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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Guest Post, written by: Caitlin Moore.
I don’t play shooters. We had GoldenEye when I was a kid but I only ever played against my brother and I’ve mostly avoided them since. I was initially drawn to Destiny despite this for a couple reasons. Partly it’s a function of dating a guy who is writing a book which examines the level design of a section of Halo in detail. I have sat through multiple lectures about its combat design, the way the game forces you to be clever about which weapons you use, the different behaviours the enemies exhibit, etc, etc, ad nauseum (lest anyone think this is a gendered thing let it be known that I have subjected him to treatises on the finer points of Harvest Moon more than once). The point is that I now have an intellectual appreciation for Halo and other shooters that I used to dismiss out of hand.
One of the reasons Destiny is the first shooter I’ve tried since then is that I tend to panic when shot at, particularly if I can’t find the shooter; I feel overwhelmed when enemies get close and in first person I struggle to keep track of what is out of sight. In Destiny this is less of a problem. The enemies shoot relatively slow, highly visible projectiles and as long as I stay far enough away, or keep my back to the wall, I can keep an eye on everyone who is trying to kill me and avoid their efforts. While some of the enemies like to get in close, like the Dregs of the Fallen or the Thralls of the Hive, Destiny gives me a way to manage them in the form of the melee attack. I have been playing as a Warlock, which particularly helps as her melee attack shoves enemies backwards when it doesn’t kill them, granting me some breathing room. Spacial awareness is still an issue for me but here one of the major complaints about Destiny actually works in my favour; if I have to return to an area over and over again then eventually I will memorise where the best cover is and I can avoid the corners I know I’ve been trapped in before.
There are other aspects of the gameplay that I know exist in other games but that I am only discovering for the first time with Destiny. The biggest thrill for me has been my gradual mastery of timing. I had heard people talk about how powerful games can make you feel but there is almost no comparison between the intellectual satisfaction I have experienced when mastering an RPG and the sheer pleasure of taking down waves of enemies, the joy of staggering a Thrall long enough to reload before hitting the melee button as he jumps toward you, or the gratification of popping out of cover just as your health refills to take down the last enemy in one shot. As I’ve played and my confidence in my abilities has grown I’ve become more aggressive, actively chasing down unshielded Captains or standing in the open to line up a precision shot on a Vandal as he fires at me. When this works, or I make it through a gruelling Darkness section, I feel invincible in a way few other games have ever managed. When it doesn’t? I go back to playing cautiously until my confidence returns.
My newfound appreciation for the gameplay wouldn’t have been enough to get me to keep playing Destiny if it weren’t for the story. People have mocked the naming conventions but they fit perfectly with what I think the game is trying to achieve. The lore reaches for the classic fantasy of Earthsea layered underneath the outward appearance of the space fiction of Arthur C. Clark and others. This sounds like it should be unbelievably pretentious but I believe it works if you are willing to delve into the Grimoire. Everything fits seamlessly if you do, with gameplay and story working to reinforce each other. For example the Dregs behave more aggressively in combat than the Vandals or the Captains and of course they would since their second pair of arms have been docked and they have to earn the right to regrow them. I have come across three Fallen Houses so far as I play; the House of Devils, brought low by the death of their Archon early in the game but still swarming the Cosmodrome; the House of Kings, determined after the fall of the House of Devils to take control of an old Warmind that could prove critical to the Guardians; and the House of Exiles, mostly made up of Dregs living among the Hive on the moon, while doing patrol missions there it is possible to thwart attempts by them at raising a mixed army of Fallen and Hive. These Houses each have a different colour scheme and appear at the appropriate points in the story but I only noticed because I had been primed to by the Grimoire; the Hive have similar distinctions although their ranks are made up of different religious sects.
I also want to address some of the complaints about Peter Dinklage’s voice acting. So far I have only reached the moon and it’s possible that it gets markedly worse later in the game but there have been several incredible moments from him. One early on is the first meeting with the Speaker. The Speaker expresses his hope that your Ghost chose his Guardian well and his response is “I did… I’m sure of it”. His uncertainty rings clear, but so does his willingness to put his faith in you. Later, on the moon, you come across a dead Guardian. Your Ghost asks “Where is his Ghost…?”. His sudden fear for himself and horror at what might have happened to his fellow Ghost come through perfectly. Peter Dinklage’s voice acting does a remarkable job of getting across the idea that your Ghost is an independent entity, with his own hopes and fears. The game reinforces this through the Grimoire but these lines exist outside of that, even if you never read a single card you will hear them.
