Sneaky Bastards Issue One, now on sale.

The first issue of Sneaky Bastards: The Stealth Gaming Magazine is now on sale, available to purchase in either .PDF or print editions the magazine features 100 pages of full colour ad-free content on Arkane Studios’ Dishonored. Alongside interviews, a stealth focused review, and critical commentary, the magazine features 48 pages of level design analysis from me on every level in the game and the two Daud focused pieces of DLC (The Knife Of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). This analysis takes a similar form to my own Groping The Map content, and that I have already been producing on Thief II: The Metal Age for the Sneaky Bastards website, albeit more focused and condensed to better fit a magazine format.

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

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

An empty house through a looking glass.

The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is a game with a very specific legacy. Beyond simply the referential  filing cabinet code, this is a game that strongly evokes the storytelling techniques and style of Looking Glass Studios.

Nearly twenty years ago System Shock was released, allowing players to explore and uncover the fate of Citadel Station and its inhabitant; and witness the birth of the unforgettable SHODAN. At the time convincing interactions between players and human characters was challenging. As a means of sidestepping that problem Citadel Station was depopulated, everybody was either dead or had become horrific monsters incapable of coherent discourse. The events onboard Citadel Station were there to be discovered in what its inhabitants had left behind: scattered audio logs and environmental detritus.

In the intervening years other methods have been used to deal with the challenge of interacting with other characters. In Thief: The Dark Project and its successors the City was inhabited, instead it was the player’s role as a thief that discouraged and limited the means of interacting with those characters. Gone Home revisits the method employed by the original System Shock to overcome this still challenging problem, though the Greenbriar home is simply empty, rather than filled with dead bodies, the result is the same.

The Greenbriar home is littered with environmental details, the story of what has happened to your family in your absence is told through notes written to friends, and the placement of specific objects in specific places. It’s a game about environmental storytelling and narrative archeology. The story of the Greenbriar family is developed using the same tools that you use to explore the history and events on board Citadel Station.

Sam’s journal entries, uncovered gradually and potentially out of chronological sequence are, in functional terms, audio logs. Their placement and that of the other environmental details within the house is a way of matching physical exploration to temporal exploration, each area of the Greenbriar home that is unlocked, moves you forward in time through the events of the last year. The same mapping of chronology to physical space can be seen very clearly in BioShock 2 (a game which the core member of The Fullbright Company worked on, and one that itself is heavily indebted to the storytelling and design techniques of earlier games like System Shock). Each area of BioShock 2 represents a different stage in the life of Eleanor Lamb, from her birth and early childhood (Ryan Amusements) to her time spent under the care of Grace Holloway (Pauper’s Drop), through her time as a Little Sister and her eventually recovery and the experiments that were performed on her as a teenager (Fontaine Futuristics and Outer Persephone).

In both Gone Home and BioShock 2 (and of course the previous System Shock games before them) the further onward the player explores physically the more recent  the narrative elements within the environment become, until the final moments where the past and the present meet, and the two strands of the story merge.

Consider System Shock 2, the closing stages sees you explore the biomass of The Many while listening to the breadcrumb trail of audio logs recorded by Doctor Prefontaine; at this late stage the past (as represented by the audio logs and other environmental details) and the present are barely minutes apart, in fact you arrive just moments after the doctor meets his fate as recorded in his final audio log. The same experience occurs in the attic of the Greenbriar house, the past as narrated by Sam and the present  as explored by you as her older sister Kaitlin, are barely moments apart until, discovering the final journal entry, the final gap between past and present is closed the two threads knitting together.

That gap, that space around and between that which is known is at the heart of what gives this form of storytelling its power. Gone Home and System Shock, these are games about space; not simply physical spaces, the Greenbriar house and Citadel Station, but the space between, the things not said. The entire story of what happens is never revealed explicitly, instead you discover isolated moments of it in the form of an audio log or a written note, the space between those pieces and the other pieces of narrative you collect is left for you to fill. The order in which you discover each piece is controlled somewhat through gating and the mapping of physical space to temporal chronology however it is never enforced, you might miss a piece of information or discovering it out of order and this will change your understanding of the space formed by these pieces.

