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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Alpha Protocol is fictionally a game about being an intelligence operative, a spy. Separate from the aesthetic trappings culturally associated with espionage, the way in which it deals with information itself reinforces this theme of intelligence gathering and exploitation.
In-game fictional collectibles are not uncommon. From books to audio logs, these often exist to provide context, or to help with specific puzzles. An audio log in one level can detail the code to a locked door or foreshadow an ominous plot reveal in several hours’ time; they are either explicitly useful or narrative colour, occasionally both.
In Alpha Protocol one of the resources you can collect are Intelligence Dossiers. Obtained either by talking to other characters or finding them in the world, each Dossier unlocks additional information on a particular individual or organisation. This information is presented in the game as contextual narrative: descriptions of characters, their history and relationships. Where these Dossiers differ from similar collectible information in other games is in the influence they can have upon your actions. A particular character’s Dossier will rarely state explicitly how they prefer to be spoken to, though by reading between the lines you can ascertain their likely reactions to a given approach.
Organisations that you can find yourself in conflict with over the course of Alpha Protocol are differentiated by their clothing, weapons, and tactics. All of these things can be learnt from their Dossier, allowing you to identify potential enemies and friends through observation. With this knowledge you can determine their likely allegiances and goals, and the most beneficial way in which to interact with them. Even if you chose to always take the same approach to each situation knowing how particular individuals and organisations are liable to react can allow you to prepare for the consequences of your actions.
The decision to search a room or hack a computer is one that occurs at the moment-to-moment level, though because of the information you can obtain these low-level choices can have a substantial impact on your high-level plans. Choosing to explore an area and hack a computer hidden in the basement might provide you with the specific piece of intelligence you need avoid getting into a gunfight with somebody several hours later; you now know exactly what to say, or what not to say.
Intelligence Dossiers in Alpha Protocol are beneficial not simply as collectibles but for the increased options they provide. In Alpha Protocol “intelligence gathering” is more than a fictional justification for your actions, intelligence itself is one of the most useful and valuable resources you can obtain.
Following Ridley and the last surviving Metroid down to the surface of Zebes, bounty-hunter Samus Aran finds, amid the scattered remains of Chozo civilisation, a planet teeming with life. The statues left behind by the Chozo provide upgrades to Samus’ suit, altering its capabilities and allowing her to continue her explorations into once inaccessible areas. In addition to these character-altering modifications, other rooms through Zebes offer Samus the opportunity to resupply her Energy or Missile reserves, while returning to her ship will enable a complete resupply of all resources.
Alongside these explicit means of resupply the fauna of Zebes, when killed, may leave behind a pick-up that can restock a limited quantity of one of Samus’ expendable resources. What, if anything, the creature will provide upon death is dependent upon her current status; if any of her resources are at maximum a pick-up of that type will not be dropped.
Most creature types respawn when Samus re-enters an area, allowing them to be farmed to keep her Energy tanks topped up. One exception to this are the pipe based creatures that spawn every few seconds and travel horizontal across the screen. Because these creatures continually respawn without any action on the part of the player they provide a means of fully resupplying without the need to exit and return to an area; they can be easily farmed for Energy capsules and other resources.
The various forms of pipe creatures make use of at least three separate but related mechanics and it is the relationships between these which allow them to function in the way they do. They are a classic example of dynamics at work, a change to any of the underlying mechanics would alter the way you interact with these pipe creatures. If they spawned in the same manner as other creatures, their use as a form of resupply would be no more effective than any of the other fauna found throughout Zebes. If the pick-up left behind upon death wasn’t related to Samus’ current status there would no longer be the certainty that every time they were killed they would provide something immediately useful, the act of farming them would become a gamble. Additionally, if firing beam weapons drained Energy, or if the creatures could only be killed by Missiles or Super Bombs, the benefits of killing them would be counterbalanced by the cost of doing so.
The function of the pipe based creatures is particularly interesting in that they allow the expenditure of time for resources. The ending of Super Metroid depends on the time taken to complete the game so utilising the resupply dynamic of the pipe creatures can get you out of a difficult situation at the cost of time, which may alter the ending witnessed.