I can’t fault anyone for finding Destiny lacking. My experience with it is by no means the norm, the gameplay that I find so satisfying isn’t new to most and as much as I wish more players would delve into the story I can’t blame those who assume the game itself doesn’t care whether they do or not. This is a shame because Destiny is so much more than it appears at first glance. The enemies have more depth and nuance than the broad banner of “the Darkness” suggests. The brief descriptions on some items hint at a longstanding rivalry between Hunters and Warlocks. While I suspect the Traveller remains a silent, enigmatic orb throughout the game, that my Ghost was born from it makes me inclined to learn more about it. I encourage anyone who plays to take the time to look past the surface to the rich history beneath.
Note: This was originally posted as a comment on the Sparky Clarkson article I link to. As I was writing I realised there was a broader point to be made, so I extended and adapted that comment into this article.
Sparky Clarkson didn’t like Remember Me as much as I did; reading his analysis helped me understand my own feelings and why certain types of cinematic action game have a tendency to feel awkward and dishonest. I believe it’s due to a misguided attempt to hide from players that they are taking actions within a fictionalised virtual world that has its own specific rules and limitations; a focus on cinematic as the end rather than the means.
I agree that the goal of the “cinematic action game” genre is to “engage the player as closely as possible with the characters and their stories” but I don’t think making systems invisible is the only, or even the best, way of achieving this.
To digress slightly, the oft misused and maligned concept of “immersion” is frequently cited as the point at which players “forget they are playing a game”. It is better understood from as a form of holistic completeness and coherence, rather than one of “systemic invisibility”. The player is never going to “forget they are playing a game” to any reasonably measurable degree, the artifice of the real world is too ever present to make that an achievable, or particularly rational, goal; no matter how deeply I am absorbed in a game if my bladder is full my body will relay that information to me urgently and persistently. What is a more useful way to frame immersion is as the presentation to the player of an environment where every action is responded to coherently and consistently so that there are no rough edges to their experience, no jarring edge cases where the implicit or explicit rules of the system break down and the illusion of completeness and wholeness is shattered. This is the “immersion” of the “immersive sim”, games like Thief: The Dark Project or Deus Ex which, no matter the technology used in their construction, are never going to fool anybody into thinking that they “are really there”, but which have a systemic honesty and consistency that makes them feel like complete worlds; where actions have discernible consequences, and it’s easy to get drawn into their constructed environments. This is also why Dark Souls is incredibly immersive despite its third person camera, overly large HUD and onscreen health bars; honesty and consistency.
The cinematic action game genre doesn’t have immersion as one of its goals, instead the means by which they strive to “engage the player as closely as possible” is through ensuring that the player and character frames are always synchronized, that there is minimal drift. The claim that the goal of the cinematic action game genre is that of systemic invisibility is a conflation of intent and methodology. Cinematic action games use the tropes of cinema toward the same ends, but that cinematic mimicry is not the end in itself. The goal, as it is with cinema, is to evoke empathy between audience and subject, between players and characters.
There are genres for which making the systems invisible, either initially or entirely, is a goal however these games are built with a degree of systemic depth and complexity that rewards exploration and experimentation. Cinematic action games rarely share this systemic depth because they are designed to tell a specific story and make the player feel a part of that story for however long it lasts. One of the best means by which this is achieved is through clarity and consistency; the rules and limitations need to be clear and consistent if the player and character frames are to remain aligned. This is why cinematic action games that try to make their systems invisible often fluctuate between two extremes with systems that are either unclear and arbitrary, or unintentionally obvious.
The diegetic navigation overlay of Remember Me is functionally no different to the colour coded signposting of The Last Of Us. Both serve to differentiate usable surfaces from those that, despite being the same size, shape and within a reasonable distance of the character, are not usable. One key difference between The Last Of Us and Remember Me is that the latter never puts you in a position where you have to make a guess as to whether a surface is usable or whether the colouration is just an aesthetic choice and not a usability one. The Last of Us uses yellow in multiple and often conflicting ways: to signify usable surfaces, to draw the eye to points of interest, and as a means of aesthetic colouration associated with military barricades and warning signs. Two identical objects might be highlighted by yellow paint, one is scalable the other is not; because this happens frequently the colouration cannot be trusted and the difference between what is and isn’t usable begins to feel arbitrary. The character knows something you don’t (that one surface is functional the other purely aesthetic) and the notion that you are going through this experience together starts to break down, the frames diverge. This is a problem Remember Me never exhibits because it is absolutely clear at all times what is and isn’t usable, this helps maintain the alignment of player and character frames by constraining valid player actions to those that are relevant within the current context.