It is narrative by suggestion and inference, there are specific points that are defined but the space between them, the context in which these things occurred is for players to determine, and potentially reevaluate as new information is presented. In Gone Home, you can discover letters from your mother Jan to her friend Carol, discussing Ranger Rick who has just been transferred to work with your mother. You never know explicitly what your mother’s feelings are towards Rick though you can infer them from the suggestions of Carol and other things you discover within the environment; like the perfect evaluation Jan gives him along with the recommendation that his temporary transfer be made permanent. The implication that your mother is having an affair with Rick (in intent if not in deed) is clear, however this is a context that is fluid and open to interpretation and reexamination. One of the strongest indications of there being some form of relationship between Rick and your mother is the discovery of a book of Walt Whitman erotic poetry under her side of the bed within is a bookmark with a handwritten note by Rick. In the context in which these pieces of information are first discovered the inference is that Rick has given this book to your mother, however there is nothing to confirm that the message on the bookmark is referring to this book and not another; in fact given subsequent discoveries about the relationship of Rick to his girlfriend, and that of your parents it’s entirely possible, potentially even more likely, that the bookmark was referring to a different book entirely and that the presence of the book of erotic poetry in your parents room has an entirely different connotation.

This recontextualizing of information based on new insights is far from exclusive to Gone Home, though it is another aspect common to games of the Looking Glass Studios legacy. Early in Thief II: The Metal Age Garrett is asked to break into Shoalsgate Station and plant evidence against a member of the City Watch, when Garrett begins to question the task he is “distracted” by a bag of coins. Over the course of this mission things are learnt about Lieutenant Mosley (the woman who will benefit directly from the smearing of her colleague) that suggest she is not the most effective member of the City Watch when it comes to dealing with the Pagans. Only later will you discover that she is herself a Pagan working for the wood nymph Viktoria and though it is never explicitly explained this knowledge recontextualises the visit of Shoalsgate Station almost entirely. The appeal to Garrett’s avarice and hubris to distract him and ensure his cooperation is the same technique employed by Viktoria in Thief: The Dark Project, and every action you took within Shoalsgate has served to get one of her loyalists into a position where they could eventually assassinate Sheriff Truart. New information has recontextualised something that on the surface seemed like a simply case of internal politics and betrayal.

The techniques employed by The Fullbright Company in Gone Home have a long tradition, that can be see not only in games from Looking Glass Studios itself but also those influenced by them. That these techniques can be used to tell the story of both the horrific events of SHODAN’s birth on Citadel Station to the simply and honest tale of a Greenbriar family in mid-90s Portland, speaks to the strength and latent emotive power of these relatively simple techniques. To the potential that exists within those spaces between.

The role of her life.

In his 2011 GDC presentation, The Identity Bubble – A Design Approach To Character and Story Creation, designer Matthias Worch builds on the work of Gary Fine (From his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds), using the conceptual model of frames to examine how players have multiple, often conflicting, internal voices. During play they are at once, people, players and characters, with different motivations operating within each frame.

Games allow us to participate in defining the behaviour of a character, our actions become theirs, our choices influence their behaviour. The player frame takes the lead in defining motivation and performing action. One common occurrence is the imposition of our desires upon the character, as Worch describes it: “This is the reason we play games: the ability to drive the action, to express ourselves, to lead.” As players our desires often lean towards efficiency, we may even strive for optimality when characters in fiction rarely do. When the player and character frames begin to drift apart, when our motivations as players no longer match those of the characters we are playing, we complain about dissonance. Our chosen approach determined within the player frame does not match that supplied by the fictional context within the character frame.

Frequently there is no choice, the game can’t be played in a way that doesn’t foster such dissonance. Even if you try the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed don’t allow for the efficiency it tries to fictionalise as being part of Altair’s character. In such instances, where the only options available are those that contradict the established narrative context, criticisms are justified. Worch’s method for avoiding this drift is to find ways that encourage the alignment of the character and player frames.

A commonality of each of the presented methods is that the character frame should be adjusted to align with the player frame. What of “self-correction”, of playing in a manner that is appropriate to the character; in so far as the abstracted nature of game mechanics allow? What if instead of determining the behaviour of characters based on the our motivations within the player frame we modify our behaviour to better fit the context of the character we are playing?

