Preying On My Mind.

Playing the PlayStation 4 demo of Prey resulted in me quitting in anger, hurling my controller at the floor, and deleting the demo.

Getting around to playing it on the PC, I have reached a point seventeen hours in where I encountered a bug that, though it didn’t prevent my progress, would result in a bunch of things being messed up were I to keep going.

Both of those things are true, as is this: Prey is one of best immersive simulation games I have played; I even prefer it to System Shock 2. There are only two games I could make a case for being better at this style of game: Deus Ex and Dishonored.

I was already hooked, even before I found this retro-future GoPro.

It’s been a difficult time for me recently for a plethora of reasons I don’t want to dwell on. Prey was a game I had largely discounted, what Arkane Studios were saying sounded too ambitious, and in terms of a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 I’d already been burnt by BioShock. A game I generally like but one whose connection to the earlier “Shock” games seemed superficial at best. I had struggled with Dishonored 2, a superbly made game that I should have adored, but one I just never felt I could connect with. So when I played the demo for Prey and my immediately reaction was aggressively negative I resigned myself to just never being able to enjoy these types of games again.

I am nothing if not stubborn, I decided to try the PlayStation 4 demo again. I took it slowly and, instead of trying to rush in and smash the scuttling Mimics as quickly as I could, I treated them with respect. I made sure my attacks were deliberate. It was a revelation. Once I stopped trying to approach the game with the assumption that these were cannon fodder enemies that I could easily dispatch I realised what this game was. It’s slightly too clunky. It’s slightly too difficult. It’s also incredibly smart, both in terms of systems design and writing, and confidently erudite without being patronising. It builds on everything I found compelling about System Shock 2 in well thought out ways, and makes small but significant changes to certain core tenants of the immersive simulation style that are so obvious in hindsight it’s shocking nobody has attempted them before.

It’s also subtle, I joked that it was probably going to be too subtle for some (reviews appear to have borne this out). There are no caricatured characters spouting philosophy at you for ten hours. It’s a game about scientists and corporations and technology, but it’s handled with a deft touch. The TranStar corporation is engaged in some incredibly unethical experiments on board Talos 1 and the people involved know that. They argue about it, they attempt to justify it to themselves and others. Their responses are entirely, tragically, human. There are people who totally buy the corporate line about the benefits of the work they are doing. Others who are willfully ignorant regarding the extent of their complicity. Even some who are attempting to lift the lid on what’s going on and reveal it to the world at large. Each of these people have their own motivations, none of them are cackling super villains. Even your brother Alex has clear reasons for his actions, reasons that might even convince you.

When it comes to systems design, Prey is maybe a little too late 90s, though it updates the interface and presentation of those systems in ways that make them more comfortable to engage with. Combat can get awkward if you are overwhelmed but at all times you have a myriad of options with which to approach each situation; though your character build choices will push you towards a sub-set of those. I’ve already seen dozens of people citing very different  – and often mutually exclusive – ability combinations and weapons as being “over-powered”.

Prey is also rough, Patch 1.2 has just been released fixing a bug that was corrupting save games and preventing further progress. My own bug is less severe but still frustrating. I’ve been assured a fix is coming soon, and yet I think I’m going to restart the game. Seventeen hours in, I’m going to restart a game I’ve not finished yet. A game that is reportedly 20-30 hours long, and I’m really excited about it. To me that tells me all I need to know.

I really like Prey. It might be my favourite Looking Glass Studios game.

A trip down the Skill Rating rabbit hole.

I really like Overwatch, probably too much for my actual level of skill. I watch professional games, like the recent OGN APEX Season 2, and discuss the character selections and tactics used. I’ve used videos, articles, and podcasts to try and improve my game. I also  just like talking about Overwatch, from its convoluted and occasionally contradictory fiction to the design of its characters; I can talk for hours about how fascinating I find the design of my favourites like Ana, Zarya, and Zenyatta.