Cinematic action games and other genres that combine multiple forms of play usually divide the environment into spaces that serve one form and those that serve another. Exploration spaces give way to combat spaces or vice versa. The “obvious combat arena” level design is a common problem where certain aspects of the design of combat spaces are so obvious that they are instantly recognisable as such unintentionally foreshadowing the combat encounter to come; the “room full of chest high walls” problem.
Remember Me is no different to other games it its division of space between different forms, one way in which it avoids the “obvious combat space” problem is by simply not attempting to hide it; when you enter a combat space combat begins, there is no ambiguity between the use of spaces and therefore no divergence in awareness between player and character. At several points during The Last of Us you have the opportunity to explore an area that will later become a combat space. You are not made aware of this change in function directly but the differences in the spatial layout and the items available become glaringly obvious indicators that this is not an exploration only space despite what it may portray itself to be. Bricks and bottles only appear as items you can pick up within in a combat space, so the moment you see them you know what’s coming even if that change in state doesn’t trigger until after a cutscene. The shape, size and distribution of cover objects is immediately identifiable and distinctly artificial; even before you are introduced to the game’s combat systems. Instead of making the transitions between exploration and combat invisible The Last of Us makes it obvious in a way that gives the player greater forewarning than the character, creating a gulf between the two, and undercutting the tension created when safe spaces become suddenly hostile. Remember Me avoids this problem because combat spaces are immediately identifiable and combat within them occurs immediately. You, as the player, know something is a combat space the same moment Nilin does.
Games are artificial constructs, they have unique rules and limitations and in order to engage with them, in order to play, those rules need to be clear and consistent; or unclear and inconsistent in ways that the game is designed around. Cinematic action games are build upon a foundation of ensuring the player and character frames remain aligned and that any drift is kept to a minimum. It’s a relationship of trust, trust is built on honesty, and when the boundaries of the simulation are clear the game has to be honest.
Games have their own language, written in health bars, and experience points, and combo meters, systems designed to feed back information to the player with clarity and consistency. To strike out against the artifice of games is an insidious form of cinema envy, one that presumes that the language of cinema is the more developed language and the one toward which games should strive. Cinema is subjective, the camera lies frequently and intentionally; cinema disassembles and ambiguates as a means of eliciting an emotional response. This form of emotional manipulation has its place but when the player is in control, when their actions become those of the character such dishonesty is undesirable, it drives a wedge between the two, pushing the player and character frames apart in potentially irreconcilable ways.
Attempting to hide or obfuscate the boundaries of a virtual world can too often lead to confusion and ambiguity, to a game that feels dishonest. Without clear rules applied honestly players are left to second guess themselves and the game, the convergence of player and character frames that is the goal of the cinematic action game genre breaks down. Why can I climb this piece of yellow bordered scenery but not that one? Did I miss that bandit while exploring or did he only spawn after I opened the door? I don’t have the answers to those questions because The Last of Us is not honest with me about the application of its rules, they are hidden behind cinematic tropes. But I do I know that Nilin will always make that jump and that we both know when a fight’s about to start.
The first issue of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine is now on sale, available to purchase in either .PDF or print editions the magazine features 100 pages of full colour ad-free content on Arkane Studios’ Dishonored. Alongside interviews, a stealth focused review, and critical commentary, the magazine features 48 pages of level design analysis from me on every level in the game and the two Daud focused pieces of DLC (The Knife Of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). This analysis takes a similar form to my own Groping The Map content, and that I have already been producing on Thief II: The Metal Age for the Sneaky Bastards website, albeit more focused and condensed to better fit a magazine format.
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is a game with a very specific legacy. Beyond simply the referential filing cabinet code, this is a game that strongly evokes the storytelling techniques and style of Looking Glass Studios.
Nearly twenty years ago System Shock was released, allowing players to explore and uncover the fate of Citadel Station and its inhabitant; and witness the birth of the unforgettable SHODAN. At the time convincing interactions between players and human characters was challenging. As a means of sidestepping that problem Citadel Station was depopulated, everybody was either dead or had become horrific monsters incapable of coherent discourse. The events onboard Citadel Station were there to be discovered in what its inhabitants had left behind: scattered audio logs and environmental detritus.