These pipe creatures are organic resupply points, where time can be sacrificed for a complete replenishment of resources. This dynamic is never explained, the act of discovery is a sign that you have developed an understanding of the underlying systems. You are rewarding for showing this understanding of how the game systems functions in a way that is in context and non-patronising.
In Dishonored, the first power granted you by the Outsider – the only one which you have no choice over – is the short distance teleport, Blink.
What Blink offers is more than simply the ability to instantaneously move forward. If that was the extent of its power it would still be useful but it wouldn’t be as disruptive as it is. Rather than being restricted to directly ahead, the destination of your Blink can be anywhere within a sphere around your current location: the roof of a building, the floor behind an NPC, or the middle of the air. Provided there is a straight line between your current position and the destination, you can Blink there.
The elegance of Blink comes from the few restrictions placed upon its use. It is not context dependant; there are no specific “Blink-able” locations. It can be used to move through any space that you would normally be able to occupy; so you cannot move through solid surfaces or active Walls of Light. Finally, it uses the same amount of Mana as is automatically replenished, making it readily available. With so few restrictions, the decision of when, where, and even if, to use Blink is left up to the player.
Instantaneous movement between two points on the same horizontal plane is useful; the effect Blink has on your perception of, and engagement with, vertical space is where it becomes truly transformative.
By not being limited to the horizontal, Blink changes the usable topography of a level. Normally in a first person game it is possible to jump onto higher surfaces and in so doing alter your vertical position. Given a standard model of gravity the path to these higher spaces is slower than the path down, though it is also much safer. From a high point you can leap off and will likely take damage when you land. With Blink you can teleport up to a roof and back down with the same expenditure of time and Mana. You can move as rapidly and safely in the vertical dimension as the horizontal one.
The Knife Of Dunwall DLC changes the core Blink ability, further enhancing its strength as a tool for vertical movement. When initiated time will freeze provided you are not manually moving in any direction. This means you can fall from a great height and at the last moment initiate a Blink and have as much time as necessary to target a safe landing spot. The reverse is also possible; you can perform a Blink at the top of a jump and use it to reach even greater heights.
One of the constants of first person games is movement through space, by providing you with a power that allows for near instant movement between two points in any dimension Dishonored disrupts the standard model of movement and succeeds in making vertical movement almost as safe and rapid as horizontal movement, changing the way players perceive and interact with the space around them.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its forebears, allows players to vary their approach, from direct combat to stealth, based on personal expression rather than the requirements of a given set-piece. The mechanics and level design combine to allow the player to engage in any encounter (excluding boss fights) through the use of stealth, combat, or some combination of the two. Key to this is the cover system around which stealth and combat are built.
In order to allow stealth-focused players to traverse an area successfully, levels need to be designed to allow those players to move between important locations while retaining some degree of concealment. In an occlusion-based stealth model this means providing occluding geometry, cover, in a pattern that enables players to navigate from one location to another while keeping an object between themselves and any NPCs. The combat-focused player is in a similar position, though they will not need a complete path through each encounter space; the more cover available the greater their range of tactical movement options. The same distribution of cover that provides concealed movement can be used by the combat-focused player to reposition and potentially outflank hostile NPCs.
This spatial arrangement of geometry is enhanced by the switch from first- to third-person once players take cover. If the game remained in first-person when Adam Jensen took cover behind a lab bench or crate it would be difficult to maintain situational awareness. For both the stealth and combat focused players an accurate mental model of where NPCs are within a given area is important. For the former it’s necessary to ensure that you keep some form of solid object between you, for the latter you need to know where somebody is before you can shoot them.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution does provide a radar display that can serve as a guide to the relative position of hostile NPCs in the environment, however it operates at a level of abstraction and therefore using it becomes a two stage process. Instead of looking at the world and seeing exactly where NPCs are positioned players relying exclusively on the radar will need to mentally overlay the information provided onto what they remember about the spatial layout of the level. Where the radar excels is in its ability to provide information on NPCs outside your immediate field-of-view, helping you to avoid being flanked.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses its cover system for both combat and stealth and in doing so has managed to enable the two to coexist in a way that allows both to be utilised within a single encounter. The same occluding geometry that provides concealment from detection also provides protection from incoming fire. Instead of making the stealth-focused player weak by forcing them into the darkness and away from enemies, the cover system of Deus Ex: Human Revolution ensures that stealth-focused players are in just as strong a position as combat-focused players when in cover.