I avoided playing competitive Overwatch for the initial season, I wanted to wait until the quirks were worked out. I finally started playing with my Overwatch group mate in season 2. We’d queue as pair, one of us tank the other support; usually D.Va and Lucio; I got shouted at in team chat for picking Ana on Dorado attack during one match. It was a thrilling if occasionally frustrating time, and after only a few hours of play we topped out with a Skill Rating (SR) in the 1800s (high Silver) by the time the season ended. I felt confidant that with some work we could break the 2000 barrier and reach Gold tier.

With the changes to how SR functioned in season 3 it was no surprise that we placed lower initially, around the 1200 mark (Bronze). Again playing mostly as a tank and healer pairing, we finally reentered Silver, but the games were a little more frequently frustrating. We’d also ended end up playing more often when the other wasn’t available. Together we closed out the season with an SR in the 1500s (low Silver).

Former Olympic weightlifter Aleksandra “Zarya” Zaryanova uses projected barriers on herself and her allies to channel incoming fire into increased damage.

Since season 3 I’ve really started to focus on a core of characters, ones I find: mechanically interesting, enjoyable to play, and that can be useful in most compositions. Those are Zarya, Ana, and Zenyatta.

Zarya is a secondary tank, she projects barriers around herself and her allies that can absorb all forms of incoming damage. These barriers last for 2 seconds or 200 health before dissipating, each point of damage absorbed is redirected into increased power for her particle cannon. At 100% charge the particle cannon is one of the most power weapons in the game, able to burn through nearly 200 hit points per second. Her own hit points are made up of 200 health and 200 shields, the latter of which recharges after a period of taking no damage. She plays best as with an aggressive style, taking a few hits to her shields before deploying a bubble and using the redirected energy to burn through the enemy. Her Ultimate ability, Graviton Surge, is a launched projectile that pulls all enemies within 8 meters together into a single point, setting them up for a multi-kill. This is especially powerful when paired with one of the direct damage Ultimates of the rest of your team.

A support sniper, Ana uses her rifle to shoot health into her allies and inflict brief damage over time to her enemies. Her Biotic Grenade can be thrown to increase the healing applied to any allies it hits, and prevent healing on any enemies. Many characters in Overwatch have self-healing abilities and being able to shut them down allows Ana’s team to focus fire and kill them rapidly. She can also fire a Sleep Dart that will knock out an enemy for 5 seconds, this can be used to cancel an enemy Ultimate, take opponents out of a fight temporarily, or as a last second defense when Ana is being attacked. The victim of the dart will wake again if they take any damage, making it a risky proposition when you cannot communicate your target to your team. Ana’s Ultimate is a Nano Boost that can be fired at a teammate to increase both their damage output and damage resistance for several seconds. When used on the right target this can be game changing, allowing a team to push through an entrenched defense or repel a dedicated attack.

Zenyatta is a combination of support and DPS, his standard attack is a projectile that flies fast with a flat trajectory and low spread, making it easy to target enemies. In addition he can throw out an Orb of Harmony and an Orb of Discord. The former attached to allies healing them for 30 hit points per second, provided Zenyatta can maintain line-of-sight. The latter attaches to enemies and increases the damage they take from all sources by 30%, again provided Zenyatta can maintain line-of-sight. Targeting an enemy tank with an Orb of Discord can be devastating, causing even a Reinhardt to go down quickly. His Ultimate, Transcendence, makes Zenyatta immune from all damage for several seconds while increasing his movement speed and healing all allies within 10m for 300 hit points per-second. This Ultimate can also be used to block line-of-sight for enemies, any damage that would be inflicted on teammates behind a transcendent Zenyatta will instead be absorbed.

For a variety of reasons we weren’t able to maintain our group for competitive this season, though we still play quick play and arcade. So I entered the placement matches on my own. Ana is a difficult character to play, but I’d worked at it for over thirteen hours and felt that I was above average for the level of play I was at. So she was my focus. I lost the first placement match which wasn’t the best experience, but then followed a win, and a draw. Eventually with all ten placement matches done I had another several hours on Ana, alongside time on Tracer and Zarya when needed to rush to a point or provide a tank that could help keep our DPS heavy team alive. By the time the game revealed my SR for season 4 I was sitting on three losses, one draw, and six wins, which resulted in starting Bronze with an SR of 1191, a full 500 lower than my final rating at the end of the previous season. Disappointing, though I understood that Blizzard’s desire was for people to start low and work their way up to their “true SR”.