In the intervening years other methods have been used to deal with the challenge of interacting with other characters. In Thief: The Dark Project and its successors the City was inhabited, instead it was the player’s role as a thief that discouraged and limited the means of interacting with those characters. Gone Home revisits the method employed by the original System Shock to overcome this still challenging problem, though the Greenbriar home is simply empty, rather than filled with dead bodies, the result is the same.
The Greenbriar home is littered with environmental details, the story of what has happened to your family in your absence is told through notes written to friends, and the placement of specific objects in specific places. It’s a game about environmental storytelling and narrative archeology. The story of the Greenbriar family is developed using the same tools that you use to explore the history and events on board Citadel Station.
Sam’s journal entries, uncovered gradually and potentially out of chronological sequence are, in functional terms, audio logs. Their placement and that of the other environmental details within the house is a way of matching physical exploration to temporal exploration, each area of the Greenbriar home that is unlocked, moves you forward in time through the events of the last year. The same mapping of chronology to physical space can be seen very clearly in BioShock 2 (a game which the core member of The Fullbright Company worked on, and one that itself is heavily indebted to the storytelling and design techniques of earlier games like System Shock). Each area of BioShock 2 represents a different stage in the life of Eleanor Lamb, from her birth and early childhood (Ryan Amusements) to her time spent under the care of Grace Holloway (Pauper’s Drop), through her time as a Little Sister and her eventually recovery and the experiments that were performed on her as a teenager (Fontaine Futuristics and Outer Persephone).
In both Gone Home and BioShock 2 (and of course the previous System Shock games before them) the further onward the player explores physically the more recent the narrative elements within the environment become, until the final moments where the past and the present meet, and the two strands of the story merge.
Consider System Shock 2, the closing stages sees you explore the biomass of The Many while listening to the breadcrumb trail of audio logs recorded by Doctor Prefontaine; at this late stage the past (as represented by the audio logs and other environmental details) and the present are barely minutes apart, in fact you arrive just moments after the doctor meets his fate as recorded in his final audio log. The same experience occurs in the attic of the Greenbriar house, the past as narrated by Sam and the present as explored by you as her older sister Kaitlin, are barely moments apart until, discovering the final journal entry, the final gap between past and present is closed the two threads knitting together.
That gap, that space around and between that which is known is at the heart of what gives this form of storytelling its power. Gone Home and System Shock, these are games about space; not simply physical spaces, the Greenbriar house and Citadel Station, but the space between, the things not said. The entire story of what happens is never revealed explicitly, instead you discover isolated moments of it in the form of an audio log or a written note, the space between those pieces and the other pieces of narrative you collect is left for you to fill. The order in which you discover each piece is controlled somewhat through gating and the mapping of physical space to temporal chronology however it is never enforced, you might miss a piece of information or discovering it out of order and this will change your understanding of the space formed by these pieces.
It is narrative by suggestion and inference, there are specific points that are defined but the space between them, the context in which these things occurred is for players to determine, and potentially reevaluate as new information is presented. In Gone Home, you can discover letters from your mother Jan to her friend Carol, discussing Ranger Rick who has just been transferred to work with your mother. You never know explicitly what your mother’s feelings are towards Rick though you can infer them from the suggestions of Carol and other things you discover within the environment; like the perfect evaluation Jan gives him along with the recommendation that his temporary transfer be made permanent. The implication that your mother is having an affair with Rick (in intent if not in deed) is clear, however this is a context that is fluid and open to interpretation and reexamination. One of the strongest indications of there being some form of relationship between Rick and your mother is the discovery of a book of Walt Whitman erotic poetry under her side of the bed within is a bookmark with a handwritten note by Rick. In the context in which these pieces of information are first discovered the inference is that Rick has given this book to your mother, however there is nothing to confirm that the message on the bookmark is referring to this book and not another; in fact given subsequent discoveries about the relationship of Rick to his girlfriend, and that of your parents it’s entirely possible, potentially even more likely, that the bookmark was referring to a different book entirely and that the presence of the book of erotic poetry in your parents room has an entirely different connotation.