By requiring both stealth- and combat-focused players to relate to the spatial layout of a level in the same way Deus Ex: Human Revolution is able to create a hybrid system where mastering the core abilities of movement and positioning are beneficial to all types of player. Furthermore, when the same layout of cover is beneficial to multiple approaches it makes it easier to switch between styles, even within the same encounter.
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.
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.
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.
I like Chess, I would even go as far as to say I think it is a mechanically perfect game. The strength of Chess is that there are no redundant actions, there are no actions without consequences. Achieving a checkmate is not only dependant on the final move but on every preceding move, right back to the opening. Any change in that sequence of moves by either player will result in a radically different outcome.
Every move in Chess is meaningful because every move irreversibly changes the state of the game world and which subsequent moves are possible; all actions have consequences.
Redundant actions are those that are not meaningful, those for which there are no consequences, such actions are literally a waste of time, as nothing is gained from performing them.
The concept, that every action should be meaningful and have consequences, is one that has seemingly been abandoned, or at the very least greatly diminished, in recent years. Often for the purposes of increasing accessibility or pacing, and usually in games that feature some degree of authored narrative.
Consider Far Cry 2, the mechanic of respawning hostiles at checkpoints is implemented to prevent the world from ever becoming safe and thus damaging its representation of a country in the grip of civil war, yet the mechanic causes some actions to become redundant, meaningless. The core mechanic of the first person shooter genre is that of shooting hostile characters. This usually requires a degree of skill and comes at the cost of some form of ammunition. Even ignoring the cultural connotations of the act killing a hostile character is rich with mechanical meaning. They will no longer be around to threaten the player in the future, which leads to a change in the play style of the player over time, as areas of the game world shift from hostility to safety. Additionally the expenditure of ammunition is meaningful, as the quantity of ammunition used in killing one hostile will cause changes in the manner in which subsequent hostiles can be dealt with.
Upon encountering a hostile checkpoints in Far Cry 2 both elements of meaning inherent in that core shooting mechanic become redundant.
Respawning enemies prevent a change in future behaviour as areas do not become less hostile over time. The act of killing does not change the overall state of the game world or the future play style of the player, therefore in this sense the act of killing itself is rendered largely meaningless, there are no long term consequences. It is in fact more beneficial to avoid enemies as it is to kill them, especially as time is very rarely a factor. The decision to engage these hostile in direct combat is a redundant one. Ammunition can be recovered from the bodies of dead hostiles, so the actual expenditure of ammunition is only meaningful when more is expended that is recovered a generally rare occurrence, made even more so because some checkpoints contain stockpiles of ammunition.
In a strictly mechanical sense the act of attacking checkpoints in Far Cry 2 is meaningless beyond the immediate short term. It’s possible that this was an intentional inclusion designed to be representative of a country in the grip of civil war where death is largely meaningless. I’m willing to give Ubisoft Montreal the benefit of the doubt given the various subtexts at work in Far Cry 2, however this doesn’t excuse the dozens of other games that also include redundant and meaningless game mechanics.
The infinitely respawning hostiles in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when killing a hundred hostiles has no consequence the act of killing itself becomes meaningless; war can be won simply by continuous forward motion. Dialogue trees in Mass Effect or Fallout 3, when two different options lead to the same outcome the choice between them is meaningless. Vita Chambers in BioShock, when you are eternally reborn any actions taken to mitigate health lose are meaningless.
These mechanics were implemented because they served to increase tension, constrain options or improve pacing, in short they were included to help maintain a specific aesthetic experience; often a narrative focused one. Yet it’s worth noting that almost all the examples I’ve cited have been criticised for in some way being unrealistic. The expectation is that actions have consequences, that choices are meaningful, when this fails to occur the artificiality is made painfully obvious.