A support sniper Ana Amari (mother of Fareeha Amari, aka Pharah), literally shots health into her teammates. She also looks like a Metal Gear Solid character.

My first few games went about as expected, there were some losses, a larger number of wins (some unfortunately due to leavers on the opposing team), and after a day I had reached an SR of 1323, still Bronze, but closer to where I had started last season. Furthermore I had received praise from several other players about my Ana play. I never got a Play Of The Match, as a healer that was entirely expected, but my general stats for Ana were good for the level of play. Also I had never had a single person complain about my selecting Ana.

I can’t say I was playing the best I have, but there were some games where I really do feel I was working as hard as I ever have. This is especially true of one game on Route 66 where one of our team left a few minutes into our attack. Somehow our team of five managed to push the payload all the way to within 20m of the final point. Then we had to defend again as a team of 5 verses a team of 6. At the request of my team, who had earned my respect with their tenacity and been polite and calm in team chat throughout, I switched to a DPS so we could build our 5 person team around a pair of tanks, a pair of DPS and a single healer. I picked up Pharah, the DPS character I have most experience with, and we did what we could. We forced the enemy team into overtime but eventually failed to stop the payload. An incredible game with one of the best teams I’ve played with, it was still demoralising to lose in a situation like that. But, I didn’t let it affect me, or so I thought.

Then, something happened.

The next day I started playing again and everything seemed to go wrong. Each match was a loss, often in what felt like one-sided fights. Team mates would shout at each other in the chat, complaining over character picks, and tactics. Everything seemed to spiral downward. I wasn’t immune to this urge to blame others, especially during one match on Lijiang Tower. As Zenyatta I was matched with our Roadhog for the most eliminations on our team after the first round. It was only 4 but that just made it feel worse as this was on a team with a Soldier 76 and a Genji, two dedicated DPS characters. We changed our composition but still managed to lose that match.

The next match I tried to make sure I selected a character that would fit our composition, so with a Reinhardt, and several defense and support characters on Dorado defense I picked up Soldier 76; a character I’m not great with but which I felt fit best for the composition we had. The moment we’d begun setting up our defenses our Reinhardt switched to a Mei leaving us without a tank. We struggled to defend the first two points, and by the time we were pushed back into the final area I checked my statistics for that game and found I had the most healing of anybody on our team, at a meager 900. This was with a Zenyatta on our team, a character who had been instantly picked when the game started. I lost it, I shouldn’t have, but I tilted. I typed an angry message about it in the team chat passively aggressively berating the Zenyatta for never healing. It was particularly frustrating as somebody who’s spent hours trying to learn how best to play Zenyatta; I would have gladly taken that role if they hadn’t wanted to be a healer and said so. Our team dissolved into a mess and another loss.

I should have stopped playing, I should have taken a break and calmed down. I didn’t. I kept playing, and kept losing, and unsurprisingly I was always able to find a reason for our loss besides myself. By the time I finally quit out of the last match (yes, I had become the very thing I hated), I had dropped to an SR or 924.

Omnic monk Tekhartha Zenyatta uses buffs and debuffs to support his team. He can also deal a fair amount of damage, but has the lowest health of any character in the game.

I don’t usually care about numerical indicators in games, numbers getting bigger holds little sway. Unfortunately, I want to get better at Overwatch. This investment has caused a lot of emotion to become wrapped up in my SR rank. I’m aware enough of my own abilities to never expect to make it to Platinum or Diamond, but I feel that I should be able to reach low Gold, or high Silver at the least.

I might conceptually understand how the game is played at a high level, but that’s not where I’m playing. What I feel are the correct choices are leading me into plays I don’t fully understand, that simply don’t work without the full support of my team. This desire to apply “collective wisdom” to a situations where it doesn’t fit is a theme in Bronze. A lot of people will request that a team form a 2-2-2 composition: two tanks, two DPS, and two healers. Yet usually when we would lose it’s to teams that weren’t running that composition. At this level Junkrat and Mei (both defence characters) are devastating, yet whenever anybody picked one they’d provoke somebody’s ire. The “meta” of Bronze is very different to that of higher level play. This has been the biggest shock to me, the difference in play between Bronze and Silver is significant. The best matches I had in Overwatch were as I was approaching Gold , getting back there is going to be a slog, and may not even be possible.