This recontextualizing of information based on new insights is far from exclusive to Gone Home, though it is another aspect common to games of the Looking Glass Studios legacy. Early in Thief II: The Metal Age Garrett is asked to break into Shoalsgate Station and plant evidence against a member of the City Watch, when Garrett begins to question the task he is “distracted” by a bag of coins. Over the course of this mission things are learnt about Lieutenant Mosley (the woman who will benefit directly from the smearing of her colleague) that suggest she is not the most effective member of the City Watch when it comes to dealing with the Pagans. Only later will you discover that she is herself a Pagan working for the wood nymph Viktoria and though it is never explicitly explained this knowledge recontextualises the visit of Shoalsgate Station almost entirely. The appeal to Garrett’s avarice and hubris to distract him and ensure his cooperation is the same technique employed by Viktoria in Thief: The Dark Project, and every action you took within Shoalsgate has served to get one of her loyalists into a position where they could eventually assassinate Sheriff Truart. New information has recontextualised something that on the surface seemed like a simply case of internal politics and betrayal.
The techniques employed by The Fullbright Company in Gone Home have a long tradition, that can be see not only in games from Looking Glass Studios itself but also those influenced by them. That these techniques can be used to tell the story of both the horrific events of SHODAN’s birth on Citadel Station to the simply and honest tale of a Greenbriar family in mid-90s Portland, speaks to the strength and latent emotive power of these relatively simple techniques. To the potential that exists within those spaces between.
In his 2011 GDC presentation, The Identity Bubble – A Design Approach To Character and Story Creation, designer Matthias Worch builds on the work of Gary Fine (From his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds), using the conceptual model of frames to examine how players have multiple, often conflicting, internal voices. During play they are at once, people, players and characters, with different motivations operating within each frame.
Games allow us to participate in defining the behaviour of a character, our actions become theirs, our choices influence their behaviour. The player frame takes the lead in defining motivation and performing action. One common occurrence is the imposition of our desires upon the character, as Worch describes it: “This is the reason we play games: the ability to drive the action, to express ourselves, to lead.” As players our desires often lean towards efficiency, we may even strive for optimality when characters in fiction rarely do. When the player and character frames begin to drift apart, when our motivations as players no longer match those of the characters we are playing, we complain about dissonance. Our chosen approach determined within the player frame does not match that supplied by the fictional context within the character frame.
Frequently there is no choice, the game can’t be played in a way that doesn’t foster such dissonance. Even if you try the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed don’t allow for the efficiency it tries to fictionalise as being part of Altair’s character. In such instances, where the only options available are those that contradict the established narrative context, criticisms are justified. Worch’s method for avoiding this drift is to find ways that encourage the alignment of the character and player frames.
A commonality of each of the presented methods is that the character frame should be adjusted to align with the player frame. What of “self-correction”, of playing in a manner that is appropriate to the character; in so far as the abstracted nature of game mechanics allow? What if instead of determining the behaviour of characters based on the our motivations within the player frame we modify our behaviour to better fit the context of the character we are playing?
Early in my time with Tomb Raider it became clear what the game wasn’t going to do. The narrative is a tale of survival and growth, of overcoming extreme hostility. The mechanics you interact with to progress that narrative are high level abstractions of those concepts rather than attempts at simulation. Tomb Raider is, not a game about survival from a mechanical perspective, there are survival elements though they are heavily abstracted. Tomb Raider is a game about hostility and overcoming that hostility as a means of character growth. This basic conceit is presented and reinforced within the first ten minutes, as a Lara scrambles out of the cave she finds herself in though a variety of Quick Time Events and context sensitive actions.
The manner in which Lara obtains a handgun, and in the process kills for the first time is messy, violent and problematic in several ways. Shortly after that she is confronted by others of the Solarii, the cult like inhabitants of the island. It’s possible to kill them quickly and relatively cleanly, it’s also possible to keep shooting them until they stop moving. Without intending to I made the choice that being highly efficient wasn’t appropriate or necessary. When time slowed down in that first encounter instead of using it to line up precise shots, I fired as soon as the gun was pointed at the Solarii and didn’t stop until he collapsed, then I did the same with his companion; I did what I felt Lara would do.
This is a pattern I repeated throughout, it stopped being a conscious decision almost immediately. I was not directly punished for being inefficient and messy, and the narrative and characterisation did nothing to contradict my behaviour. Initially it had been an experiment to see if I could get away without turning Lara into the “alpha predator of ‘headshot island'” and it was possible, furthermore it felt emotionally resonant in a way I believe being efficiency wouldn’t have.