Tomb Raider 08

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

Early in my time with Tomb Raider it became clear what the game wasn’t going to do. The narrative is a tale of survival and growth, of overcoming extreme hostility. The mechanics you interact with to progress that narrative are high level abstractions of those concepts rather than attempts at simulation. Tomb Raider is, not a game about survival from a mechanical perspective, there are survival elements though they are heavily abstracted. Tomb Raider is a game about hostility and overcoming that hostility as a means of character growth. This basic conceit is presented and reinforced within the first ten minutes, as a Lara scrambles out of the cave she finds herself in though a variety of Quick Time Events and context sensitive actions.

The manner in which Lara obtains a handgun, and in the process kills for the first time is messy, violent and problematic in several ways. Shortly after that she is confronted by others of the Solarii, the cult like inhabitants of the island. It’s possible to kill them quickly and relatively cleanly, it’s also possible to keep shooting them until they stop moving. Without intending to I made the choice that being highly efficient wasn’t appropriate or necessary. When time slowed down in that first encounter instead of using it to line up precise shots, I fired as soon as the gun was pointed at the Solarii and didn’t stop until he collapsed, then I did the same with his companion; I did what I felt Lara would do.

This is a pattern I repeated throughout, it stopped being a conscious decision almost immediately. I was not directly punished for being inefficient and messy, and the narrative and characterisation did nothing to contradict my behaviour. Initially it had been an experiment to see if I could get away without turning Lara into the “alpha predator of ‘headshot island'” and it was possible, furthermore it felt emotionally resonant in a way I believe being efficiency wouldn’t have.

Throughout the next few hours when confronted with armed hostility I played in an improvisational way, explosive barrels, fire arrows, horrific melee kills; every tool at my disposal combined into a mess of violence. I was mad at the Solarii for what they were doing to my friends and to me, and I took that out on them. Why use one bullet when I can use five? Why use a normal arrow when I can use a flaming one? I scrambled around, dodging attacks, stabbing people in the legs, smashing rocks into faces, screaming, swearing. It was a nightmare of brutality and violence. Once it was all over there was no Nathan Drake like quip just an exhausted sign of regret tinged relief, both from myself and Lara. Neither of us wanted to be doing this much fighting but if we wanted to survive we had little choice.

I had not modified my overriding motivation, I wanted to be entertained, to have a memorable experience, and I was, I did. What I had done was slightly modify my behaviour. To keep the “identity bubble” intact it is necessary to make adjustments to at least one of the three often conflicting frames, to correct for drift. Which frame needs correcting and who performs that correcting does not always need to be the same for every game.

Games are participatory, a shared construct of designer and player. It’s not uncommon to talk of how games should react to player behaviour, taken to an extreme this can become the arrogance of agency, the notion that it is the responsibility of all games to acknowledging and response to our behaviour no matter how unpredictable or contextually inappropriate. If games are about shared authorship don’t we, as players, have a responsibility to ourselves to move beyond “willing suspension of disbelief” into actively maintaining that “suspension of disbelief”?

Tomb Raider is one of the best games I’ve played. The verb is important, as much for what it means for a game as what it means in the context of “acting”, of “role playing”. I implicitly entered into a contract with the game, if it would provide me a consistent structure by which to contextualise my actions I would play within that structure. My behaviour when I was in control of Lara, and her behaviour outside of my control reinforced each other, strengthening both aspects. It required no more effort that playing “cops and robber”, I had a role and I played to that role, the result was an alignment of player and character frames unlike any I’ve experienced.

First Contact: Binary Domain.

A number of people whose opinions I respect, assure me that Binary Domain is a game worth playing. Specifically in regard to its combat mechanics, narrative, and themes.

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.

Game within a Game.

The following article was original written and published as part of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative in 2009. Due to changes in the the design of the VGHVI site the original form of this article is no longer available, so I sought and obtained permission to republish it here. A .PDF version is also available.

Game within a Game – Freedom and Control in Assassin’s Creed

At the heart of all games is the dichotomy of freedom and control.  This dichotomy separates the desire for self expression and exploration that goes to the root of play, and the rules and structures required by a game.  It separates the player’s desire for meaningful choices and the ability and willingness of the designer and underlying technology to provide them.  Games offer us the ability to visit detailed imaginary worlds conjured by the minds of talented designers, and implemented with the latest technology, while at the same time they demand that we accept certain inherent limitations and abide by specific, sometimes counter-intuitive, rules.