More “common wisdom” is that if I simply wanted to gain SR I should focus on playing a character like Pharah, or Junkrat. Both character who are very difficult to deal with at this level of play. I have experience with both, but it’s hard to bring myself to play somebody simply to gain SR rather than to improve at that character. I enjoy the game most when I’m improving with a character I find mechanically interesting. But a win for me, is a win for everybody else on my team too. So, in the end does it matter if that’s a win as Pharah, or a win as Ana? Can’t I just push to get out of low SR so I can focus on Ana again once I’m out at a place where the style of player is conductive to it?

Ana is a complicated hero to play, possibly one of the hardest to master in the game. Her kit is all about providing utility to others rather than inflict damage herself. I enjoy that sense of responsibility, the need to multi-task. Sadly, as with many of the support characters she operates best in a team that understands how she functions. As an Ana I can heal from a long distance provided I have line-of-sight, which means that I can’t heal the Genji who keeps running off behind a wall. I understood that not everybody has gone as deep on the mechanics of Overwatch as I have, I know it can be necessary to switch characters mid-game, and I do. Though it’s hard to escape the notion that my very desire to switch my character to fit the team composition has had a negative impact on my own SR. Overall I have five hours of play on Ana this season, and a 60% win rate; compared to an overall win rate of 46% after ten hours of play. It’s hard not to see that and think I should just focus on Ana regardless of the team composition.

I want to get better at playing Ana, but that’s difficult to do in games where my team is so spread out that I can’t even see them, let alone prioritise my healing targets. I am getting better at using Ana’s Sleep Dart though, as without the support of a team it’s the only defence I have against being flanked.

My play times for Season 4, as of April 16th 2017.

For now, I’ve managed to claw my way back up to 1067. Thanks, in no small part to a good team, and some hard work as Zarya and Winston, that helped us win a match on Dorado while down a player. I’ve barely played Ana since I dropped into the 900s, but I have spent time on both Zarya and Zenyatta. The former is very strong in Bronze, I’ve encountered a lot of players who either don’t understand how her abilities work, or who simply underestimated her damage output when charged. Every D.Va I’ve encountered has attempted to block my primary fire with their Defence Matrix only to see their mech destroyed in a matter of seconds. As enjoyable as this brutal efficiency can be, I don’t feel I’m getting better with her, merely exploiting the fact that I’m facing opponents who don’t know how to deal with her.

Losing 300 SR in a few hours is not a pleasant experience. It shouldn’t matter. It does. At Bronze and low Silver, 300 SR can make the difference between being able to work with a team who understand and appreciates the power of an Ana or Zenyatta, and one who makes those characters all but impossible to play.

Reading Netrunner: Introduction.

Note: With this series I’m specifically interested in the way Netrunner expresses fiction through the interactions of its rules. These articles are not intended as analysis of cards in terms of their utility in competitive play.

Maya (art by Adam Schumpert, click for artist’s Art Station page), console of the Shaper runner Jesminder Sareen, Maya allows you to return a card being accessed from R&D to the bottom of R&D, preventing the corporation from drawing it during their next turn. A powerful but highly situational card.

Netrunner is a two player competitive card game that takes place within the Android universe, a fictional setting created by Fantasy Flight Games and originally devised for the game Android. As a living card game – with predetermined cards entering the available pool every few months – Netrunner is able to consistently build on its mechanics over time, allowing it to change and grow in ways that not only develop the game’s possibility space but also its fiction. This linking of mechanics and fiction is one of the strengths of Netrunner, and something that has kept me playing even through periods of stagnation in the competitive meta-game.

The ways in which runners and corporations use their assorted resources to wage cyber warfare, and the narratives thus created, help expand the fiction of the larger Android universe. This is further supported through the card art and flavour text. Specific characters can appear on multiple cards, where their presence helps contextualise not only the underlying fiction, but also the mechanics and card interactions themselves.