Throughout the next few hours when confronted with armed hostility I played in an improvisational way, explosive barrels, fire arrows, horrific melee kills; every tool at my disposal combined into a mess of violence. I was mad at the Solarii for what they were doing to my friends and to me, and I took that out on them. Why use one bullet when I can use five? Why use a normal arrow when I can use a flaming one? I scrambled around, dodging attacks, stabbing people in the legs, smashing rocks into faces, screaming, swearing. It was a nightmare of brutality and violence. Once it was all over there was no Nathan Drake like quip just an exhausted sign of regret tinged relief, both from myself and Lara. Neither of us wanted to be doing this much fighting but if we wanted to survive we had little choice.
I had not modified my overriding motivation, I wanted to be entertained, to have a memorable experience, and I was, I did. What I had done was slightly modify my behaviour. To keep the “identity bubble” intact it is necessary to make adjustments to at least one of the three often conflicting frames, to correct for drift. Which frame needs correcting and who performs that correcting does not always need to be the same for every game.
Games are participatory, a shared construct of designer and player. It’s not uncommon to talk of how games should react to player behaviour, taken to an extreme this can become the arrogance of agency, the notion that it is the responsibility of all games to acknowledging and response to our behaviour no matter how unpredictable or contextually inappropriate. If games are about shared authorship don’t we, as players, have a responsibility to ourselves to move beyond “willing suspension of disbelief” into actively maintaining that “suspension of disbelief”?
Tomb Raider is one of the best games I’ve played. The verb is important, as much for what it means for a game as what it means in the context of “acting”, of “role playing”. I implicitly entered into a contract with the game, if it would provide me a consistent structure by which to contextualise my actions I would play within that structure. My behaviour when I was in control of Lara, and her behaviour outside of my control reinforced each other, strengthening both aspects. It required no more effort that playing “cops and robber”, I had a role and I played to that role, the result was an alignment of player and character frames unlike any I’ve experienced.
While playing the first hour I took some notes. The reason the notes only cover the start of the game is that I have since restarted twice in an attempt to understand why my reaction, as shown by the notes, is so predominantly negative. I have yet been unable to reconcile my experiences with the praise lauded upon the game. It is not simply a case of not liking a competent game as much as others, this has occurred before and will again, rather I am concerned because I think Binary Domain is a genuinely badly designed game, one that makes mistakes in interface and encounter design I had thought long solved.
So what follows are my notes, as taken while playing, with some additional clarifications, to help see if I can make sense of why it provoked such a negative reaction. I have changed the order in which I took them as certain points are better explained in light of others.
I’ll start with what was actually one of the first notes I took.
Actually about as funny as it thinks it is.
It’s rare to find a game that’s genuinely comedic, and all too often action games swing the other way becoming overly self-serious, Binary Domain manages to find a tone that feels much closer to something like Beverly Hills Cop than I was expecting. It’s a brash action game and knows it, the script has yet to try to be anything else.
Why is A vault over cover but B climb? (Xbox 360)
This confounded me when I first played and I still don’t have a handle on it. The B button is nominally the “Interact” button, except when it isn’t. The A button will enable you to take cover and then vault over or dart around that cover, but B is required to climb up onto something, except when that something is a ladder in which case the A button is required. Operating a device in the world requires the B button however if that device is a control panel for a crane you cannot exit the crane interface by pressing B you instead have to press A.
Why give the character a voice if he’s not going to vocally respond? Conflict with voice input probably.
This seemed confusing at first until I remembered the game has an option to response to spoken voice commands. For that reason I can understand not having the character voice those comments as that would be redundant and potentially confusing. For players who are not using voice commands it’s jarring having the protagonist speak freely only up to the point at which you are given control of what he says. I can see this becoming a non-issue very quickly.
Off putting lag\acceleration on movement controls. May need to lower sensitivity.
This is probably my biggest complain: I cannot hit anything consistently. I am either wildly overcompensating or sluggishly dragging the cross-hair into position depending on the sensitivity setting. I’ve been using dual analog controls since the era of Halo: Combat Evolved but playing Binary Domain I feel like I’ve never touched a controller before. This is the main reason I restarted the game, I had hoped that more time with it would help me grasp the nuances of the controls, unfortunately that has yet to happen.
