horizontal, Blink changes the usable topography of a level. Normally in a first person game it is possible to jump onto higher surfaces and in so doing alter your vertical position. Given a standard model of gravity the path to these higher spaces is slower than the path down, though it is also much safer. From a high point you can leap off and will likely take damage when you land. With Blink you can teleport up to a roof and back down with the same expenditure of time and Mana. You can move as rapidly and safely in the vertical dimension as the horizontal one.

The ability to Blink while time is frozen ensures that falling holds little fear for the assassin Daud.

The ability to Blink while time is frozen ensures that falling holds little fear for the assassin Daud.

The Knife Of Dunwall DLC changes the core Blink ability, further enhancing its strength as a tool for vertical movement. When initiated time will freeze provided you are not manually moving in any direction. This means you can fall from a great height and at the last moment initiate a Blink and have as much time as necessary to target a safe landing spot. The reverse is also possible; you can perform a Blink at the top of a jump and use it to reach even greater heights.

One of the constants of first person games is movement through space, by providing you with a power that allows for near instant movement between two points in any dimension Dishonored disrupts the standard model of movement and succeeds in making vertical movement almost as safe and rapid as horizontal movement, changing the way players perceive and interact with the space around them.

Design By Example: Cover in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its forebears, allows players to vary their approach, from direct combat to stealth, based on personal expression rather than the requirements of a given set-piece. The mechanics and level design combine to allow the player to engage in any encounter (excluding boss fights) through the use of stealth, combat, or some combination of the two. Key to this is the cover system around which stealth and combat are built.

In order to allow stealth-focused players to traverse an area successfully, levels need to be designed to allow those players to move between important locations while retaining some degree of concealment. In an occlusion-based stealth model this means providing occluding geometry, cover, in a pattern that enables players to navigate from one location to another while keeping an object between themselves and any NPCs. The combat-focused player is in a similar position, though they will not need a complete path through each encounter space; the more cover available the greater their range of tactical movement options. The same distribution of cover that provides concealed movement can be used by the combat-focused player to reposition and potentially outflank  hostile NPCs.

In certain locations cover geometry is also used as part of an environmental puzzle, such as these moving Lasers protecting the server room of Tai Yong Medical

In certain locations cover geometry is also used as part of an environmental puzzle, such as these moving Lasers protecting the server room of Tai Yong Medical

This spatial arrangement of geometry is enhanced by the switch from first- to third-person once players take cover. If the game remained in first-person when Adam Jensen took cover behind a lab bench or crate it would be difficult to maintain situational awareness. For both the stealth and combat focused players an accurate mental model of where NPCs are within a given area is important. For the former it’s necessary to ensure that you keep some form of solid object between you, for the latter you need to know where somebody is before you can shoot them.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution does provide a radar display that can serve as a guide to the relative position of hostile NPCs in the environment, however it operates at a level of abstraction and therefore using it becomes a two stage process. Instead of looking at the world and seeing exactly where NPCs are positioned players relying exclusively on the radar will need to mentally overlay the information provided onto what they remember about the spatial layout of the level. Where the radar excels is in its ability to provide information on NPCs outside your immediate field-of-view, helping you to avoid being flanked.

Sneaking past or lining up a shot? From here either is possible and the choice is left up to the player.

Sneaking past or lining up a shot? From here either is possible and the choice is left up to the player.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses its cover system for both combat and stealth and in doing so has managed to enable the two to coexist in a way that allows both to be utilised within a single encounter. The same occluding geometry that provides concealment from detection also provides protection from incoming fire. Instead of making the stealth-focused player weak by forcing them into the darkness and away from enemies, the cover system of Deus Ex: Human Revolution ensures that stealth-focused players are in just as strong a position as combat-focused players when in cover.

By requiring both stealth- and combat-focused players to relate to the spatial layout of a level in the same way Deus Ex: Human Revolution is able to create a hybrid system where mastering the core abilities of movement and positioning are beneficial to all types of player. Furthermore, when the same layout of cover is beneficial to multiple approaches it makes it easier to switch between styles, even within the same encounter.