I am interested in examining the ways Netrunner represents its characters and organisations through mechanics; how it develops the fiction of the Android universe through card interactions, and the addition of new mechanics over time. To be able parse this fiction, to read Netrunner, we first need to understand the game’s core mechanics and foundation fictional elements.

Android: Netrunner is an asymmetric game of cyber-warfare waged between a runner (hacker) and a mega corporation. Corporations build servers protected by ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) and attempt to advance their agendas; or simply remove the runner threat through direct action. Runners in turn construct their rigs, establish networks of resources, and deploy ICE breakers to breach corporate servers and steal their agendas.

Play unfolds sequentially with the corporation and the runner taking turns until one side wins. Only in a competitive time-limited game is a draw possible. Outside of card abilities players in Netrunner have a fixed number of clicks per-turn. Each click is spent on an action, from playing a card, to making a run on an opposing corporation’s server. Fictionally each turn is equivalent to a single day, while runners keep their own schedules and can take four actions per-day, corporations operate primarily during business hours and are therefore limited to three clicks.

Cards are draw from each player’s deck (known as R&D for the corporation) into their hand (grip for runners and HQ for corporations). By paying their associated cost in credits, cards can then either be played directly, or installed by placing them onto the table. Installed cards have a degree of permanence and in some cases can remain in play for the entire game. Cards that have been installed can be trashed, removing them from active play and sending them to either the heap (for runners) or the archives (for corporations). For the corporation each of these three locations is treated as a server, meaning that runners can access the cards within if they successfully make a run on it. These central servers require as much, if not more, protection than the remote servers the corporation establishes over the course of the game.

Parasite (art by Bruno Balixa, click for artist’s Art Station page), an Anarch card able to corrode and eventually trash ICE. It is one of the more powerful cards in the game, and forms the core of ICE destruction deck builds.


Runners cards are divided into four different types: programs, hardware, resources, and events.

Programs are your software, they take up memory – of which four units are available as standard – and have abilities that can be executed for a cost. Most programs perform actions during a run on a corporation’s server: from Icebreakers that directly combat ICE, to cards that will allow you to perform some action when you access a server. As software that only exists within the cyber-realm, programs are some of the easiest cards to trash, but also have numerous ways of being returned to play.

Broadly speaking hardware represents your actual computer, your rig. As these are physical objects in the world they have a permanence that software lacks. Hardware is difficult to remove from play, and also almost impossible to bring back once it has been removed. If part of your rig gets trashed you’d better hope you have an actual replacement.

Resources symbolise the people, organisations, and non-physical utilities that runners can call on for support. Representations of people and organisations, resources are second only to programs in their susceptibility to being trashed. If the corporation can “tag” the runner, identifying them and their location, then any resource can be trashed for a single click and two credits. When the corporations knows who you are even your friends are at risk. Like hardware, as most resources are objects in the real world, there are very few ways to bring them back into play once they have been trashed.

Events are specific actions a runner can perform. These are most commonly ways of allowing you to perform more actions in a click than allowed by your standard abilities, or to perform those actions under special circumstances. With events you can draw multiple cards, installs cards at a reduced cost, or initiate a run on a server ignoring certain ICE.

While the cards in play are the tools available to the runner, the cards in their grip also serve as a conceptual representation of the runner themselves. Cards in your grip can be trashed through damage, which comes in three forms: net, meat, and brain. Each card trashed in this manner absorbs one point of damage, if more damage is inflicted than can be absorbed then the runner flatlines and the corporation wins.

Net damage is frequent and  lightweight, it is damage inflicted to the runner in the cyber realm. Net damage is most commonly inflicted by ICE sub-routines, ones and two points at a time. As it is a form of non-physical damage there are programs and hardware that can negate or absorb net damage.

Meat damage is slightly less frequent, but can often be enough to kill the runner outright; flatline through meat damage is the most common form of runner death in Netrunner. Meat damage represents direct physical damage to the runner themselves, as such it usually requires that the corporation has been able to identify and tag the runner. Meat damage can only be negated by hardware or resources that exist within the physical world. Software cannot directly absorb meat damage, though it can prevent or otherwise restrict the means by which that damage is inflicted.