All the weapons so far sound incredible similar and you need to fire them a lot, soundscape is muddled cacophony.
A minor complaint initially but when combined with the next it makes the soundscape of Binary Domain a variation on a small number of weapon and impact sound effects, all of them similar and after an extended combat encounter I wanted to rest my ears.
You’d think they’d have chosen ammunition that does some actual damage against robots.
I appreciate that it is the start of the game, but every enemy I have encountered takes several seconds of sustained fire to destroy. It was pointed out to me that my approach should be to attempt to target vital parts of the enemies and so disable them, or turn them against their own. With the controls the best I am usually able to do is position the crosshair on the center of the enemy’s body, the degree of fidelity I would need to perform head-shots consistently is one I am unable to achieve.
Very aggressive enemies for a game with such a limited range of melee, or other close combat, options. Enemies will close and flank you with little you can do to stop them. Repositioning requires you to exit cover, so you expose yourself to those enemies ahead of you.
Enemies have a tendency to close range rapidly and either attack directly or move behind you. The former is frustrating as there are few options to deal with enemies in close range, the latter is almost always lethal as repositioning in combat to deal with enemies attempting to flank you will disengage you from cover therefore opening you up to attack from the front.
The focus button rotates the player to face the target not just the camera.
Like Gears of War there is a button to focus the camera on an important event or location. In Binary Domain it does not just turn the camera, it turns the player as well. This has led to me getting killed on at least two occasions.
Cover is almost exclusively perpendicular to the line of advancement you can’t flank enemies while remaining in cover. Nor can you move move between cover as fluidly as other cover shooters, it’s a first generation cover shooter closer to Mass Effect 2.
The layout of the levels so far have been unidirectional, with the AI advancing down a line directly opposite your direction of movement; except when airborne enemies spawned in behind you, but that is an entirely different complain. Cover is predominantly perpendicular to that line of advancement, allowing you to take cover from direct incoming fire. There has rarely been cover positioned parallel or at an angle to the direction of movement. Such cover would allow you to reposition to flank approaching enemies or deal with those enemies that have run past you. A good example of the type of space that I’ve yet to see in Binary Domain can be found at the end of the first level of Gears Of War. Exiting the prison Marcus and Dom enter a patch of ground dotted with low walls positioned both perpendicular and parallel to their direction of movement, Locust are positioned throughout and the layout allows for multiple possible routes through the space while remaining in cover. You can position yourself opposite the Locust and engage them directly or you use the space tactically moving around to flank them.
Doesn’t feel as fluid and responsive as Gears of War, or in fact Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
This is tied to the previous comment regarding my difficulty aiming, but is more concerned with the basic movement either out of or between cover. In those rare instances where such angled or parallel cover does exist there are no options to shift position to it without leaving cover, you cannot move around corners while remaining in cover the way you can in Gears of War, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. These factors make moving in any direction other than directly forward inadvisable, limiting your options to staying put and shooting everything as it approaches – hoping you can destroy them before they run past, and thus outflank you – or advancing directly towards the approaching enemy and engaging them at close range, the options for which are limited.
Not everything that looks like cover is.
Compounding my previous complains are objects or elements of level geometry that in another game could conceivably provide cover but in Binary Domain do not. This is particularly egregious on the roads approaching the Sea Wall and again on the far side. The road surface is frequently split and buckled, with some sections of road higher than others. While you can climb up these sections, you cannot take cover behind them, despite them being close, if not identical, in height to the low walls and blocks that do provide cover.
10 Days Earlier…
When this cutscene occurred I was disappointed it was not the opening of the game, it at least offers a stronger context for my actions than that provided initially and though the voice acting and script can be a little peculiar on the whole it was largely entertaining. The premise itself is one I have seen before though that doesn’t mean it is an uninteresting one. My fear is the given the nature of the “Hollow Children” either the player character, one of his squad, or the character he has come to Japan looking for will turn out to be one.
It is possible some of the specific control problems I have are because I have not understood the information the game has provided me, however if this is still the case on my third encounter with the opening sections of the game some of the fault must lie with the manner in which the gave conveys that information.
Some of the problems I have might change as I progress further in the game, something I fully intend to do exclusively because of the positive comments I have heard. If I was unaware of such comments I would have abandoned Binary Domain at some point during my second time through the opening sections; so far I see nothing that has made me want to continue, rather the game has been frustrating and overly punishing.