Even a game like Assassin’s Creed that appears to offer unprecedented freedom is full of artificial constraints and restrictions on player agency.  However, I argue in this paper, Assassin’s Creed walks a different path to most games.  Its game within a game structure serves as an embodiment of all the restriction and artificiality inherent in games, yet instead of distancing itself from these limitations it attempts to embrace them, making them a part of the narrative conventions of its story.

The game- story opens at some undisclosed time and place where a character named Desmond Miles is kidnapped and experimented on by the mysterious Abstergo Industries as ‘Subject 17.’ In the course of these experiments, Desmond Miles relives the experiences of a distant ancestor, the disgraced assassin Altair ibn La-Ahad.  Desmond enters Altair’s world through the use of a device identified as the Animus.  It is presented to him, and therefore us, as a means of experiencing a virtual world, albeit one constrained by certain rules and conventions, one decidedly game like.

“Vidic – When we switched the animus control scheme to use standard videogame controls I guessed that the subject’s learning curve would improve, but the increased acclimatisation rate we are seeing in these slacker types is astounding.”[1]

In some ways the Animus of the game-story is the prototypical game system, a mediating device that enables us to experience an imaginary world and enact the role of somebody other than ourselves.  The Animus is for Desmond a liminal object[2] that sits on the threshold between two worlds, allowing interaction between them in the same way that a console controller does for us.

Our conduit into this ‘other world’ is equal parts guide and jailor, providing freedom to explore with one hand while restricting our ability to take direct action with the other.  As Desmond is restricted to the events of his ancestor’s memory, so we too are restricted to those actions defined by the game’s designers.  While playing we can no more transcend the designer’s world than Desmond can, while inside the Animus, step outside the bounds of Altair’s recollections.

For a supposed prisoner Desmond is a curiously willing participant in the Animus experiments.  Every morning he gets up and dutifully enters the world of Altair. He makes the occasional cynical comment, on one occasion asking his captors: “Oh, wonder who I get to kill today.”  But like the dedicated gamer he will return regardless of the complaints he voices.

Even the name of Desmond’s liminal object is itself a play on this notion of accessing a different character.  Carl Jung uses the term Animus to describe the masculine aspect of the female psyche.  It is said to be responsible for the qualities of rationality, authority, objectivity, initiative, courage, conviction, action, aggression, and brutality.  The animus, along with its counterpart the anima, are responsible for the archetypical image of the opposite gender Jung believed was inherent in all of us.[3]

Accurately fulfilling all the characteristics usually associated with the masculine aspect Altair can be read as the embodiment of everything that is traditionally considered male.  He is “an anthropomorphised phallus, a phallus with muscle.”, he is the archetypical action hero “a simulacra of an exaggerated personality”[4].  Extending such a reading to the entire game, Desmond takes on the role of the archetypical action game player.  If within every man is the mental image of the archetypical woman and vice verse, Assassin’s Creed seems to be saying that within every player is the mental image of the archetypical player character.

Assuming the role of Altair’s the initial illusion of available freedom can be intoxicating.  If it looks like you can reach somewhere you usually can, although it may take some effort.  This superficial freedom to explore is liberating and can lead to hours simply spent running around the rooftops and climbing towers.

This freedom is not provided gratis, for the player’s ability to directly control the actions of Altair is limited.  The player does not control the precise timing of each jump or the placement of each hand or foot.  The player’s role is once removed; they are the director of Altair’s actions, providing the route, guiding but not necessarily controlling.  All actions in Assassin’s Creed are contextual, just as are all actions in any game; devoid of context every game can be broken down to pressing a specific button in a specific sequence at a specific time.

As the player explores, they find some locations that either cannot be accessed or that seem important but are inconsistently empty.  The former occasion carries a ‘Memory Not Accessible’ warning from the Animus.  The player is destined to revisit these locations at some point in the future but until their journey through Altair’s memoriestakes them there those locations are either entirely inaccessible or serve simply as empty stages awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

On closer examination Altair’s Holy Lands are full of those artifacts of gaming, collectable objects that serve no purpose other than to be found and consumed by the player.  Indeed, the game encompasses three expansive cities teeming with people most of whom are little more than scenery.  Even the natural laws are put on hold inside this world; it is always the same time of day despite Desmond supposedly spending hours at a time connected to the Animus.