The most infrequent type of damage is brain damage. This generally only occurs in small quantities but it differs from the other types due to its persistence. When brain damage is inflicted cards are trashed from the runner’s grip as usual, and their maximum hand size is reduced by the same amount. Runner’s can die directly from brain damage if more is inflicted than they have cards in their grip, but they can also die to brain damage if they are ever left with a negative hand size at the end of their turn. Brain damage is inflicted most commonly by ICE, and there are few means of negating it.

House Of Knives (art by Alexandr Elichev, click for artist’s Art Station page), a Jinteki agenda that when scored allows the corporation to inflict one point of net damage during a run. A strong card in a “death by a thousand cuts” net damage build.


Corporation cards are divided into five different types: agendas, ICE, assets, upgrades, and operations.

Agendas are the varied goals of the corporation. They are at the core of Netrunner, and constitute its primary win condition. Corporations need to execute on these plans by installing agendas in a server and advancing them by spending a click and a credit. Each agenda has an advancement cost and is worth a specified number of agenda points. When scored agendas grant the corporation abilities that different in utility and power depending on their advancement cost. If the runner is able to access an agenda before it is scored they can steal it, earning the agenda points for themselves. The first player to reach seven agenda points wins.

ICE are the means by which corporations protect their servers. They are obstacles the runner has to overcome in order to access the cards in the protected server. ICE can do a variety of things from simply ending the run, to inflicting damage, or destroying programs. ICE are defined by their type (barrier, code gate, sentry), their strength, and the number of sub-routines they possess. Each sub-routine that is not broken by a runner’s icebreakers resolves, and the effect it specifies is carried out. Though as a runner you want to get past ICE, sometimes it’s not possible or necessary to break all sub-routines, allowing a sentry to trash one of your programs might be worth it.

Assets are the divisions, subsidiaries, and executives the corporations rely on to operate. Installed one each to a server they operate much like resources do for the runner, providing consistent per-turn income and increasing the range of actions available. Though representative of organisations and individuals within the world, that these assets have to be installed in servers indicates they are less physically extant than resources. They represent the corporations current use of these assets not necessarily the assets themselves. As such, once a runner access an asset they can pay a cost to trash it. Corporations in turn have multiple ways to bring trashed assets back into play; the sever might have been destroyed but the asset itself remains.

Upgrades function in a similar manner to assets, with the exception that they can be installed in any server alongside an asset or agenda. The same mechanical and narrative rules apply to upgrades as to assets.

Operations are to corporations what events are to runners, ways of taking direct action and performing more actions per-turn that allowed by the standard abilities. Through operations corporations can: attempt to tag a runner, gain extra clicks, or advance cards at a reduced cost.

In order to allow corporations to carry out their business with security and secrecy, assets, upgrades and agendas are – with a limited number of exceptions – installed face-down. With assets and upgrades needing to be rezzed, for a cost, before they can be used. This allows the contents of a server to be hidden information. Furthermore, certain assets can be advanced using the same rules as advancing agendas. These advanceable assets usually perform stronger abilities than standard assets, and sometimes their strength is proportional to the number of times it has been advanced. In this way runners don’t know which, if any, of the cards the corporation has installed might be the agenda they want and which might be a harmless asset, or even a trap.

Though it is not possible to inflict damage on corporations they way you can against a runner, there are other restrictions on their behaviour that lead to their own loss conditions. At the start of their turn the corporation must draw a card from R&D, if this is not possible because there are no cards left then the runner wins; they have been able to outlast the corporation, draining them of assets and preventing them from advancing their agendas.

Though not an exhaustive breakdown of the rules of Netrunner this should help frame the rest of our analysis. Next we will look at the game’s different factions, and how the influence system helps differentiate and define them through delineation of their strengths and weaknesses.

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.

Discovering my Destiny.

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.

The map looks like it ought to be on yellowed parchment, tucked within the pages of one of John Dee’s notebooks.

The map looks like it ought to be on yellowed parchment, tucked within the pages of one of John Dee’s notebooks.

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.

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