Narrative plots are built around the immutability of fate, events occur in a specific manner for dramatic purpose. If an event is included in the plot it serves a purpose, even red herrings exist serve the purpose of being a red herring; nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant.
Games are built around providing choices and feeding back the consequences of those choices. Choices are included if they have some consequence that influence the developing act of play. If choices are included that don’t have consequences they are redundant and a waste of time on the player of both player and designer.
In order to be meaningful narratives and games depend on the portrayal of both actions and consequences.
All too often when games seek to include some form of narrative the inflexible nature of heavily plotted stories is given prominence over the flexible nature of gameplay choices. As in the examples cited this can lead to redundant choices being included simply because choices must exist in a game but the focus on the plot means those choices cannot have consequences that might move the narrative away from what has been prescribed by the original author.
That actions have consequences and thus carry meaning is something we all learn in childhood. So when presented with a choice its naturally expect there to be a consequence, otherwise why be given the choice at all?
The future of narrative games is not based around more directly authored experiences but around narratives that make use of the fundamental nature of games to present choices that have consequences, and to ensure that those consequences contain both a mechanical and a narrative component.
Despite some first steps made in this direction, Masq being a particularly interesting if limited example, there is still some way to go. Until then maybe it’s time those interested in narrative in games start to look for guidance from Chess as much as Chaucer.
In the past I’ve taken to examining games and game mechanics in a manner that is open to criticism for being piecemeal. I’ve examined specific elements of a game in isolation, ignoring important mechanics and interactions in order to aid clarity. The obvious problem with this approach is that a game is a complex system of rules interacting over time, and it’s impossibly to present an entirely accurate analysis of any individual mechanic without looking at all the ways that mechanic affects and is affected by all other mechanics. That is a valid criticism, and I think it’s important to understand and appreciate that no mechanic exists in isolation and everything in a game is in some way, either directly or indirectly, connected to every other.
However there is a reason why I have often chosen to approach specific mechanics in isolation, or to otherwise present a limited view of the dynamics of a game. As I have previously discussed games do not exist in any measurable way, the rules defining the constraints of the game are not the game itself. It is only during the act of play that those rules take on a contextual significance, that they are able to enthrall, thrill and otherwise emotionally affect us. Games exist to be played. The experience of play is different for each game and each player.
Though it is important to consider games in their entirety as a system of interconnected rules that is often not how they are perceived when played. Consider any game you have just started playing. After ten minutes how many of the mechanics are you aware of? How many of the myriad relationships between different mechanics do you have an understanding of? How about after two hours, or five hours, or fifty hours? Depending on the game, and how much attention you have been playing, the answers to these questions can differ significantly. Often it is not until the very end of the game that a complete conceptual model of the mechanics and their relationships can be formed.
Play, by its very nature is a process of exploration and discovery.
Consider BioShock, I feel confident that by this point most people who have played the game are aware that the mechanical rewards, in terms of Adam, are essentially the same regardless of whether you choose to Harvest or Rescue the Little Sisters. When analysing the game itself it is important to consider this fact, however when examining the play experience it might be useful to ignore it entirely. During play, assuming you don’t run two parallel games in order to examine the consequences of each choice, there is no information provided on the reward you would have received if you had chosen the opposite option. If you decide to Rescue the Little Sisters you will be rewarded with one quantity of Adam, and if you had Harvested you’ll be rewarded with another. It is implied that there may be an additional reward for Rescuing a certain number of Little Sisters, but unless and until you do so there’s no way to know whether that additional reward exists and what it might be. Even if you choose to alternate between Harvesting and Rescuing in order to gauge the difference in reward there is no way to know that the reward for consistently Harvesting doesn’t increase over time, or if the additional delayed rewards for Rescuing balance out the immediate rewards for Harvesting.
When playing a game what you do not know is just as important as what you do. If a particular mechanic or relationship is not known it’s impossible for that mechanic to influence your actions. When examining games and the manner in which they attempt to convey meaning it is important to understand the manner in which this subjectively understanding of the game mechanics influences player actions and reactions.