It is thus clear that the Animus is not simply granting Desmond access to his genetic memories, but  also filtering them, modifying them.

“Vidic – Lucy, didn’t you say that the new animus update allows us to jump to the assassination mission without doing all of the investigation missions? We need the animus to fill in the blanks on some of these if we are going to make our deadline.”

The expediency of game-story means that only the important elements are presented to the player.  The environment inside the Animus is not a recreation of the real world though it makes pretentions to it.  The laws of time, space and causality do not operate the same way in games as they do in our own world; we accept this fact as part of the deal we make when we choose to play.  Altair’s world is a carefully crafted illusion, a stage upon which only certain performances can be enacted.  Though provided with the opportunity to visit the cities of Acre, Damascus or Jerusalem the means by which Altair can interact with the world are limited to those necessary to the furtherance of the plot.  Intimidation, Pick-Pocketing, Eavesdropping and Combat are the actions that make up the majority of the game.  Though the scope to explore the game’s version of the Holy Land is large, there is surprisingly little narrative embedded in the environment itself.  There are objects and characters hidden throughout the game but these serve a purely supplemental purpose, for example collectible flags, or Templar Knights that exist solely to be slain.  The latter are guarding chests which are ultimately meaningless in the larger context of the game.  They cannot be opened and what they contain is never mentioned.  An apparently perfect opportunity for narrative is wasted; instead the game chooses to rely on didactic cut scenes for its exposition.  Freedom to explore the story is sacrificed for the controlling hand of the designer.  Combat itself, usually the domain of direct action and immediate response is an equally restrained affair; brutal, violent and graphic, but almost balletic in its application.  Altair is able to dispatch dozens of foes without injury provided the player is able to time their button presses accurately.  As in the gameplay of a rhythm action game, all fights can be won with a single button.  Blocking automatically, Altair can counter any attack if the player masters the timing.  When the player makes a successful counter, they are presented with a graphic sequence of Altair dispatching his foe with brutal efficiency, a sword through the gut, a dagger across the throat, or any of a dozen other graphic scenes of melee combat.  These counter attacks get increasingly violent as more of Altair’s abilities are returned to him, however the player is never granted any more control of their execution beyond the act of initiation.

Even the assassinations themselves, scenarios that that seem ideal opportunities to exploit the freedom available to Altair, are heavily proscribed affairs.  They end almost universally in a chase or fight against the intended victim and his enraged guards.  As in the game’s combat, the player can initiate the assassination, but the eventual outcome is rarely under their control.

Each successful assassination is bookended by a nominally interactive death-bed monologue from the victim, aimed at informing Altair of how wrong he, the player-character, has been, and how he is a pawn in a larger game.  Proud and arrogant Altair is still ultimately as much a puppet of his masters as those whom it is his mission to assassinate.  In these death bed moments, often akin to BioShock’s famous reveal, Altair is told time and again that he is a tool of a higher power, a puppet, blindly obeying his masters without questioning.[5]  Regardless of whether he realises it his world is designed so that the only option available is to continue on his murderous path, and so he does, unaware until the end that he is truly no more in control of his fate than anybody else in his world.

Similarly during those few times outside the Animus when the player controls Desmond the options available are limited to basic movement and interaction.  The player’s agency is restricted to those actions that further Desmond’s plotline or return you to the Animus to further Altair’s.  Players’ control of Desmond is direct but heavily restricted.  Desmond is the archetypical player his inability to control his fate is analogous to our own lives and the lack of power we all have over the whims of fate. Yet for all his freedom, for all his certainty, Altair is just as much a victim of circumstances beyond his control as the imprisoned Desmond is of Abstergo, as the player is  of the game design, as we are of our own lives  Rationality, authority, objectivity, initiative, courage, conviction, action, aggression, and brutality, these might be the aspects players take on as characters in a game but ultimately these can only be used in service of the game itself.  There is no freedom except that which is granted by those really in control, it is the philosophy of the assassin’s themselves: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

As Desmond gives himself over to the Animus with its indirect control, self contained laws of physics and time and artificial restrictions in order to experience the world of Altair, so too do we give ourselves over to games and all their artifice in order to experience the worlds they present to us.  We allow restrictions to be placed upon our actions in order to feel an illusion of freedom, in order to explore an imaginary world and wield imaginary powers.  Assassin’s Creed is as inherently restrictive as any other game, all it’s freedom is an illusion, but at the same time it shows an awareness of its own restrictions, and takes pains to explain away as much of this artifice as possible.

The overall goal of the Animus is to access a repressed portion of Desmond’s genetic memories.  In order to achieve this access Desmond is forced to relive the memories of his previous ‘life’ as Altair, staying synchronised, staying as true to the real memories as possible in order to fully integrate the personalities of Desmond and Altair, thus granting Abstergo Industries access to those vital memories.  In order to be allowed to continue to wield power Desmond is required to conform to the archetype of Altair.

This ultimate goal of complete synchronisation between Desmond and Altair embodies the transformative potential of the experience of gameplay.  Altair’s abilities start to bleed back into Desmond, transforming him.  In the final moments of the game some of those latent abilities unlock fully granting Desmond a few moments in which he can use Altair’s ‘Eagle Vision’ to tell friend from foe; that is, a few moments in which his time within the game has altered his perception of reality.  Desmond’s time as Altair has had a profound effect on who he is.  He has left changed, different, enriched by the time he spent inhabiting the mind of his ancestor.  As we are when we give ourselves over to the experience of playing, allowing the game, and through it the ideas of its creators, to color the way we look at the world around us.

To study Assassin’s Creed is to study the very essence of the video game itself. For all its technological advances Assassin’s Creed is still intrinsically bound to the fundamental structure of games; eternally locked in the struggle between freedom and control.  For all the fictional explanations surrounding the Animus, the player of Assassin’s Creed is ultimately just as much a puppet as Desmond or Altair.  Rather than a puppet of a mega-corporation or of a secret society, however, the player is the puppet of a French-Canadian Creative Director named Patrice Desilets and his team at Ubisoft Montreal.

The dichotomy between the freedoms of interactivity and the restrictions of imposed constraints is the core conflict that exists throughout all games. It is a challenge that all game designers must face, “If he draws his lines too loosely the game will be dull because winning will be too easy…  On the other hand, rules are lines that can be drawn too tightly, so that the game becomes too difficult. And if a line is drawn very tightly indeed the game is squeezed out of existence.”[6]  The situation is worse for those designers that that seek to present some form of narrative[7] within their work.  Attempting to obscure this dichotomy with sophisticated narrative devices, or clinging to a hope that players will be complicit in pretending the division does not exist, is a methodology that does little to confront the problems at the very heart of the interactive medium.  Assassin’s Creed highlights a way in which designers can explicitly acknowledge this interplay of freedom and control and use it to serve the narrative goals of the game.  The nature of this dichotomy seem best studied through direct engagement with it in our game stories, by building mechanics around it, by making it a part of the very structure of the game itself and allowing their players to find their own answers through exploration, and play, after all “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”


[1] Throughout the game’s manual, various notes have been ‘scribbled in the margins’, these are purportedly from one of the scientists working for Abstergo Industries implying the manual itself is an extant object in Desmond’s world.

[2] Janet Murray introduced the concept of the luminal object as one that is “located on the threshold between external reality and our own minds.” Janet H Murray Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997 (Chapter 4 “Immersion”, Page 99).

[3] Carl J. Jung Marriage as a Psychological Relationship (1925) http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/j_anima.html

[4] Barbara Creed, From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism Screen,1987

[5] “It is a very disturbing sensation, but an effective one, an original twist of plot and emotion unique to the medium. It forces the player to seriously think about their own agency. Being betrayed by others is a common twist, but being betrayed by yourself is something else entirely.” Andrew Vanden Bossche Analysis: Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24822

[6] Bernard Suits Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, 1990.

[7] “The story is the antithesis of game.  The best way to tell a story is in linear form.  The best way to create a game is to provide a structure within which the player has freedom of action.” Chris Crawford, The Art Of Computer Game Design.

Boundary Conditions.

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

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

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

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

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

Dishonored 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninja Skills.

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

Mark Of the Ninja 02

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

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

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

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

Mark Of The Ninja 01

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

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

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

The polite horror game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To choose a Mage.

Games are full of choices, moments where players have the ability to select between two mutually or at least partially exclusive options. They can also frequently present possibilities that are closer to The Magician’s Choice, an illusion of choice if not a choice itself. Both ways of determining future actions have their place, for the moment I want to consider the former, the selection of one of multiple possible actions through an act of decision based on an understanding of the potential consequences.

Such choices can occur across multiple layers, the aesthetic, “Do I wear the green robes or the red robes?”, the narrative “Do I select the aggressive dialogue line or the neutral dialogue line?”, or the mechanical “Do I upgrade Inferno or Cone of Cold?” When considering these choices it makes sense to examine their consequences within the layer in which they occur, if there is no mechanical or narrative difference between wearing green or red robes then it follows that the only criteria that needs to be considered when making that decisions are aesthetic concerns.

Obviously this is not always the case, to blur the separation between these layers choices in the aesthetic and narrative layer are frequently tied to underlying mechanical choices, ensuring that all actions in some way have a mechanical consequence. So the choice between the red robes and the green robes isn’t simply an aesthetic one, the red robes may provide a bonus to Fire Resistance, while the green robes increase Critical Hit chance; the aggressive dialogue line may lead to a fight, while the neutral line offers a new side quest.

Continued progress in a game is linked inextricably to choices made on the mechanical layer, be they clearly defined mechanical choices, or those contextualised as aesthetic or narrative choices. These choices do not necessary need to be complex systemic decisions, nor do they need to have long term consequences, choosing to fire the Shotgun over the Rocket Launcher is still a mechanical choice even if it is a fairly superficial one. With this in mind it is logical to conclude that during play actions taken are determined primarily by their mechanical impact rather than aesthetic or narrative considerations. Examined logically why would anybody make a choice that gave them a mechanical disadvantage? Even when a narrative choice is presented the consequences in a mechanical sense are often indicated, though not always explicitly. Consider Dragon Age II though I may choose to side with the apostate mage Anders in an argument, I am aware that increasing his approval or disapproval has direct mechanical benefits, his abilities will improve in different ways if he becomes a trusted friend or a bitter rival. This is a mechanical choice contextualised by narrative presentation.

Where the interconnectedness of choices across multiple layers becomes noteworthy is when choices are made in one layer that have detrimental effects in the others, specifically when choices are made in the aesthetic or narrative layer that have mechanical consequences. Logically players should never make choices that have detrimental mechanical consequences, it makes no sense to make a game difficult for yourself when that is not your intent. Things are rarely that straightforward, player behaviour, as with all human behaviour, is only rarely logical.

Anders has a tendency to take an absolutist view of the world. A perspective that can lead him to acts just as extreme as those of the Templars he opposes.

Let’s return to Anders and events that occurred during Dragon Age II. Since I had met him the relationship between the player character Hawke, and Anders had been a pleasant one. There were minor disagreements yes, but a lot of flirting and as a healer Anders had a vital mechanical role in my party. However certain events transpired in Act II, that led me to make a series of decisions that resulted in Anders leaving, for as it turned almost the entire rest of the game. I understood the consequences of making such a choice, and yet I made that decision not based on the mechanical consequences, but the narrative ones. I was no longer comfortable with Anders in my party, or more specifically I felt that regardless of my personal opinion, Hawke now considered him a risk to herself and her family. With Bethany confined to the Circle and unable to join the party, Anders’ departure left me with a single Mage (Merrill) who had no healing abilities. This forced me to rework my strategy and party composition. For the next several hours the mechanical experience of playing was altered dramatically because of an action I took based not on its mechanical presentation but on its narrative one. Everything about playing Dragon Age II that can be said to be uniquely mine, which is to say the experience and the memories I have, was changed by making that decision.

For choices to be meaningful their consequences need to be experienced, games need to be played to be understood. It was only through playing that the full impact of my actions revealed themselves.

Mechanical choices are the glue that tie the different layers of a game together. That does not mean players will, or should, always make decisions based on mechanical consequences exclusively.

It cannot be said with total accuracy that players only see games as dynamic mechanical systems and will make their decisions based exclusively on that basis. To focus design primarily on the mechanics of a game without equal consideration of the impact of the aesthetic, narrative or other contextualising elements at work risks creating a gulf between the design and the act of interacting with that design. The different presentational layers of a game are not engaged with in a vacuum, how choices are presented and responded to across these layers cannot fail to have some influence over the decision making process. What can seem like an ideal choice given the circumstances can easily become an undesirable one because of it’s impact on other layers of the game.

A disappearing history.

Among the many badly kept secrets of the games industry was the existence of a multiplayer mode for BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Officially announced recently details are still scarce though what has been revealed is that the co-operative multiplayer mode will connect with the single player game. Co-operative play will increase Galactic Readiness which will in turn impact the outcome of the single player game. There will be ways of increasing Galactic Readiness in the single player game itself alongside other platform specific means, Facebook or XBLA tie in games seem like the most obvious possibilities.

With rare exceptions I think providing additional options for players is to be lauded and as such there’s nothing about this news that has made me question the likelihood of purchasing Mass Effect 3. Of interest is what happens to the experience of playing Mass Effect 3 months or maybe even years after launch. Recently I replayed Mass Effect 2, over eighteen months from its initial release the availability of DLC means that there is now more content, more options, on offer than existed when I originally purchased the game.

It’s an assumption, but I feel a justified one, that eighteen months after the release of Mass Effect 3 notably less people will be playing the co-operative portion that were doing so eighteen days after release. Therefore through the simply act of delaying their purchase of the game, or by deciding to replay a game, players may well find that some of the options available to them for raising Galactic Readiness will not be as viable as they once were.

Thinking further out two or three years from the release of Mass Effect 3 will the servers for the co-operative multiplayer mode still be running? With a likely dwindling player base and no new revenue streams the financial benefits of turning the servers off will be high. This is not uncommon for EA, I cannot play Mercenaries 2: World in Flames because, unable to contact the now offline EA servers, it hangs at the main menu. If somebody wants to play Mass Effect 3 several years after release certain options may not simply be less viable they might not be available at all.

This is already a problem when it comes to multiplayer games, but the growing integration of multiplayer elements with the single player portion of games is creating a new issue. When the two modes, multiplayer and singleplayer, are separate then they are effectively two distinct, albeit similar texts. In time one may text made remain readable, which is to say extant in a playable form, the other not. That is the problem we have right now; I can still play the single player of Halo 2 but not its multiplayer. When the two modes are interconnected as they will be in Mass Effect 3, or as a better example Dark Souls, then it can no longer be treated as two distinct texts rather it is one text with multiple facets. In five years even if I can find or emulate the hardware to make these texts readable, one or more of those facets will still remain unavailable. Through actions beyond my control a game I have purchased will have been altered, instead of the future bringing more content in terms of DLC or Mods, the future will bring less as servers are shutdown and options once available disappear.

As a consumer this is problematic, but as a student or historian of game design this is tragic. Hardware alone already makes the play and study of games older than a decade or two a challenge, but imagine students of game design in the next decade attempting to examine and learn from a game like Dark Souls? How much of what makes that game unique will be lost when players are stripped of the ability to interact with each other?

If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?

The answer is not to abandon multiplayer or avoid attempts to cross-pollinate multiplayer and singleplayer, to do so would be reactionary and narrow minded. A better answer might be for developers and publishers to rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers if it ceases to be financially viable to do so. No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is nearly ten years old, the official servers for it were shutdown over three years ago, fortunately thanks to the dedication of members of its community it’s still possible to play online. Obviously when it comes to console games, there are factors beyond the control of the developers and publishers that need to be worked out if the severs for certain games are to remain active in some fashion. But isn’t the preservation of gaming history worth solving those issues? If not then we are saying that gaming in all it’s forms does not deserve preservation and I don’t think I have the language skills necessary to describe how angry that idea makes me.

ADDENDUM:

The potential method described to preserve games is one among many, and only deals with a single aspect of the  larger issue of preservation. Though it may well be possible to preserve the ability to play a multiplayer game long after its release, this does nothing to preserve the experience of playing that game at launch, or the time you spent playing it for six straight hours with your best friends. Games exist to be played and the inability to preserve those specific experiences is noteworthy. These are larger problems of preservation and archival, daunting problems that I have no solution for. I’ll admit I avoided dealing with them in order to end on a somewhat positive note, this may have been naive of me.

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